Gerard Gallant rarely criticizes individual players publicly, preferring to keep the focus on the team when he talks about areas where improvement is needed. That’s why, when it comes to decoding what the New York Rangers’ head coach is thinking, subtleties are often all there is to work off.
When asked why the Kid Line featuring Alexis Lafrenière, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko was used sparingly in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final — a 3-1 loss at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday — his answer lacked in both detail and conviction.
“Just the way I coached the game. I was trying to match up a little bit, but they played OK,” he said, trailing off.
At the risk of over-analyzing one word, Gallant’s use of “OK” didn’t feel like much of an endorsement.
Perhaps he was displeased with the Kid Line’s effort on a particular play, although there was nothing glaring that comes to mind. What was clearer was his preference for the checking line of Tyler Motte, Kevin Rooney and Barclay Goodrow in certain situations, especially to counter Tampa’s second line of Brandon Hagel, Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper primarily used that trio against the Rangers’ top line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad and Frank Vatrano for the previous two games in Tampa, with Gallant making a concerted effort to create separation in Game 5. He decided to scratch slow-footed veteran Ryan Reaves, who had played in each of the first 18 playoff games, in favor of Rooney to create a defensive matchup line of his own.
That’s a fine strategy, but that shouldn’t take away from the Kid Line’s role of bringing energy and creating offense. They’ve been one of the most exciting and encouraging elements of this memorable run, playing loose, having fun and blossoming right before our eyes. And while they had a few more flashes of that Thursday, their ice time was too sporadic to make a consistent difference.
None of the kids played more than Chytil’s 11:08 at even strength, with that line totaling only three shifts during a second period that featured three penalties. They were given five offensive-zone starts, according to Natural Stat Trick, while the fourth line was only one behind them with four. There should be more of a disparity between the two units with starkly different skill sets.
It’s expected that Gallant will limit the kids’ defensive-zone starts, particularly with Chytil sporting a prohibitive 34.86% faceoff win rate. But generally speaking, they’ve vastly improved their effort in the finer aspects of the game that Gallant stresses — hounding on forecheck, hustling to backcheck, bringing physicality and playing a commitment defensive game overall — which should reduce the need to shelter them.
All three seem to have a keen understanding of what’s expected from them to earn their coach’s trust.
“When we play good defense, we get out of our zone quick and we play in their end,” Lafrenière said. “That’s where we can really make plays. Fil and Kaapo are really good down low, too. When we play behind the net and low, I think that’s where we get our best chances.”
With the Rangers’ season on the brink heading into Game 6, which will be played at 8 p.m. Saturday at Amalie Arena, Gallant should tap into the line sparked them the last time they were in this situation.
Trailing the Carolina Hurricanes three games to two in the previous round, he decided to reunite the Kid Line after three games apart. They came out buzzing, with Chytil netting two pivotal goals to force Game 7.
Two weeks later, the Blueshirts are in need of another jolt for an offense that’s produced just one five-on-five goal in the last three games. They’ll need to find better ways to crack the Bolts’ defense and beat all-world goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy if they’re going to stave off elimination for the sixth straight time in these playoffs.
Putting more faith in the maturing kids feels like an obvious place to start.