There were 59 seconds remaining on the Rangers’ first and only power play of the night when Chris Kreider chipped one off the ice into the netting ahead of an offensive-zone faceoff.
Normally — as in for essentially every power play over the last two-plus seasons — the first unit would have stayed on for the draw. But, lo and behold, in this instance, head coach Gerard Gallant sent the second unit consisting of Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, a reinstated Vitali Kravtsov and Jacob Trouba onto the ice.
It is as if pigs were flying in the Garden.
And then, just under a half-minute later, Chytil roofed one from the left circle after a nifty relay from Kakko to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead in what became Thursday’s 3-1 victory at the Garden over the powerhouse Maple Leafs to extend the club’s stabilizing winning streak to five straight.
The paucity of ice time for PP2 has been a theme bleeding back into the David Quinn Era. The first unit goes on and stays on … and stays on … and stays on.
Get this: Chytil’s score off creative passes from first, Lafreniere, and then Kakko, represented the first PPG scored by a forward on the second unit in 131 games, since Kakko got one in Buffalo on April 25, 2021, in the 49th contest of the 56-game season.
“Finally we got a little time where we could make some plays,” said Chytil, whose PPG was the fifth of his career and his first since Jan. 2, 2020, when he got one in Calgary. “I’m not going to lie, I was happy about it. It doesn’t happen too much.
“It isn’t easy but our first unit is unbelievable, so we can’t complain about it. But when we get a chance like this, I’m really happy we could score.”
The Maple Leafs, 9-0-1 in their previous 10 games while outscoring the opposition by an aggregate 41-16, came into the Garden playing at a 120-point pace. Toronto created its chances, all but one turned aside by a splendid Igor Shesterkin, but the Blueshirts remained poised and reasonably disciplined throughout. Their penalty killing was outstanding, allowing only four shots over 6:00 of Maple Leafs man-advantage. This represented the Rangers’ most significant victory not only of this little heater they’re on, but of the season.
The template was not only broken by power-play personnel usage, but of the entirety of Gallant’s distribution of ice time. The remade line combinations allowed for some balance. The Kids actually had the most ice-time of any unit, clocking 12:45 at five-on-five while the Artemi Panarin-Mika Zibanejad-Barclay Goodrow presumptive first unit was on for 12:10.
The third line consisting of Kreider, Vincent Trochek and Jimmy Vesey was on for 8:52 while the Kravtsov-Jonny Brodzinksi-Julien Gauthier fourth line got 6:24 of five-on-five ice.
Kravtsov, playing in just his fifth game of the last 17, replaced Sammy Blais. The winger was engaged throughout his 11:44 of ice. The best news was that Gallant had No. 74 on that second PP unit in the way the coach almost never did when Zac Jones was on his bench.
But maybe this signals a fresh approach. Gallant has trusted Vesey with important ice time this year, elevating him into a top-six/top-nine player. The coach has been rewarded throughout, but notably in this one in which the once-and-current No. 26 scored a beauty off the rush for the 2-1 goal at 15:33 of the second while burning TJ Brodie with wide speed before adding the clinching empty-netter.
Ice-time distribution is about giving players opportunities to succeed. It is about maintaining a somewhat balanced approach so that the big dogs aren’t exhausted by the time the All-Star break hits. No team rolls four lines from start to finish — not even the Devils of the Crash Line did that — but a more egalitarian approach is needed here.
This one in which the forwards’ ice time ranged from Brodzinski’s 8:15 to Zibanejad’s 18:40 — and six received between 14:12 and 16:10 — was more like it. Of course, there were only 89 seconds of PP time.
“I know it’s tough on them to get out with 25 seconds left and try to make something happen,” Kreider said. “You know, there are a lot of times when the puck is cleared that I’m about to go for a change, but Igor moves the puck right back up on the ice and so that triggers another entry and attack, and we wind up staying on.
“Blame Igor. That didn’t happen with Hank [Lundqvist].”
This was a good night for the kids. This was a good night for the coach. This was a good night for the Rangers.
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