The New York Rangers spent less than half an hour on the ice at MSG Training Center for Wednesday practice, which Gerard Gallant loves.
An 11-year-old former NHL player, the Blueshirts head coach can appreciate their lightened workload at this late stage of the season.
“Today was 25 minutes on the ice, and that’s all they need,” he said. “I’m really happy with the way the training has gone this season, for the most part, the way I’m coaching and my coaching style.”
Galant knows he’s not draining his players and has enough recovery time with playoffs less than two weeks away, but he’s also collected all the information he needs to determine his perfect line-up.
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The Rangers spent the vast majority of the season shuffling their front groups. The only constants were Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanijad as one of the top six duos and Artemi Banarin and Ryan Strom in another role. But the rightists of both lines changed constantly, as did the lower six units.
The trade deadline boosted depth, but Gallant cautioned that it would take some time to determine where all the pieces fit.
Finally, with five regular season games left to go into Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on the road against the Islanders, the lineup appears to have stabilized.
Commercial extra Frank Vatrano has played the last 13 games alongside Kreider and Zibanegad, with this trio outpacing opponents, 10-2, while notching 57.86% xGF, according to Natural Stat Trick.
“He’s a threat,” Gallant said of Vatrano, who has scored seven goals since taking him from the Florida Panthers. “When he gets the disc, he shoots the disc. Sometimes we get frustrated that our guys are holding the puck for too long and trying to do nice plays….But Vatrano is the guy who shoots, and you need a little bit of everything.”
Meanwhile, another deadline acquisition – Andrew Cobb – has boosted the Panarin-Strom streak, which has outlasted opponents by 7-2 so far.
“He’s a fantastic player,” Panarin said of Cobb, who has scored 15 points in 14 games since the Winnipeg Jets traded him. “You can see his form and he reads the match well. I think we have good chemistry. We haven’t played much together, but it’s enough to understand each other. We are really happy.”
The bottom six had fallen into place as well.
Capu Kaku’s lower-body injury in Saturday’s 4-0 win over the Detroit Red Wings was an unfortunate blow, but it temporarily settled the third-line controversy and provided clarity for trio Alexis Lavrenier, Philip Chettle and Barkley Goudreau. And with Goodrow playing, Dryden Hunt, Kevin Rooney and Ryan Reaves form a supplemental fourth streak that gives Galant the grind items he desires. (This unit, by the way, has produced 61.58% xGF since the March 21 trading deadline.)
It all adds up to an advanced suite with “clearly defined roles” that team boss Chris Drury flagged as a priority when he was promoted last year.
“I think everyone knows what his job is,” Gallant said. “They should. I mean, it’s very easy to find out…it’s[about]being honest and being honest with them.”
Until Kakko returns – which Gallant said should be in time for the play-off matches – don’t expect any further changes. The same can be said for Legion D, especially the top four who have been consistent all season.
If there is a question stuck, it is in the lower pair. But it has become quite clear in recent weeks that Galant intends to use rookie Braden Schneider.
“It’s something completely out of my control,” Schneider said. “I just have to make sure I’m there doing my job and doing my best to help the team win. It’s great that we keep getting chances and keep playing, but I can’t take that for granted because we have so many great players in our defence.”
With Schneider installed on the right, it is the left side that forms competition. Galant’s recent preference has been to veteran Patrick Nemeth, a natural leftist, over commercial addition Justin Brown.
Nemeth has appeared in 10 games since the deadline, while Brown has played in just six.
“Some players aren’t very excited because they don’t play as much, but they do get it,” Gallant said. “They understand, they are good professionals. It’s all about, we work for our team. We don’t work for individual things.”
The certainty of the lineup had obvious benefits on the ice. Rangers 7-2-1 in the last 10 games and 10-3-1 since the deadline.
They scored 3.5 goals per game in that period, but the defensive improvement was particularly notable. They ranked first in the NHL with an average of 24.3 shots allowed per game while allowing the fewest scoring chances per 60 minutes, according to Clear Sight Analytics.
The result was three straight victories in the closing, with a chance to tie the franchise record if they could earn a fourth against rival islands.
“We’re playing more responsibly,” Schneider said. “You could say we tighten things up. It makes the game a lot more – I don’t want to say easier – but it’s a lot of fun. When you know your attackers are coming back and pressing back, it makes our job a lot easier. And then, to get to the points and to be able to pass and break. Tweak it as fast as you can, it makes the game smoother and more fun.”
Predicted NY Rangers lineup: Game 78 at Islanders
when: Thursday, April 21 at 7:30 pm
where: UBS Arena in Elmont, New York
TV/Radio: MSG Network / 98.7 FM
first line ← Chris Kreider (LW) • Mika Zipanjad (C) • Frank Vatrano (RW)
second line ← Artemi Panarin (LW) • Ryan Strome (C) • Andrew Copp (RW)
third line ← Alexis Lafrenière (LW) • Filip Chytil (C) • Barclay Goodrow (RW)
fourth linH ← Dryden Hunt (LW) • Kevin Rooney (C) • Ryan Reeves (RW)
top pair → Ryan Lindgren (left) • Adam Fox (right)
second pair ← Candre Miller (left) • Jacob Troba (right)
third pair ← Patrick Nemeth (left) • Braden Schneider R)
beginning → Alexander Georgiev
to support → Igor Shesterkin
Sanitary scratches: Justin Brown (Female), Johnny Brodzinski (Female), Julien Gautier (Female)And Lebor Hajek (right) and Greg McKeig (female)
injured: Sami Place (right ACL), Kabu Kaku (lower body) and Tyler Mott (upper body)
Note: This lineup is subject to change
Vincent Z. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter Tweet embed.