New matchups create opportunities for the Rangers top line

PITTSBURGH — Regarding the Rangers, no longer playoff untested, Games 3 and 4 are approaching on the road:

1. Gerard Gallant is no slave to matchups and never has been throughout his career, but it’s clear the coach has done his best to limit the number of shifts the Alexis Lafreniere-Filip Chytil-Kaapo Kakko Kid can take Line against Sidney Crosby’s unit takes over These include Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust.

The matching was the reason the kids only managed 7:19 ice time as a unit in Thursday’s 5-2 win in Game 2.

That dynamic is likely to change in the next two contests down the road, where Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan makes the final change. There are extreme methods that visiting teams can use to avoid disadvantageous encounters, but these maneuvers can wreak havoc on the bench for teams unaccustomed to such maneuvers.

You can bet the Chytil line won’t take faceoffs in the defensive zone unless they’re inevitable by a glaze. The unit took four in the first two games, as opposed to 14 apiece from the Zibanejad unit and the Artemi Panarin-Ryan Strome-Andrew Copp connection.

So the blueshirt boys are expected to be force-fed a heaping dose of Crosby. While this will present a challenge, it can also create an opportunity for Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Frank Vatrano to lose a defensive approach and move to attack.

Chris Kreider (20) and Mika Zibanejad (93) celebrate.
Chris Kreider (20) and Mika Zibanejad (93)
Robert Sabo

The Zibanejad line has won about 50 percent of Ice Time against Crosby, who was not so in the first round in six games against the Islanders last year. The main focus was stopping the Penguins’ top guns, who were responsible for four of the club’s five goals with equal strength. Rangers need to turn that around and force Penguins to focus on defending Zibanejad, Kreider and Vatrano.

The Zibanejad line, which scored two goals in seven shots, must become dangerous. If he’s not tied down by Crosby’s defense, that becomes a more realistic question.

2. Barclay Goodrow’s absence for what is likely to be an extended period makes it harder to avoid Chytil’s points troubles, although Chytil won 3 of 7 in Game 2 after playing 1 of 10 in the opener. Gallant cannot ask Goodrow to intervene in these faceoffs.

Although there might not be a huge drop in the fourth row when Dryden Hunt steps in for Goodrow, the penalty will certainly be affected. Additionally, and perhaps more critically, the loss of Goodrow limits Gallant’s options with the top 6 in late-game defensive situations.

But look, the Penguins have career bottom six Danton Heinen, who plays with Evgeni Malkin after Rickard Rakell’s injury in Game 1 after Ryan Lindgren scored late in the first period of Game 1.

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It doesn’t just take a village to win the cup, it takes a village to win this series.

Igor Shesterkin defends the net during the Rangers' Game 2 win over the Penguins.
Igor Shesterkin defends the net during the Rangers’ Game 2 win over the Penguins.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

3. The Rangers spent enough time in the offensive zone and had enough puck possession to have earned more than two power plays by the first 57-56 of Game 2. However, Beggars can apparently be picky when it comes to those two man advantages, which came after a 118-05 stretch in which the Blueshirts weren’t rewarded with a single power play while the Penguins had an interim six.

This represents a continuation of a trend in the four-game season series where Pittsburgh held a 12-6 advantage on power plays. It’s a worrying one. So much of the game and Rangers identity comes from the power play.

4. Igor Shesterkin’s work is legendary, as the presumptive Vezina winner converted 118 of 124 shots for a .952 percent save rate, while Evolving Hockey had a 3.55 GSAA (goals above average) in its first two NHL playoffs had credited games.

But the Penguins’ advantage over goalkeeping was largely wiped out until Rangers broke through by scoring four goals in 26:50 against Louis Domingue and bridging the final two halves of Game 2.

The Blueshirts must make it their mission to take advantage of this third-row goaltender, who is only playing because of Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith’s injuries.

5. Ryan Reaves, whose 16:10 ice time in Game 1 was the highest total of his now 86-game playoff career, has set the tone on the ice by using body stewardship at every opportunity. Reaves brings an aura to the ice with him. New matchups create opportunities for the Rangers top line


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