New matchups create opportunity for Rangers’ top line

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PITTSBURGH — Regarding the Rangers, no longer playoff-untested approaching Games 3 and 4 on the road: 

1. Gerard Gallant is not a slave to matchups and never has been throughout his career but it is clear that the coach has done his best to limit the amount of shifts the Alexis Lafreniere-Filip Chytil-Kaapo Kakko Kid Line takes against Sidney Crosby’s unit that includes Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. 

Matching up was the reason that the Kids got only 7:19 of ice time as a unit in Thursday’s 5-2 Game 2 victory. 

That dynamic likely will change in these next two contests on the road, where Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan has the final change. There are extreme methods with which visiting teams can avoid disadvantageous matchups but these maneuvers can create chaos on the bench for teams unaccustomed to such maneuvering. 

You can bet this, though: unless inescapable by dint of an icing, the Chytil line will not be taking faceoffs in the defensive zone. The unit took four in the first two games, as opposed to 14 apiece by the Zibanejad unit and the Artemi Panarin-Ryan Strome-Andrew Copp connection. 

So the expectation is that the Blueshirts’ young’uns will be force fed a heaping dose of Crosby. But while this will present a challenge, it also can create an opportunity for the Chris Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Frank Vatrano to shed a defense-first approach and get on the attack. 

Chris Kreider (20) and Mika Zibanejad (93) celebrate.
Chris Kreider (20) and Mika Zibanejad (93)
Robert Sabo

The Zibanejad line has gotten about 50-percent of the ice time against Crosby, who was nothing like this in last year’s six-game, first-round loss to the Islanders. Most of the focus has been on stopping the Penguins’ top guns, who have accounted for four of the club’s five even-strength goals. The Rangers need to turn that around and force the Penguins to focus on defending Zibanejad, Kreider and Vatrano. 

The Zibanejad Line, which has accounted for two goals on seven shots, must become dangerous. If unshackled from defending Crosby, that becomes a more realistic ask. 

2. Barclay Goodrow’s absence for what is expected to be an extended period of time makes it more difficult to work around Chytil’s issues at the dots, though Chytil won 3-of-7 in Game 2 after going 1-for-10 in the opener. Gallant can’t call on Goodrow to step in on those faceoffs. 

Though there may not be much of a drop off on the fourth line with Dryden Hunt stepping in for Goodrow, the penalty kill surely will be impacted. In addition, and perhaps more critically, losing Goodrow limits Gallant’s options with the top six in late-game defensive situations. 

But look, the Penguins have career bottom-sixer Danton Heinen playing up with Evgeni Malkin in the wake of Rickard Rakell’s Game 1 injury on the hit delivered by Ryan Lindgren late in the first period of Game 1. 

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It not only takes a village to win the Cup, it will take a village to win this series. 

Igor Shesterkin defends the net during hte Rangers' Game 2 win over the Penguins.
Igor Shesterkin defends the net during the Rangers’ Game 2 win over the Penguins.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

3. The Rangers spent enough time in the offensive zone and had possession of the puck enough to deserve more than two power plays through the first 57:56 of Game 2. Beggars apparently can be choosers, however, for those pair of man-advantages came after a stretch of 118:05 in which the Blueshirts were not rewarded with a single power play while the Penguins had six in the interim. 

That represents a continuation of a trend through the four-game season series in which Pittsburgh held a 12-6 edge in power plays. It is a disturbing one. So much of the Rangers’ game and identity flows from the power play. 

4. Igor Shesterkin’s work has been the stuff of legend, the presumptive Vezina winner having turned aside 118 of 124 shots for a .952 save percentage while credited by Evolving Hockey with a 3.55 GSAA (goals save above average) in his first two NHL playoff games. 

But the edge over the Penguins’ goaltending was largely negated until the Rangers broke through by scoring four goals against Louis Domingue within 26:50 bridging the final two periods of Game 2. 

The Blueshirts have to make it their business to take advantage of this third-string netminder, who is playing only because of injuries to Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith. 

5. Ryan Reaves, whose 16:10 of ice time in Game 1 represented the highest total of his now 86-game playoff career, has set a tone on the ice, taking the body responsibly at every opportunity. Reaves is bringing an aura onto the ice with him.

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