For years, the Islanders have owned the lower-case battle of fourth lines in this upper-case Battle of New York.
The unit with Casey Cizikas centering Matt Martin and Cal Clutterbuck not only represented the team’s identity, but also as often as not has inflicted all sorts of pain and indignities on the Rangers.
But not on this Thursday night and not in this crackling game at the Garden, in which the Blueshirts swept into the Christmas recess on a high following their dominating 5-3 victory over the Islanders, their eighth victory in the last nine games.
Not in this one, in which the Rangers’ remodeled fourth line tilted the game the home team’s way. True enough, Clutterbuck was sidelined and Cizikas left the match for good late in the second period, but nevertheless this was Role Reversal 101A.
“The last three or four weeks our game has developed into the way we envisioned it at the start of the year,” said Barclay Goodrow, who had a goal and an assist after shifting from the first line to the fourth unit past the midway point of the first period. “We’re way more consistent. We’re finding ways to win.
“I think we played a great game.”
Goodrow had opened on the right for the fifth straight game with Mika Zibanejad in the middle and Artemi Panarin on the left. He had added skill and playmaking to the power couple.
But with his club trailing 1-0 at 12:48 of the first after Anders Lee’s attempted centering feed banked in off Ryan Lindgren’s skates, head coach Gerard Gallant shuffled things, moving Goodrow to the unit with Jonny Brodzinski and Julien Gauthier while elevating Kravtsov.
“You look at matches once in a while and I just thought Goodrow would be better with the matchups for that line,” said the coach. “Once I started playing them, I thought they were our best line.
“They were outstanding. They did a great job. Every time Goodrow plays with someone, he makes the line look good.”
Goodrow was a third-liner for the two-time Stanley Cup champion Lightning before joining the Rangers in a free-agent rights deal over the summer of 2021. But that Lightning third line, which featured Blake Coleman and Yanni Gourde, was much more than a bottom-six unit. It may not have quite represented Tampa Bay’s identity, but it was a marquee checking unit that assumed a supersized role in the playoffs.
So Goodrow has the pedigree to play up. The problem, though, is that moving him into the top six depletes the bottom six. Pay one by robbing the other. On this night, though, the move was inspired.
His team trailing 2-1 early in the second, Goodrow led Gauthier with a nifty flip into the zone on which the winger capitalized by beating Ilya Sorokin in alone with a nifty move to the backhand that went five-hole to even the match at 5:30.
Then, with the Rangers trailing 3-2 after the second (the Islanders scored three goals on their first nine shots, one off Lindgren, one on a breakaway, one on a screen), the Blueshirts tied it for the third time when Goodrow went to the front and got a piece of Gauthier’s drive to the net at 3:00.
It was Goodrow’s team-leading eighth goal of the year at five-on-five, one up on Panarin and Chris Kreider. His 1.12 goals-per-60:00 ranks 18th in the league among forwards with 425 minutes.
“My job is to go play,” Goodrow said when asked if he had any reaction to the mid-game shift. “It doesn’t matter who I’m with. I just go out and play.”
Brodzinski has brought a measure of speed and grit to the line. Gauthier, scratched for the last three, skates and goes to the net at every opportunity. He’s finishing them now, his five goals at five-on-five tied for sixth on the club — in about half the minutes the club’s top-nine regulars have received.
Gallant is not about balancing minutes. He wants to ride his horses. But he recognizes the significance of having a fourth line that has a role and that he can roll.
“It’s very important,” he said. “Every good team has a good fourth line. They’re not always going to be high-scoring. They can be a bump-and-bang fourth line.
“I think the way they played tonight, these guys did a little bit of everything. They forechecked really well and kept the team in there.
“It was an excellent game for them.”
More than that, this was an excellent game for the Rangers.
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