Rangers ‘core four’ driving team success with powerplay

A year ago, Rangers’ first power-play unit largely refused to get off the ice. This year, it seems like the coach does not want them to switch.

Midway through the third period of Rangers’ most impressive performance of the still-embryonic season, a 4-0 win over Garden over the Blue Jackets, head coach Gerard Gallant called a timeout in a third period four to three to keep Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider , Mika Zibanejad and Adam Fox on the ice.

It was the third time this season that Gallant pulled the maneuver. He explained that he did it this time only to get the quartet to work on four-on-three, even while having a 3-0 lead. Bing bong, just like that, 36 seconds later, Kreider had scored his second power-play goal of the night on his second artful diversion from the front, and the end result was cemented.

“Mike [Kelly] got a game prepared, ”Gallant said, referring to the assistant coach who oversees the powerplay. “It wasn’t the one they scored on, though.”

If Gallant wanted that group – Ryan Strome, the fifth member of the first unit, was in the penalty box of a random minor after throwing a jack against Max Domi – to work on four-on-three, well enough. But it was not only that. On an evening where the Rangers had 5:28 power-play time, the Core Four of Kreider, Fox, Zibanejad and Panarin were on the ice together in 5:09 with the man advantage.

In fact, the powerplay, which is 5-to-29 on the year where Kreider stands for all five goals and all five come in front with deflections, has had an overall time of 44:06. Kreider has been on in 36:07, Panarin in 35:25, Fox in 35:10 and Zibanejad in 34:48. What other device?

The Rangers rolled this in using their four-line rotation, but the guys at the top of the row set the pace. As mentioned, the power-play unit contributed to the result. But it was also the second line that established the pace early on, with Kaapo Kakko rejoining Panarin and Strome after a four-game absence with an upper body problem. Kakko was dynamic.

Reunited, and it felt so good for the Blueshirts, who took a 1-0 lead at 12:29 in the first period as Strome took a left-wing feed from Panarin and sailed down the castle before choosing his spot and twisting one past Elvis Merzlikins.

Goal scorers Chris Kreider (center), Adam Fox (left) and Artemi Panarin (right) help form Rangers' 'core four', which coach Gerard Gallant has trusted to succeed with powerplay.
Goal scorers Chris Kreider (center), Adam Fox (left) and Artemi Panarin (right) help form Rangers’ ‘core four’, which coach Gerard Gallant has trusted to succeed with powerplay.
Bob Sabo

“He played a good game, but the first period Kakko was really strong,” Gallant said. “I really noticed that he controls the puck, he is a big body, Stromer looked really good and Panarin obviously had [three] helps.

“I liked that line, but I liked our team.”

That line, however, was the only unit that remained intact from the opening night. Ryan Reaves’ placement on IR changed the fourth line. And Gallant turned Alexis Lafreniere to the third line with Filip Chytil and Sammy Blais, while Barclay Goodrow shifted to the right with Kreider and Panarin.

Lafreniere, who scored his club-leading third five-on-five goal by converting Fox’s above-ground feed from below the goal line after circulating behind the net to increase the lead to 2-0 at 15:31 of the first, seems more liberated on the third line than the first. At least for now.

But (oh, and by the way, keep an eye out for Chytil, who missed a shift or two at the end of the first period and took a faceoff more the rest of the way), while this may be best for Lafreniere’s development, it’s hard to imagine the club thriving with Goodrow on the front line for any sustained stretch.

Gallant has said the blue-collar-free agent signature “plays fourth line, third line, second line, first line.” But not really. Last year, Tampa Bay’s third entity fortified. Goodrow played a total of 19:13 with first-line pivot Brayden Point and a full 13:52 with second-line center Anthony Cirelli. What do you say? Rangers are not Lightning? Point taken.

The Blueshirts obviously took two points on Friday en route to 5-2-1, and if the elite were front-and-center, it obviously included goalkeeper Vincent Vega, who made a fantastic impression of Igor Shesterkin.

(For the uninitiated, Shesterkin came to the club’s Halloween party dressed as the “Pulp Fiction” character with his wife, Anna, dressed as Mia Wallace for the stage at Jackrabbit Slim’s.)

Asked if he had practiced in the dance moves performed by John Travolta, Shesterkin laughed.

“Once,” he said.

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