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Gerard Gallant searching for right line combinations for Rangers

Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant looks on against

Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant looks on against the Stars at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 14. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Coming off back-to-back road losses Friday and Saturday to Edmonton and Calgary, two of the top teams in the NHL, the Rangers found themselves returning home Monday night to another league heavyweight: the league-leading Florida Panthers. And if that wasn’t challenging enough, third-line center Filip Chytil was unavailable to play, due to what the team was calling an upper-body injury.

And this all comes at a time when first-year Rangers coach Gerard Gallant admitted he is still searching for the right line combinations for his team.

"We're looking to play better, there's no doubt about that,’’ Gallant said after the Rangers’ morning skate at their Greenburgh, N.Y. practice facility. "Our game… it's been good at times, but it's been inconsistent, and we’ve got to play better as a group. And coaches always look at different line combinations.

"Our record's not bad [6-3-3 entering Monday], but we can play better,’’ he said. "And hopefully … when you get some different line combinations, you start to really like some stuff, and like the flow of your game. And we’ve got to get to that point.’’

With Chytil out against the Panthers, Gallant was forced to juggle some of his line combinations. Since Greg McKegg was sent down to AHL Hartford to Saturday when Ryan Reaves was activated off injured reserve, Barclay Goodrow was the only real option to fill Chytil’s spot at center on the third line.

Goodrow had started the season at left wing on the third line, but most recently had been playing right wing on the first line, with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Before that, he spent a short time as the right wing on the Artemi Panarin-Ryan Strome line.

"Goodrow can go anywhere,’’ Gallant said. "But there's options. (It’s) not an issue.’’

Moving Goodrow to Chytil’s spot opened up a spot on the Kreider-Zibanejad line. Gallant could have just plugged Julien Gauthier, who had been a healthy scratch for the previous five games, into that spot, if he wanted to keep things simple. Instead, he moved Sammy Blais up from the third line to skate with Kreider and Zibanejad, and put Gauthier on the third line, with Goodrow and Alexis Lafreniere.

Lafreniere the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 draft, had started the season on the top line, but was dropped to the third line, with Chytil and Blais, after seven games. The 20-year-old even played on the fourth line in Friday’s 6-5 overtime loss to Edmonton, though he was back on the third line the next night in Calgary. With Chytil out and so many pieces moving around, the opportunity was there for Lafreniere to get back among the top six forwards, but Gallant chose not to do that.

Gallant had singled Lafreniere out after the Rangers’ Oct. 25 loss to Calgary at the Garden, saying he needed more from him. Then after the first game of the just-completed road trip, in Seattle, Gallant said he needed more out of the line of Lafreniere, Chytil and Blais. They responded with a decent showing in the next game, in Vancouver, but then Gallant put Lafreniere on the fourth line for the Edmonton game.

At the morning skate, Gallant said the fourth line was the only line that was really playing up to expectations. Panarin and Zibanejad had 11 and 10 points, respectively, through 12 games entering Monday. And seven of Panarin’s points (one goal, six assists) had come on the power play.

"We played 12 games so far, and it's been inconsistent, the whole group,’’ Gallant said. "As a group, we’ve just got to be better and more consistent.’’

Strome, who missed four games while out with COVID-19, had four points in eight games, and Kaapo Kakko, the right wing on the line with Strome and Panarin, had no points in eight games.

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