The Wonder Bread Man baking quite a batch on Broadway

There are shifts where you watch Artemi Panarin skate and admire how well he sees the ice. A special talent, the 29-year old Russian superstar continues to be the straw that stirs the drink for the Rangers.

Not quite like a Mr. October did once in the Bronx for the Yankees. Panarin is more quiet and not in your face like Reggie Jackson was when he owned this town. Of course, he’s a lot more about the team than himself. When it comes to individual accomplishments, he’ll never discuss that.

It’s all about T-E-A-M with Panarin. Recently, he played his 100th game for the Blueshirts. In it, he passed Mark Messier for the most ever points produced by a New York Ranger in their first 100 games. His goal in the third period of a 3-0 shutout win over the Devils on Tuesday was his 138th point.

In that game, he didn’t find much room. However, the Wonder Bread Man still found a way to impact it by getting a big insurance marker to give fellow Russian teammate Igor Shestyorkin some breathing room to pick up his first NHL shutout. He created it by opening up a lane with a pass to Filip Chytil, who played catch with Adam Fox before finding Panarin open for his 13th goal. Pavel Buchnevich added an empty netter.

In the Rangers’ second straight victory over the Devils on Thursday, it was Panarin who led the way with two goals and an assist for his seventh three-point game of the mini season. It marked the second consecutive year he had at least seven three-pointers for the Rangers. The last Blueshirt to do that was legendary Jaromir Jagr between ’05-06 and ’06-07. Both seasons were double digits for the future Hall Of Famer. By comparison, Panarin recorded nine games of three points or more in ’19-20 when he totaled 95 (32-63-95) in 69 games to finish in the top three for the Hart Trophy. In only 32 games, he has 46 points (15-31-46).

Don’t forget he missed two weeks due to the complex situation in Russia thanks to a false accusation spread by former KHL coach Andrei Nazarov. Had Panarin not had to step away from the rink to make sure his family was okay back home in Russia, he would have more goals, assists and points. It likely cost the Rangers a realistic chance at the postseason. Panarin might’ve once again been in MVP contention. Instead, his 46 points over 32 games has them hanging on with 13 to go. With the Bruins again defeating the hated Islanders tonight, they’re now six clear of the fifth place Rangers. They still have another game at hand.

If you actually could turn on the Islanders game and root for them, you’re a better fan than me. Expect nothing from a blood rival which is exactly what the Rangers got on Thursday and Friday night. They were outscored 7-1 by the Bruins, who suddenly are playing better thanks to adding Taylor Hall. Hall scored his second goal in two nights to help Boston sweep the Isles over 24 hours.

It is what it is. What the Rangers can control is the games left on the schedule. There are 13 remaining. That includes an early Saturday matinee at MSG against the Devils. Win that and then they can shift their focus to the fourth and final meeting this week on Sunday afternoon in Newark. They basically must hold serve like a tennis player in a tightly played set where one slip up could be enough to seal it for the opponent. Though not the same situation, the analogy applies. Win and stay in it.

As for Panarin, who scored goals 14 and 15 while adding assist number 31 to highlight the 4-0 shutout of New Jersey on Thursday, he continues to mesmerize with his brilliant play. Some players just have a sixth sense. They are the special kind who know where each of their teammates are on the ice and know how to create enough space. That’s how Panarin plays the game. He can skate into and out of trouble by being both a playmaker and shooting threat.

A remarkable passer with great vision, it’s no wonder opponents have trouble distinguishing what he’s going to do. For not the biggest player or strongest, he beats you with his mind. Panarin has great anticipation. His hockey IQ is off the charts. A superb skater with blinding speed and skill, he truly is a unique talent who should be appreciated.

The $11.6 million per year it took for the Rangers to sign him looks like a bargain. He easily could’ve took more from the Blue Jackets or Islanders, who coveted him. That isn’t what Panarin wanted. He craved the spotlight and bright lights of the big city on Broadway. He got it. It’s the fact he embraces being a Ranger and taking on the responsibility by going out and asking the best of himself and teammates that’s so impressive.

Panarin isn’t satisfied. He told reporters that earlier this week through an interpreter. He emphasized that you can never be totally happy. Though 99 percent of the time, he is. You see it in his smile and fun personality that make teammates love him. However, he wants the best for the team. That means getting back to the playoffs. A place he’s been with the Blackhawks and Blue Jackets. Last year was not a true postseason. It was a qualifying round in which the Rangers didn’t measure up against a good Hurricanes team that is a contender this year in an ultra tough Central Division.

The goal is to lead the Blueshirts back to the postseason for the first time in four years. While it isn’t looking promising, you better believe there’ll be no quit as long as Panarin is around. The way the team talks, they understand. They know even if the roster remains one of the NHL’s youngest with the Devils now even younger, the goal remains the same.

We see it with the growth of emerging leaders Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren. The second-year tandem that draw most of the top assignments with Jacob Trouba and rookie K’Andre Miller getting more responsibility as they hit the stretch. There are enough veterans such as Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Strome, Chris Kreider, Pavel Buchnevich, Brendan Smith and Trouba to know what’s expected of them.

The enjoyable part is watching the improvement of Filip Chytil, Kaapo Kakko, Alexis Lafreniere, Miller, Igor Shestyorkin, Fox and Lindgren. These are young players who are going to be part of a better culture moving forward. You have to love the maturity and poise of newcomer Vitaly Kravtsov, who was jobbed out of an assist and then lost his first NHL goal on a correct video review by Devils coach Lindy Ruff. He didn’t let it bother him and nearly got that goal if not for a good save from Mackenzie Blackwood late in regulation.

The Rangers are building something special here in the Big Apple. Panarin is their meal ticket. He’s in the prime of his career. If you don’t think his splendid play rubs off on the other players, you’re not paying attention. Look at the chemistry he and Strome have since he joined up. If Strome isn’t part of the team long-term after next year, they’ll miss him. It’s not easy to replace that kind of production in the middle when he and Zibanejad have been a good 1-2 punch. It’ll all depend on the tough decisions GM Jeff Gorton and Team President John Davidson have to make starting this summer with the much improved Buchnevich due a significant raise a year away from unrestricted free agency.

They’ll also have an interesting choice to make on surprising revelation Colin Blackwell before the Expansion Draft involving the Seattle Kraken. Do they keep him or is he sacrificed for Brett Howden, whose work ethic is unquestioned? But he only has a goal and four assists. He could wind up elsewhere with Morgan Barron replacing him. Kevin Rooney has been a solid contributor. They also must decide if it’s worth keeping Julien Gauthier, who’s now the odd man out.

There will be many decisions made by the organization. With Zac Jones signed after helping UMass win their first national championship, he could be part of the blue line in the foreseeable future. Coach David Quinn has said Jones needs some practices before they determine if he can help the team win games. It’s highly likely that we won’t see him unless they’re eliminated. Especially with Smith and the improving Libor Hajek forming a solid third pair. Hajek is another young player who deserves credit. He now looks like an NHL regular. There was an awful lot of pressure due to who he replaced. Injuries didn’t help. Will he be part of it or have other prospects passed him?

These are all good questions that can’t be answered until July at the soonest. However, as long as Panarin continues his impressive play, helping set a new standard in NYC, the Rangers are significantly better for it. They should thank their lucky stars the Bread Man chose them in the summer of 2019. Without him, where would they be?

Not as far along. They’re close. By next year, higher expectations will come.

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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