Of all the Rangers’ new additions, Frank Vatrano is the only one whose mindset hasn’t had to change.
Andrew Copp came from the Jets, whose last hopes for a wild-card spot are dwindling. Justin Braun came from the Flyers, the second-to-last team in the Metropolitan Division. And Tyler Motte was traded from the Canucks, who are in a similar boat as Winnipeg.
Vatrano came to New York in a cap-space-clearing trade by the Panthers, one of the few NHL teams who have had a better season than the Rangers. Florida’s 94 points and 44-15-6 record ranked second in the league entering Monday, while its 264 goals so far this season led the NHL. Vatrano went from one playoff team to another.
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In his first press conference as a Ranger, following the Blueshirts’ St. Patrick’s Day loss to the Islanders, Vatrano talked about the mentality top NHL teams must have to be successful. No matter where your opponent is in the standings, he said, you always have to expect everyone to bring their A-game against you.
That’s the kind of infectious mindset the Rangers can only hope will spread throughout their locker room as a playoff berth nears.
Vatrano averaged 12:12 of ice time this season with the Panthers, whose depth relegated the 28-year-old to an inconsistent fourth-line role. Since joining the Rangers, Vatrano has jumped right into the top six with winger Kaapo Kakko still on injured reserve.
“My whole career I’ve been up and down the lineup, playing in top six, playing in bottom six,” Vatrano said after scoring two goals in the Rangers’ 5-4 overtime win against the Sabres on Sunday. “When you’re put in a spot to play in the top six, sometimes you can change your game and not play the way you usually play. But you learn as you go along, you’re put in that spot because of the way you’ve been playing. You don’t have to change the way you play.
“For me, that’s just bringing a simple game, moving my feet, being physical and trying to make plays whenever they’re there.”
After lining up on the left wing of Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome in his first four games, Vatrano has skated on the top line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad in the last two. The latter combination has found instant success, with Vatrano scoring three goals since joining the first unit.
The new-look top line has outscored opponents 3-0 and held a 14-4 advantage in shots, in addition to creating five high-danger chances and allowing only one, according to Natural Stat Trick.
Vatrano, who logged a season-high 18:19 of ice time Sunday, has now scored four goals in his first six games with the Blueshirts.
“For us, it’s just using our speed and keeping the play simple,” Vatrano said of his line. “I think we’ve been doing that since we’ve been a line. It’s only been a couple of games now, but I think every game, we’re getting better.”
Head coach Gerard Gallant noted that things will change when Kakko, and Kevin Rooney, are healthy. There will be new line combinations to consider, but Vatrano has kept the top-six seat quite warm.
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