Kakko’s two pair make Gallant look like an Ace, tough decision awaiting

There was another game on the schedule. That was a good thing for the Rangers, who easily won by a count of 4-0 over the hapless Flyers in the City of Brotherly Love.

It was an easy rebound win for them. Especially against a bitter rival that has no identity. Funny enough. Didn’t that happen in the Big Apple once Alain Vigneault left? Poetic. Isn’t it? Does he leave all his former teams in total disarray?

As brutal as the Flyers are, they’re still considered an NHL team. They did get the better of the Rangers in the last meeting at MSG. A disgraceful and distasteful 5-4 shootout loss.

The bottom line is you take the two points and move on. Fortunately, nobody was injured. Braden Schneider took a puck to the chin in the first period. But returned for the second and third unscathed.

With seven games to go following tonight’s match on TNT, Gerard Gallant played a different card in his lineup. Rather, he dealt a new hand by getting Filip Chytil back and moving Alexis Lafreniere to the press box.

That meant Kaapo Kakko got another look on the third line with Chytil and Barclay Goodrow. In just his third game back, Kakko made Gallant’s new lineup a winning hand. He scored twice in the second period to provide exactly what the master motivator was looking for.

The two pair he scored were his first goals since Dec. 15 when he also tallied twice in a victory at Arizona. It nearly was his first career hat trick. But helpless Flyers’ goalie Felix Sandstrom made two good saves on consecutive tries during that lopsided second.

For Kakko, it was the best he’s looked in a long time. The two goals restored his confidence. He was looking shot more and wound up with four on goal in six attempts. Exactly the way the former second overall pick must play to stay in the lineup.

What does it mean for Lafreniere? That might be better left for Gallant to answer. He’s the one who calls the shots. As was noted in an earlier post from Wednesday about him being scratched, Turk has ulterior motives for what he does. Lafreniere could find himself sitting once again. That’s the unfortunate part of a deeper roster.

Since the key additions of Andrew Copp (empty net goal) and Frank Vatrano to upgrade the top six, it’s no longer a lock that both Kakko and Lafreniere will play when the playoffs start. Unless Goodrow goes to the fourth line, which would hurt face-offs, it’s likely one of the prized two lottery picks could sit for Game One.

Putting either on the fourth line would be misguided. The checking line is better suited for gritty and physical players. Kevin Rooney, Dryden Hunt, Ryan Reaves and Jonny Brodzinski certainly fit that description. Tyler Motte would be locked in. Instead, it remains to be seen how long he’ll be out.

Given that his play has come significantly up, Chytil should be a lock to start the postseason. He’s using his skating and skill to get in on the forecheck and create goals like the one he set up Kakko on with a beautiful pass that made it 2-0.

The choice is between Kakko and Lafreniere. If what we saw tonight is the real Kakko, then he has a good case. A year older than Lafreniere, he’s not an explosive skater and hasn’t proven to be a consistent scorer. However, his ability to forecheck and play sound defensively are strengths that can work on a third line.

Lafreniere is also effective on the forecheck. A bit more slick with the puck, he can find open space and finish checks. More of a shooter so far, his game has improved under Gallant. His intelligence and maturity show a player who doesn’t let anything bother him. When he is put back in the lineup, we’ll see how he responds.

In a perfect world, you’d have Goodrow on a checking line with Rooney and a combination of Hunt, Reaves and Brodzinski. That would allow for the three kids to play together like last year. The problem is Chytil isn’t good on face-offs. Goodrow is much better and also adds necessary grit with playoff experience to the third line.

With the Flyers needing a reason to get upset, they went after Goodrow during scrums. The two-time Stanley Cup winner is very effective at agitating opponents with playful banter.

He also can back it up with bravado. Ask P.K. Subban, who had to answer for his cheap shot that ended the season for Sammy Blais. Goodrow is one of those glue guys you love if he’s on your side or hate if he’s against you.

By picking up an assist, it allowed him to set a new career high in points (27). A flustered Travis Konecny took Goodrow off the ice early with the game decided.

Goodrow went 8-for-10 on draws with two assists and finished a plus-three in 11:17 along with 12 penalty minutes. A winning player who’s been worth every penny since he was acquired last summer.

The strong play at five-on-five combined with superb penalty killing and defensive instincts make him an easy player to like. It’s no wonder Goodie became so popular in Tampa. He also was well liked in San Jose. He’s brought the same leadership to the Blueshirts.

By handling their business last night, the Rangers are up to 102 points. Two closer to guaranteeing home ice in the first round. Seven clear of Pittsburgh. Two behind Carolina. Who knows. Maybe that second meeting on April 26th at MSG will decide the Metropolitan Division.

For now, it’s whoever is next on the remaining schedule. That would be the Red Wings on Saturday back at 33rd and 7th. We’ll see what that brings.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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