PITTSBURGH — On a night when Alexis Lafreniere set up the Rangers’ first goal and scored the second in a 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals, coach Gerard Gallant said the 20-year-old’s transition from left wing to right is coming along fine, but not without some bumps along the way.
"I don’t know if it’s smooth, but he’s getting better at it,’’ Gallant said after Thursday’s game against the Capitals. "I think you saw after he scored the goal . . . he lined up on left wing. So maybe he’s still excited. That’s what happens sometimes.’’
"Sometimes I’m going on the left and Kreids [Chris Kreider] has to tell me,’’ Lafreniere said a little sheepishly. "But other than that, I think it’s pretty good. I think I can make plays on my backhand. I’ve got to get better at that, but by playing every night on the right side, it’s good for me. And I’m getting better, for sure.’’
Lafreniere, the No. 1 pick overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, had been a left wing his entire hockey life until this season. But with Kreider and Artemi Panarin ahead of him at that position, the Rangers sought to switch him to the right side in training camp to get him on one of the top two lines.
Gallant ended that experiment early on, but an injury to Kaapo Kakko prompted the coach to try again. He put Lafreniere in Kakko’s spot on the right side of the top line, with Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. In seven games on that line, Lafreniere has three goals and an assist, and Gallant likes what he sees from him.
"He’s played better hockey the last 20 games, for sure,’’ he said. "He’s getting more chances and he’s playing better hockey and playing a 200-foot game. And that’s what we like.’’
It’s been two weeks since Gallant revealed that Kakko is expected to miss at least a month with an upper-body injury suffered before the All-Star break. As good as Lafreniere is starting to look on the top line, it would be hard for Gallant to move him off the line when Kakko returns.
If he doesn’t, then Kakko, the No. 2 pick overall in 2019, will have to play somewhere else. Most likely, he would drop down to the second line with Ryan Strome and Panarin, at least for now.
Notes & quotes: Saturday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins is the front end of a back-to-back for the Rangers, who will face the Vancouver Canucks at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. That means backup goalie Alexandar Georgiev is likely to get his first start since Jan. 27 at Columbus. Gallant said he isn’t worried that Georgiev might be rusty after so long between starts. "No, I’m not concerned about it at all,’’ he said. "I’m more concerned about guys overplaying. [Georgiev’s] played well, he’s worked hard in practice, so one of the two games that he plays this weekend, I’m not concerned.’’ Georgiev did play the final 40.5 seconds of overtime against Boston on Feb. 15 when Igor Shesterkin had to leave the game to go through concussion protocol. Shesterkin returned to play in the shootout, which the Rangers won . . . Barclay Goodrow (29) and Jacob Trouba (28) celebrate birthdays Saturday.