By the time the puck was dropped for the opening faceoff of Saturday’s game in Washington against the East Division-leading Capitals, the Rangers were long over the shock of their team being coached by the Hartford Wolf Pack coaching staff in the wake of the Rangers staff having been placed on the team’s COVID-19 list.
Hey, it’s 2020-21. Stuff happens.
"I think that is the overarching theme of the season, is chaos,’’ Chris Kreider said Friday, after the Rangers’ 2-1 loss to the Caps in the front end of the teams’ weekend back-to-back set. "Every day, it feels like something else. The schedule's obviously a bit wacky, and with everything going on in the world, it's a true test of character, because it's something new every single day. I’m really proud of how our group's handled it, how our group's competed over the last two games. I mean at this point we're almost not surprised.
"I think it's brought us closer together as a group, and it's giving us plenty of opportunities to face adversity and try to overcome it,’’ Kreider, the longest-tenured Ranger and one of the team’s alternate captains, said.
"I think, as a group, you come together,’’ Mika Zibanejad, another alternate captain, said. "It’s just, kind of, go out and play, and trust that we have what it takes to win a hockey game.’’
With coach David Quinn, and assistants Jacques Martin, Greg Brown and David Oliver still unavailable because they were on the COVID-19 list, Hartford coach Kris Knoblauch, associate Hartford coach Gord Murphy, and Rangers associate GM Chris Drury were behind the bench again Saturday night, for the third straight game. The team had gone 1-1 in the first two, destroying the Philadelphia Flyers, 9-0, on Wednesday and to the Caps on two late Alex Ovechkin goals.
The coaching staff switcheroo was the latest curveball thrown to the Rangers in a season full of them around the league. Several teams – the Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, Flyers and now the Boston Bruins – have been shut down after having too many players on the COVID-19 list at the same time, and the Rangers have had a couple of changes to their schedule because of the coronavirus. A couple teams have had coaches on the COVID-19 list, too, so that was not unique.
But no other team lost its best offensive player for nine games because he was accused of beating up a woman 10 years ago, as did the Rangers, who were without Artemi Panarin for more than two weeks when he took a leave of absence after the publication of an article in Russia in which a former KHL coach of his accused him of that. That was different.
The Rangers went 4-5 in the nine games Panarin missed (they were 0-2 in the two games he missed earlier in the season with an injury) and the 29-year-old Russian – who scored the Rangers’ only goal Friday – has been a force since he returned. Panarin had scored goals in three straight games entering Saturday, and had three goals and four assists (seven points) in four games since his return to action.
Panarin entered Saturday second on the team with 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in 18 games and he had a personal point-scoring streak of six games, during which the Rangers had a record of 4-1-1.
"It's amazing what he does for our lineup,’’ fourth-line center Kevin Rooney said of Panarin. "He's obviously a really special player, probably the best player I've played with. And, for me, he even makes me better. He makes everybody in the whole organization better, which is huge when you have a guy like that on your team.’’