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‘Wow factor’ Alexis Lafreniere finding confidence at perfect time for Rangers –



SUNRISE, Fla. — Every goal off the blade of Alexis Lafrenière in this barn-burner of an Eastern Conference Final has made the highlight shows.

Even the one he’d rather never see again.

The pride of Sainte-Eustache, Que., felt great shame in Game 1 when, during a well-intentioned backcheck, the New York Rangers winger stretched to get his tape on a cross-crease pass from Florida’s Carter Verhaeghe, only to beat teammate Igor Shesterkin, the playoffs’ sharpest goalie standing, five-hole.

Providing the Panthers’ insurance marker, walking off the ice a dash-3, and helping dig his Rangers a hole — their first in any series this spring — unlucky No. 13 rubbed his bearded face and shook his head.

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Who knows how such a blooper may have messed with the 2020 first-overall draft pick’s brain in those early NHL years, when Lafrenière’s video-game numbers in Rimouski didn’t translate to the Show and the kid’s confidence was as endangered as his ice time?

Greek philosopher Epictetus said: “It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.”

And how Lafrenière rebounded from Game 1 falls in line with his newfound assuredness that, yes, he is capable of great things at hockey’s highest level, too.

Though not credited with an assist on New York’s opening strike in Game 2, Lafrenière drove the slot and bulldozed Verhaeghe, creating the chaos that aided in linemate Vincent Trocheck’s icebreaker.

But it was in Sunday’s pivotal Game 3 that Lafrenière was far and away the Rangers’ most dangerous forward.

The 22-year-old’s silky breakaway backhand roof job on Sergei Bobrovsky was both a did-you-see-that? moment and only an amuse bouche:

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It was Lafrenière’s second of the afternoon and sixth of the post-season that got gif-wrapped and shared ’round the interwebs.

The burly forward with the buttery gloves jolted on a 1-on-3 rush, dangled veteran Panthers defenceman Dmitry Kulikov with an outside-in toe-drag and unraveled Bobrovsky backhand at speed while getting crashed into by Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

The big man’s super burst was torn from the scrolls of Mario. Pick one: Lemieux or Luigi’s brother.

“A spectacular player,” Trocheck said. “Second one was… I don’t even know what happened. I just saw him dancin’. I mean, anytime you see the puck go in the net in the playoffs, it’s just elation.

“No surprise. He oozes confidence out there when he has the puck. Anytime he has an opportunity, in my head I have a pretty good feeling it’s going in the net.”

Lafrenière’s take on his AND1 Mixtape moment was more subdued: “I had speed coming in and just tried to make a move. Lucky enough, it went in. And it’s always fun to see it go in.”

Lafrenière finished Game 3 with a team-high six shots and now has a team-high 10 shots in the series. His 12 points through 13 playoff games signal a coming-out party.

After escaping with another overtime win and another comeback victory, Peter Laviolette was quick with praise, but now the coach must find more ice time for his fifth-most-used forward (17:46). Perhaps on New York’s struggling top power-play unit, which is 0-for-8 this series.

“Lafrenière had a heck of a game. His speed was evident. When he grabbed the puck, he was a difference-maker and maybe one of our more noticeable guys tonight,” Laviolette said.

Thing is, there are no more maybes about Lafrenière anymore.

Perhaps it’s because we live in instant-gratification times. Perhaps it’s because the back-to-back eruptions of Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews screwed up our bar for No. 1 picks’ rookie years.

Whatever the reason, Lafrenière’s gradual ascent to elite was a rich source of fan frustration and coaching consternation, of trade rumours and ice-time debates. Unlike the vast majority of first overalls, who get locked up as franchise staples, Lafrenière was only bridged exiting his entry-level contract.

Full belief wasn’t there, on either side.

Jack Hughes, 2019’s first draftee, only posted 21 points as a freshman and 31 as a sophomore. Lafrenière’s totals in years 1 and 2 are identical.

Hughes clicked in Year 3.

It took Lafrenière until Year 4, refreshed by a new coach and a top-six promotion to a unit driven by Artemi Panarin.

Lafrenière believes his confidence sprouted before training camp and is the product of intense summer workouts, a focus on improving his skating, and an increased willingness to make scoring plays. “Obviously, playing with Bread (Panarin) and Troch helps a lot,” he adds.

He crushed career highs with 28 goals and 57 points and played all 82.

“There’s probably been a lot of good work done before I even got here. He’s still very young, as far as his career goes,” Laviolette says. “There’s a lot of coaching and work that goes into young players. And then you hope to see a rise in their performance.

“Now this year, I think with the opportunity that he’s gotten to play with the players that he’s had a chance to play with the entire year, the confidence that he’s been able to gain from that, I think with the development, with the maturity and now an opportunity to get out there with a guy like Trocheck and Panarin, it’s really started to take off from for him. And with that, comes confidence.”

As much as Lafrenière’s 2023-24 might feel like an overnight breakout, the Rangers are witnessing the rewards of patience and maturity.

“Even the last year and a half I played with him before this year, he’s always had that wow factor. He’s a first-overall pick for a reason,” teammate Braden Schneider says. “He works so hard on days we don’t have games, and you see the talent and skill he has. And he’s such a positive guy.

“Yeah, he’s running — and we love it.”

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