The Russians are coming

It was yesterday that Artemi Panarin returned to practice with the Rangers. He greeted his excited teammates the way you’d expect. With the same flair and pizzazz that makes him unique.

After over two weeks away due to the off ice issues concerning a dubious rumor dating back to his KHL days a decade prior, Panarin had to take care of what’s most important in life. His family back home in Russia. Although he didn’t go home because that would be crazy, the unnecessary distraction was one that kept the affable 29-year old superstar out the past eight games. With things squared away, Panarin is close to a return.

It won’t come tonight when the Blueshirts visit the Bruins up in Boston for the first of a two-game series over three days. Rather than rush him back, coach David Quinn will let Panarin work his way back in. Another practice and he should be ready to go for Saturday’s rematch. That’ll be a matinee. Without the Bread Man, they’re 4-4 during this stretch. That included the first three-game winning streak that put them over NHL .500. It also meant consecutive losses to Pittsburgh to fall back under .500.

At least they learned how to win without their best player. Credit Chris Kreider for stepping up in his teammate’s absence. Ditto for Adam Fox, Ryan Strome, Pavel Buchnevich and Ryan Lindgren. They got support from Kevin Rooney, who’s part of a much improved penalty killing unit that ranks fourth in the NHL. They’ve killed off 48 of the last 51 penalties.

Not only will the Rangers get Panarin back soon. But Igor Shestyorkin is almost ready to return from a mild groin strain. For now, it’s Alex Georgiev who must respond to some adversity. He’s struggled lately with consistency in net. That included getting chased by the Pens in his last start for three goals on six shots. Keith Kinkaid did a solid job in his first start making 23 saves in a tough 4-2 loss to the Pens. He’ll be the backup tonight.

Once Shestyorkin is ready to go, he’ll be back in goal. The clear number one goalie brings a calm steady presence to the net. He was starting to find his groove when he suffered the injury against the Devils. Fortunately, it wasn’t worse as first feared. A good thing for the Blueshirts.

Not only are we on the lookout for current Russian Rangers. There’s also a glimpse into the future. With his KHL team Traktor Chelyabinsk getting eliminated today by Salavat Yulayev 3-2 on a Markus Granlund penalty shot goal in the Gagarin Cup Playoffs, Vitaly Kravtsov may have played his final game for his home team in Russia. The 21-year old Rangers prospect had a good season for Traktor by posting a career high 16 goals and 24 points in 49 games. In the five-game series loss, Kravtsov recorded two goals and two assists for four points.

Selected by the Rangers ninth overall in the 2018 NHL Draft, he is expected to join the club sometime later this month. If he does, we could finally see Kravtsov make his NHL debut. When that comes remains to be seen. Assuming they get him to come over, Kravtsov will have to go through a quarantine. Then adjust to the team’s system with a few practices. If they’re lucky, maybe they’ll see him in an NHL game by April.

For the future of the team, it’s important to see what the former first round pick can bring. He should be ready to show what he can do. However, fans should temper their expectations. Kravtsov is another young player who’ll be adjusting to life in North America. Look no further than recent first round picks Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere for proof. Neither has taken the league by storm.

It takes time for most young players to learn the NHL game. While younger kids Kakko and Lafreniere develop a bit more slowly, Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren have proven themselves as a capable defensive tandem. Both are a couple of years older which helps. The coaching staff knows they can rely on them.

The most crucial thing is getting Panarin back into the lineup. Along with Shestyorkin, they’re keys to any kind of run in the second half. Right now, they aren’t a playoff team in a competitive East Division. It’ll prove tough to jump over two teams. That includes the Islanders, Capitals, Flyers, Pens and Bruins, who hold a 3-1 record versus the Rangers into tonight’s action. That must change over the next few days.

However, it would be exciting to see Kravtsov play in that Broadway Blueshirt jersey. He should be in the top nine. How he’s handled will be crucial. The future is bright in Manhattan.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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