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The Rangers’ playoff hopes are hanging by a thread, which has been frayed even more by the Bruins’ recent success.
As a result, an experimental period has arrived.
It began with Alexis Lafreniere replacing Chris Kreider on the left wing of the top line during this back-to-back series with the Flyers and paid off Friday in a 4-1 win at the Garden. The 19-year-old Lafreniere has skated alongside Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich, while Kreider is now with the youngsters on the third line with Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko.
The flip-flop isn’t exactly an experiment, considering Lafreniere had 12 games next to Zibanejad and Buchnevich earlier this season — including nine in a row when Artemi Panarin was on his leave of absence. The real shuffling hasn’t begun yet because the Rangers haven’t officially been eliminated from playoff contention, despite trailing the Bruins for the fourth East Divison playoff spot by seven points after Friday’s victory and Boston’s loss to the Sabres.
But elevating the first-overall pick, who recorded a goal and assist in Friday’s win, to the top line was a safe place for head coach David Quinn to start.
“There’s definitely another level he’s gone to from a pace standpoint,” Quinn said of Lafreniere prior to the game. “He’s been a little bit more physical, which has allowed him to create a little bit more often. I just really like the direction of his game and obviously playing with those two guys, there might be a little bit more offense with them two.
Kreider, whose 11th power-play goal of the season, in the first period, tied him with the Stars’ Joe Pavelski for the most in the NHL, was the logical option to drop down in the lineup considering his struggles this month.
The switch has sparked some confidence in Lafreniere. After setting up his linemates all night Thursday with no results, the Canadian teen earned an assist on Buchnevich’s score to make it 2-1 in the first period Friday.
Lafreniere then added an insurance tally at 9:24 of the third, using his quick hands to finesse the puck in past Flyers netminder Alex Lyon.
Based off Quinn’s in-game line rearrangements, Colin Blackwell will likely be permanently swapped out in favor of Vitali Kravtsov, who has started every game in the bottom six since his NHL debut earlier this month. Since Kakko has gotten more than a sample size of time on the second line, the coaching staff has evidently wanted to see what the 21-year-old Kravtsov can do in that spot.
Even Chytil, who has centered the third line all season, could be due for some reps next to Panarin. The 21-year-old Czech put the game away at 13:40 off a sharp-angled shot, further tempting the organization to give him a chance next to the big guns.
The Rangers also have four recalls remaining. At least one more, if not all, will probably be used within the remaining eight games. The first in line likely will be Morgan Barron, the 6-foot-4 center out of Cornell, who has 18 points (10 goals, eight assists) in 19 games with AHL Hartford this season.
There’s a possibility defenseman Tarmo Reunanen could get another look following his one-game cameo on March 15 when Adam Fox was in COVID-19 protocol after registering a false positive. And right winger Ty Ronning could get a call as well.
The time to focus on next season may be closer than the Rangers would like, but it’s coming, as are the next steps toward that future.
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