May 26th, 2024

Rangers rookie Matt Rempe doesn’t mind playing the villain role in the NHL playoffs

By Stephen Whyno, The Associated Press on May 1, 2024.

Matt Rempe stretched on the bench several minutes before warmups when the chants started.

A chorus of “Rempe! Rempe!” emerged from nearby New York Rangers fans, sounding almost like the Yankees “Bleacher Creatures” role-calling players from the outfield.

The popular 6-foot-8 rookie waved and got a big cheer when he went down the tunnel.

Then, every time he touched the puck during the game in Washington, the Capitals crowd booed Rempe, unhappy about a hit he made two nights earlier that injured defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk and sparked more criticism about his play. The 21-year-old forward shrugged it off, happy to play the villain role on the road knowing back home at Madison Square Garden he’ll be applauded just as much, if not more.

“I’ve got no issue with it,” Rempe said last weekend. “In New York there, they love it when I’m playing hard. And if you go on the road and they don’t like it, that means you’re playing hard, you’re playing physical.”

That’s what the Rangers want from Rempe, called up in February to bring some size and toughness to a team that went on to finish atop the NHL and win the Presidents’ Trophy. They’ll next face the Carolina Hurricanes in the second round of their pursuit of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1994.

Rempe unintentionally injured two Washington Capitals players in Game 3 of the first-round sweep: van Riemsdyk on a hit he was penalized on for interference and winger T.J. Oshie on an otherwise innocuous hit that caused a broken right hand.

Tom Wilson tried to fight Rempe afterward. Rempe declined.

“I just felt like there’s a certain point where he hits enough of your teammates – that are kind of borderline hits – that it doesn’t matter whether it’s the playoffs or a big game, it doesn’t mean anything: It’s still hockey. You can still stand up for your teammates,” Wilson said Tuesday. “I felt like in that moment I wanted to do that. He didn’t want to do it.”

Rempe fought New York Islanders tough guy Matt Martin on his first shift in the league back in February in front of nearly 80,000 fans outside at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. He fought four more times over his final 17 games of the regular season, and the balance between dropping the gloves and the trappings of that from five minutes in the box to risk of injury, is a constant conversation between Rempe and the coaching staff.

“He’s been a really effective player for us,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “He’s done it on the ice with his game. He’s done it through his physicality. He’s done it through fighting when he’s had to. We’re just trying to manage him and make sure he understands that he’s important when he’s on the ice, as well.”

Rempe scored a goal, blocked a shot and dished out 18 hits in his first NHL playoff series, skating just 27 minutes (average of 6:46) over four games. Based on practice Wednesday, he’ll be in the lineup for the series opener against Carolina, which could be Sunday or Monday in New York.

His status could certainly change if Laviolette opts for more speed against the Cup favorite Hurricanes or if Filip Chytil is able to play his first game since Nov. 2. But for now the Rangers enjoy having Rempe on the ice with them.

“He’s just a big kid having fun playing hockey,” captain Jacob Trouba said. “Players love him. He’s been a big part of our team, a big part of momentum, a big part of just the attitude and the energy around the Rangers recently. That’s a lot to carry for someone like him, but I think he’s done a great job of it.”

Rempe became something of a cult hero thanks to his fists and his enormous frame – and also a lightning rod for criticism after some big hits, including one that drew a four-game suspension for an illegal check to the head of New Jersey defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler. He was penalized but not suspended for the body check on van Riemsdyk, who said he put himself in a bad spot.

“You’ve got be aware of when guys like that are on the ice and where they are at all times,” van Riemsdyk said. “He got me pretty good, I could’ve done a better job of protecting myself.”

Rather than scan social media after the game, Rempe played “Halo” with Chris Kreider and other teammates and ripped himself for a “very bad performance” in his first experience with the video game. He’s able to ignore a lot of the outside noise about him, but Rempe is also introspective about his own play and analyzes each of his hits to make sure such a big, powerful player he doesn’t cross the line and take penalties that hurt the Rangers.

“The big thing for me is I’ve got to keep everything compact,” Rempe said. “No elbows, I guess, is one thing I’ve got to make sure. I’m so big that once I’m committed to a hit, I’ve got to make sure that everything’s tucked and if guys are jumping out of the way I’ve got to make sure, hey, I can’t stick anything out as a reactionary thing. I’ve got to just miss the hit.”

Toeing that line between playing on the edge and being physical is something Wilson and others of that size try to perfect. Rempe is still early in that process as a professional.

“I can make big hits, but I want it to be clean because then I’m helping the team,” Rempe said. “I’m going to continue to learn and grow and try to get better with every aspect because I’ve got to learn in everything. It’s been fun, and I’m just going to keep learning.”

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

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