Artemi Panarin’s shootout winner is the latest highlight of a career-best season


NEW YORK — When Artemi Panarin scores, he often points to his assisting teammate almost immediately. That wasn’t an option the final time he put the puck in the net Saturday. Instead, after waiting out Sergei Bobrovsky and wristing a puck behind him for a shootout goal, he raised his arm above his head.

That one was all him.

“What can you say?” linemate Vincent Trocheck said. “Great player. Love playing with him.”

The New York Rangers had many heroes in their 4-3 shootout win against the Florida Panthers. Trocheck stopped a loose puck from crossing the goal line in overtime, and Adam Fox had a momentum-shifting goal. Igor Shesterkin continued his strong post-All-Star-break play, making 27 saves and then a game-clinching stop in the shootout.

But no one stood out more than the 32-year-old Panarin, who had two goals, plus the shootout winner. He’s now up to 43 goals and 99 points on the season, both of which are career highs. His play all season is the main reason New York sits atop the league standings. Saturday’s prime-time showing against the Panthers was just the latest example.

“Another monster game,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “He’s leaving everything out on the ice. He comes back to the bench and he’s completely gassed. He gives it all every shift.”

And the Rangers needed every bit of it and likely will going forward. Panarin is the offensive heartbeat of the team. He’s up to seven goals and 11 points in his last five games, and New York has gone 4-1-0 in that stretch.

Florida, a team New York had yet to beat this year, came out stronger than the Rangers in their final matchup of the regular season. The Panthers controlled a chippy first period and took the lead when Matthew Tkachuk tipped a Josh Mahura shot past Shesterkin. The second frame then started disastrously for Laviolette’s club. In the first minute, Erik Gustafsson got caught too far in the offensive zone. That allowed Sam Reinhart to break the puck out and lead the Panthers on a two-on-one rush. He passed to Eetu Luostarinen, who scored.

The Panthers nearly extended their lead to three goals. Jack Roslovic turned the puck over on defense, leading to a Nick Cousins chance that could’ve been costly. Fortunately for New York, his shot rang off the post.

“We responded real well,” Fox said.

The top defenseman was responsible for that. Fox drew a hold on Kyle Okposo, then on the power play placed a shot past Bobrovsky from the slot.

“He’s so noticeable on the ice right now,” Laviolette said of the 2021 Norris Trophy winner, who has 10 points over his past seven games. “He’s playing at an elite level.”

The coach followed up the goal by sending out his fourth line of Jimmy Vesey, Barclay Goodrow and Matt Rempe, whose cult-hero arc continued as he received cheers from the Madison Square Garden crowd throughout the night. The trio sustained offensive zone time, and Vesey had a dangerous chance by whipping around to shoot.

The crowd, already reawakened by Fox’s goal, grew even more excited.

“They put it behind them, they finish some hits, they get some shots on net,” Laviolette said. “The next thing you know we’re back out with Trocheck’s line.”

And that line features Panarin, who gave the fans reason to celebrate even more. Trocheck found him with a pass to the offensive zone faceoff circle, and he clapped a one-timer past Bobrovsky’s blocker to tie the score.

New York’s strong stretch continued when Kaapo Kakko drew a slash on Carter Verhaeghe. In a span of just more than three minutes, the Rangers had scored twice and drawn a penalty. They nearly capitalized on Verhaeghe’s miscue, but Bobrovsky got across his crease just in time to halt a Mika Zibanejad one-timer late in the power play.

After getting outplayed most of the night, New York saw the game suddenly going in its favor. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Rangers had 50.87 percent of the expected five-on-five goal share in the second, a drastic increase from their first period, during which they had only 35.11 percent.

“First period I thought Florida had us a little bit,” Laviolette said. “Second period I thought we had them a little bit. And then I really liked the way we played the third period.”

The final frame started with a low-even stretch, but the Rangers began to put pressure on Florida in the final 10 minutes. The third line of Jonny Brodzinski, Alex Wennberg and Kakko had a strong shift, and Fox nearly connected with Zibanejad in front of the net for the go-ahead goal.

Laviolette said he didn’t think his team gave up much of anything defensively, but that changed with five minutes to go. Florida’s line led by Tkachuk hemmed the Wennberg trio in its own zone, then Verhaeghe beat Shesterkin with a wrist shot.

New York had one more response left in it, though.

“It’s resilience and urgency,” Trocheck said.

And who else was at the forefront? Panarin, of course. Zac Jones moved him the puck, and the wing put it on net. It bounced through traffic and snuck past Bobrovsky.

Jones, who assisted the play, has been a healthy scratch for much of the season. Injuries have led Laviolette to insert him into the lineup, and he came through with a big moment in a big game Saturday.

“He’s just an awesome kid,” Trocheck said. “Great attitude all year long. He steps in, and I think he’s been unbelievable. … That goes a long way, especially late in the season, deep in the playoffs.”

Both teams had chances to take the game in overtime. Zibanejad fed Chris Kreider on a two-on-one for what looked to be the game winner, but Bobrovsky somehow got across his crease and made the stop. He also robbed Panarin with a glove save shortly after.

“They had possession, I feel like, more than we did,” Trocheck said. “I thought we had some good quality chances and had opportunities to score. Both goaltenders played really well tonight.”

Panarin scored after Zibanejad and Reinhart traded shootout goals, and that stood as the game winner when Shesterkin made saves on Anton Lundell and former teammate Vladimir Tarasenko. The crowd erupted on Shesterkin’s final save, and the goalie let out a scream of excitement.

The Rangers now have a 3-point cushion over the Hurricanes in the Metro Division. They lead Boston by a point for first place in the East and have a game in hand. Notching the top seed entering the playoffs would be huge for New York. A team like Detroit, Philadelphia or Washington would likely be an easier matchup than Tampa Bay, who will likely play the No. 2 seed in the East.

There’s also the Presidents’ Trophy, which the Rangers haven’t won since 2015. They now lead the league in points and point percentage. Laviolette is trying not to focus on that.

“I think we’ll probably just go slow,” he said when asked about being in control of the race. “This game, too, was at the end of a long stretch of games in a short amount of days. The guys responded the entire time.”

Odds and ends

• Laviolette scratched rookie Will Cuylle, who has 12 goals and 20 points, for the first time this season. The coach stressed that he has 13 healthy forwards he wants to play, but one player from the trio of Cuylle, Rempe and Brodzinski has to sit.

“It’s not about anything any one of these players do if they come out, generally speaking. … I can only dress 12 (forwards) and six (defensemen),” Laviolette said. “I communicated that to those players and just let them know they’ve got to be patient. We’ve got a dozen games left. I hope we remain healthy, and if we do remain healthy I’m going to have to make those decisions. I’d just rather see everybody ready to play in the playoffs.”

“Will’s been a really good player for us all year,” Laviolette added later in his news conference. “He’ll be right back in.”

• Captain Jacob Trouba has continued skating on his own, and he could be nearing a return. The Rangers ruled him out for 2-3 weeks on March 8, and Laviolette indicated that timeline remains accurate. Trouba just passed the two-week mark.

• Ryan Lindgren, meanwhile, has begun skating on his own after suffering a lower-body injury against the Islanders.

• Erik Gustafsson took a hit in overtime and left the ice in pain. He’s being evaluated, Laviolette said.

(Photo of Artemi Panarin scoring against Sergei Bobrovsky during the shootout: Peter K. Afriyie / Associated Press)

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