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Rangers' Artemi Panarin eager to return to Columbus to face former team

Artemi Panarin of the Rangers celebrates after assisting

Artemi Panarin of the Rangers celebrates after assisting on a first period goal against the Hurricanes at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Artemi Panarin has been everything the Rangers hoped for — and everything fans of the Columbus Blue Jackets wish they still had.

That’s why Panarin’s return to Columbus on Thursday night after spurning the Blue Jackets to sign a seven-year, $81.5 million contract with the Rangers last offseason is a big deal in Ohio’s capital city.

And it’s a big deal for Panarin, too.

“Pretty excited . . . of course it’s not a regular game for me,” Panarin said in English after practice on Wednesday. “A different game. Try to show the best I can.”

That the 28-year-old Russian felt comfortable enough to do a group interview in English about his return could be a sign of just how well Panarin is adapting to life in New York and with the Rangers.

Coach David Quinn agreed, though he added: “I always believe he knows a little bit more than he lets on.”

Panarin has certainly been superb on the ice for the Rangers. Among his accomplishments, courtesy of the Rangers (all stats going into Wednesday):

Panarin has a point in 16 of the last 19 games (eight goals, 19 assists) and in 20 of 26 games this season (12 goals, 21 assists). He has recorded 21 points since Nov. 6, which is tied for the fourth most in the NHL over the span. He was the only NHL player who registered at least 20 points and a plus-10 rating during the month of November. According to NHL Stats and Information, Panarin's 23 points in November were the most any Ranger has recorded in November of one season in franchise history. In addition, Panarin’s 23 points in November were the most a Ranger has registered in any calendar month since Jaromir Jagr tallied 26 points in March during the 2005-06 season.

You get the point . . . he had a terrific November and is happy with his choice to sign with the Rangers, even if he hasn’t exactly taken advantage of living in the New York area yet.

“I’m very happy here and every day I wake up and enjoy,” he said. “But right now . . . you’re like a robot — wake up, food, sleep. Nervous if game bad. Happy if good game. Maybe after season, more time to enjoy.”

Panarin’s not having fun? You could have fooled Quinn.

“His personality — this guy never stops smiling,” Quinn said. “He enjoys life. If I signed an $81 million contract, I’d enjoy life, too. But that’s not the reason this guy smiles every day. This guy enjoys hockey, loves hockey, loves coming to the rink, loves getting better.”

Notes & quotes: Kaapo Kakko replaced Ryan Strome on the top power-play unit in practice. “Obviously, our power play hasn’t been good enough,” Quinn said . . . Marc Staal (ankle surgery) and Greg McKegg (lower-body injury) practiced and Quinn said both, one or neither could play Thursday.

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