When Gerard Gallant felt the Rangers were playing flat halfway through their eventual 5-4 win over the Sabres on Sunday night, the head coach made a lineup adjustment he has made before — but this time he let it play out, and liked what he saw.
Gallant flipped usual fourth-liner Dryden Hunt to the top unit next to Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, which dropped Barclay Goodrow to the fourth line alongside Kevin Rooney and Ryan Reaves. Hunt had taken a couple shifts on the first line in previous games, but not nearly as many as he did on Sunday.
Part of Gallant’s reasoning for the switch was to get Goodrow back to center, where the Rangers’ offseason addition played while Filip Chytil was on injured reserve this month.
“Goody’s a good centerman and he’s good on faceoffs, and I just wanted to change the makeup of our lineup a little bit, to be honest with you,” Gallant said of Goodrow, who has been his go-to player to move around the lineup when looking to ignite a spark. “I actually liked what I saw. So, we stayed like that for most of the game.”
The move paid off in more ways than one. A strong forecheck from Goodrow and Reaves toward the end of the second period regained possession for the Rangers in the corner of the offensive zone before Goodrow played the puck out to defenseman K’Andre Miller at the top of the zone. Miller then sent a long wrister that found the back of the net to even the score, 4-4, for a fourth time.
Hunt, who signed a two-year deal with the Rangers in July after three seasons with the Panthers and one with the Coyotes, also got an extended look in a new spot in the lineup. Even though Hunt, Zibanejad and Kreider were on the ice for Rasmus Dahlin’s goal in the second period, the trio generated two high-danger scoring chances without allowing any in 4:28 of ice time together.
Since Alexis Lafreniere’s demotion to the bottom six, after the 20-year-old started the season on the top line, Goodrow and the injured Sammy Blais have taken the most reps on the wing of Zibanejad and Kreider. Hunt plays a similar grinding style to Goodrow and Blais, but the 25-year-old could have an offensive upside that the top-line veterans may be able to unlock.
Brought in for his blue-collar qualities, Hunt can play with an edge and knows how to use his speed to his advantage. He scored his first goal as a Ranger last week against the Maple Leafs in Toronto on a classic dump-the-puck-and-crash-the-net play.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do next game, but I definitely like it,” Gallant said of Hunt playing on the top line. “The coaches have talked about it. Huntsie has been a good player for us right from the get-go. He’s played different roles. He’s played on the fourth line in a little bit of a different role, but I like what he brings. He’s got some offensive touch and he can really shoot a puck. It could be a possibility, for sure.”