These Lines Ain’t It

With the Rangers down in the Eastern Conference Finals 3-2, there’s numerous concerns floating around out there. The power play isn’t clicking, they can’t clear their own zone, they’re turning the puck over too much, the list goes on and on. However, one thing that hasn’t been talked about enough is these line combinations and how much change there has been through this series in particular. While it’s refreshing to have a coaching staff that is willing to adapt throughout a series and the Rangers are fortunate to have a deep enough roster to give them options, we’re at a point where this current lineup simply isn’t it. 

First, let’s talk about the good. Alexis Lafrenière has become a true x-factor right before our eyes. He’s one of the few players out there visibly giving 110% every time his skates touch the ice. He’s scoring superstar quality goals. No notes there. I wouldn’t suggest changing anything on his line seeing as it has been the Rangers most consistent line all year and even through the struggles, they haven’t given much of a reason to consider a shake up. I am partial to the idea of putting Mika Zibanejad in the middle of Panarin and Lafrenière in attempts to get Mika going more but again, I’m not sure it’s worth messing with that Trocheck line. 

Some more good news, Zibanejad and Kreider broke their point droughts last night with a big goal to get things started in the second. Zibanejad had both the primary assist on that play as well as the Lafrenière goal late in the game. Obviously we all want to see him finding the back of the net himself a little more frequently but a two point night is certainly a step in the right direction. The million dollar question is the same it’s been for what feels like a decade now and that’s who do you put on the right side of the two best friends? 

We’ve had Jack Roslovic, we’ve had Filip Chytil, we’ve had Kaapo Kakko, we’ve gotten tastes of Panarin albeit mostly for a shift or two, even Will Cuylle had a brief opportunity last night. The fact of the matter is, this team still does not have an answer for the right side of that line. When Roslovic plays his game the way we need him to, he’s a fine piece to that top line but frankly, he hasn’t had a great series. Which is a shame seeing as one of his strong suits is his skating and ability to rush the puck into the offensive zone, something the Rangers could really use against this Florida team. 

At this point, I think the Jack Roslovic experiment on the top line is over and this may not be a popular take, but Filip Chytil should take a back seat as well. All things considered, it’s pretty clear that playing the wing makes the most sense for Chytil at this point but it just isn’t clicking on the top line and now the stakes are far too high. Peter Laviolette and the coaching staff either need to give Kaapo Kakko their unconditional trust and hope that he can help Zibanejad and Kreider generate offense, or they should just plug Barclay Goodrow there. I mean think about it, Goodrow’s a sixteen game player, he’s been on fire lately and it’s pretty much the only thing they haven’t tried yet. 

Granted, I’m a firm believer that Goodrow is a better center than winger, primarily in a bottom-six role but we’re approaching desperation time at an alarming rate, it might be time. So where would that leave the bottom six? Will Cuylle - Alex Wennberg - Kaapo Kakko. It was their best line to close out the season, they haven’t converted as much as anyone would like but there’s no denying their ability to wear down their opponents and move the puck down low. That is critical against this Florida team. Where does that leave Chytil a lot of you are probably wondering? Again, not the answer anyone likely wants to hear but there is a reasonable chance he does not play in Game 6. Laviolette made it clear they are being cautious with his usage and a life or death game 48 hours after a brutal Game 5 loss with travel isn’t an ideal situation for an asterisk in your lineup. 

Realistically, the Rangers could keep Cuylle on the fourth line and play Chytil on the left but Cuylle’s another one that has brought it every night and likely deserves more opportunity. Whatever they decide to do there, they can not continue to ice Roslovic on his off hand with Wennberg and Kakko. Refer to the title of this article because that line is truly the definition of “ain’t it”. Which brings us to what is evidently our most important cause for concern according to some of these twitter takes; Who do the Rangers dress as their 12th forward and how do we deploy the fourth line? 

I’m without question one of the biggest supporters of Matt Rempe. I don’t have an issue with our 12th forward only getting a couple minutes of ice time, I don’t have an issue with them dressing him for what he brings to the vibe of this team. I feel he brings more than he gets credit for and am all for him being a part of this Rangers team. That being said, it’s also time for him to take a back seat. He barely played last night, he’s still so new to the league, if you’re not going to play him, dress someone you will. 

A larger reason for why it might be time for Rempe to take a night or two off has to do with the question marks surrounding this Rangers’ core of defensemen. Jacob Trouba is another guy I’ve always thought very highly of. I wanted the Rangers to trade for him long before they did, I own his jersey but oh my lord has he become a liability. No one in the entire league has more penalties than he does in these playoffs. You can’t always count on him to make the simple play in his own end, he’s had some terrible turnovers, really all you’re relying on him for at this point is penalty killing and the occasional clapper into traffic. Laviolette and his team need to seriously consider rolling 11 forwards and 7 defensemen in Game 6. 

Zac Jones’ style of play would not only be effective against this Florida team but would bring a breath of fresh air to what has become a stale back end. It’s no secret Adam Fox isn’t 100%, Trouba has struggled, Erik Gustafsson has been hot and cold, this team needs help defending. Chances are, you’re better off with the extra help on defense at this point then you are splitting hairs between your Rempe’s. Brodzinski’s, etc. I don’t have any qualms with how Ryan Lindgren has played but dressing seven defensemen allows you to rotate Gustafsson in with Fox as needed, keep Schneider and Miller together and rotate Trouba/Gustafsson on the right of Zac Jones. A little weight off everyone's shoulders. 

Which leaves us with the following:

Kreider - Zibanejad - Goodrow

Panarin - Trocheck - Lafrenière

Cuylle - Wennberg - Kakko

Roslovic - *one of Chytil, Wheeler, whoever

Lindgren/Gustafsson - Fox

Miller - Schneider 

Jones - Trouba/Gustafsson

Essentially, if you go 11 and 7 you’re going to end up rolling three forward lines with the option of piecing together a fourth based on ice time, special team breaks, etc. While there is certainly some risk in doing so, it bears repeating that this team needs their top lines to show up and carry them to victory if they’re going to get it done against this Florida team. We all love feel-good stories and there’s nothing better than a story book fourth line that comes in and saves the day in the playoffs but as we’ve said all year, this team lives and breathes by Zibanejad, Kreider, Panarin and Trocheck. Bolster the back end, trust and believe in your guys.