Henrik Lundqvist was saying he was certain Artemi Panarin’s return to Columbus for Thursday night’s match against the Blue Jackets, would become a topic of pregame conversation among his teammates.
“I’m sure it is going to be a very special game for him, so of course there will be a few words before the game,” said Lundqvist, who will serve as Alexandar Georgiev’s backup. “You want to be at your best as a team for him. It’s that way whenever you have a player go back to a place where he was for such a long time.”
Panarin, by the way, played only two years with Columbus.
“No!” the goaltender exclaimed upon being so informed. “That can’t be right … Two years? … Really? Well, he was such a big presence, it feels like a lot more. I never would have guessed.
“But that doesn’t change what I said about wanting to make it a special night for him.”
Yep, it was two years in Columbus for Panarin, who scored eight goals in eight games against the Rangers for the Blue Jackets, so maybe that’s why Lundqvist thought he was there for so much longer. Two years in Columbus before the electric winger said goodbye to the small midwestern burg and hello to the bright lights of Broadway upon signing a seven year, $81.5 million free-agent deal on July 1.
“I’m pretty excited. It’s not going to be a regular game for me,” Panarin said following Wednesday’s practice. “It’s going to be a different game, I’m going to try to show the best I can.”
Panarin at his best would be routine. The 28-year-old Ranger, who plays the game with a twinkle in his eye, leads his team with 12 goals, 21 assists and 33 points. If he has not been at his best in every single one of the club’s 26 contests, he’s been close enough. He is having the best year of a Rangers free-agent signing since Marian Gaborik opened his first season in New York by scoring 19 goals (with 14 assists) in his first 22 games in 2009-10.
“This guy never stops smiling. He enjoys life,” David Quinn said. “If I signed an $81 million contract, I’d enjoy life, too, but that’s not the reason this guy smiles every day.
“He loves hockey, he loves playing hockey, he loves coming to the rink every day, he loves getting better. I think about some of the reactions our players have on the bench during the course of a game when he does something. Literally, guys are elbowing each other, [asking], ‘Did you see that?’
“That’s the player he is and there aren’t a lot of guys who play like that in the league.”
Panarin had no issues with the Jackets, or their coach, John Tortorella. He simply dreamed of playing in a major market. He simply dreamed of playing on Broadway. So he rejected a Hail Mary eight-year, $96 million offer from Columbus on the eve of July 1. And he rejected a seven-year offer from the Islanders for what was believed up to $12.5 million per season.
“Every day, I wake up and enjoy,” Panarin said.
So far, so good for the 13-10-3 Rangers. So far, not quite as good for the 11-12-4 Blue Jackets, who also lost goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and 2019 rental acquisition Matt Duchene as free agents.
When Rick Nash returned to Columbus for the first time with the Rangers on Mar. 21, 2014, No. 61 was booed, and loudly, for the most part, though there was also a vocal segment of the crowd that cheered the one-time captain of the Jackets, who’d asked out after nine seasons. The game was an emotional one, Nash fought Matt Calvert, threw jabs at Bobrovsky and played one of his most inspired games as a Blueshirt in a 3-1 victory.
Panarin, who spent the first two years of his career in Chicago before being sent to Columbus in a cap-induced trade for Brandon Saad, was only there for two years. Indeed, Panarin was more animated discussing his stay in Chicago and speaking about the impact Patrick Kane had on his career, than he was talking about Columbus.
Now, though a business trip back home. There will be bread on the line and Bread in the building. No one should be surprised if Panarin produces something special.
“I think it’s an obvious situation where the guys will be talking about it and we’ll have a little fun with it,” said Quinn. “He loves the pressure, he loves the spotlight, and I don’t mean that in an [arrogant] way. He loves the pressure and spotlight of, “I’m going to take my team on my shoulders and help us win a hockey game spotlight.’
“I think this is just another moment for him to do what he’s been doing for us since Day 1.”