Rangers-Panthers Game 2 Notebook: ‘Free Matt Rempe’ movement storms New York

Rangers media tries to get creative in asking head coach Peter Laviolette whether he's going to insert tough guy Matt Rempe in Game 2 vs. the Panthers, but Laviolette says he doesn't make lineup decisions based on media pressure.

NEW YORK — The #FreeRempe movement is taking New York City by storm.

And although the 6-foot-7, 241-pound, fourth-line tornado has only averaged 6:18 in the seven playoff games Rangers coach Peter Laviolette has called his number, the big rookie would inject an energy and menace that was sorely absent from Madison Square Garden during Wednesday’s 3-0 loss.

A trio of Hall of Fame Rangers alumni with platforms on national television — Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky and Henrik Lundqvist — have all called for Matt Rempe to enter the series in Game 2.

Speaking during Game 1’s second intermission on ESPN, Messier made a strong pitch.

“They gotta get themselves emotional. Maybe they should think about having Rempe in the lineup,” Messier said. “I’m not questioning the coach, but I am saying he does get in on the forecheck. He does ground and pound. He does get the crowd involved and the players seem to follow that kind of mindset.

“Right now, they’re playing, in my opinion, a little too careful.” 

Laviolette is loath to tip his hand on any lineup decisions. So much so, his Rangers did not take line rushes in front of reporters Friday morning.

That said, Rempe did not remain on the ice for extra practice the way he did on the morning of Game 1. Kaapo Kakko, who logged just 10:27 Wednesday, is a healthy scratch candidate.

Laviolette is aware of the famous voices joining the “Free Rempe!” chorus but insists they will have no bearing on his lineup. 

“It does not,” said Laviolette, who believes Game 1’s issues are more execution-based than personnel-based. 

“Any decision that I make is based on conversations that we have as a group internally here.”

Counter argument: New York’s greatest issue is scoring goals, something they have not done so far.

The Panthers, as expected, are downplaying any effect a wildcard like the fan favourite Rempe may have on the series’ temperature.

“Obviously a big boy. Gets in on the forecheck. Plays physical,” Brandon Montour says. “If he’s in the lineup, I think that’s probably what their mindset is — to get more on the body.

“If he’s in, he in. If he’s not, he’s not. It’s not gonna affect us.”

It will affect the noise in the barn, though.

Mikkola goes unchallenged 

The 6-foot-5, 206-pound Niko Mikkola stamped an exclamation point at the conclusion of Game 1 by crunching Rangers forward Filip Chytil into the boards with a mere five seconds remaining on the clock. 

It was the type of garbage-time aggression that you probably wouldn’t see if these same teams were not going to meet at least three more times.

It was also on brand for Florida. Mikkola swivelled his head after finishing his check as if prepping for a response. None arrived.

“It was a normal play, a normal hit. I was just trying to get the shutout for [Sergei Bobrovsky],” Mikkola explained.

Chytil has a concussion history and has been battling availability all post-season. The 24-year-old skated just 9:17 in Game 1, yet Laviolette assures he’s fine health-wise.

One more reason to predict a more physical version of the Blueshirts Friday.

“It’s clean. He had the puck,” Maurice said. “You could dump the puck, then that wouldn’t happen. I don’t know why you would carry the puck there.”

Cats fourth line on the prowl

While Laviolette shortened his bench chasing Game 1, Maurice’s trust in his fourth line — centred by penalty killer Kevin Stenlund and flanked by pests Ryan Lomberg and Nick Cousins — is on the rise.

That energetic trio agitates, frustrates and stirs momentum with positive shifts.

“It might be the best game I’ve seen Ryan Lomberg play,” Maurice gushes. “They didn’t score, so it’s not that, but the technical parts of his game — the energy is always there, the physicality is always there. But those guys were sharp and on pucks.”

The Lombergini fell ill following Flordia’s playoff-opening win over the Lightning, then had a tough time breaking back into a winning lineup. 

Maurice credits Lomberg’s patience. Now, it’s capable extras Kyle Okposo and Steven Lorentz who must wait their turn. So deep is Florida’s forward group, that fourth-liners must deliver to stick in the series.

“There’s a competition for the fourth one until the playoffs, and then they’re competing together,” Maurice explains.

“Ryan’s been here a long time. He’s part of the fabric, so it was possibly more personal in some ways for him especially, to be missing out right when you can finish the Tampa series. But he got back in and got to be a part of it. Maybe it doesn’t feel good, but (he) understands.”

One-Timers: Bill Zito was named a finalist for the GM of the Year award. Despite winning the Presidents’ Trophy and reaching the final four, neither Rangers coach Laviolette nor GM Chris Drury were named finalists for their respective award categories. … The Panthers can become the first team in 15 years to pull ahead 2-0 in back-to-back conference finals. … A point Friday and Florida’s Matthew Tkachuk (55 in 59 playoff games played) will tie his father Keith’s career post-season point total (56 in 89 games) and leap over Jeremy Roenick on the all-time list for points by a U.S.-born player through 60 career playoff games. … The Panthers project to stick with a winning lineup. … The (superstitious?) Rangers held Game 1’s morning skate at MSG but opted to practice at their training facility the morning of Game 2.

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