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Rangers gambling that Filip Chytil’s upside is worth the risk

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SUNRISE, Fla. – It’s not in Filip Chytil’s nature to sugarcoat the truth.

That’s why, given everything he’s been through this season – the injury, the setback, the six-month layoff and the emotional roller coaster – he’s not pretending as if everything is normal.

“Of course, it’s a different than if I would have played every game the whole season,” he said Friday when asked if he feels like he’s in peak form. “I missed over 80 games, and I know that. I’m honest with myself.”

There’s an obvious health concern that comes with Chytil’s unexpected playoff return, namely the fear of another head injury, but the 24-year-old forward has decided that’s a risk he’s willing to take.

The remaining question for Chytil – and for the Rangers – is whether whatever level he’s at right now is good enough to help the team at this critical stage.

“There’s a balance that you have to try and find,” head coach Peter Laviolette said prior to Friday’s 2-1 overtime win in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Florida Panthers. “We’re trying to work through that, as well.”

Game 2 takeaways: Barclay Goodrow’s OT winner helps Rangers even series

Prior to the Nov. 2 concussion that cost him all but 10 regular-season games, there was no doubt about Chytil’s status as one of the Rangers’ 12-best forwards. He broke out with 22 goals last season and was rewarded with a four-year, $17.75 million contract extension, but his extended absence has forced him to play catch up on the fly.

That leaves Laviolette to weigh the upside of allowing No. 72 enough ice time to regain top form – or at least something close to it – versus the urgency of a playoff series that allows little room for error.

“We have a player who’s missed a substantial amount of time, who’s come back and worked hard to try to get back up to speed,” the coach said. “I think with that, there’s got to be some reps and there’s got to be some opportunity for him to do that. … And then from there, there will be an expectation that in order to get those minutes and get those opportunities, it has to be productive, as well.”

That evaluation process is ongoing, but Friday saw a dramatic increase in workload.

After combining for 21:19 time on ice in his first two games back, with a 13-day gap in between appearances due to a combination of illness and general soreness, Chytil jumped to 20:09 in the Game 2 win over Florida. That included five shot attempts, with the final one heading for the back of the Panthers’ net in OT if not for a game-saving block from defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and a 9-5 edge in scoring chances for the Rangers, according to Natural Stat Trick.

It also coincided with a promotion to the top line, where Chytil played right wing alongside Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad.

He mostly played center in prior seasons, but the move to wing is designed to lighten his defensive load while leaving him less vulnerable to open-ice hits.

“It’s nothing new for me,” Chytil said of the wing. “I’ve played it before, but it’s similar. I don’t have to play down low that much in the D zone, but it’s other responsibilities in the D zone that I have to adjust to. It’s a normal game for myself. I just try to play the same way I would when I play center.”

Rust remains a factor, with Chytil saying he’s had to rely on “muscle memory” to make up for his lack of rhythm and timing.

The ramped-up intensity of playoffs adds to the difficulty, but he knows no one is going to slow down or take it easy on him.

“This is the conference finals,” he said. “Nobody’s asking if I didn’t play or if I play. I’ve got to give my best and try to help the team to win the game. That’s all I’m thinking about.”

Laviolette has likened it to a “moving train” – “It’s moving pretty quick,” he added – while making it clear the Rangers can’t afford to experiment for too long. But he also noted that they “understand (Chytil’s) capabilities,” adding motivation to see if they can get him anywhere close to the player they expected to have all season.

It was telling that he elected to move Chytil up in the lineup for Game 2 while scratching another former first-round pick in Kaapo Kakko. He clearly values the 6-foot-2, 208-pounder‘s speed-and-shoot combination, which the Rangers hope can fuel a five-on-five offense that’s averaging only 2.11 goals per 60 minutes through 12 playoff contests.

Chytil is even more likely to stick in the lineup now that veteran Jimmy Vesey has been deemed week-to-week with an upper-body injury stemming from Friday’s second-period hit from Ryan Lomberg. And while he may not be at his absolute sharpest, he’s relishing the opportunity to keep working toward it.

“I know sounds like a cliché, but every shift matters for me,” he said. “When I go out there, I go with freedom and feel good.”

Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.

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