NASHVILLE – With his team still missing two of its top forwards in Ryan Strome (COVID-19 protocol) and Kaapo Kakko (upper-body injury), Rangers coach Gerard Gallant decided the time is right for him to put his top two offensive forwards, Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin, on the same line.
Gallant had put the two together, with Chris Kreider, for the third period of Monday’s 2-1 overtime win in Toronto – in which Panarin scored the game-winning goal, on a pass from Zibanejad. And when the team practiced Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena, in preparation for Thursday’s game against the Predators, the coach decided keeping that line intact made the most sense for the time being.
"I think if you look at the people that are out, it makes a big difference in your lineup,’’ Gallant said Wednesday. "I tried it the other night because we didn't have much going along the second period, and that's what coaches do. You’ve got to try and change something up.’’
Panarin and Zibanejad play together on the power play, but aside from the first few games after Panarin joined the Rangers for the 2019-20 season, and a few brief stretches during a handful of games over the past three seasons, they generally don’t play together in 5-on-5 situations. Panarin has developed great chemistry with Strome, but with Strome out, he is happy to play with Zibanejad and Kreider.
"The whole team is pretty good players, so it doesn't matter who you play with,’’ Panarin said. "But of course, playing with Mika is special.’’
Sitting down after practice with reporters who cover the team on a daily basis for a rare interview in English, Panarin was relaxed, engaging and funny.
"He’s rich now, so I want to play with him,’’ he said of Zibanejad, referring to the Swede’s new, eight-year, $68 million contract extension.
Panarin said he probably has to work less hard playing with Strome, since the two of them instinctively know where each other is on the ice at all times. But he said playing with Zibanejad and Kreider, he’ll play the game way he always does, and he’s confident the three of them will figure things out in the game.
As for the Rangers (2-1-1) winning the first two games of the current road trip, Panarin said those wins are huge for the confidence of a team still getting to know its new coach.
"To be honest, I was really nervous after first two games (a regulation loss to Washington in the season opener and an overtime loss to Dallas in the home opener),’’ he said. "Right now, things are so much better. They’re more relaxed. I think we're (going) in the right direction.’’
He credited goaltender Igor Shesterkin, whose spectacular play helped the Rangers win Monday.
"That guy has so much talent,’’ he said. "When you play with him in other sports, like ping pong, or soccer … some guys are talented in one sport. He’s talented in every sport. He's that guy.’’
But while praising Shesterkin, he couldn’t help teasing him, too.
Asked if Shesterkin beats everybody in all the usual locker room games, he said, "No. I beat everybody."