The chase for the playoffs isn’t technically over for the Rangers, but clearly, with six points between them and the nearest playoff spot, and 10 games to go – beginning with Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Madison Square Garden – the time has come to try something different.
And so, with big, physical defenseman and alternate captain Jacob Trouba unavailable for Thursday’s game, coach David Quinn inserted 20-year-old rookie Zac Jones to the lineup. Because, why not?
And with veteran left wing (and alternate captain) Chris Kreider still mired in a goal-scoring slump, Quinn decided to take him off the nominal first line – with his long time linemates, Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich – and replace him with 19-year-old Alexis Lafreniere, last fall’s No. 1 draft pick overall.
"I thought he's had a couple games over the last three or four that have been better,’’ Quinn said of Kreider, who did still share the team’s goal-scoring lead going into Thursday (he and Buchnevich both had 19). "You know, it's not just one player. Sometimes a line is a little bit ‘off.’ ’’
Quinn has dropped Kreider to the fourth line a couple of times during games over the last few weeks, but he’s always come back with the nine-year veteran on the left of Zibanejad and Buchnevich in the next game. Thursday, he switched Kreider and Lafreniere, dropping Kreider into Lafreniere’s previous spot on the Kid Line, with center Filip Chytil and right wing Kaapo Kakko.
Of course, Kreider is no kid. He turns 30 on April 30, and he is the longest tenured Ranger. So he certainly earned a long leash from Quinn to work through his struggles.
But he just isn’t producing enough lately to justify holding down a spot among the top six forwards. He had 19 goals and nine assists in 46 games entering Tuesday, but aside from two goals in the recently concluded four-game series against the Devils, there hasn’t been much over the last three-and-a-half weeks.
He had gone nine games without a goal when Quinn put him on the ice at the end of Saturday’s game against the Devils, with the Rangers up, 5-3, and the Devils having pulled their goaltender. He scored an empty net goal to finish a 6-3 Rangers win that day, and the next day he scored again, a backdoor tap-in from a Zibanejad pass on the power play to give the Rangers the first goal in Sunday’s 5-3 win over the Devils.
But he was hardly visible in Tuesday’s 6-1 loss to the Islanders, in a game the Rangers simply had to win. In fact, he was a minus-3, with one shot on goal in 14:44 of ice time – the ice time being the third-least he’s had in 46 games this season.
Throughout his career, Kreider has been a hot-and-cold player, who goes through long stretches of great productivity and long dry spells. In a normal, 82-game season, though, after all the ups and downs, he usually ends up with between 21 and 28 goals. And his pace this season would actually project to 33.8 goals over a full season.
Kreider did have one of his two hat tricks this season against the Flyers, back on Feb. 24, in Philadelphia (in a 4-3 loss), and the Flyers have been awful for the past month-plus, starting right around the time the Rangers shellacked them, 9-0, on St. Patrick’s Day. Philadelphia is 6-9-4 since then, and has fallen behind the Rangers in the playoff chase (they were 20-18-7, for 47 points, entering Tuesday).
Maybe the line change, and the opponent might get Kreider jumpstarted. Whether it is too late for the Rangers’ playoff hopes remains to be seen.