TORONTO — The Rangers’ ‘Kid Line’ is back.
After the nickname caught on for the trio of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko last season, it has been passed on to the Rangers’ newly formed third line in the wake of Sammy Blais’ season-ending ACL tear. With Kakko’s ascension to the second line this year, Lafreniere and Chytil have been reunited with Julien Gauthier, who has suddenly been presented with his best opportunity to secure a lineup spot since the Hurricanes traded him to the Rangers last February.
“Myself, I don’t take any consolation [in having an opportunity to step in for Sammy Blais],” Gauthier said. “I try to take it day by day. It doesn’t mean because someone’s injured I take their spot or anything. It’s not my decision. I control what I can control, try to play well when I’m one the ice and get a chance.”
Gauthier, Lafreniere and Chytil logged 43:04 of ice time together last season, according to Natural Stat Trick. The three were on the ice for four goals against and posted a 1.59 expected goals for, which prompted former head coach David Quinn to go in a different direction rather quickly.
But it’s the direction new head coach Gerard Gallant went following the loss of Blais for the season. The three youngsters made their season debut as a line in the Rangers’ 3-2 win over the Canadiens on Tuesday, generating a combined 10 shots on goal to go along with four high-danger scoring chances, per Natural Stat Trick.
Gauthier notched his first goal of the season after stripping the puck from Habs top-line center Nick Suzuki and backhanding it in while falling to the ice. The Quebec native looked up into the Garden rafters and pumped his fists down to celebrate his first goal since last March 15.
The most encouraging part of the play, however, was the pressure Gauthier and Chytil put on the Canadiens in their defensive zone. Montreal was attempting to clear the puck before Chytil used his stick to disrupt Suzuki’s possession, allowing Gauthier to turn the play the other way and find the back of the net.
“It wasn’t just that play,” Chytil said. “Me and Laffy had chances before just because we would backcheck hard. We wanted the puck. We were hunting it.”
Heading into the Rangers’ matchup with the Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday night, Gallant said he hoped those three would build off of Tuesday’s performance. The coach had previously stressed the importance of doing the little things and remaining committed to playing well defensively.
Gauthier, who had averaged around 11 minutes in the past three games he has played, noted that he has seen progression in his game as he continues to do what he can with the ice time he is given. He said there was a little bit of chemistry to build off from his time with these linemates last season. Given how often the lineup has changed, however, there isn’t much of a base to work from.
“My goal right now, it’s not really to score,” Gauthier said. “It’s really to earn the coach’s trust so I can get more ice time.”