Artemi Panarin had nine points in 12 games before the Rangers took on the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in Game 6 of the teams’ second-round playoff series.
The Rangers’ leading scorer during the regular season, with 96 points in 75 games, Panarin hadn’t been able to carve up the Hurricanes’ defense in the playoffs the way he did the rest of the NHL during the season. He had only two points in the first five games against Carolina.
Chris Kreider, meanwhile, had one goal in the first five games. He scored a career-high 52 goals in the regular season and had five in seven games against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round.
So as the Rangers went into Saturday night down three games to two and facing elimination in the best-of-seven series, they needed to figure out how to get more production from their top scorer and their top goal-scorer as they tried to force a Game 7 on Monday in Raleigh.
And here was one radical idea: What if coach Gerard Gallant played Kreider and Panarin on the same line with center Mika Zibanejad?
Zibanejad led the team in playoff scoring heading into Game 6 with 15 points (six goals, nine assists), but he’d largely been neutralized in the games in Carolina while matched up against the Hurricanes’ checking line of center Jordan Staal between wingers Nino Niederreiter and Jesper Fast, a former Ranger.
The matchup of Staal vs. Zibanejad was less of an issue in the games at the Garden, where Gallant had the last line change and usually could get Zibanejad away from Staal.
But if the Rangers were able to force a Game 7, Gallant was going to have to figure out a way to counter the Staal line Monday in Carolina. Maybe putting Zibanejad and Panarin together would do it.
The issue with playing Panarin, Zibanejad and Kreider on the same line is that Kreider and Panarin both are left wings, so one of them would be playing out of position on the right side. But time was running out on the Rangers’ playoff run, and besides, the three played together a handful of times in the regular season.
Panarin and Zibanejad have not played together much in the three seasons since Panarin signed with the Rangers as a free agent in the summer of 2019. But the option has always been there for Gallant and his predecessor, David Quinn, in times of desperation.
Facing elimination Saturday night would qualify as that.
Panarin’s only two points in the series entering Saturday were assists on power-play goals by Zibanejad in Games 3 and 5. Gallant, though, did not want to put the Rangers’ back-to-the-wall position Saturday on Panarin.
“I can’t pick on Panarin,’’ Gallant said Friday after the Rangers returned from Raleigh and prepped for Saturday’s game. “I thought two games ago [Game 4, a 4-1 Rangers win], he was our best player. He competed. He didn’t get a whole lot of points [zero], but I thought he competed and played hard.
“There’s not much room,’’ Gallant said. “You can look at all our top guys if you’re going to talk about Panarin and say there wasn’t much room for them [in Game 5]. We didn’t create many scoring chances.’’
The Rangers sure didn’t create many chances for Panarin, who had no shots on goal and only one shot attempt in the entire game.
Panarin entered Game 6 fourth on the team in playoff points. Zibanejad, Adam Fox (4-10-14) and Andrew Copp (5-5-10) were ahead of him.
After the Rangers played well but lost the first two games of the series in Raleigh — scoring only one goal — Gallant changed up his line combinations for Game 3, putting third-line center Filip Chytil on the right wing of the Kreider-Zibanejad line and 2020 No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere on the right wing of the Panarin-Ryan Strome line.
Maybe changing the lines up again for Game 6 was the way to go.
The Rangers didn’t have anything to lose.