Artemi Panarin was dazzling, Chris Kreider was dominant and the Rangers have one day shy of six weeks to figure out just how to keep what likely is the NHL’s most dynamic one-two punch down the left side intact beyond the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
They’re going to have to figure out how to convince Kreider, who notched his eighth goal in the last 13 games and 15th overall in Monday’s 6-2 Garden rout of the Islanders, to forego a shot at the open market merely months before he’s eligible to reach it.
Because it makes little sense for the Blueshirts to have invested in the incandescent Panarin, who scored two more goals and added three more assists and whose season is beginning to resemble Jaromir Jagr’s franchise record-setting 2005-06, and wheel one of their most important players for draft choices and futures.
“He’s got a skill set I’ve never seen before,” Kreider said of Panarin, with whom he teams on the first power-play unit. “I don’t think it can be duplicated.
“I mean, come on. It’s insane.”
The future may not be now and it may not arrive next year, but it sure will be a whole lot closer with No. 20 under contract rather than playing for someone else. It is going to be tricky, no doubt about that, but let’s just say it behooves general manager Jeff Gorton to at least get the ball rolling after somehow having gone this far without a single substantive conversation with the winger’s representative regarding a new deal.
Could it take the same seven years at $7 million per that Lou Lamoriello forked over to Anders Lee to keep the captain from straying off the Island last summer to keep Kreider in the only NHL uniform he’s ever worn? Yes, it could. Might it be for a year or two too many? Might it be for a half-million too much? Yes, it might. But you can fret over the 2025-26 and 2026-27 seasons while I’m more focused on the next two, three, four and five years.
The focus was admirable in this one, but so was the compete level, so was the combativeness, and so was the way Team Anti-Structure seduced Barry Trotz’s Team Structure into a wide-open affair replete with odd-man rushes and wide-open spaces.
Thus, Rangers hockey in the first of three installments in nine days of the Battle of New York, with Round 2 set for Thursday at the Coliseum. There was an atmosphere and attitude on Broadway for this one. Fists were thrown, messages were sent and the Rangers left the building with three victories in their past four games and within five points of a playoff spot.
These were the Rangers moving the puck out of the zone. These were the Rangers taking relative care of the puck. These were the Rangers overwhelming the Islanders by generating momentum from one shift to the next, getting Panarin on with Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast followed by Kreider with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich and tilting the ice toward Semyon Varlamov’s end.
These were the Rangers accelerating the rebuild.
“Because we’re so young, the only frame of reference I have is to college, when we were always the youngest team,” Kreider, physically imposing throughout the match, said of his days at Boston College. “We had guys there just like we have guys here who were trying to figure it out.
“It’s amazing how much better individuals get when they get it and go about it the right way. So I don’t know if this was us at our best as much as I just think it’s a natural progression. It’s not going to be pretty every night but we’re going in the right direction.”
Kreider’s goal at 5:06 of the second period broke a 1-1 tie, the winger gaining position in front to deflect Panarin’s 60-foot fling from the top past Varlamov. Adam Fox scored a bad-angle goal to make it 3-1 at 11:11 before Panarin scored a pair of exquisite goals in the third period and Jacob Trouba pounded one home on the power play to extend the lead to 6-1. The Blueshirts, 1-for-2 with the man-advantage, are 8-for-24 over their past nine matches.
“You look at the best power plays in the league, and four if not five of the guys have been together for five or 10 years,” Kreider said. “They’ve got a little more confidence in each other, they don’t have to think as much. I think you have to recognize that.”
Management has to recognize that it is important to keep Kreider, the club’s third senior player behind fellow endangered species Henrik Lundqvist and Marc Staal. It is on Gorton and team president John Davidson to get it done.
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