David Quinn has shown himself to be quite the mixologist in his 107 games as Rangers coach. He’s always searching, always looking for better line and defense combinations.
Down a couple of goals late in the second period? Let’s try something different.
Got a ton of energy and a great scoring chance from a third-line winger last shift? Maybe bump him up to the second line on the next go-round.
When top-line center Mika Zibanejad missed 13 games with an upper-body injury, the line combinations Quinn put together in his absence worked so well that he stayed with them for 12 games (with the exception of two games that rookie Kaapo Kakko missed with the flu). But when Zibanejad returned to the lineup last week, Quinn had to shuffle things to get him back in.
Two games after his return, Quinn shuffled them again Saturday. The 4-0 win over the Devils in Newark suggests the new look worked out pretty well.
“Four-nothing? I’m happy with the results,’’ Quinn said when asked if he was pleased with his new lines. “I liked what I saw five-on-five. I think having those four centers [Zibanejad, Filip Chytil, Ryan Strome and Brett Howden] just gives us a little more balance throughout that lineup. There’s a little bit of everything on each line, so it was something we were looking to do and thought about doing for a while.’’
The radical change Quinn made Saturday was that he actually dropped the team’s MVP to this point, Artemi Panarin, down to a third line in order to put him on the same line with Kakko.
Kakko, 18, had been struggling for two weeks since coming back from those two games he missed on the Rangers’ Florida trip. And before Saturday’s game, Quinn said he was “pressing.’’
Quinn hoped that by playing Kakko with Panarin, the team’s leading scorer (12 goals, 21 assists in 25 games) could ignite the youngster, and it seemed to work.
Playing on the right of Panarin and Strome — back in the middle after two ineffective games on the wing — Kakko played a more effective, livelier game than he had in weeks. He battled on the boards, possessed the puck and made crisp passes.
Kakko earned an assist when he set up a power-play goal by Adam Fox that opened the scoring in the first period. Overall, he played with an energy and a confidence that he hadn’t shown in some time.
“Listen, one of two things happen when you have a player of his talent and they’re struggling,’’ Quinn said. “You can either demote him and put him in a fourth-line role and take him off the power play or give him one more opportunity to get engaged and get their game the way they need it to be, and where we need his game to be. And I loved how he responded. That was his best game in a while.’’
The other main takeaway from the line-shuffling was that Strome, who had meshed well with Panarin as the No. 1 center in Zibanejad’s absence, was moved back to center. Doing that pushed Howden from the third line to the fourth, pushing fourth-line center Boo Nieves out of the lineup.
Zibanejad worked between left wing Brendan Lemieux and right wing Pavel Buchnevich. Chytil centered the second line between Chris Kreider and Jesper Fast, and Howden centered the fourth line between Micheal Haley and Brendan Smith.
That doesn’t necessarily mean those lines are going to last, of course. Quinn may start with those same combinations Monday against Vegas at the Garden, but that doesn’t mean he’ll finish with them.