Artemi Panarin was close to being ready to play Tuesday night, when the Rangers hosted the Devils at Madison Square Garden in the final game of what turned out to be a seven-game homestand, but ultimately the Russian forward missed his second straight game with a lower-body injury. That prompted coach David Quinn to stay with the same reconfigured second line he used Friday against the Boston Bruins, a line that featured 19-year-old Alexis Lafreniere on the left, 20-year-old Kaapo Kakko on the right, and 27-year-old Ryan Strome in the middle.
It was a line that didn’t produce any goals in the shutout loss to the Bruins but did generate some dangerous scoring chances. And when asked if there’s a chance the line could stay together even after Panarin comes back, Quinn said it is possible.
"I think we're open for anything right now, considering our offensive production,’’ Quinn said before Tuesday’s game.
Strome, the center who seemed to click so well with Panarin last season, admitted he felt "a little bit old’’ when he played between the two youngsters for the first time on Friday (Kakko was still 19 at the time, before turning 20 on Saturday). But he thought the trio performed well together because all three players were able to play their own games, without worrying about always trying to run every play through the Hart Trophy finalist.
"A lot of times when you're playing with a guy like Panarin, you're deferring a lot,’’ Strome said. "I think it's easy to try to get him the puck a little bit more. But I think all three of us were skating [Friday] . . . we were playing hard. I think whenever you play with guys that are high draft picks, or highly skilled guys, I think it's just a matter of competing and working. And I think we all did that.’’
Quinn also acknowledged that every player who plays on a line with Panarin feels the obligation to get the puck to him, which, the coach said, "is never a bad thought.’’ But without Panarin, Quinn said Strome seemed to take on the responsibility of helping out and leading the two young wingers.
"I think he's taking a little more charge of the situation, and I thought he did a good job the other night,’’ Quinn said. "I thought he played well, I thought there was constant communication with these guys when they come in on the bench. Stromer is a guy that's got a great personality, and he's talkative, and he's always involved. So I think that's good for these two young players to play with him.’’
Of course, as well as the threesome played Friday, the Rangers were still shut out for the second time in three games. And with the Rangers scoring an average of 2.39 goals per game — ranked 26th in the 31-team league — entering Tuesday, the pressure was on Strome and the kids to actually finish some of the chances they create.
"One of the things that I think they can do a little bit better job is . . . off of the chances, I think sometimes we . . . feel sorry for ourselves that it didn't go in,’’ Quinn said. "And we certainly don't quit on the play, but there's not that urgency to finish the play. So one of the things I think, not just with that line, [but] I think with our whole team, we've just got to continue to have an urgency after a scoring chance to finish it. Because I think there's more opportunities there from that original chance. And at this level, that's usually where you create a lot of your offense.’’