NEW YORK — The New York Rangers' third line has affectionately been nicknamed the "kid line" with the age of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko averaging out to just a little older than 20. So while we're in the business of giving out nicknames, let's attempt one for Chytil.
"Fearless Filip" seems appropriate given the way he's able to get to the middle of the ice and make teams pay for it. He continued his breakout Stanley Cup Playoff campaign on Wednesday night, scoring two goals in the Rangers' decisive 6-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final.
In what was billed as a goaltending duel with the two best in the game opposing one another on the Madison Square Garden ice, the Blueshirts had no problem getting through against the best in the world, Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning netminder was coming off a dominant performance in the Bolts' previous series against the Panthers, surrendering just three goals in four games.
In Game 1, the youngsters, led by Chytil, made the 2019 Vezina Trophy winner look human.
Chytil has been on quite a heater since the playoffs began a month ago, with seven goals in 15 games after only scoring eight in the regular season. That third line has been extremely influential in getting the Rangers to the Conference Final and will be needed moving forward.
"We're young guys so we're not thinking too much about anything else," Chytil said. "We're just out there playing hard and working for a team. We want to help the team to win a game and always happy when we can."
Rangers fans were offering Chytil up in fantasy trade packages for J.T. Miller at the deadline. He was a healthy scratch late in the season, prompting coach Gerard Gallant to have a talk with him. The 22-year-old Czech center asked the coach what was needed from him, and Gallant said he needed another player in the Mika Zibanejad mold.
Whatever he said sure worked. Chytil has shown more confidence and poise with every game in the postseason. Only four skaters in Rangers history have recorded more postseason goals before age 23 than Chytil: Alex Kovalev (13), Ron Duguay (11), Don Maloney (eight) and Don Murdoch (eight).
"He's growing up to be a man," Gallant said. "He's 22 years old, he's confident with his game and he feels good about his game, and he always has, but now he's really stepping it up and every time you go out there and watch him play, he's more confident, he's strong on every puck, he's strong in the faceoff circle. He's just growing up."
And Chytil is doing all that along with his linemates, Lafreniere and Kakko. Chytil's first goal was assisted by both of his wingers, and the trio continues to provide a spark every time they touch the ice. Whether they're coming of age or just feeding off playoff adrenaline, there's no question the kids have significantly deepened what used to be an exceptionally top-heavy roster.
The Rangers received contributions from the usual suspects—Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin, and Frank Vatrano had a stellar game—but the back-to-back goals by Chytil and the play of goalie Igor Shesterkin were the main factors in the win.
With the game tied 2-2 in the second period, Kakko set up Chytil from behind the net. With Vasilevskiy keyed in on Kakko, Chytil was able to beat him high from the slot to break a 2-2 tie at 10:09 in the second.
He scored again a few minutes later. There was a period of 4:35 without any stoppages in play where the Rangers put some serious offensive pressure on the Lightning. Tampa Bay was trying to deploy its top line but only managed to get Steven Stamkos over the boards, so the rest of the second line was hemmed into the defensive zone for nearly 90 seconds. They were gassed.
K'Andre Miller, another member of the Rangers' young core, slid a cross-ice feed to Chytil in the right circle, and he hammered it past Vasilevskiy.
"They're a joy to watch," Panarin said through a translator. "To be honest, they're a huge part of the team and I can't wait for them to keep going."
The kids have allowed Gallant to effectively roll four lines. And according to him, we may not have even seen peak kid line just yet.
"It was close to their best, but it wasn't their best, for sure," Gallant said. "They got inside, they scored some nice goals and made some nice plays. They're a confident bunch of kids right now and we need that to continue."
The view from the other side
This was an uncharacteristic performance from a team that has become known for dominance in the postseason. Tampa Bay was missing a certain scoring element without forward Brayden Point, but on paper the Bolts were still the better team: They had more shot attempts in all situations and created more scoring chances.
However, the fancy stats and on-ice numbers take a backseat to results in the postseason. And after a nine-day layoff, the result was that the Tampa Bay skaters tired easily. Cooper didn't use that as an excuse, but it was mentioned by a handful of players.
That long shift in the second period wasn't the only time the Lightning were unable to get out of their own end, and they were clearly worn down by those extended outings.
Vasilevskiy allowed six goals, double than what he allowed in the entire last round against the Florida Panthers. Coach Jon Cooper didn't fault the 2021 Conn Smythe winner as much as he faulted the effort in front of him.
"This isn't on him at all," Cooper said. "Just the East-West, the quality scoring chances we gave up—you could have put both goalies in the net and they were still probably going in."
The Lightning will have to find a way to neutralize the Rangers' elite forward talent as this series continues, and try to find some way to contain Chytil.
"The Rangers have some dynamic players, and if you give them an inch they'll take a mile," Cooper said. "They did that tonight."