DETROIT – Their postseason berth hasn’t been clinched yet, but every win gets the Rangers closer to their first playoff appearance since 2017. So, with a month still to play in the regular season, coach Gerard Gallant has to balance the need to officially secure his team’s spot in the postseason, with the need to get a head start on looking at his lineup and figuring out which players he is going to want to rely on when the playoffs begin.
One of the things Gallant will want to nail down is which two players he will use on the third defense pair. The top two pairs – Adam Fox-Ryan Lindgren and Jacob Trouba-K’Andre Miller – are set, but general manager Chris Drury added to the depth at the position when he traded for defenseman Justin Braun at the trade deadline. At the time, Drury said the fact that Braun was a righthanded shot was a bonus.
With Fox and Trouba on the right side of the top two pairs, Braun would most likely be looking at stepping in on the third pair if he’s going to break into the lineup. At the moment, though, that spot is being held on to quite ably by 20-year-old rookie Braden Schneider.
Schneider sat out the first game after the trade deadline, so that Gallant could put Braun into the lineup against the Devils in New Jersey last Tuesday. But the Rangers lost that game, 7-4, and Gallant put Schneider back in the lineup the next game.
The Rangers won the next three games going into Wednesday’s game against the Red Wings at Little Caesar’s Arena, and Schneider scored a goal in Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Pittsburgh. He also made a spectacular defensive play as well, dropping down on his stomach to sweep check the puck away from Penguins forward Evan Rodrigues on a two-on-one break. And he had three blocked shots.
So it was no surprise Schneider and his regular partner, Patrik Nemeth, were back in the lineup Wednesday against Detroit, and Braun was still waiting for another chance.
After Tuesday’s game, Schneider said the addition of Braun wasn’t going to give him any more motivation than he already had to keep his spot in the lineup. He entered Wednesday’s game with two goals, five assists, and a plus-4 plus/minus rating in 29 games.
“I think that that motivation has been there the whole time,’’ Schneider said. “I think ‘Brauner’ is an awesome guy, and whatever I need to do, I'll do. It's been a lot of fun and I'll just keep doing what I can do out there.’’
Before Tuesday’s game, Gallant was asked when Braun might get another shot at cracking the lineup. Soon, the coach said. But Braun sat for the fourth straight game Wednesday against the Red Wings, as Gallant stuck with Nemeth and Schneider.
Gallant has said he wouldn’t hesitate to play a righthanded-shooting defenseman on the left side, so if he wants to play Braun, it won’t necessarily be Schneider who has to come out.
“If that's a situation we're in, I’ve got no issue at all with that,’’ Gallant said last week of playing a right shot at left defense. “If we’ve got five good righthanded defensemen, someone's going to have to play that left side … I don't think you trade away people just to get a lefthanded defenseman for a right defenseman.’’
At some point, Gallant is going to want to see if either Braun or Schneider is able to play the left side. But for now, clinching a playoff spot is the top priority.
“I'm worried about one game at a time,’’ the coach said. “And, trust me, most nights we're going to try and play the best lineup we got available.’’
At the moment, the best lineup includes Schneider.