It was midway through the second period in Detroit Wednesday and the Rangers trailed by a goal to the Red Wings. Mika Zibanejad and Frank Vatrano were at the end of their shift, but both still had the energy to chase down Braden Schneider’s long dump-in to the left corner of the Red Wings’ zone.
Zibanejad reached around the defender in front of him and nudged the puck behind the net, where Vatrano beat ex-Ranger Marc Staal to it. As all this was happening, Artemi Panarin had just come off the bench on a line change and he headed straight to the net.
Vatrano spotted Panarin coming, slid the puck toward him and Panarin walked into it and fired a shot past goalie Alex Nedeljkovic to tie the score at 3 in a game the Rangers won, 5-4, in overtime.
Panarin's goal, assisted by Vatrano and Zibanejad, may have given coach Gerard Gallant a little inspiration. Because in the third period when the Rangers trailed by a goal, the coach decided to try something different. He put Panarin on the left wing of the first line with Zibanejad and Vatrano for a couple of shifts.
“They were matching lines there a little bit … so I just said you know, 'Let's make them think a little bit over there and switch it up a little bit,' ’’ Gallant explained after the game.
It was an interesting tweak by the coach. He swapped his team’s leading scorer, Panarin, for the league’s third-leading goal-scorer, Chris Kreider, on the left wing of the top line. It certainly gave the top line a different look and Panarin was down for it.
“We had few chances, so it's good,’’ he said. “I think that's good move sometimes, if we can't find the game in our [regular] lines. So, I don't know, I'm not a coach. But I like it.’’
Ever since Panarin joined the Rangers as a free agent before the 2019-20 season, the idea of he and Zibanejad playing together on the same line has been intriguing. David Quinn, the coach at the time, tried it for a little while, but didn’t stick with it. Zibanejad went back to playing with Kreider, his longtime linemate, and Panarin found instant chemistry playing with Ryan Strome. And that gave the Rangers two lines opposing teams had to game-plan around rather than one.
Strome didn’t play Wednesday as he missed his second straight game with a lower-body injury. So moving Panarin to play with Zibanejad didn’t come at the cost of breaking up the dynamic Strome-Panarin partnership.
The Panarin-Zibanejad pairing didn’t last very long Wednesday. A penalty kill and then a power play – on which Kreider scored the goal that forced overtime – meant no normal lines for the second half of the third period. In the overtime, Zibanejad started with Kreider and Panarin played with Andrew Copp, who took Strome’s place as the second-line center. Copp scored the winning goal 1:34 into overtime on an assist from Panarin.
Afterward, Gallant didn’t seem to have any intentions of making Panarin-Zibanejad a regular thing – or even a regular thing whenever the team is down a goal in the third period.
“We'll look at it a little bit,’’ he said. “But no.’’