TAMPA, Fla. — Well, that didn’t last long.
The day after he collected a pair of assists — and scored the game-winning shootout goal — while playing right wing in the Rangers’ 5-4 victory over the Florida Panthers, Kevin Hayes was back at center Sunday as the Blueshirts practiced at Amalie Arena in preparation for Monday’s game against the NHL’s top team, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I’m not a winger anymore,’’ Hayes announced with a smile.
Coach David Quinn had moved Hayes, his No. 2 center, to right wing on the No. 1 line, with center Mika Zibanejad and left wing Chris Kreider, putting his three top scorers together for Saturday’s game against the Panthers.
But after a great first period, Quinn said he wasn’t impressed by the trio the last two periods, so he moved Hayes back to his natural position.
“As I’ve said many times, there’s a lot that goes into these decisions,’’ Quinn said. “After long discussions, we felt that for our best interests and for his, he’s better off being in the middle.’’
Vladislav Namestnikov — whom the Rangers acquired at the trade deadline last season from Tampa Bay in the blockbuster deal that sent Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller to the Lightning and brought back Brett Howden, prospect Libor Hajek and a first-round pick — took Hayes’ spot on the right of Kreider and Zibanejad.
Ryan Strome, who centered the second line against the Panthers, shifts to right wing, with Hayes stepping between him and left wing Jimmy Vesey.
Even if the Hayes-on-the-wing experiment didn’t last long this time, Quinn said he saw enough that he would be OK trying it again.
“For sure,’’ he said. “I would feel very comfortable putting [Hayes] on the wing. [If] five, six minutes into a game, you want to go to nine forwards — you shorten your bench and you make that type of move — that’s something I would have no problem doing again in a certain situation.’’
Zibanejad, who scored the first goal against Florida on the rebound of a Hayes shot, would love to see it again.
“Obviously, [there are] things to work on. It would be weird if it was perfect the first game we played together,’’ Zibanejad said. “But it’s definitely something I’m really curious about how good it can be.’’
Notes & quotes: Quinn said he will be “stunned’’ if Mats Zuccarello, who has missed 12 of 14 games with a groin strain, plays Monday . . . Henrik Lundqvist, asked if he will wear the new goalie pads he was so uncomfortable in against the Panthers, said he hadn’t decided. “Game-time decision,’’ he said with a laugh.