When he spoke to reporters in Nashville last week, Artemi Panarin made a point, a couple times, to mention that he missed playing with Ryan Strome, his usual centerman, who missed the entire, four-game road trip while on COVID-19 protocol.
But as the Rangers returned home to Madison Square Garden Monday for their second home game of the season, against the Calgary Flames, Strome was back in the Blueshirts’ lineup, and back on a line with his pal Panarin.
"He's a good player,’’ Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said before the game of Strome. "He's a top six player for us [and] plays both [power play and penalty kill]. He’s an important guy down the middle for us. He does everything well for us. So, when you miss a top guy, you definitely miss him. But we were fortunate enough we went 4-0 without him.’’
Gallant said Strome, who returned to practice Sunday, after the team returned home following the trip, looked good in practice.
"He looked good… He looks really refreshed,’’ Gallant said. "I don't think he felt great the first few days, but after that, he felt pretty good, and he was doing his workouts. So he looked good.’’
Strome last played in the Rangers’ last home game, the overtime loss to Dallas on Oct. 14. The next day he was placed into COVID-19 protocol and was unable to play in any of the games on the road trip. What made things worse for the Rangers was that they then lost Kaapo Kakko, who had been the right wing on the line with Panarin and Strome, after the first period of the first game of the trip, so for the final three games, plus two periods, they team was without two of their top six forwards.
Kakko, who went on injured reserve, was eligible to come off IR on Sunday, but he did not, and was not in the lineup Monday.
But for Panarin – who played with center Mika Zibanejad and right wing Chris Kreider for the previous two games, plus one period – hopefully, Strome’s return will jumpstart him. Panarin has started the season slowly, getting just one goal, and four points, in the first six games of the season, entering last night.
At five-on-five, he had just one assist, though his only goal did come in an even strength situation – three-on-three, during the 2-1 overtime win in Toronto. But he has not seemed comfortable. He had tried to force too many passes, and committed some costly turnovers, and his analytics were not good. He had just 10 shots on goal, created one rebound, and generated one high danger chance.
But, as he said in Nashville, he and Strome are comfortable together because they know each other so well, and know where each other is going to be on the ice. He said it is easier to play with Strome. The two have been nearly inseparable linemates since early in Panarin’s first season with the team, in 2019-20, when then-coach David Quinn decided to take Panarin off Zibanejad’s line and put Panarin and Strome together. Panarin had career highs in goals (32), assists (63) and points (95) that season, and was a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player.
Gallant was asked what Strome’s return could do for Panarin.
"They love playing together,’’ he said. "They're good friends, and good linemates. So you know it definitely helps [Panarin], but for me, he played fine on the road trip. [But] Strome is his regular centerman, and he's used to him. He's comfortable with him. So it's good to get them back [together].’’