NEW YORK — Artemi Panarin is the catalyst, there’s no doubt about that. Panarin added two more assists on Sunday to his remarkable total so far this season, giving him 24 points in 14 games, one off the league lead.
But you need a finisher. Alexis Lafrenière has been on Panarin’s opposite wing all season and the 22-year-old is growing rapidly into the player everyone thought he would be when he came to the Rangers as the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft. It’s been a windy road these last three seasons but Lafrenière is quieting the doubters who wondered if he’d ever be good enough to live up to that lofty draft standing in New York.
“He grew up enough and now he plays like a great hockey player,” Panarin said. And the Rangers are reaping the rewards.
Lafrenière scored twice in regulation, the last to tie it with 11 seconds to go, then put a filthy backhand under the crossbar for the only shootout goal in a 4-3 Rangers win over the Blue Jackets.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) November 13, 2023
The Rangers now have five days until their next game, are 9-0-1 in their last 10 and wondering about the status of Ryan Lindgren, who exited early in the third period on Sunday after taking a high, hard hit from Sean Kuraly that drove Lindgren’s head into the glass.
Peter Laviolette said Lindgren is day to day, possibly joining a too-long list of regulars who could use this five-day break to further their recoveries. Adam Fox (sprained knee) has now missed four of the required 10 games he has to miss being on long-term injured reserve. Filip Chytil (concussion) hasn’t skated since he was hurt 10 days ago. Igor Shesterkin (soreness) had a full skate on Sunday morning but hasn’t played since that fateful game against the Hurricanes in which Fox and Chytil were both injured.
So this break comes at a decent time, even if it might disrupt what the Rangers have going. On Sunday, that was an intense third period to try and rally after a couple of bad bounces led to Columbus goals in the second and a couple of raw deals for the Rangers on reviews that ran through Toronto’s Situation Room.
Lindgren’s play was the last of those, with the on-ice officials calling for a boarding major on Kuraly that was reduced to a minor after a review. “I thought they had the right call,” Laviolette said, noting that Kuraly and Lindgren had been jousting off and on all night. An earlier review of a Will Cuylle shot that appeared to be covered by Elvis Merzlikins in the net was deemed no goal after a lengthy review, though everyone watching the replay saw the puck inside the net.
“The game wasn’t going our way for most of the night,” Laviolette said, “and we went out in the third and really delivered hard to try and get a point, two points.”
With no game for a week, Laviolette rode his big boys. Panarin played 28:02, the most he’s ever played in an NHL game across 604 of them. Erik Gustafsson played 26:18, K’Andre Miller 27:29. Vincent Trocheck was on the ice for 26:28.
And Lafrenière earned all of his 24:12 on Sunday, including the six-on-five assignment he got in the final minutes. He snapped off a pretty feed from Trocheck to put the Rangers up by a goal in the second, then was in the perfect spot to Merzlikins’ left to bury a nifty pass by Chris Kreider in tight to send the Garden into a frenzy in the closing seconds.
The days of healthy scratches and getting single-digit minutes feel long ago. Heck, even wondering where he fit during a lackluster preseason feels long ago — Lafrenière is third on the team in goals, tied for third in points and on a gaudy 41-goal pace. “It’s still really early in the season,” he said. “We got a lot of games to play. Just try to stay consistent and keep playing well.”
Panarin and Lafrenière came out of the gate to the season strong with Chytil between them. The switch to Trocheck has been seamless — Trocheck is having perhaps his best stretch as a Ranger, with seven points in his last four games.
“From a five-on-five standpoint they’re probably our most effective line,” Laviolette said. “They’re in the offensive zone and they generate chances constantly. They’ve done a really good job of establishing that offensive-zone identity. And with that, you start to see the confidence and you start to see the growth (with Lafrenière).”
Panarin can see it too. “I don’t if someone can control that,” he said of Lafrenière scoring way above his career average so far. “It’s nice to see Laffy’s hard work pay off.”
(Photo: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)