Rangers’ changes help them close playoff gap with win over Flyers

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

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 it 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 playoff spot in the East Division by six points after Friday’s victory and Boston’s loss to the Sabres.

But elevating Lafreniere, 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.

“We’re three players that have great vision,” Lafreniere, the first-overall pick in 2020, said of his new line. “I think we’re just moving the puck well, and we’re still trying to learn how to play together, and it’s gotten better from day one. It’s a lot of fun playing with them.”

Pavel Buchnevich celebrates his goal in the Rangers’ win over the Flyers on Friday.

Kreider, whose first-period power-play goal was his 11th of the season and 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 added an insurance tally at 9:24 of the third, using his quick hands to finesse the puck past Flyers netminder Alex Lyon.

Based on Quinn’s in-game line rearrangements, Colin Blackwell will likely be 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.

“[It’s] very tempting, these guys have done a good job.” Quinn said of keeping Lafreniere and Kravtsov in the top six. “Kravy has been really good since he’s got here. He’s played a lot of pro hockey in the last two years. He’s a little bit stronger, his wall play is really good, he’s really smart, he’s responsible defensively. There’s a lot to like about his game right now.

“It’s good to see these guys take advantage of the opportunities in front of them.”

Even Chytil, who has centered the third line all season, could be due for some reps next to Panarin. The 21-year-old Czech continued to entice the organization to give him a chance next to the big guns by putting the game away at 13:40 off a sharp-angled shot.

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 wing 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.

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Mollie Walker

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