There are a lot of reasons the New York Rangers are in the Eastern Conference Final and already sitting with a 1-0 series lead over the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
At the top of that list is the play of all-world goaltender Igor Shesterkin. He is the franchise player, having a Conn Smythe caliber run, and is in the running for almost every individual award he could possibly win as a goalie.
They are also getting a dominant performance from their power play, led by veterans Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.
But there is another factor at play, and it is perhaps the most encouraging for the Rangers’ long-term outlook. It is the emergence of what is being referred to as “The Kid Line” (we need a better nickname for this, people) of Filip Chytil, Alexis Lafrenière, and Kaapo Kakko. The trio became a thing late in the regular season, and then really started to get consistent playing time in the playoffs. They were the Rangers’ best line in the First Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and have progressively gotten better each game.
They were sensational on Wednesday night against Tampa Bay, with Chytil scoring a pair of goals. That gives him five goals over the Rangers’ past three games, and seven for the playoffs overall.
So far this postseason that trio has spent 115 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey together as a line, and it has been one of the Rangers’ best. The Rangers are above the 50 percent mark in terms of total shot attempt share, scoring chances, high-danger chances, and expected goals, while also outscoring teams by a 9-5 margin with them on the ice. Those numbers on their own without any additional context are strong. But when you consider what the rest of the Rangers’ lines have looked liked during 5-on-5 play you get a sense for just how important they have been for the team.
When none of those three are on the ice, the Rangers’ goal differential drops down to 22-19, while their possession numbers absolutely plummet. When The Kid Line is sitting on the bench, the Rangers’ expected goal share at 5-on-5 drops down to just 37 percent, while their shot attempt and scoring chance share all sit in the 30-38 percent range. Those numbers are not great.
In terms of actual offensive production, The Kid Line scores 4.91 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play this postseason.
The rest of the Rangers are at 2.59 goals per 60 minutes.
All of this is significant for two reasons.
The first is that it is giving the Rangers a chance to win it all this season. At the start of the season their lineup was extremely top-heavy with Artemi Panarin, Zibanejad, and Kreider carrying the bulk of the offense. They badly needed more scoring depth. They addressed that at the trade deadline by acquiring Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp, among others. But Vatrano and Copp immediately went into the Rangers’ top-six to further strengthen their top two lines. At the time, I wrote that it made players like Lafrenière and Kappo (and especially Lafrenière) major X-factors for the Rangers this season. If they could take a big step forward in their development, it would create a deeper team and give them more potential impact players.
They are starting to get that level of play.
If your team is to have any chance of winning a Stanley Cup it is going to need three or four lines that can all score. Your superstar players are not always going to be there offensively and a lot of times the top lines can cancel each other out. That means it can come down to whose third and fourth lines can make a difference. The Rangers are getting that with this trio.
But the other important development here is what this means for the Rangers’ long-term outlook.
All three players (Chytl, Lafrenière, and Kappo) have always been significant parts of the Rangers’ rebuild and have been expected to be cornerstone players. Especially Lafrenière and Kappo. They are aged 22, 20, and 19 respectively and they were all high first-round picks, including a No. 1 (Lafrenière) and a No. 2 overall pick. They have shown flashes of the potential that made them such high picks, but it has not always come together at the same time.
Kappo does everything well in terms of driving possession creating chances, but it has not always turned into goals for him.
Lafrenière has had scoring surges, but struggled to find consistency and get playing time.
Chytil has been a combination of both (doing everything right, not getting the results).
Now that all of them are together and getting a chance to make a difference, they are starting to become the players the Rangers hoped they would become.
Not every top pick immediately enters the NHL and becomes a superstar from the first day. Sometimes there is a learning curve and a process that goes into it before everything clicks. It is starting to click for them. If this turns out to be the turning point for them as players and it starts a real upward trajectory that is going to not only give the Rangers a better chance this season, it is also going to significantly impact their long-term outlook beyond this season.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.