Carried by ‘Kid Line,’ rusty Rangers beat rested Lightning in Game 1

Carried by ‘Kid Line,’ rusty Rangers beat rested Lightning in Game 1

New York Rangers fans needn’t look any further than across at the opposing bench to be reminded how an impactful third line can swing a series or — heck, why not dream? — a Stanley Cup run.

Yes, the young, cheap trio of Alexis Lafrenière (age 20), Filip Chytil (22), and Kaapo Kakko (20) is growing into the not-so-secret weapon that the Tampa Bay Lightning’s heralded Blake Coleman–Yanni Gourde–Barclay Goodrow triumvirate became during the defending champs’ two-year reign.

Tilt the ice.

Check hard.

Supply great bang for a reasonable buck.

And pop up on the scoreboard.

“That’s why we’re still here. We’re getting scoring from that line,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant told reporters Wednesday, the night his club decisively swiped Game 1 by a score of 6-2.

“If you’re going to advance deep in the playoffs, you need scoring from everybody. And those kids really stepped it up and played good hockey. No doubt.”

Rust trumped Rest early in the Eastern Conference Final, with the Blueshirts not skipping a beat in their every-other-day schedule.

Fifty-goal man Chris Kreider beat Tampa’s vaunted Andrei Vasilevskiy on the series’ opening shot, thanks to a sneaky no-look pass from Mika Zibanejad, and gave the home side a lead it would not relinquish.

Goals from Steven Stamkos, Frank Vatrano and Ondrej Palat followed, knotting the contest 2-2 and setting the stage for a four-goal explosion from New York’s dynamic cast of forwards.

“This isn’t on him at all,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, defending his goaltender after “Igor’s better!” chants rained down in Madison Square Garden.

“We could have put both goalies (in net). The pucks are still going in.”

Chytil sniped his third game-winner of the post-season by one-timing a pretty Kakko pass from behind the net, then provided his own insurance with a second one-timer off a feed from K’Andre Miller (age 22).

“He’s the (third)-longest-tenured Ranger on the team,” defenceman Jacob Trouba teased. “So I don’t know how he can be considered a kid anymore.”

Regardless, Chytil doesn’t mind the nickname for his unit of first-round draft picks — which has combined for 10 goals this post-season despite limited ice time.

Lafreniere-Chytil-Kakko outscored the Lightning 2-0 and combined for five points in the series opener, and not one forward reached 14 minutes of ice time.

“I’m really happy with how we grow with every game. It’s our first playoff for all three of us,” said Chytil, heating up with five goals in his past three outings.

“Just playing every game hard, playing for the team. We’ve scored some important goals. It’s a great experience for all three of us.

“We’re young guys, so we’re not thinking too much about anything else. We’re just having fun out there, playing hard and working for the team.”

What a wonderful bonus for general manager Chris Drury, who is reaping incredible benefit from an exuberant trio that, combined, only counts $4.15 million against his salary cap. Even better, only Kakko, a restricted free agent without arbitration rights, is due for a summer pay bump.

In a salary-cap world, it’s not only helpful for a few playoff performers to punch above their financial weight class. It’s necessary.

The Kid Line is but one example of that in New York.

The Rangers are also milking tremendous value out of Miller and top defenceman Adam Fox (up to 20 points in 15 playoff games), still on their entry-level contracts.

The emergence of a confident Chytil as an offensive threat, though, is particularly timely. The centreman scored just eight goals in the regular season and is suddenly up to seven in 15 playoff games.

At one point in the season, Gallant challenged the youngster to model his game after top pivot Mika Zibanejad, a reliable two-way force.

“He got the message,” Gallant said. “He deserves what he’s getting right now.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Brayden Point, who suffered a significant lower-body injury in Game 7 against Toronto, skated at Madison Square Garden Wednesday morning and is eager to get back in action.

But Cooper tempered expectations: “Pointer is playing hockey again. We just don’t know whether it’s this season, next season, this round.”

• How’s this for an unexpected stat?

The past seven times a rested team coming off a playoff sweep has met a team coming off a seven-game series, the team fresh off the seven-gamer has been victorious.

“Maybe the negative part of it is, you’ve been out of the fight for a little bit,” Cooper said. “Now you gotta get yourself back into it.”

• Vasilevskiy surrendered more goals in 35:43 against the Rangers (four) than he did through four games against the Florida Panthers (three).

• Nick Paul, an impending unrestricted free agent, made a pedestrian $1.35 million this season. Thriving as both a role player and now in a promoted role with Point sidelined, the former Ottawa Senator is about to get paid.

“Character guy. Works hard. Scored a big goal for us,” said Gallant, who coached Paul for Team Canada at 2021’s golden world championships. “Outstanding kid.”

• Fat Joe was all the way up in Madison Square Garden, so excited to take in another round for the kings of New York. Which gives me an excuse to share my favourite Fat Joe verse.

Randy Shelton

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