The words are the same, but the meaning of the question is completely different. Because if you’re now asking, “Where should Rangers play against Alexis Lafreniere?” It’s about which forward combination needs him the most and which combination could help him the most. That’s not a subtle difference.
I would venture to say that the Rangers in Raleigh, NC, matched the Hurricanes 123-12 to a far greater degree than anyone could have imagined. The gap wasn’t nearly as big as it was during the regular-season series. But that got them a lot of nothing in the first two games of the second-round playoff series, including no wins and a 116-05 goalless streak that will roll into Game 3 on Sunday afternoon at the Garden.
The Hurricanes have conceded the fewest goals in the league in the regular season. They have conceded 11 goals in five-for-five games in nine playoff games. They gave the blueshirts next to nothing on both full strength and power play. Antti Raanta may have had two or three challenging saves to make since the early second period of Game 1.
Gerard Gallant is not a coach who usually shakes things up just to shake things up. In any case, extensive changes are not required. The ‘Canes didn’t get anything for free in their building in the first two (except maybe the shorthanded goal in Game 2). Carolina, now 6-0 at home in the playoffs, went down 3-0 in Boston in the first round.
The Rangers will be able to get the Mika Zibanejad line away from Carolina’s Nino Niederreiter-Jordan Staal-Jesper fast-checking unit, which has spent the first two games playing No. 93 and linemates Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano as eliminate threats.
Gallant will use the latest change to set up Zibanejad against either Sebastian Aho or Vincent Trocheck. That would free No. 93, whose unit barely owned the puck in the offensive zone and had a total of eight shots at Raanta over the course of the first two games, none of which were particularly memorable.
Vatrano’s game has leveled off in recent weeks, as has Lafreniere’s, which has picked up steam after the “rest” Gallant gave him for an April 13 game in Philadelphia. The winger has improved his game dramatically. He shows all the qualities he was lauded for leading to the 2020 draft lottery. The playoffs brought out the best in him.
Lafreniere was chasing the puck and creating chances while playing with pace and a chip on his shoulder and a grin on his face. There is no doubt about it. He digs into any scrums and even initiates his fair share of confrontations. He’s the guy who randomly nudges the goaltender when the puck is frozen. He’s the ranger who wants to get to the last shot.
When healthy, the Blueshirts have been in the top six since Game 65 of the regular season with Kreider-Zibanejad-Vatrano and Artemi Panarin-Ryan Strome-Andrew Copp. The offense was supplemented in the playoffs by the Kid Line, with Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko flanking Filip Chytil. That was the club’s most dynamic line for much of the tournament.
But Gallant broke his lines late in the second period of Friday’s 2-0 loss in Game 2, turning around Lafreniere and Copp. The coach brought Kakko to Zibanejad’s right towards the end of the third period. That was the end of the Kid Line.
Lafreniere only played one game during the season with Panarin and Strome, but he played 25 during the season with Kreider and Zibanejad, including 20 straight as of late January. If Staal’s unleashing of Zibanejad alone isn’t enough to buy time in the offensive zone, then perhaps Lafreniere is needed the most.
And with Strome and Panarin also struggling with possession time, perhaps it’s time to move Kakko to their right side where he can work the puck off the walls and deep down behind the net. As Vatrano’s game leveled off, Copp’s game was minimized in the final stretch. Maybe things have gotten a bit old-fashioned. Panarin obviously needs help.
Here’s the conundrum, though: if Gallant moves Lafreniere and Kakko away from the third line, doesn’t that pretty much eliminate a three-scoring approach? It would also leave Chytil, Rangers’ only goalscorer in that series, naked on a line that could include, say, Vatrano and Copp or Copp and Tyler Motte.
This will be a very difficult proposition regardless of how Gallant uses his staff, but Rangers will need the performance of their top six to even have a prayer. There’s no way around it. If increasing Lafreniere and Kakko would solve that problem, there’s your answer, even at the expense of Chytil and the Kid Line.
https://nypost.com/2022/05/22/the-case-for-rangers-to-break-up-the-kid-line-in-game-3/ The case for the Rangers to disband the Kid Line in Game 3