For weeks, as the return of No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad drew closer and closer, folks have been speculating how, exactly, Rangers coach David Quinn would reconfigure his lineup to fit Zibanejad into it.
The top three lines, after all, had meshed so well together in Zibanejad’s absence, driving the Rangers to an 8-4-1 record during the 13 games he’d missed. It seemed a shame to break the lines up. Many speculated that the easiest thing to do would be to shift Ryan Strome to the wing, so he could stay on the same line with Artemi Panarin, and the other centers would be able to maintain their spots. But, when asked last week about that, Quinn insisted that Strome, who had played so well in the middle of the first line, would remain at center.
Wednesday, though, when push came to shove, Quinn changed his mind.
Zibanejad returned to the lineup Wednesday against the Carolina Hurricanes at the Garden, and he slotted back onto the first line, between long-time linemates Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich. The intrigue came on the second line, where Quinn broke his promise to keep Strome at center, moving the 26-year-old to the right wing, where he played with 20-year-old Filip Chytil and Panarin.
“I love keeping Strome and Panarin together because of the chemistry they have, and believe me, this was a long-debated decision on how to handle this situation,’’ Quinn said before the game. “And I'm not going to tell you that, by the middle of the second period of this is going to look the same. It's something that I want to see how it turns and there might be changes within the game. Because again, this is a lot of moving parts, and with Mika being out so long, a lot of guys have kind of established themselves in certain areas. and this is a work in progress.
“And it's a good problem to have.’’
Strome had initially been the second-line center at the start of the season, with Chytil having been sent to AHL Hartford to start the season. But Strome had dropped to the third line until Quinn, with the team struggling, decided to break up the duo of Panarin and Zibanejad and dropped Panarin to the second line, with Strome and Buchnevich, for the Oct. 27 game against Boston. That was the game where Zibanejad was injured, on a first-period hit by the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron, and the next game, with Zibanejad out, Quinn elevated Strome to the first line against the Tampa Bay Lightning, with Panarin on his left and checker Jesper Fast on the right.
Chytil, meanwhile, played well in Hartford, and was called up to take Zibanejad’s place in the lineup. He scored a goal in his first game, against the Lightning, and had seven goals, two assists and nine points in 13 games, entering Wednesday.
Strome had an assist and an empty-net goal against the Lightning in a 4-1 Rangers win and he, Panarin and Fast stayed together for the next 12 games, during which they meshed together, and the Rangers won seven times (7-4-1). Strome had four goals and seven assists (11 points) in that span, and Panarin had seven goals and 11 assists (18 points). Entering Wednesday Panarin and Strome were the top two scorers on the team. Panarin entered with 12 goals and 18 assists for 30 points, while Strome was 6-16-22.
Zibanejad, meanwhile, got to play with the two players he has played most with in his time with the Rangers, both of whom are playing very well. Kreider had the tying goal in Monday’s come-from-behind, 3-2 win over Minnesota. Buchnevich was the team’s third-leading scorer, behind Panarin and Strome, with 18 points (four goals, 14 assists).