EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Rangers coach Gerard Gallant did his media briefing while wearing a mask, so it wasn’t possible to see if he was grinning ear to ear. But yes, he definitely was happy to see Artemi Panarin practicing with the team Sunday.
"It was great to see him back, for sure,’’ Gallant said about getting Panarin back after the Russian forward missed four games while in COVID-19 protocol. "He was excited. He feels real good. Obviously, he’s a key player for us, so it’s good to have him back.’’
But just after Gallant welcomed Panarin back to the team, the coach had to go away. A little more than an hour after Gallant addressed reporters outside the Kings’ practice facility, the team announced that he had entered COVID-19 protocol.
Hartford Wolf Pack coach Kris Knoblauch, who served as the Rangers’ acting coach for six games last season when then-coach David Quinn and his entire bench staff tested positive for COVID-19, again will serve as acting coach when the Blueshirts play the third game of their five-game road trip Monday against the Kings.
The Gallant news illustrated just how wild and unpredictable things are with NHL teams these days. During his three-minute post-practice chat with reporters, Gallant was asked if getting Panarin back — and also getting defenseman Patrik Nemeth back from a four-game absence due to a personal issue — made it seem as if things are getting somewhat back to normal.
"Yeah,’’ he said, "100%. But tomorrow is a game. So today means nothing.’’
Panarin, who is tied for the team lead in scoring with 36 points (10 goals, 26 assists), said he is ready to play Monday after one practice with the team.
"The first couple of days were not my best, but I’m fine,’’ said Panarin, who began feeling ill the previous Sunday and tested positive that day. "It was tough to sit on the couch and watch the team play, but I’m happy they won a lot of their games [3-1 in the four games he missed]. So that’s good news.’’
There was a possibility that Panarin, who had been skating on his own at home while he was out, could have cleared protocol in time to rejoin the Rangers for Saturday’s game in Anaheim, but he did not play in the 4-1 win over the Ducks.
Instead, he joined the team for the final three games of the current road trip, which after Monday will move to San Jose on Thursday before ending Saturday in Philadelphia. He said his main concern is that he may have lost some conditioning in the week he was away from the team.
He said his teammates were happy to see him when he walked into the practice rink locker room Sunday morning, but he joked, "I don’t know if that’s not fake [affection].’’
Knoblauch and current Rangers assistant Gord Murphy — then an associate coach with Knoblauch in Hartford — came up to coach the Rangers last March 17 when Quinn and his bench staff all had COVID. The Rangers beat Philadelphia, 9-0, in Knoblauch’s first game and went 4-2 in his time running the bench.
After Quinn returned, Knoblauch stayed on for one more game as an assistant before returning to Hartford.