Yesterday, it was reported that coach David Quinn went with different lines during practice in preparation for the Penguins. The Rangers have the Pens the next two games. So, it’ll be a big test.
Considering that they’re still playing meaningful hockey due to the Bruins continuing to be inconsistent after blowing a two-goal lead in a 3-2 overtime loss to the Jekyll and Hyde Flyers, it’s understandable why the Rangers would believe they can sneak into the postseason. They trail Boston by five points with 19 games left. The Bruins will again play the Flyers tonight.
With the Blueshirts needing to take care of business against an improved Penguins, who rank third in the division with 50 points, Quinn once again had Colin Blackwell take rushes with Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin on Monday. That means that Kaapo Kakko was moved to the third line with Filip Chytil and Alexis Lafreniere, who Quinn praised for his improvement. He has looked more confident lately. We’ll see if he can keep it going.
The issue is Vitaly Kravtsov finds himself on the fourth line after Quinn recently admitted that the 2018 first round pick isn’t that. Based on his debut that saw him get better as the game went on in a tough shootout loss to the Sabres, it doesn’t make sense for Kravtsov to be on the checking line with Kevin Rooney and Phil Di Giuseppe, who could be getting back in for Julien Gauthier. Equally as puzzling if true.
Quinn showed enough faith in Kravtsov that he received over 10 minutes while with Chytil and Lafreniere. The first round pick trio did nothing wrong. In fact, Kravtsov was on late in regulation with Mika Zibanejad and nearly had his first goal on a diving rebound that Linus Ullmark denied. That would’ve been something.
The question is are the Blueshirts doing this because they feel Blackwell gives them a better chance to win now. Probably. He’s been a pleasant surprise scoring nine goals including seven times at even strength. The other pair coming on the power play on deflections. He’s certainly opened some eyes. At 28, what is Blackwell’s future? He’s signed through next year for $725,000. They probably figured he’d be expendable for the upcoming Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft.
A good secondary player who Quinn has utilized similar to former plug Jesper Fast, Blackwell has provided secondary scoring that the team couldn’t have expected. He was an afterthought entering the season. Now, he’s a regular who can be moved up and down the lineup while playing second power play and killing penalties. Blackwell can shift to center to take draws if needed. Although Rooney has that area covered. Another solid secondary piece that could be available with the Trade Deadline approaching.
Of course, the reaction from most observers is why demote Kakko to the third line when he seemed to have chemistry with Panarin and Strome. Most are perplexed by seeing Kravtsov on the fourth line following a promising start in which he didn’t look out of place.
As much as the future is promising, it appears the team is prioritizing the playoffs over development. They want to make it. Certainly understandable considering where they are. However, if they don’t fare well versus the Pens and then the Islanders before next Monday, that’ll go up in smoke.
One thing to note is that just because Blackwell is penciled in on the second line doesn’t mean he’ll stay there during Game 38 of 56. Quinn has shown a tendency to shift players around depending on who’s going. So, maybe you’ll still see Kakko or Kravtsov on the second line at some point later tonight.
The only lock is that the first power play unit will continue to get the bulk of the minutes. A five man man-advantage that features Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Panarin, Strome and Adam Fox. Will they be more proactive and attempt more shots instead of passing up opportunities? That remains to be seen.
Whatever happens, Igor Shestyorkin will make his fourth straight start. Finally, he’s being given the keys. He’s played well as he continues to evolve into the starting goalie. It certainly isn’t his fault the team lost to the Sabres over the weekend.
The team must play better overall. Quinn emphasized winning those puck battles and managing the puck. Something they didn’t do a good enough job with. If they want to make it interesting, they’ll need their best effort versus the Pens.