TAMPA, Fla. — The last time the Rangers made Filip Chytil one of the players available to talk to the media before a game, the 22-year-old Czech scored two goals — including the game-winner — in the Eastern Conference Final series opener last Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
Chytil and his wingers, Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko, may have been something of a surprise to the Tampa Bay Lightning then, but the trio certainly isn’t going to be sneaking up on anyone anymore.
As the Rangers and Lightning faced off Tuesday in Game 4 of the best-of-seven series at Amalie Arena, with the Rangers trying to build on their 2-1 series lead, the Lightning were certainly well aware of the potential of the Rangers’ Kid Line. And no doubt they had a plan for how to handle them.
After Tuesday’s morning skate, the Rangers made Chytil available to the media, and he promised that if other teams were going to have a plan for him and his linemates, that wouldn’t change anything as far as the way they play.
“We still have to keep playing same way,’’ he said. “Keep playing with energy, do the right things, and just get \[the puck\] to the net. I think we don’t have to change everything in our game, just focus on things what worked before and play the right way.’’
The Rangers talk about playing “the right way’’ a lot. For the Kid Line, that means forechecking hard, getting to the front of the net, and shooting the puck often. Chytil has certainly done that last part. Entering Game 4, he had 40 shots on goal in the playoffs, which tied him with Adam Fox for fifth-most on the team, behind Mika Zibanejad (55), Ryan Strome (47), Chris Kreider (44) and Artemi Panarin (43).
The shot total was impressive, considering Chytil had averaged 13 minutes and 39 seconds of ice time per game in the playoffs while the teammates ahead of him all averaged 18:56 or more.
Chytil was also tied with Kreider for the most game-winning goals in the playoffs with three. And his seven goals overall were third on the team, behind Zibanejad and Kreider, who each had 10.
When he was asked if his success in the playoffs had surprised even himself, Chytil, who scored eight goals in 67 games in the regular season, replied, “Not that much.’’
“I just know how many chances I had through the whole season, and . . . you have to be rewarded somewhere, when you work hard the whole year,’’ he said. “I’m not saying I wasn’t frustrated \[during the season\], but you just have to keep your head up. Just come to the rink every day, work hard. Even if it’s not going in, you just have to believe in yourself, staying confident. And I’m happy that it’s going in the most important part of the season.
“But I don’t want to stop here,’’ he said. “I just want to keep going, and maybe help the team more.’’
If Chytil can continue to produce the rest of the postseason, it’s possible he could be in line for a bigger role next season. A first-round pick in the 2017 draft, No. 21 overall, Chytil has been the third-line center, behind Zibanejad and Strome, for most of the last three seasons.
Strome, though, will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, as will trade-deadline acquisition Andrew Copp. With big-money contract extensions for Fox and Zibanejad kicking in next season, the Rangers are going to be tight up against the $82.5 million salary cap, and the thinking had been that GM Chris Drury was likely going to have to choose to sign either Strome or Copp to a $5 million-plus per year deal to be the second-line center.
But if Chytil’s performance in the playoffs convinces Drury that Chytil (who is under contract next season for $2.3 million) can step up to the No. 2 center spot next season, then maybe the GM can save some money by letting both Strome and Copp walk, and instead look to bring in a cheaper option to play third-line center behind Chytil.
Moving up to second-line duty would be a huge step for Chytil, but as young as he is, he’s been in the league four years already. If his work in these playoffs are an indication of the player he is going to be next season, it’s possible he may be ready to take that step.