TAMPA, Fla. — Rangers coach Gerard Gallant hinted there would be changes in how his team would look in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning on Saturday night at Amalie Arena.
There were changes all right. But after the Rangers lost, 2-1, and were eliminated from the playoffs, Gallant refused to discuss the changes, the biggest of which was his decision to scratch forward Kaapo Kakko, the No. 2 pick overall in the 2019 draft.
“I’m not going to talk about it,’’ Gallant said after the game. “Today is not the time right now, for me.’’
Gallant dressed 13 forwards for warm-ups, the same 13 who dressed for warm-ups before Game 5, when Dryden Hunt was the extra forward who didn’t play. Second-line center Ryan Strome left warm-ups briefly, and didn’t take part in the customary line rushes. He returned, though, after the line rushes were completed.
His line, with Artemi Panarin on left wing and Andre Copp on the right, was centered by Kakko, who is not a center. That was an early indicator that Kakko was the extra forward, and not Hunt, who played for the first time since Game 3 of the first-round series against Pittsburgh.
There were more shakeups. Chris Kreider, who scored 52 goals in the regular season and was tied for the team lead in the playoffs with Mika Zibanejad, with 10, was dropped from the top line down to a third line, with center Filip Chytil and right wing Barclay Goodrow. Alexis Lafreniere, who had been on the Kid Line with Chytil and Kakko, was moved up to Kreider’s spot.
The changes didn’t last the entire game, though. By midway through the second period, Kreider was back in his usual spot on the Zibanejad line, and Lafreniere was back on the third line, with Chytil. The bigger problem was that Strome wasn’t moving well and clearly looked compromised in the game. He ended up playing just two periods, with 8 minutes, 46 seconds of ice time.
“He was hurting pretty good,’’ Gallant said of Strome. “I saw it from the first shift. But he was still OK, you know what I mean? So when we pulled him at the end, the trainer went down and asked him and he said there’s not much here. So I made that decision \[to pull him\].’’
Scratching Kakko for the first time in his career was a major decision by Gallant. The Kid Line of Kakko, 21, Chytil, 22 and Lafreniere, 20, had been the most eye-catching line for the Rangers in the playoffs, but the trio got limited ice time in Game 5 and Gallant was lukewarm in his assessment of them after the game and the next day. After the game, he said the Kid Line was “OK,’’ and on Friday he said “they were fine.’’
Kakko had the fewest points of the Kid Line trio, with five (two goals and three assists). Chytil and Lafreniere both had nine — Chytil with seven goals and two assists, Lafreniere with two goals and seven assists.