TAMPA BAY — Inside the coach’s office where Gerard Gallant and his staff toil over how best to guide the New York Rangers through yet another elimination game, there’s been an ongoing debate.
Should they keep things the same to show their team there’s no panic? Or make changes to give them a much-needed jolt?
“That’s the fine line,” Gallant said following Saturday’s morning skate at Amalie Arena. “Obviously, we’ve talked about maybe a few lineup changes and see where it goes from there. But we’ve done that all season long, so it’s not a big deal.”
No big deal – except when you consider these decisions could be the difference between the memorable run coming to an end or pushing this Eastern Conference Final to Game 7.
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But regardless of which direction Gallant goes for Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, which will begin shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday, his team isn’t sensing any change in his demeanor.
“He’s relaxed,” forward Tyler Motte said. “He knows how to focus the group. Obviously, he expects a lot out of us. It’s all things that we can control – our work ethic, our attitude – and it gives guys the confidence to just play the game. If we take care of some of those simple things that we can control, he lets us play our game.”
Gallant made a minor change for Game 5, reinserting Kevin Rooney in favor veteran Ryan Reaves, who was scratched for the first time in the playoffs in an effort to add speed to the lineup. But it appears something more significant is brewing for this win-or-go-home Game 6.
“We’ll see what’s going to happen tonight,” the coach said coyly.
Interestingly, Kaapo Kakko was one of the final players to leave Amalie Arena on Saturday morning. The expected scratches usually stay late to get extra work in, with the 21-year-old forward among them.
He was limited to just 10:33 time on ice Thursday, as Gallant has peculiarly reduced his usage of the Kid Line – which also features Alexis Lafrenière and Filip Chytil – in recent games. Kakko has been the least consistent of that trio, with five points (two goals and three assists) across 19 playoff games, and appears to be a candidate for a surprise scratch in Game 6.
What else could Gallant have up his sleeve?
Moving Artemi Panarin up to the top line is one consideration.
The dynamic winger has found it difficult to maneuver at his typical rate for much of the postseason, with only seven even-strength points through 19 games. But the 30-year-old was one of the most noticeable players on the ice in Game 5, registering a team-high four scoring chances (two high danger) on five shot attempts (three on goal) while creating three takeaways and two rebounds, according to Natural Stat Trick.
He looked much more like his usual self – and the Rangers could certainly use that Saturday.
“Every night he’s feeling it,” Andrew Copp said of Panarin. “When the puck is on his stick, something special can definitely happen. Obviously these playoff games have been really tight checking, (but) you still see his ability to make plays and create space for himself and for his linemates. I don’t think there’s a day where I go, ‘Bread’s not feeling today.’ He’s gifted, and he knows he is, too. He’s been a big part of our success so far and will continue to be.”
If Gallant decides against that and keeps Panarin in his usual spot with Copp and Ryan Strome, another option to keep an eye on would be moving either Chytil or Lafrenière to the top line to play with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. He’s used both there at times this season, with Chytil notably playing with them for a stretch during the second-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes.
The current top line of Kreider, Zibanejad and Frank Vatrano has managed only seven high-danger scoring chances through the first five games of the series, with Lightning coach Jon Cooper matching them up his defensive-minded trio of Anthony Cirelli, Brandon Hagel and Alex Killorn.
“As a line, we’ve been talking a lot about finding our game,” Zibanejad said Friday. “Ultimately, we have to be better five-on-five. We have to be able to create more chances. That’s kind of been the theme of everything we’ve been talking about. Speaking for our line, we’ve been here before. Even in the Carolina series, the way we didn’t get much five-on-five against the (Jordan) Staal line. But it’s a new game (Saturday). It’s a new opportunity.”
The Cirelli line could get even tougher if Steven Stamkos replaces Hagel, which would likely be the case if No. 1 center Brayden Point returns from his lower-body injury. He hasn’t played since May 14, but Cooper left the door open for Game 6.
It’s worth noting, though, that Point stayed on the ice later than most Tampa players Saturday morning, which is typically a sign that a player will be scratched.
Gallant seemed to share that skepticism.
“If he’s healthy, he’s a big part of their group,” Gallant said. “He might arguably be their best all-around player, in my opinion. He plays a great two-way hockey game and he’s a great player. But he’s got to be healthy. That makes a big difference. He hasn’t played in roughly a month. … So, we’ll see if he plays tonight. There’s nothing we can do about it. We’ve got to worry about our game.”
For the Rangers, that means finding ways to generate offense.
Getting more power-play opportunities would help – they’ve had only three combined in the last two games – but they must improve at even strength, where they’ve scored only once in the last three contests.
Whether a few strategic lineup tweaks will aid that cause is a decision that Gallant may wrestle with up until warmups. But the players are putting the onus on themselves to make whatever changes are made work.
“Either way, it’s an elimination game,” Copp said. “I don’t think we can kind of worry about that. I’ve been on both sides of it where there has been a lot of consistency, and that can be nice. It allows the line to kind of dig out of it when you’re not playing as well. But I’ve also been a part of a line change every period or every game, and that can create instant sparks and whatnot. I think the bottom line is just how we play tonight. I don’t think the line combinations or anything like that is going to be the difference. It’s just a matter of our mentality and our desperation and how well we’re playing.”
NY Rangers projected lineup: Game 6 at TB Lightning
When: Saturday, June 11 at 8 p.m.
Where: Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay, Fla.
TV/Radio: ESPN/98.7 FM
First line → Artemi Panarin (LW) • Mika Zibanejad (C) • Chris Kreider (RW)
Second line → Alexis Lafrenière (LW) • Ryan Strome (C) • Andrew Copp (RW)
Third line → Barclay Goodrow (LW) • Filip Chytil (C) • Frank Vatrano (RW)
Fourth line → Tyler Motte (LW) • Kevin Rooney (C) • Dryden Hunt (RW)
Top pair → K’Andre Miller (L) • Jacob Trouba (R)
Second pair → Ryan Lindgren (L) • Adam Fox (R)
Third pair → Justin Braun (L) • Braden Schneider (R)
Starter → Igor Shesterkin
Backup → Alexandar Georgiev
Healthy scratches: F Jonny Brodzinski, F Julien Gauthier, D Libor Hájek, F Kaapo Kakko, F Greg McKegg, D Patrik Nemeth and F Ryan Reaves
Injured: F Sammy Blais (right ACL)
NOTE: This lineup is subject to change
Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.