With eye on playoffs, Peter Laviolette tinkers with Rangers lineup

NHL: New York Islanders at New York Rangers
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Though the New York Rangers just might be the hottest team in the NHL right now, that hasn’t stopped coach Peter Laviolette from tweaking his bottom six with the impending Stanley Cup Playoffs in mind.

And like most things during their current 16-3-1 heater, the changes have worked out quite well for the Rangers.

In a 7-4 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday, Laviolette flipped bottom-six forwards Will Cuylle and Jimmy Vesey. Cuylle, a third-line staple all season, shifted to the fourth line with Barclay Goodrow and Jonny Brodzinski. The versatile Vesey moved up to play longside Alex Wennberg and Kaapo Kakko on the third line.

Then for a 5-2 win against the Islanders the next day, Vesey and Brodzinski switched lines.

Laviolette explained that the changes were made with an eye toward the postseason.

“I just think being at home here and having a matchup (with the final change) with the Goodrow line,” Laviolette said about flanking the veteran checking center with Cuylle and Vesey. “Cuylle, I had mentioned in the past, he’s been pretty responsible. He does a lot of good things defensively – chips in offensively, as well – but just to be at home and have that line to use in that manner is important in a game, in the playoffs, having a line that can do that is really useful.”

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Rangers receive positive results from line changes in weekend wins

NHL: New York Rangers at Pittsburgh Penguins
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The immediate results were positive. Not only did the Rangers keep winning – they were 5-1-0 in a nine-day stretch that concluded Sunday – but the bottom six played major roles in each victory this past weekend.

Along with sound defensive play, the third and fourth lines produced offensively, as well, in the two victories.

Cuylle had a massive game against the Islanders, scoring his 12th goal and being credited with a game-high eight hits. Brodzinski scored his first goal in 14 games and rang another shot off the post Sunday. Kakko scored a goal both Saturday and Sunday, when Wennberg produced an assist in each game. Vesey had an assist against the Penguins.

“It’s great, it takes the pressure off the top guys and they can play a little more freely,” Brodzinski explained.

The top six certainly continues to do its part, too. Artemi Panarin had six points in the two wins, including a massive five-point  (two goals, three assists) game against the Penguins. Mika Zibanejad scored in each game.

“Our team is deep right now. We’re getting contributions up and down the lineup,” Vincent Trocheck said. “Even when lines aren’t scoring, they’re contributing in other ways, getting momentum, keeping the puck in the other zone. If we can continue to do that, I like our chances against anybody.”

The Rangers not only have flexibility in the bottom six, there’s plenty of depth, too. And that will shape Laviolette’s next move since Matt Rempe has completed his four-game suspension for elbowing New Jersey Devils defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler. Rempe is eligible to play Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.

If Rempe is reinserted on to the fourth line, the most likely scenario would be for Cuylle to return to the third line and Brodzinski to be scratched again. But that’s not such a simple decision.

“I think Jonny goes up, brings some speed to the line with Wennberg and Kaapo,” Laviolette said. “I thought they were excellent.”

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Rangers’ depth on defense now challenged

NHL: New York Islanders at New York Rangers
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Some lineup changes are not simply by choice. Other times they’re by necessity.

Such is the case with the defenseman position. Jacob Trouba has missed six games with a lower-body injury and is out at least another week or two.

Now the Rangers await word on the severity of a lower-body injury sustained by Ryan Lindgren against the Islanders. Lindgren left the game with an apparent left-leg or knee injury after a collision along the boards with J.G. Pageau, and it looked serious.

Zac Jones has filled in for Trouba and Chad Ruhwedel is available to step in if Lindgren is out. Ruhwedel was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins ahead of the trade deadline and is looking to make his Rangers debut.

The challenge for Laviolette will be creating the best defense pairs possible with two top-four defensemen out of the lineup. But not dissimilar from tweaking the bottom-six forwards, Laviolette will get an idea of what could work best in the playoffs if the Rangers have further injury at the position.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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