Artemi Panarin – Alexis Lafreniere – Mika Zibanejad. No, that’s not a new line combination, although perhaps it should be? At this point, Rangers head coach David Quinn might as well have at it, and let it all hang out.
The New York Rangers aren’t playing entirely bad in spite of Thursday’s 4-0 shutout loss, which made them 0-5 on the season against the Boston Bruins who are currently in fourth place in the MassMutual East Division. The Rangers had 27 shots on goal — same as the Bruins — and many were inside the faceoff circles or top of the slot. Jaroslav Halak definitely earned his shutout. However, Alexandar Georgiev had another off night, allowing four goals on 14 shots before being pulled at 4:52 of the second period. He was yanked at 17:14 of the first period in his previous start on March 7, after three goals on six shots, which ended in a 5-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Georgiev, the Rangers’ No. 2 goaltender — but who’s capable of carrying at least 40 percent of the load — was hopefully going to step in and man the ship while Igor Shesterkin rests his strained groin. Although Keith Kinkaid has made some very good saves, the Rangers need more than a third-string goalie at this point if they’re going to salvage the season and make a serious bid for the playoffs.
They need to do something and maybe a Panarin, Zibanejad and Lafreniere line combination is the way to go from here. When asked after Thursday’s loss if the team needed to play more desperately, Quinn said, “I don’t like to use the word desperation. I think urgency. We have to understand how quickly this season is going to come upon us. We won three in a row, now we’ve lost three in a row. We’ve got to make sure we stop the bleeding. No one’s quittin’.”
Panarin is Skating
“The curls are flowing and he hasn’t missed a beat. Feels like we got the band back together again,” Ryan Strome said after Friday’s practice when he and Panarin skated on the same line together. After the skate, Quinn said Panarin and Strome would be re-connected for Saturday’s game. Strome iterated his excitement after practice stating, “I think just his infectious energy [gives] a little bit of a jolt to the group.” (from ‘It looks as if Artemi Panarin will be back in the Rangers’ lineup Saturday,’ Newsday, 03/12/2021)
Panarin joined the team in Beantown on Wednesday after a two-and-a-half week leave of absence due to a fabricated story leaked in a Russian publication by his former KHL coach. The Rangers need a shock to the system and let’s hope Panarin provides the jolt.
Is Zibanejad Healthy or Not?
There hasn’t been much noise made about Zibanejad’s health after coming down with COVID-19 prior to the start of the season. However, there seems to be some lingering effects. Coming off a career season, he hasn’t produced much at all. He’s only 45 percent on faceoffs, which isn’t horrible but it’s not helping much, and he only has nine points in 25 games. That puts him on a pace for fewer than 25 points for the 56-game 2020-21 season. He had 41 goals with 75 points in 57 games last season.
Watching him against the Bruins on Thursday, he seemed peaked and his signature initial hop in his stride wasn’t there and hasn’t been all season. Maybe that’s due to the initial lockdown — it’s possible he didn’t train like he wanted to during the offseason. Everyone responds to certain things differently and not everyone responds to different things well. Hopefully, he can put the first half of the season behind him and get back to form.
Question marks are maybe a bit harsh after only 25 games, but it’s certainly worth looking at when you’re talking about a first-overall pick and two-time Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year winner. The only other two-time winner of that award is Sidney Crosby. Crosby, who played with the same Quebec Major Junior Hockey League organization as Lafreniere (Rimouski), had 102 points in 81 games during his rookie campaign. It should be mentioned that Lafreniere, who is 19 years old, didn’t get to have a proper training camp as every other rookie had in years before this COVID-19 shortened season. That’s something that has even affected veterans — Zibanejad is surely one of them. Lafreniere has three goals, four assists, and he’s a minus-8 in 25 games.
Kravtsov – KHL Playoffs
Vitali Kravtsov’s season with Traktor of the KHL is over. They lost their first-round playoff series, four games to one. Traktor won their first game and lost the next four. Kravtsov, the Rangers’ first-round, ninth-overall pick in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, had two goals and two assists in the five-game series. He finished the regular season with 24 points in 49 games. However, scouts have been more impressed with his newly developed 200-foot game. That’s what the Rangers are expecting, along with some scoring punch upon his return to North America.
Chris Dury, Rangers’ associate general manager, says of Kravtsov, “He’s maturing, on and off the ice, and we see and hear a lot of good things,” from (Vitali Kravtsov expected to join NY Rangers in two weeks; what will his role be?, USA Today, 3/12/21). The Rangers expect Kravtsov to be skating with the team in about two-and-a-half weeks after traveling from Russia and going through all of the COVID-19 protocols. Drury also commented on Kravtsov’s “high-end maneuverability” and “puck-possession plays and the things he can create in small areas, with his hands, his feet and his brain.” The Rangers and their fans are waiting for him to come in and make a difference straight away.
The Second Half
As we near the second half of the season, the Rangers are on the verge of falling 11 points behind the Bruins for the fourth and final playoff spot in the MassMutual East Division if they lose Saturday’s game in Boston. They need to turn things around fast. Maybe at some point, we’ll see Panarin, Zibanejad and Lafreniere on the same line. Or, will they throw Kravtsov on the right wing with Chris Kreider and Zibanejad? Either way, the Rangers have some great options.