VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Artemi Panarin, half joking, said he doesn’t know if it was the Skittles he ate before the Rangers’ game Saturday night or the team’s trade two days earlier for his friend, Vladimir Tarasenko, that fueled him to a career game with four goals and five points at Carolina.
Either way, the version of Panarin who lit up the Hurricanes is the one the Rangers will need down the final stretch of the regular season and then into the playoffs. It will be imperative for Panarin to be one of the most feared scorers and playmakers on the ice each and every game. Then and only then will the Blueshirts have a legitimate chance to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
“I feel a different level right now,” Panarin told The Post after practice at Rogers Arena on Tuesday. “I don’t know if I can explain that great feeling. After that game, it doesn’t matter. You forget about it.”
Moving on to the next game mentally is the way Panarin operates in his eighth NHL season and fourth with the Rangers. He felt pretty confident in practice on Tuesday, he said, but he retreated to a wait-and-see mindset when asked if his confidence would carry over to the next game, against the Canucks on Wednesday night.
Considering the fact that before he had his outburst Saturday, he was coming off his second eight-game stretch this season without a goal, it’s understandable why Panarin doesn’t want to get ahead of himself.
“When you’re not scoring [for] that long of time … I usually have more goals than I have right now,” he said. “That pisses me off a little. And then when I have the chances, [it hits] the post or something. That’s more frustrating.”
Maybe it has been a little easier for Panarin to handle given the Rangers’ recent success, as winners of their past five games and seven of their past 10. The team is No. 1 is Panarin’s mind, he said, though being able to chip in points brings him joy. It’s hard to imagine Panarin playing with more joy than he already does, but since Tarasenko was brought into the locker room, somehow, the 31-year-old’s smile has gotten bigger and brighter.
Having another Russian-speaking player around is one thing, but that it is someone Panarin has been friends with for a long time is something entirely different. After Panarin first joined the Russian national team ahead of the 2011 World Juniors, Tarasenko always called him to get lunch or dinner.
“It was good for a guy who was coming in the national team [for the] first time, who looked smaller than everyone, skinnier than everyone, no one knew him,” Panarin said with a laugh. “If the leader brings you with him everywhere, it just gives you confidence with the team, too. You can relax and just focus on your game. Not thinking about what’s going on in the locker room.”
It remains to be seen if Tarasenko will find a home on the right wing with Panarin and Trocheck, or with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. Tarasenko started the past two games next to Panarin and Zibanejad, but that duo has since been separated and now Tarasenko is set to skate next to Kreider and Zibanejad on Wednesday night.
No matter the reason, Panarin has had some serious jump to his game as of late. The Rangers will need their leading point producer to maintain it going forward.
He was on the hunt for Skittles around Vancouver on Tuesday night, too.
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