Alexis Lafreniere took exception to Islanders center J-G Pageau’s high hit on his teammate Ryan Lindgren in the third period of the Rangers’ eventual 4-1 win on Long Island on Wednesday night, so the former first-overall pick instigated the first fight of his entire hockey career.
After tripping Pageau in passing with less than two minutes left in regulation — a call the referees certainly missed — Lafreniere skated right back over to crosscheck Pageau. The two became entangled before Lafreniere chucked his gloves and landed a handful of punches on Pageau’s side, which prompted both players to fall to the ice on top of one another.
“I thought it was a little high, and I didn’t like, it so I kind of went at him,” Lafreniere said after the Rangers’ Thanksgiving practice Thursday afternoon. “And you saw what happened, so you know, maybe I have to work on my fighting skills.”
The Rangers may have been facing a skeleton of the Islanders’ lineup, which has been depleted by a COVID-19 outbreak and a slew of long-term injuries, but the Isles were still able to play the physical brand of hockey that has become a standout quality of the organization’s identity.
There is a lot that young players such as Lafreniere can take away from competing in those types of games, including how to not only stifle an opponent’s aggressiveness but how to counter it.
“I’ve always kind of played physical, but you got be more physical here, I think,” the 20-year-old winger said. “[In] this league, nothing is given to you. You got to really work for your space. So it’s good to be physical and to add something to your game.”
Lafreniere added that, like many of his younger teammates, he’s taken some lessons from the Ryan Reaves School of Fighting. He described Reaves as one of the toughest guys in the NHL and noted that the veteran enforcer can teach the Rangers how to protect themselves in those situations.
Lindgren, who said he is feeling OK after Pageau’s hit, watched Lafreniere and Adam Fox stand up for him from the locker room. The defenseman said it meant a lot to see two of his usually tame teammates defend him in that manner.
“He stepped up for a teammate, but, again, I don’t want him fighting a whole lot,” head coach Gerard Gallant said of Lafreniere before the Rangers traveled to Boston for their Friday matinee against the Bruins. “But when you’re a team and you stick together, it goes a long way with your teammates. For him, doing that [Wednesday] night, it went a long way with his teammates.”
While Lafreniere was never known as a fighter through his three seasons with the Rimouski Oceanic in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League — and he probably never will be known as such — he is still adding dimensions to his game. Part of it is balancing his physical play with his smart approach to the game that fuels his offensive abilities.
“I’m not a fighter,” he said. “I’m not going to look for fights every game, but you never know what can happen. So I’m always ready, for sure.”