Lafreniere’s breakout season helps Rangers reach East Final

Chris Krieder fronted up a dramatic comeback recording a natural hat trick in the third period to rally the New York Rangers past the Carolina Hurricanes 5-3, punching their ticket to the Eastern Conference Final.

After a breakthrough regular season, Alexis Lafrenière has continued to be a solid contributor for the New York Rangers in their run to the Eastern Conference Final.

Selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, the Saint-Eustache, Que., native came into the league with high expectations for a Rangers team looking to come out of a rebuilding process.

Lafrenière made the team as a 19-year-old rookie, and finished with 12 goals and nine assists in 56 games in the league’s pandemic-shortened season. He steadily increased his production each year since, putting up career highs of 28 goals, 29 assists and 57 points this season.

“There’s always, always a lot of pressure on these young guys to come in and have an impact right away,” Rangers forward Mika Zibanejad said. “The way he’s been working, the way he’s believed in himself and… just the way he’s been able to work, it’s been amazing.”

Lafrenière was shuffled among various linemates in his first three years, including playing with fellow youngsters Filip Chytil and Kaapo Kakko on the “Kid Line.”

This season, new coach Peter Laviolette put him with Artemi Panarin and Vincent Trocheck.

Panarin had an MVP-caliber season with 49 goals and 71 assists to help the Rangers earn the Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best record, and Trocheck had 25 goals and 52 assists to finish second on the team with 77 points. Playing with those two, Lafrenière finished fourth on the team in goals, sixth in assists and fifth in points.

“It’s always fun to score, but I try to play a complete game,” Lafrenière said. “Playing with Troch and ‘Bread’ obviously helps a lot. You’re just trying to get open and when you get a chance, try to finish.”

In the playoffs so far, the trio has been the most productive line with 35 points — including 14 of the team’s 35 goals — through 10 games.

Panarin (four goals, seven assists) has four game-winning goals — including in overtime in Game 3 against Carolina in the second round — and Trocheck (six goals, eight assists) scored three goals in each of the first two rounds, including the winner in the second OT in Game 2 against the Hurricanes. Lafrenière (four goals, six assists) gives the Rangers five players with double-digit points.

“That line has been extremely productive for us, and he’s a big part of that,” Laviolette said. “(Lafrenière) is playing with Artemi, who’s proven to be one of the top players in the league, and (Trocheck) a workhorse in the middle that does an awful lot of things. But you can’t discount what Laf does as well with his skill level and the way he’s grown even throughout the course of this year. He just gets more confident and confident as the season grows and now as the playoffs grow.”

Chris Kreider, who had a natural hat trick in the third period to rally the Rangers to a series-clinching win in Game 6 against Carolina, also praised his 22-year-old teammate.

“He’s got unbelievable habits for a young guy,” he said. “Always shows up to the rink, the way he works on his craft, just wants to get better, wants to have an impact, wants to win. Unbelievable player, we’re just incredibly happy to have him.”

The Rangers, seeking their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 10 years and first championship since 1994, are in the conference finals for the second time in three years. They host the Florida Panthers in Game 1 of the series on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

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