The Rangers had to win on Thursday night against the Capitals. They had to. Not only because they had four one-goal leads in the game and blew all of them, but because they had lost three straight, were watching their postseason odds rapidly decline and desperately needed to pick up two points for the first time in a week. With the Islanders on their way to an unaccetpable loss in Ottawa and the Hurricanes in Philadelphia at the worst possible time, a Rangers win over Washington would begin to undo the damage the Flyers and Blues had done to the Rangers over the last six days.
It’s hard to ever feel confident about the Rangers’ chances against the Capitals. Even in recent years when the Rangers were going to Eastern Conference finals and the Stanley Cup Final and eliminating the Capitals from the postseason in three Game 7s over four years, I never felt good about the Rangers playing them. Now in a rebuilding season, in which the Rangers have the youngest roster in the league and the Capitals have the oldest, it’s even harder to envision the Rangers doing enough for 60 minutes to beat them. Unless Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad get significant playing time together.
I have wanted the Rangers’ two best players on the same line all season. Screw line balance. Give me a super line the way the Bruins and Avalanche do business. Give me Panarin and Zibanejad together and the third linemate doesn’t matter. If Panarin could do what he has done with Ryan Strome and Jesper Fast as his linemates, putting anyone out there alongside Panarin and Zibanejad wouldn’t matter. You could put Greg McKegg out there with them and get production. You could put Micheal Haley out there with them and get production. That’s how good the two are together.
The problem is David Quinn strongly believes in line balance. He only turns to the dynamic duo in the event of an emergency, like the Rangers trailing by a goal with a few minutes left in the game. Usually by then, it’s too late and had the two been together all game, the Rangers likely wouldn’t be trailing by a goal with a few mintues left. Quinn treats pairing the two as if there is a limit on how often and for how long he can do it, and as of now there are only three situations Quinn purposely has the two on the ice at the same: the Rangers are trailing in the third period, the Rangers are on the power play or it’s overtime. Thankfully, on Thursday against the Capitals, the Rangers had six power plays, so the two could play significant minutes together, and thankfully, the Rangers were able to gain possession in ovetime.
Zibanejad became the third Ranger in history to score five goals in game in the Rangers’ 6-5 overtime win over the Capitals, scoring in every period and overtime. Panarin finished the game with three assists, all primary, with two of them on Zibanejad goals.
The duo either scored or created all six Rangers goals. When the Capitals took a 1-0 lead, the Rangers answered on the power play with Zibanejad deflecting in a Panarin shot. When the game was tied at 1, Zibanejad gave the Rangers the lead. When the game was tied at 2, Panarin sent a beautiful cross-zone pass to Tony DeAngelo to go up 3-2. When the game was tied at 3, Zibanejad scored again. When the game was tied at 4, Zibanejad again. When the game was tied at 5 in overtime, Zibanejad from Panarin.
The necessary presence of the two in the lineup this season can’t be overstated. When Zibanejad missed time early in the season, the Rangers endured a lengthy losing streak. When Panarin missed his only game of the season against the Islanders, the Rangers suffered their only loss in four games to the Islanders. Had the Rangers not lost Zibanejad early on and had the Rangers had Panarin for what ended up being a detrimental four-point swing in favor of the Islanders, it would be the Rangers holding off teams chasing them in the postseason race, rather than the Rangers doing the chasing.
Panarin is on pace for a 114-point season, while Zibanejad is scoring at a 58-goal pace over 82 games. Panarin eclipsed his single-season high in points when there was still six weeks left in the season, and Zibanejad is only three points away from tying his single-season high in points in 26 games fewer games. Playoffs or not, Panarin is still the MVP of the league and rightful Hart Trophy winner this season to me, but there is a strong case to be made for Zibanejad as well. I’ll take co-MVPs.
The Rangers needed a win, and their two best players delivered them one. The duo is going to need to deliver a lot more of them over the next four weeks. With 15 games remaining, the Rangers will have to win at least 10 to have a chance, and even then, it might not be enough for a wild-card berth. I keep waiting for other players to step up and carry the Rangers for a game or two under the idea that it can’t be Panarin and Zibanejad every game, but so far it has been them every game the Rangers win.
Thankfully, the Rangers have at least two more seasons of these two playing together. I just wish they would play together all the time and not only in three situations they’re “allowed” to.