A year ago, the Rangers’ first power-play unit pretty much refused to get off the ice. This year, it seems as if the coach doesn’t want them to change.
Midway through the third period of the Rangers’ most imposing performance of the still-embryonic season, a 4-0 victory at the Garden over the Blue Jackets, head coach Gerard Gallant called a timeout during a third period four-on-three to keep Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Adam Fox on the ice.
It was the third time this season Gallant had pulled the maneuver. He explained he did it this time only to get the quartet work on the four-on-three even while holding a 3-0 lead. Bing bong, just like that, 36 seconds later, Kreider had scored his second power-play goal of the night on his second artful redirection from in front, and the final score was cemented.
“Mike [Kelly] had a play drawn up,” Gallant said, referring to the assistant coach who oversees the power play. “It wasn’t the one they scored on, though.”
If Gallant wanted that group — Ryan Strome, the fifth member of the first unit, was in the penalty box on a coincidental minor after throwing a jab at Max Domi — to work on the four-on-three, good enough. But it wasn’t only that. On a night when the Rangers had 5:28 of power-play time, the Core Four of Kreider, Fox, Zibanejad and Panarin were on the ice together for 5:09 with the man advantage.
Indeed, the power play, which is 5-for-29 on the year with Kreider accounting for all five goals and all five coming in front off deflections, has had an aggregate 44:06 of time. Kreider has been on for 36:07, Panarin for 35:25, Fox for 35:10 and Zibanejad for 34:48. What second unit?
The Rangers rolled in this one utilizing their four-line rotation, but the guys at the top of the order set the pace. The power-play unit, as mentioned, was instrumental in the outcome. But so too was the second line, which established the tempo early, with Kaapo Kakko rejoining Panarin and Strome following a four-game absence with an upper-body issue. Kakko was dynamic.
Reunited and it felt so good for the Blueshirts, who took a 1-0 lead at 12:29 of the first period, when Strome took a left-wing feed from Panarin and sailed down the slot before picking his spot and wristing one past Elvis Merzlikins.
“He played a good game, but that first period, Kakko was really strong,” Gallant said. “I really noticed him controlling the puck, he’s a big body, Stromer looked really good and Panarin obviously with [three] assists.
“I liked that line, but I liked our team.”
That line, though, was the lone unit remaining intact from opening night. Ryan Reaves’ placement on IR changed the fourth line. And Gallant flipped Alexis Lafreniere to the third line with Filip Chytil and Sammy Blais, while Barclay Goodrow shifted to the right with Kreider and Panarin.
Lafreniere, who notched his club-leading third five-on-five goal by converting Fox’s otherworldly feed from below the goal line after circling behind the net to extend the lead to 2-0 at 15:31 of the first, appears more liberated on the third line than the first. At least for now.
But (oh, and by the way keep an eye on Chytil, who missed a shift or two near the end of the first period and took one more faceoff the rest of the way), even if this might be best for Lafreniere’s development, it is difficult to envision the club thriving with Goodrow on the first line for any sustained stretch.
Gallant has said the blue-collar free agent signee “plays fourth line, third line, second line, first line.” But not really. Last year, ensconced on Tampa Bay’s third unit. Goodrow played a sum of 19:13 with first-line pivot Brayden Point and all of 13:52 with second-line center Anthony Cirelli. What’s that you say? The Rangers are not the Lightning? Point taken.
The Blueshirts, of course, took two points on Friday on their way to 5-2-1, and if the elites were front-and-center, that of course included goaltender Vincent Vega, who did a superb impression of Igor Shesterkin.
(For the uninitiated, Shesterkin came to the club’s Halloween party dressed as the “Pulp Fiction” character, with his wife, Anna, dressed as Mia Wallace for the scene at Jackrabbit Slim’s.)
Asked if he had practiced the dance moves that were performed by John Travolta, Shesterkin laughed.
“One time,” he said.