Emergence of ‘kid line’ is game changer for Rangers

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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.

Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

Andrei Kuzmenko
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

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DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.


Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

He found a little of both.

The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

“It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

“That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

“We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

“It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”


Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.