Artemi Panarin joins Mike Zibanejad on Rangers’ top line


NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gerard Gallant fairly chuckled when asked whether he checks with his players regarding with whom they would like to play.

“No, I’m not going to ask the players who they want to play with,” the Rangers head coach said following Wednesday’s practice in preparation for Thursday’s match against the Predators. “That would make a long time for me, because a lot of players will say, ‘Oh, I’d to play with Mika [Zibanejad].’ I think 11 forwards would be saying they want to play with Mika.”

But do you know who will be playing on the left side with Zibanejad against the Predators? Artemi Panarin, that’s who, with Chris Kreider on the right as the Blueshirts load up in the absence of top-six forwards Ryan Strome and Kaapo Kakko.

“I feel pretty good about it,” Panarin, who has struck up a special partnership with Strome over the last two years, said without use of an interpreter. “[Mika] is a great player, Kreids is a great player, scoring [three] goals so far, it’s going to be good chemistry.

“We’ve played before, too, not pretty successful but sometimes pretty well. So we’ll see what happens. But of course playing with Mika is special. He’s rich now.”

Artemi Panarin (left) will be on the same line as Mika Zibanejad for their next game against the Predators.
Artemi Panarin (left) will be on the same line as Mika Zibanejad for their next game against the Predators.
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That last reference, made with a twinkle in the Russian Rockette’s eye, was to the eight-year, $68 million contract extension Zibanejad signed just before the start of the season.

Panarin and Zibanejad opened as linemates, with Pavel Buchnevich on the right, for the first three games of the 2019-20 season before then-head coach David Quinn moved Panarin to Strome’s left side so the Rangers could present a dual threat and matchup headache.

The winger and center played 307:37 together at five-on-five over the past two seasons (per Naturalstattrick), generating positive possession numbers and a 20/16 goals for/against differential, but with a below-average 44.1. They have shared the ice for 9:52 of five-on-five hockey thus far this year.

Gallant paired them for the third period of Monday’s 2-1 overtime victory in Toronto after a second period in which the wounded Rangers were barely able to generate an attack. Panarin scored the game-winner off a faceoff win by Zibanejad in the three-on-three competition.

“They’re both skilled, highly talented and top players for us, so I have no issue putting them together,” said Gallant, whose team had scored four goals at five-on-five through the 2-1-1 start. “We try to worry about our team more than about a couple of individual players.

“They make us better. I want them on the same line. But it’s not about one line on the hockey team, you’ve got to have four lines going. Sometimes we’ll put them together, but when some people come back, you mix your lines up. But it went well the other night.”

Panarin, so sympatico with the playmaking Strome, will naturally be required to make some adjustments playing with Zibanejad, who is (much) more inclined to shoot the puck. Panarin, who wanted to make sure everyone knows, “I miss Stromer,” addressed that issue.

“Probably I need to work a little more [about understanding what we need to do], because last time we played, it looked like me and Mika were just waiting for the puck and just standing there,” Panarin said. “For example, the [Boston] line with [Brad] Marchand, [David] Pastrnak, and [Patrice] Bergeron, I think they have the success because they work together, and [think] the same.

“I don’t want to say that when I play with Stromer that I don’t work as hard, but Stromer knows where I am and I know where he is. That is what I mean by needing to work harder. With Mika and Kreids right now, it’s new, so there has to be more.”

With the Blueshirts loading up at the top, Filip Chytil will skate between Alexis Lafreniere and Sammy Blais on the second line. Kevin Rooney will be flanked by Barclay Goodrow and Dryden Hunt while Greg McKegg will have Ryan Reaves and likely Julien Gauthier on his wings on the fourth line, though Morgan Barron mixed in with that last group at practice.

Though without two of their top six forwards, the Rangers have won two straight, even if it took heroics from goaltender Igor Shesterkin (expected to play on Thursday) to accomplish the feat. It was essential for the Rangers to get on the board quickly following their 0-1-1 start under a new coach while playing a new system.

“One hundred percent it was very important,” Panarin said. “To be honest, I was really nervous after the first two games but right now it’s so much better. I think we’re playing the right way. And Igor helped us too so I hope he can play like that all year.”



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