GREENBURGH, N.Y. — No one who saw Alexis Lafreniere’s fight with the Islanders’ Jean-Gabriel Pageau in Wednesday’s 4-1 Rangers victory at UBS Arena can be surprised to learn it was Lafreniere’s first hockey fight. Ever.
"First one,’’ Lafreniere said with a smile Thursday after the Rangers’ Thanksgiving Day practice.
It wasn’t much of a fight, certainly not compared with anything teammate Ryan Reaves might have engaged in. Lafreniere and the Rangers caught a big break when the referees didn’t give the 20-year-old forward an instigator penalty. That not only would have given the Islanders a power play but would have meant an automatic one-game suspension for Lafreniere because the fight occurred in the final five minutes of a game.
Lafreniere clearly picked a fight with Pageau, who the Rangers believed had come in high on a body check against Ryan Lindgren at 13:37 of the third period. Adam Fox went after Pageau and earned a roughing penalty, and 4:32 later, Lafreniere slashed Pageau in the shins, tripped him, charged at him, wrestled him to the ice and threw punches.
The Rangers appreciated Lafreniere sticking up for a teammate.
"It was cool to see it, for sure,’’ said Lindgren, who was uninjured by Pageau’s hit but was in the locker room, going through the concussion protocol, when Lafreniere fought Pageau. "It means a lot. Obviously, we’ve got each other’s backs out there and we’re a family.’’
"I think Laffy, he’s playing pretty good, solid hockey for us right now,’’ coach Gerard Gallant said. "He steps up in for a teammate and, again, I don’t want him fighting a whole lot . . . but when you’re a team and you stick together, it goes a long way with your teammates.’’
The 6-2, 193-pound Lafreniere, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, said he always played a physical game in junior hockey but never fought. He couldn’t say why he felt the need to fight after this incident; it just happened, he said.
"I don’t know, I just didn’t like the hit, I guess,’’ he said. "And you know, [Lindgren] was hurt, too. So it’s just, that’s how the game is played. It’s a quick game. You don’t get the chance to think about it too much. You just go.’’
After starting the season on the top line, Lafreniere has settled in on a third line with Filip Chytil and Julien Gauthier. He and the entire line have been playing well enough to be praised by Gallant, who last month said he needed more from Lafreniere. These days, the coach couldn’t be happier with him.
"I’m happy with the way the kid’s been since Day One,’’ Gallant said. "He’s a first overall pick. Would we like to see him with nine or 10 goals? We’d love to see it, but I look around the league and [2020 third overall pick Tim] Stutzle and all those kids, they’re all having trouble putting the puck in the net. It’s not easy to score goals in the NHL. I’m happy with Laffy. He’s playing better. He’s working harder. He’s finishing checks on the forecheck.’’
And now the Rangers know he’s willing to fight when he has to.