NASHVILLE — Rangers coach Gerard Gallant doesn’t have any choice these days but to tinker with his lineup and move people around as he tries to find a way to cover up the two major holes caused by the absence of Ryan Strome (COVID-19 protocol) and Kaapo Kakko (upper-body injury).
So Gallant on Thursday put his top two forwards, Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin, together on the same line for the game against the Nashville Predators. But it was the domino effect from that change that proved to be the winning move at Bridgestone Arena.
Alexis Lafreniere, dropped to the second line to make way for Panarin, scored his second goal of the season — and second game-winner — at 10:53 of the third period as the Rangers beat the Predators, 3-1, for their third straight win.
All three have come on the current four-game road trip, which ends Saturday in Ottawa.
Lafreniere, who also scored the winner in Saturday’s 3-1 victory in his hometown of Montreal, said he wasn’t disappointed to be moved off the top line to make room for Panarin.
"No, I think they’re trying different stuff right now,’’ he said. "We have a lot of good players that can play anywhere in the lineup, so for me, I just come to the rink, and whoever my linemates are, I just work hard and try to play my best game every night.’’
Lafreniere played with center Filip Chytil and Sammy Blais, a left wing who moved to right wing in order to play on the line. Chytil opened the scoring 2:12 into the first period, with Lafreniere and Blais picking up assists, and Blais said scoring that early helped the line get going.
"I think it was our first or second shift, so for sure it gives us confidence, and I think in the first, we were really good,’’ Blais said. "And the rest of the game too. I think we’re three guys that can play with the puck, and when we use our speed, I think we’re dangerous.’’
Before Lafreniere’s goal, the Rangers (3-1-1) appeared to take the lead on a goal by Ryan Lindgren at 5:31 of the third period when his shot from the wing deflected off a Predator and popped up over the shoulder of goalie Juuse Saros. But the Predators challenged the play, alleging the Rangers had been offside entering the offensive zone, and the goal was disallowed.
Then Adam Fox carried the puck into the Nashville zone and centered a pass to Blais, who backhanded a feed to Lafreniere, who was wide open at the back door for what amounted to a tap-in for his second goal of the season. Barclay Goodrow added an empty-netter with 5.8 seconds remaining.
Igor Shesterkin, who had made 40 saves and pretty much stolen the victory for the Rangers in Monday’s 2-1 overtime win in Toronto, started his fourth straight game and again was sharp. He stopped all 12 Nashville shots in the first period and 28 of 29 in the game.
"It was more of a complete team game,’’ Gallant said. "As a coach, that’s what you like to see. You like to see a game like tonight where your goalie was really good but he didn’t have to be all-world for us.’’
Up 1-0 after one period, the Rangers had a chance to expand their lead, but they failed on four power plays in the second period. The Predators tied the score on the first NHL goal by rookie Philip Tomasino, who was playing in his second game. Tomasino scored at 7:01 of the second when he banked a shot from behind the goal line off Shesterkin and in.
It was the third time this season that the Rangers had allowed the first NHL goal by an opposing rookie. They did so in the season opener against Washington (Hendrix Lapierre) and in the home opener against Dallas (Jacob Peterson).