MONTREAL – As troublesome as it was for the Rangers to play against the Canadiens Saturday on Hockey Night in Canada without their second-line center, Ryan Strome (COVID-19 protocol), there was a silver lining for coach Gerard Gallant, in that Strome’s absence offered a chance to get a look at Filip Chytil in an expanded role.
With Strome out, Chytil, 22, moved up from his third-line role to take Strome’s usual place between Artemi Panarin and Kaapo Kakko. It was an important opportunity for the young Czech.
"I’m just happy to play with those two,’’ Chytil said after Saturday’s morning skate at the Bell Centre. "They're great players.’’
The opportunity to play among the top six forwards is one Chytil, now in his fourth NHL season, really hasn’t had much of. He saw time as a left wing in the top two lines a little bit during his rookie year, under then-coach David Quinn. And there was a time in his second season when Mika Zibanejad missed 13 games due to injury and Chytil got some second line minutes in those games.
But for most of his time with the Rangers, the 6-3, 210-pound Chytil has operated as the third-line center. And with the Rangers’ commitment to being harder and more direct on their bottom two lines this season, that has meant playing the first two games with gritty, straight-line wingers Barclay Goodrow, Sammy Blais and Julien Gauthier, players whose styles maybe don’t mesh quite as well with Chytil’s.
"You have to play like team's playing,’’ Chytil said. "And maybe my style of the game is a little different than other two guys, but we need lines like this. And we had a good forecheck, (and) we played physical the two games. We had a couple chances. But it's only two games and, and, yeah, we work hard.’’
Asked if he believes he is a top-six forward, Chytil responded, quickly, "Yeah.’’ Saturday he got a chance, and since the Rangers don’t know how long Strome will be out of the lineup, the chance could be an extended one. If so, Chytil said he’s ready to show what he can do.
"Anytime I get a chance, I just try to play my best game,’’ he said. "Just use those minutes for my side, and help the team.’’
Gallant, the Rangers’ first-year coach, said he also believes Chytil is good enough to be a top-six forward, but pointed to the fact the Rangers are pretty well stocked with talent in their top two lines. But he’s been impressed with what he’s seen from Chytil, who scored three goals in the Rangers’ final preseason game last Saturday against the Islanders.
"Fil's game’s growing,’’ Gallant said. "He's a young player (who) a lot of times he played in that third-line spot. If he plays in that (second-line center) spot tonight, he’s taking another step.
"He's played really well,’’ Gallant said. "He had a hat trick and the last exhibition game, and played really well the first two games. So, a young kid growing and getting better and he gets an opportunity to play probably more important minutes in that role (Saturday).’’
One thing Chytil has shown marked improvement in is his faceoffs. His career percentage entering the season was under 40% and he won 42.8% last season. But this season he’d won 9 of 15 (60%) entering Saturday.
"It's only two games,’’ he said when asked about his improvement in the circle. "We have another 80 ahead of us. But, yeah, I'm working on it every day. It's not just that I'm working on it, just on training camp. and it's gonna be like this whole season.’’