American Hockey League

Chytil nets winner in NHL return

The Rangers aren’t viewing this like a temporary stopgap. They hope that Filip Chytil makes it impossible for them to send him down again.

Because when the club called up the 20-year-old center from AHL Hartford on Monday night, it was just as much an earned promotion as it was to help fill the huge hole left by the injury to Mika Zibanejad. But the top-line center’s upper-body ailment has only made him “day-to-day,” according to coach David Quinn, while the hope that lies with the talent of Chytil projects far into the future.

“If he plays the way he has been, he’ll be here for a while,” Quinn said before Chytil was set to make his season debut Tuesday night in a Garden match against the Lightning. “That’s what we’re anticipating. He’s been thought very highly of, and done a great job down at Hartford. He’s a guy that we’re counting on moving forward.”

That sentiment began when the Rangers took Chytil with the No. 21-overall pick in 2017, and continued when he played 75 games for the club this past season. But despite getting the first crack at the second-line center spot in training camp, Chytil could not take hold of that position and instead started the season playing for the Wolf Pack.

“This is happening in life and in sports. I was just focusing to get back to my game,” said Chytil, who not only put up three goals and nine points in nine games, but also did the little things that coaches asked while leading the Wolf Pack to a 8-0-1 start.

“The disappointment, it was just a couple hours in the day when I heard I was going down,” he said. “I just tried to focus on what’s going to be, and the next practice in Hartford. Just playing hockey and get back to my game.”

Filip Chytil
Filip ChytilAnthony J Causi

At the varsity level, the Blueshirts have struggled to find any happy solution to who will be the next player down the middle behind Zibanejad. Ryan Strome has had a good start to the season, but they would like to use him in more of a utility role. Young pivots Brett Howden and Lias Andersson aren’t the offensive dazzlers the way Chytil can be when he’s playing well.

And there were moments when that was happening with Chytil this past year, but they were few and far between during a difficult campaign when the franchise was selling off veteran assets in the name of the rebuild for the second straight season. The rebuild, of course, is centered around players like Chytil, and so it was disappointing when he had the training camp he did.

He went down with another young first-rounder, the 19-year-old Vitali Kravtsov, who struggled to adapt in his first season in North America, was a healthy scratch for one game and benched for portions of others. Kravtsov then decided to use his European Assignment Clause and take off back to his native Russia. But Chytil kept his head down, knowing that a call-up wasn’t far away if he played the way he was capable of playing.

“I tried to focus on small things, and the things we talk about with coaches,” Chytil said. “Because [we were] winning games, and how we play, and how I get my game back — I get the confidence in my hockey. I think I play better than before.”

Quinn has been adamant in this ugly 3-5-1 getaway that he needs his team to play with more consistent effort in all facets of the game, rather than having so many players identify with being only offensively skilled. Chytil fits that mold of a skill player, but if he is doing the other things, as well, then the skill will be welcomed in Zibanejad’s absence.

“Fil is here because he earned it,” Quinn said. “And it doesn’t hurt that Mika’s hurt.”

But Zibanejad is coming back, maybe as soon as Saturday’s game in Nashville. And the Rangers hope he and Chytil can be a dynamic one-two punch down the middle, now and for years into the future.

“It’s the NHL, so it’s a dream come true for everyone,” Chytil said. “For me, especially.”

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