When the Rangers first signed Artemi Panarin as a free agent in the summer of 2019, then-coach David Quinn said his immediate intention was to play Panarin on the same line as his top centerman, Mika Zibanejad. He did at the start of the season but soon decided it made better sense to split them up and play them on separate lines.
This fall, new coach Gerard Gallant said that while he intended to start with the two players on separate lines, at some point in the preseason he would experiment with the two on the same line for a game or two. But he never did.
But on Monday, with Ryan Strome (COVID-19 protocol) and Kaapo Kakko (upper-body injury) unavailable for the game in Toronto, and the Rangers being badly outplayed by the Maple Leafs in the second period, Gallant rolled the dice and put Panarin on Zibanejad’s left wing, with Chris Kreider on the right, for the third period. And it worked. The Rangers had a much stronger third period, made it to overtime (thanks mostly to the stellar goaltending of Igor Shesterkin) and won, 2-1, when Panarin scored the winning goal off a pass from Zibanejad.
"I thought we created some good chances,’’ Zibanejad said. "We've played together over the years, here and there, but he's an unbelievable player. Playing with him, Kreids, you get two different types of players. And as a center, you try to — not adjust, but kind of just, help out as much as I can. Obviously, Kreids has the speed, Bread [Panarin] has the vision and can shoot. So I think it worked out pretty well.’’
When asked, however, if he thought playing with Panarin was something that might be worth trying for an extended period, Zibanejad passed the buck, as opposed to the puck.
"I'm the wrong guy to ask,’’ he said with a laugh. "I think he [Gallant] is coming up after me. You can ask him.’’
So Gallant was asked if keeping Panarin and Zibanejad together for a while is something that he would consider.
"I don't know, we'll see,’’ Gallant said. "We'll have to look at our lineup again. Again, we want depth in all the lines, and especially those top two lines that have got a lot of talent. We'll see what our lineup looks like in Nashville.’’
The Rangers, in the middle of a four-game road trip, flew directly from Toronto to Nashville, but the team took Tuesday off. They will practice Wednesday before playing the Predators Thursday. Because the team is prohibited from giving any information on Strome, other than to confirm that he is in COVID protocol, it is unknown if he will be available to play Thursday. If he is, then Panarin will likely return to his line, and Alexis Lafreniere will return to his spot on the left of Zibanejad.
If Strome isn’t available, though, keeping Zibanejad and Panarin together is something Gallant likely will have to consider. Panarin had no goals and just two shots on goal in his first three games plus two periods on Monday before Gallant switched things up. But one period and one overtime shift with Zibanejad seemed to get him going.