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Rangers’ Elimination to Lightning Leaves Gerard Gallant Open to Justified Criticism

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The New York Rangers’ third line had been one of its most impactful throughout its run to the Eastern Conference Final. So when Kaapo Kakko, the winger who had typically played on the right of Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil was a healthy scratch for Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.

New York Rangers coach Gerard Gallant was asked by ESPN reporter Emily Kaplan during the broadcast if he would take the viewers through the decision to scratch the No. 2 overall draft pick in 2019.

“Nope,” Gallant said.

He doubled down following the 2-1 loss and subsequent elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“I’m not going to talk about it,” he said. “Now is not the time.”

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Gerard Gallant was asked about the decision to scratch Kaapo Kakko for tonight’s game:<br><br>”I’m not gonna talk about it. Tonight’s not the time.” <a href=”https://t.co/hGAmWDYanJ”>pic.twitter.com/hGAmWDYanJ</a>

You could make the argument that he doesn’t really owe the fans an explanation, though it wouldn’t be a good one, because the people buying the tickets and tuning into games do deserve some reasoning. You could make the argument that Kakko’s addition to the lineup would not have tilted the ice enough to make up for the embarrassing lack of offensive production.

Gallant may have informed his team of his decision and why he was making it before the game, but once Ryan Strome left the game with an injury that has been plaguing the forward since Game 5, it became an indefensible decision.

The loss ended what had previously been an exceptionally fun postseason run for a team built on a lot of young talent like Kakko. The Rangers looked destined for a Stanley Cup Final after taking a 2-0 lead in the series with two very convincing wins. But it all came to a screeching halt in Game 3 when the Lightning made adjustments and figured out how to expose New York’s weaknesses. The Rangers never recovered.

“It’s just denial,” a tearful Mika Zibanejad said. “I’m empty right now. I don’t know what to say.”

The biggest problem was the Rangers’ five-on-five play. Their exceptional power play helped power them to the brink of the Stanley Cup Final, but when the calls didn’t go their way they were hamstrung by their inability to generate even-strength offense. The Blueshirts had no problem scoring at five-on-five in Games 1 and 2, but they scored only one in the last four games.

The issues were magnified in Game 6.

The Rangers were flat and lifeless from the start. Tampa Bay controlled 65.93 percent of the shot share and 73.7 percent of the expected goals throughout the game. It was scoreless through the first period but the Bolts took a lead in the second. Frank Vatrano, a key trade deadline acquisition for New York, tied the game in the third with a power-play goal but Lightning captain Steven Stamkos scored his second goal of the game just 21 seconds later.

Igor Shesterkin was masterful once again, but he could only do so much when the skaters in front of him were bleeding chances. The Vezina and Hart Trophy finalist saved 60.35 goals above expected in 73 games this season (including the regular season and the postseason), and because of him he gave the Rangers as good of a chance as any.

But the Lightning made the adjustments necessary to shut down the top line. The lines were shuffled in Game 6 but Gallant still couldn’t get Zibanejad’s line away from the Tampa Bay checking line of Alex Killorn, Anthony Cirelli and Brandon Hagel.

“As the series progressed, we got better and better and I think tonight may have been our best game overall,” Killorn said. “That’s important in a Stanley Cup run. It’s typically the team that improves the most throughout a run that typically ends up winning.”

Gallant was out-maneuvered and out-coached by a future hall-of-famer Jon Cooper. A coach who is typically regarded as a well-liked players’ coach who tends to make a lot of decisions by feel didn’t appear to have a feel as the series went on.

The club is in a good spot moving forward, but there are some clear Xs and Os issues that they will need to right next season and Gallant isn’t exactly known as a great Xs and Os coach. The Rangers’ struggles at 5-on-5 throughout the season must be resolved.

Now the Rangers have a summer of uncertainty as some of those young players are due for new contracts and the club is about to feel the salary cap squeeze. Kakko himself is a restricted free agent. Maybe it’s time they trade him and let him figure out his development with another organization.

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There are also questions about the veteran group as the team hits the offseason. Strome might have played his final game in a Rangers jersey. The club can’t afford to retain all deadline acquisitions like Vatrano, Andrew Copp, Tyler Motte and Justin Braun. Jacob Trouba’s $8 million contract that runs through 2026 isn’t looking quite as palatable right now.

The rebuild is not over. If this was a measuring stick series, then it’s clear the Blueshirts are not stacking up with the last two Stanley Cup champions.

But if you want to take something positive from this series—and you should—it’s that this long playoff run will be beneficial for the young core.

“You look back and we could’ve been done in five games in that first round. But we battled, it took everyone,” defenseman Adam Fox said. “It’s a nice young mix of guys in this room but also a good mix of older guys who help and lead the way for us. It was a great locker room. I think our battle when we were down in series really showed that.

“Wish for a better ending, but definitely promising for our team.”

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