NEWARK, N.J. — Being back in the Prudential Center probably didn’t mean much to the New York Rangers as a group. Artemi Panarin swore it didn’t mean much to him to be back in the building where the Rangers’ postseason ended with a thud six and a half months ago.
“I just have zero thoughts about last year before the game,” he said. Zero was a big word in that series against the Devils — Panarin had zero goals in those seven games and the Rangers had zero goals and zero pushback in Game 7 back on May 1 in this building, a 4-0 loss that sent the team into a pretty busy offseason, beginning with Gerard Gallant departing as coach a week later.
Panarin and Gallant didn’t always see eye to eye. That may have played a part in what we’re seeing now, through 15 games and a 12-2-1 Rangers record after Saturday’s 5-3 win here. Panarin, who has three 90-point seasons in four years as a Ranger, has looked great before. But this season is a whole new level, an attacking style that Panarin has played intermittently during his NHL career but not seemingly for this long a stretch.
His two goals on Saturday gave him 10 for the season. He’s up to 26 points, one off the league lead. On a night that should have belonged to Jack Hughes, who had two points in his first game since Nov. 3, Panarin grabbed some of the spotlight back with his two goals, including the turning-point tying goal in the third off a faceoff scrum when Panarin took about half a second to wire one by Vitek Vanecek at 11:04 of the third.
THERE GOES THAT (BREAD) MAN. pic.twitter.com/usFEq52Beu
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) November 19, 2023
“He’s been pretty ridiculous,” said Jimmy Vesey, who had a couple of greasy goals, including a no-look, rebound winner with 2:49 left. “I was impressed with him last year, first time playing with him. This year he’s found a new gear. He’s been a difference-maker.”
Panarin said his last two summers have involved more work, though not necessarily because of any frustrations with his playoff performances. He had decent numbers during the 2022 postseason — 16 points in 20 games, plus the Game 7 overtime winner to beat the Penguins in the opening round — but took some heat for not playing a playoff style that Gallant wanted to see.
Last year was a mess and certainly Panarin wasn’t alone. “Honestly, in summer I feel maybe last two years I work more,” Panarin said. “But that’s probably because (of) me. Coach give me better conditioning, he think. I disagree with him but I still do it.”
With Gallant gone along with Panarin’s flowing locks, he has come back with seemingly a different mentality. His opening goal on Saturday came from the off-wing circle, which is normally Mika Zibanejad’s home on the power play — Zibanejad pivoted to the bumper and it was Vincent Trocheck, in Panarin’s usual spot at the opposite circle, who threaded a very Bread-like pass through the Devils’ PK diamond for Panarin to hit a mostly open net in a wild first period.
Trocheck’s ability to read and react off Panarin and Alexis Lafrenière since Trocheck was elevated to that line two weeks ago has gone a long way toward continuing Panarin’s hot streak. Filip Chytil still has not resumed skating since suffering a concussion on Nov. 2 so this is the second line for the foreseeable future; even though Chytil played well with those two wingers, Trocheck has been on a different level as well, posting 3-7-10 in the five games since he took Chytil’s spot between Panarin and Lafrenière.
“They were a threat when they were on the ice again,” Peter Laviolette said of that line, which has been by far the most productive this season. “(Panarin’s) been playing so hard and so good.”
Igor Shesterkin returned after a four-game, two-week absence and gave up a couple wonky ones in the first period but held the Rangers in at times in a game that featured probably 20 odd-man rushes between the teams. Hughes was his old dangerous self for the Devils, with 14 shot attempts, eight of them on net. Both his points were rather accidental — Shesterkin let Hughes’ soft shot from the wall trickle through his pads in the first and Hughes lost the handle on a pass before the puck skittered through four sets of skates and onto Erik Haula’s stick for a 3-2 Jersey lead early in the third — but Hughes still looked like one of the best players in the league.
Panarin did too. He had 12 attempts, nine on net, and spent the bulk of a strong shift with the game tied 3-3 looking for shooting space in the high slot while Trocheck and Lafrenière dug out pucks and cycled. In past years you might have found Panarin nearer to the wall, trying to make a brilliant pass into traffic; now, he’s demanding the puck and making defenders guess whether he’ll shoot or dish.
He’s the runaway Rangers leader in shots with 64 — Zibanejad is next with 42 — and his 15-game point streak to start the season is a new franchise record.
He was asked if it just feels good when the puck is on his stick right now.
“Yep,” he said. “Simple question, simple answer.”
And last year, even in this building, feels a long way away.
(Photo: John Jones / USA Today)