Frank Vatrano carving out niche on Rangers' top line
The T’s still have to be crossed and the I’s dotted for the Rangers, who haven’t clinched a playoff spot yet. But it seems inevitable that they’ll do that soon enough. With 16 games remaining in the regular season — beginning with another huge matchup in Pittsburgh on Tuesday — their magic number to lock up a playoff spot is 12 points. A record of 6-10 would do it even if the Columbus Blue Jackets win all 16 games left on their schedule.
So putting aside for a moment the formality of making a playoff berth official, the next task for coach Gerard Gallant down the stretch is to figure out the combinations that will work best for his group.
On Thursday, Gallant talked about how he would be moving people around to see how the pieces fit best together. One piece that has fit perfectly in the last two games has been newcomer Frank Vatrano, who has scored three goals in two games since Gallant put him at right wing on the top line with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad.
“He’s fitting in well,’’ Gallant said after Vatrano scored twice in Sunday’s 5-4 overtime win over Buffalo. “I mean, that line had some chances. [Vatrano] scored two goals and [took] great shots and was making the right plays. So they’re coming together.’’
Finding the proper right wing for Kreider and Zibanejad has been a problem ever since Pavel Buchnevich was traded to St. Louis last summer to clear salary-cap space. Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko have spent the most time there, but neither seemed a perfect fit. Lafreniere, a natural left wing, was playing out of position. Kakko likes to hold the puck, which didn’t always mesh with Zibanejad, who needs the puck to make plays.
Vatrano, who was acquired from the Panthers on March 16 for a fourth-round draft pick, had been on the fourth line in Florida, but after six games (and four goals) with the Rangers, he looks to be a first-liner on Broadway.
“My whole career I’ve been up and down the lineup, playing in different [roles], playing in the top six [forwards], playing in the bottom six,’’ Vatrano said.
“When you’re put in a spot to play in the top six, sometimes you can change your game and not play the way you usually play. But I think you learn as you go along, you’re put in that spot because of the way you’ve been playing. You don’t have to change the way you play. And for me that’s just bringing a simple game, moving my feet, being physical and trying to make plays.’’
If Vatrano continues to work well with Kreider and Zibanejad, that would solve one problem for Gallant, but there are others. He needs to figure out if newcomer Andrew Copp (one goal, four assists in three games since being acquired from Winnipeg at the trade deadline) is the proper right wing for the Artemi Panarin-Ryan Strome line. If he is, then where does Kakko, who is skating on his own and is expected to return from injured reserve before the season ends, fit?
Strome’s status Tuesday also is uncertain after he left Sunday’s game with a lower-body injury. If he can’t go, can Copp slide to center to take his place? Gallant tried that Sunday but didn’t seem to like it.
Notes & quotes: One week after the NHL trade deadline, the Rangers made a trade involving minor-leaguers, sending Hartford defenseman Tarmo Reunanen to the Carolina Hurricanes for forward Maxim Letunov. Letunov, 26, had been playing for Carolina’s Chicago Wolves affiliate in the AHL. He had 13 goals and 10 assists in 60 games with Chicago. Reunanen, 24, had two goals and 15 assists in 40 games for Hartford.