Maybe it is about demoting Chris Kreider, maybe it is about elevating Alexis Lafreniere, maybe it is about shaking up a lineup that has been a model of stability for weeks, other than for a tweak or two.
But the Rangers broke up both the Kreider-Mika Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich first line and the Lafreniere-Filip Chytil-Kaapo Kakko Kid Line for Thursday’s Garden match against the Flyers by flipping left wings.
The KZB Line had been intact for 19 straight games, beginning with the March 17, 9-0 immolation of the Flyers in which Zibanejad recorded three goals and six points. But Kreider has had a dickens of a time for weeks, not only going without a five-on-five goal since March 13, a span of 20 games, but not much of a forechecking presence, either.
“I think he has a had a couple of games over the last three or four that have been better,” head coach David Quinn said of Kreider, who got an empty-netter and a power-play goal against New Jersey on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. “It’s not one player, sometimes a line is a little bit off.
“One thing about Kreids is that he keeps working at it and we know we’re going to get a great effort out of him [in this game]. At the end of the day, he’s going to continue to come here and put forth a great effort and prepare like he always does.”
The Kid Line, intact for the prior nine games, made almost no impact in the four-game sweep of the Devils or in Tuesday’s comeuppance at the hands of the Islanders. The three young men combined for one goal in their last five games.
Lafreniere has played 12 games with Zibanejad and Buchnevich, including nine in a row from Feb. 24 through March 11 when Artemi Panarin was on his leave of absence and Kreider skated with Ryan Strome.
The first-overall pick, who has eight goals and 14 points for the season, has scored three goals in the last nine contests. That includes a dandy on Sunday in New Jersey in which he drove the center lane to the net, and took Chytil’s backhand pass off his skates before beating Mackenzie Blackwood on a backhand of his own.
Igor Shesterkin got the assignment in nets for his 11th start in the last 13 games after absorbing the no-fault 6-1 beating by the Islanders on Tuesday.
“He’s earned the opportunity with his play, not just lately but the last few months,” Quinn said when asked why he’s going back to Shesterkin. “We’re expecting a big night out of him tonight.”
Of course, the coach could just as well have answered, “Because Shesterkin is our No. 1 goaltender.”
The Blueshirts’ tragic elimination playoff number is 15 points in relation to the Bruins, who have 58 points with 12 games to go against the Rangers’ 52 points with 10 to play. That’s the combined Boston points gained and New York points lost that will end Rangers’ hopes.