Behind the rise of Vincent Trocheck: How Rangers’ leading playoff scorer found a new level

SUNRISE, Fla. — Perhaps nothing encapsulates Vincent Trocheck better than the New York Rangers’ first goal of their Eastern Conference final series against the Florida Panthers. Early in Game 2, he cut to the net, where he found himself all alone after high-sticking Gustav Forsling on a legal follow-through. The center then tapped in a perfect pass from Adam Fox, showing off what Florida coach Paul Maurice called “great small-area hands.”

Immediately after the goal, scrums broke out, sparked by a Carter Verhaeghe cross-check on Alexis Lafrenière. To no one’s surprise, Trocheck got involved, tangling with the always-chippy Matthew Tkachuk, who wrestled him to the ice.

The sequence showcased the offensive ability that has made him the Rangers’ leading scorer these playoffs, as well as the snarl that endeared him to his fan base, teammates and coaches.

“I used to give him a hard time because it seemed like every game he’d have a cut on his nose or (be) bleeding from his mouth,” said Keith Yandle, who played with Trocheck from 2016-20 in Florida. “When it’s Game 43 of a long year, you’re like, ‘all right, dude, we don’t need to get in scrums every whistle. You can take a night off.’ That’s just not in his DNA.”

That, paired with Trocheck’s flourishing skill, has made him an instrumental piece of a Rangers team searching for its first Stanley Cup since 1994. He had a career-high 77 points in 82 regular season games, second on the team only to linemate Artemi Panarin, and in February made his second career All-Star Game. Fans voted him the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award winner.

But most importantly for the Rangers, his game has reached an even higher level in the postseason.

“He’s had a tremendous year to this point,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “I think he brought that right into the playoffs and just continues to be himself.”

Trocheck has a team-best 18 points and seven goals in 13 playoff games and is a primary reason the Rangers are up 2-1 against Florida. He has assists on two overtime winners — Game 2 against Florida and Game 3 against Carolina — and scored one himself, a double overtime power-play goal in Game 2 of the Hurricanes series.

While teammates mobbed him after the first playoff overtime goal of his career, Trocheck faced the glass at Madison Square Garden and screamed in celebration with the fans — an indelible image from the Rangers’ ongoing run. This was the stage he envisioned two years ago when he signed a seven-year, $5.625 million annual average value contract with New York.

“I don’t think financial stuff had anything to do with it,” he said looking back on the decision. “I didn’t want to go to a team where I didn’t think we had a good chance to win or wasn’t going to be in the playoffs every year.”

Trocheck has been on non-playoff teams. He appeared in only two NHL postseason games in the first six seasons of his career, all with Florida, and he didn’t like how long summers felt. Winning plays a large role in the 5-foot-11 forward’s happiness, and finding a place capable of doing it was essential when considering free-agent options.

Mike Sgarbossa, now with the Washington Capitals, got an early look at Trocheck’s makeup. The two were junior teammates for the Saginaw Spirit in the Ontario Hockey League. After practice, they’d play a game called Two Puck. Players would go one at a time, first getting a shot on net and then a chance to deke the goalie. Those who didn’t score were eliminated one by one.

As future NHLers, Trocheck and Sgarbossa frequently found themselves as the last players standing. They developed somewhat of a Two Puck rivalry, trash-talking as they went shot for shot.

“It became not so much ‘how can we score?’ but ‘how can we make the move look as good as possible?’ so that you could come back to the line and say ‘what’s up?’ to the next guy,” Sgarbossa said.

Those early back-and-forths are still fresh in Sgarbossa’s memory. The two players’ paths crossed years later in Florida, where Sgarbossa played in 2016-17. Jaromir Jagr was also on that team, and Sgarbossa remembers Trocheck’s fearlessness talking trash with the all-time great.

The edge he saw in Saginaw hadn’t gone anywhere.

“There’s this legend, and Vinny’s out there chopping it up with chirps,” Sgarbossa said.

Added Yandle: “Jags is a pretty intimidating guy. Not too many guys got on his case, if any, but Vinny was a guy (with whom) no one’s safe. No one’s off limits.”

Jason Demers was only with the Panthers for one season, 2016-17, but that was plenty of time to gain an appreciation for Trocheck’s intensity. Once, with tensions high during a stretch of losses, they got into an argument at morning skate. It continued into line rushes; they screamed at each other while connecting on passes.

“I just found it so funny,” Demers said. “Here we are telling each other off, but we were doing the drill and still working hard.”

He also remembers Trocheck returning to the ice in a tracksuit after games to fire extra pucks on net. Demers, who played 700 NHL games, can’t recall many other players doing that.

There’s a side of Vincent Trocheck that’s reserved for his teammates. (Brad Penner / USA Today)

Trocheck’s work ethic and competitive fire earned him respect from teammates on the ice, but he also showed them he cared away from the rink. “I remember him always being there for you,” said former teammate Aaron Ekblad, still with the Panthers.

Trocheck picked Yandle up from the airport when the defenseman signed in Florida and took him out for dinner and drinks. The two became fast friends, and Yandle was in Trocheck’s wedding party. He still raves about the way Trocheck treated his daughters, who call him Uncle Vinny.

That’s the side the Rangers have seen now that he’s on their team.

“I was a little nervous to meet him just because playing against him, he’s fiery out there and he’s a great competitor,” Braden Schneider said. “As soon as I met him, right away you can tell he’s a really genuine, honest, hard-working guy.”

Rangers players have also gotten to experience what Trocheck’s former Hurricanes and Panthers teammates did before them: his grandmother’s cooking. When Trocheck’s teams go to his native Pittsburgh, he has teammates over for an Italian feast. His grandmother is an Italian immigrant and cooks everything from chicken parm to rigatoni to arancini. Blake Wheeler described it as a never-ending buffet — exactly what you’d expect from a grandmother.

“She begs me to have the guys over any time we’re in Pittsburgh,” Trocheck said. “I grew up with a very close-knit family, and I think family is a big part of this team and a big part of teams that win championships. You need to be close together. Having those types of nights, I think, is important.”

Added Wheeler: “It’s those little things that just go such a long way toward building a team.”

Now two seasons into his New York tenure, Trocheck feels at home with the Rangers. His wife, Hillary, and kids have made friends in the area, and he’s more comfortable with the team. Fans have taken to him, too. Plenty have custom Trocheck t-shirts, some of which read “Forecheck, backcheck, Trocheck,” and some of which show a hockey glove making the classic Italian finger pinch. Chris Kreider wore the latter to a press conference earlier in these playoffs.

Trocheck’s comfort has extended to the ice, too. Laviolette took over as coach going into this season, and he played Trocheck an average of 21:27 a game in the regular season, up two minutes from his 2022-23 average. The center is vital on both special teams units, where his strong faceoff ability often allows the Rangers to start with possession.

At five-on-five, Trocheck, Panarin and Lafrenière make up the Rangers’ top offensive line. Teammate Jonny Brodzinski calls him the defensive anchor of the trio: a key role since Panarin and Lafrenière are offense-oriented forwards.

“He’s undercover been one of our best players this whole year,” Brodzinski said.

And others around the league have taken notice.

“He can check and he can play with top-flight players,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, who coached Trocheck at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. “Those are hard guys to find. It’s not a surprise he finds himself on teams that win all the time. He’s a big part of it.”

(Top photo of Vincent Trocheck: Josh Lavallee / NHLI via Getty Images)

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