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So let me say this without anyone suggesting that I am calling Alexis Lafreniere a bust or a disappointment or somehow an example of how the Rangers do not know how to nurture teenagers.
But for the third straight game in which open ice was at a premium and the match was contested in tight spaces, David Quinn dropped the first-overall draft selection from the rotation over the second half of the third period.
The first-overall selection of the 2020 draft got two shifts worth 1:24 over the final 11:56 of Monday’s 2-0 Garden defeat to the Islanders in which the visitors struck twice within 2:05 after a scoreless first 51:15.
This after No. 13 received two shifts worth 57 seconds over the final 10:40 of Thursday’s 4-2 victory over the Capitals, which was a game after he received two shifts worth 1:29 in the final 11:13 of the 3-1 victory over the Penguins on Feb. 1.
It’s funny. People sort of assumed — and you, I and Felix Unger all know what happens when you do that — that Lafreniere would naturally elevate his game after scoring his first NHL goal with the game-winner in overtime in Buffalo on Jan. 28. For whatever reason, though, the 19-year-old’s game has stalled.
He is not on or around the puck quite so much. Instead, he has been stuck in traffic, unable to get out into open ice. Of course, it has also been two straight games on the third line with Brett Howden, who has many admirable qualities but serving his wingers’ offense is not at the top of that list.
Lafreniere played a sum of 14:02, including 2:00 on the second unit of the power play that accomplished little in this affair that for 40 minutes could have had a circa 1995 Jacques Lemaire behind both benches. The Islanders had a more effective forecheck than did the Rangers, who generally chipped in the puck on line changes and therefore had little chance to create puck support. Lafreniere was credited with five hits, but he did not record a shot attempt.
What’s more, he was part of the group on the ice for the mass confusion that struck on the 2-0 goal on his final shift, though perhaps the least culpable. That marked Lafreniere’s final shift of the night, with Kaapo Kakko getting the time with the extra attacker that earlier had gone to No. 13.
Casey Cizikas had banged one in from the goalmouth at 11:15 in capitalizing on an unfortunate giveaway out of the left corner into nowhere by Libor Hajek. Now, the Islanders were breaking out without opposition, as they were permitted to do much of the night. Mathew Barzal weaved through the neutral zone and pitched ahead to Cal Clutterbuck, who took it into the right corner.
Somehow, Matt Martin had snuck down the left side, unaccounted for. The Rangers seemed frozen in time as Clutterbuck threaded a pass across that Martin put home from the left doorstep at 13:20. Howden and Anthony Bitetto, both on the scene, stood with outstretched gloves. Their pleas were unanswered.
“It was a one-on-four and we just did not play it well,” said Quinn, whose team played lockdown fairly well, but at the same time locked down its own offensive game. “Clutterbuck is in the corner, we vacate the middle, and our backchecker stops backchecking.
“We had four-on-two and I think everybody assumes somebody else is going to do something. It was a poor read. It was just confusion in general because I thought we had too many guys who had a chance to do something and nobody did anything.”
The Rangers were minimalist in the offensive zone. Semyon Varlamov, who has gone 120:00 without giving up a goal in the Garden this season with this one following his opening night shutout, did make a couple of nifty stops on Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin, but the Blueshirts were neither able to create traffic in front of the goaltender nor generate second chances. Pretty much one-and-done.
Zibanejad, stuck on one goal and two assists through 11 games and with one point (an assist) in his last eight games, was more of a factor in the offensive zone. But Chris Kreider did not make much of an impact and neither did linemate Pavel Buchnevich. That unit, however, was more effective than the Panarin-Ryan Strome-Kakko triumvirate that yielded far more than it created.
Off the puck and in the defensive zone, there was much to like. The Rangers surrendered just 30 shots, just a couple of ticks above the average of 27.7 they brought into the match that’s good for 10th-best in the NHL. Last year, the Blueshirts surrendered the second most in the league at 34 shots against per. Two years ago, they were third-worst at 33.8 against per. That is real progress.
The Rangers will get no break in the schedule, with the Bruins up next for a pair on Broadway. They’re not known for allowing much open ice. We’ll see how much of any kind is awarded to Lafreniere late if the game is on the line.
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