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Will Rangers' young players get frozen out of ice time as playoff hunt heats up?

Brett Howden of the Rangers skates against the

Brett Howden of the Rangers skates against the Islanders during the first period of a preseason game at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 24. Credit: Steven Ryan

The Rangers are in a playoff race now. And that changes some things.

The biggest focus for the Blueshirts last season was to make sure that their young prospects got everything they needed to develop into the best players they could be, and that meant, most of all, they needed to play. They needed to play responsibly, of course, and work hard all the time, and take nothing for granted. But if they did those things, then coach David Quinn was going to make sure to find playing time for them.

But entering play Tuesday, the Rangers were three points out of the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. And in a playoff chase, winning matters most, and so, these days, it is the players who are helping the team the most who are going to have to play the most. Now is not the time to force feed young players when there are older players who are playing better.

That’s why Kaapo Kakko, the 18-year-old Finn who was the No. 2 pick overall in the draft this summer, started on the fourth line Monday. And why his centerman on the fourth line was Brett Howden, the 21-year-old, second-year player who had been the third line center up until three weeks ago.

“What also comes into effect is the way other guys are playing, too,’’ Quinn said after Monday’s 5-2 loss to Nashville, when asked about Kakko’s reduced role. “Some other guys have earned those opportunities. So when you make a decision like that, it's twofold: It's, you know, focusing on Kaapo and what he needs to do to continue to be the player we know he's capable of being, and also some guys may earn an opportunity to play, in that role.’’

At least Kakko remained on the first power play Monday, and got a shift or two on the second line while Pavel Buchnevich was out undergoing concussion testing after taking an elbow to the back of the head, and while Brendan Lemieux was sitting out a 10-minute misconduct. So, his ice time was into double digit minutes (11:28). Howden, though, played a team-low 7:51, barely more than half his average of 14:10 for the season.

Howden’s ice time has been reduced as Ryan Strome has been installed as the No. 2 center, playing with Artemi Panarin. With Strome on the second line, 20-year-old Filip Chytil was dropped to the third line and Howden got pushed down to the fourth. He has started out as the fourth line center in seven of the past nine games, and averaged 9:48 in those seven games.

“I think we've been a little bit misled, because they've had so much ice time early on in their careers,’’ Quinn said of his young players. “If they're playing five or six minutes a night that could be an issue, but 12 to 15 isn't. so you know I think we all have to keep that in mind too.

“There are going to be opportunities for these guys to play enough minutes where they're going to continue to help us win, and develop, which is a balancing act,’’ he continued. “We want them to develop. But we want to win hockey games too. We think we're in a position to compete for a playoff spot. That's our goal. And these guys are going to help us do that.’’

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