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Rangers’ Alexis Lafreniere now living up to high early expectations

RALEIGH, N.C. — There was a time when Alexis Lafreniere had nowhere to hide.

Now he’s become overlooked and even underrated.

The expectations that came with Lafreniere being drafted No. 1 overall in 2020, the Rangers first No. 1 overall pick since the universal draft originated in 1970, were heavy.

Alexis Lafreniere celebrates with teammates after scoring a third-period goal in the Rangers' 3-2 Game 3 overtime win over the Hurricanes.
Alexis Lafreniere celebrates with teammates after scoring a third-period goal in the Rangers’ 3-2 Game 3 overtime win over the Hurricanes. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

That made Lafreniere a lightning rod of sorts for Rangers fans who expected greatness commensurate with where he was selected in the draft.

The 91 points Lafreniere produced in his first three seasons were not sufficient in the eyes of those fans who expected and wanted more.

But that narrative is changing before our eyes.

That change was evident during the regular season, with Lafreniere producing career highs in goals (28), assists (29) and points (57).

And it’s been even more evident in these playoffs, with Lafreniere delivering a massive goal and an assist in the Rangers’ 3-2 overtime win over the Hurricanes in Game 3 of their second-round playoff series Thursday night at PNC Arena.

This comes two days after Lafreniere scored two goals in the Rangers’ 4-3 double-overtime win over the Hurricanes in Game 2 Tuesday at the Garden. That makes three goals in the past two games for him.

Lafreniere is affecting the Rangers’ biggest games now.

He scored a goal at 6:25 of the third period to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead Thursday.

Alexis Lafreniere beats Frederik Andersen for the second of his two goals in the Rangers' Game 2 win over the Hurricanes.
Alexis Lafreniere beats Frederik Andersen for the second of his two goals in the Rangers’ Game 2 win over the Hurricanes. Getty Images

And, after the Canes sent the game to overtime with a six-on-five goal at 18:24 of the third, Lafreniere assisted on Artemi Panarin’s game-winner 1:43 into overtime for the win and a commanding 3-0 series lead for the Rangers, who can close out the Canes on Saturday night at PNC with a win.

Lafreniere has three goals and six assists for nine points in seven postseason games.

Even those numbers, along with his career-best regular-season production, don’t jump off the pages when you factor in the two linemates he plays with — Panarin and Vincent Trocheck.

Panarin led the Rangers with 49 goals and 120 points in the regular season and the do-everything Trocheck is arguably the team’s most important two-way player.

Don’t sleep on Lafreniere, though.

“There’s always a lot of pressure on these young guys to come in and have an impact right away, but the way he’s been working and the way he’s believed in himself and worked [up] his confidence, it’s been amazing,’’ Rangers winger Mika Zibanejad said. “With him and Tro’, Bread [Panarin] has been great chemistry. They’ve been playing big-time hockey for us.

“Laffy’s a stud. We’re happy to have him.’’

So, too, is Rangers coach Peter Laviolette, under whom Lafreniere has flourished with the best season of his career.

“It was a huge goal,’’ Laviolette said of Lafreniere’s go-ahead strike in the third period. “He didn’t have a lot of time to get that puck off in the slot, and it was a heck of a shot. That line has been good, and obviously had a huge impact in the game tonight.’’

Who would have thought a couple years ago that Lafreniere would be having a huge impact in a Rangers’ Stanley Cup run?

Not based on his production in his first three seasons.

“To speak specifically about Laf, I can’t speak to the past,’’ Laviolette said. “I can only speak to the last six months. He’s been pretty much set in stone with a couple players. That line has been very productive for us and he’s part of that.

“He’s playing with some good players. He’s playing with Artemi, who’s proven to be one of the top players in the league, and Troch is a workhorse in the middle that does an awful lot of things.

“But you can’t discount what Laf does as well with his skill level and the way he’s grown throughout the course of this year. He just gets more confident and confident as the season grows and the playoffs grow.’’

Rangers veteran winger Chris Kreider, who scored the team’s first goal, a majestic shorthanded tally in the second period, was sitting next to Lafreniere in the team’s postgame media interviews and I asked him what he’s seen with Lafreniere raising the level of his game in these playoffs.

“Ulf Samuelsson [a former Ranger player and assistant coach] told our team a while ago that you don’t raise your game in the playoffs, you lean on your habits, and [Lafreniere] has got unbelievable habits for a young guy,’’ Kreider said. “The way he shows up at the rink, the way he works at his craft. … He wants to get better, he wants to have an impact, he wants to win.

“Unbelievable player and we’re just incredibly happy to have him.’’

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