(AP) — The New York Rangers’ third line has been making valuable contributions all season, and the trio’s success in Game 1 against Tampa Bay is a big reason the team finally has a lead during a postseason series.
Dubbed ‘The Kid Line’ because of their ages — Filip Chytil is 22, Alexis Lafrenière 20 and Kaapo Kakko 21 — the three combined for five points in New York’s 6-2 victory Wednesday night in the series opener. Now they’ll look to keep it going when the Rangers host the Lightning in Game 2 on Friday night (8 p.m. EDT, ESPN).
“They’ve had a huge impact since the playoffs started,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said Thursday. “We broke them up a few times because of different matchups but overall they’ve been outstanding. … They got inside, they scored some nice goals, they made some good plays and and they’re attacking, They’re a confident bunch of kids right now and we need that to continue.”
Lafrenière has nine points (two goals, seven assists), Chytil eight (seven goals, one assist) and Kakko four (one goal, three assists) this postseason. In the last three games — all Rangers wins — Chytil has five goals, and Lafrenière and Kakko each have two assists.
“I think down low in their end we’re a good line,” Lafrenière said. “We got to get out of our zone as quick as we can and try to spend as much time in their end because that’s where we’re comfortable and we’re at our best. I think we’re playing as a unit and using our skills.”
Chytil, selected in the first round of the 2017 NHL draft, made the team out of training camp that fall before being sent down to the AHL for several months. He is the third-longest tenured player on the team behind Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. Kakko, the second overall pick in the 2019 draft, had seven goals and three assists during the season. Lafrenière, the No. 1 overall selection in 2020, had 19 goals and 12 assists this season.
Chytil had eight goals in 67 games during the regular season and has nearly matched that in 15 playoff games, including two goals in Game 1 of this series.
“He’s starting to get a little more comfortable and his skating is unbelievable,” Lafrenière said. “He can shoot, so for me it’s just try to find him on the ice and give him the puck in good spots. I think he really stepped up his game in the last couple of weeks so it’s really good to see.”
The youngsters have helped the Rangers move ahead in a series for the first time. In the first two rounds, New York never led until advancing with wins in Game 7 each time. They trailed Pittsburgh 1-0 and 3-1, and were behind Carolina 2-0 and 3-2.
That doesn’t matter to the Rangers. They plan on keeping their approach the same whether they’re trailing or leading.
“We take it one game at a time,” Gallant said. “We know we won last night and we’re up 1-0 in the series, but it doesn’t make a difference. … You just worry about the next game. You move on, you play the game and get ready for the next one.”
Tampa Bay came out a little sluggish to start the series after having last played nine days earlier when they finished their second-round sweep of Florida on May 23. Over the last three postseasons in which they’ve won 10 straight series, including back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, the Lightning are 17-0 in games following a loss.
“It’s getting back to the strength of our game, being a little bit simpler and getting pucks behind then and getting to work in the o-zone,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “We’ll be anxious for Game 2.”
The Lightning have been in this position just last month when they lost 5-0 in Game 1 of the first round against Toronto. They won two of the next four games and trailed 3-2 before winning that series and sweeping Florida.
“It’s Game 1, we’ve been through this before,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “We’ve won series where we’ve lost the first game and we’ve won series where we’ve won the first game.”
The Rangers also expect a much stronger effort from the Lightning on Friday night.
“They’re going to be ready to play,” Gallant said. “You don’t win two Stanley Cups and not be ready to play at this time of year. We expect a pushback, but we’re going to play our game again, we’re going to play the best we can and worry about playing our game.”