Panarin Bobrovsky ECF feature TUNE IN TONIGHT

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Artemi Panarin will have an altogether different experience in the Eastern Conference Final than he had in any of the previous 12 Stanley Cup Playoff series he played in.

Sergei Bobrovsky will be the goalie trying to take his dream away.

"He's my best friend in hockey," Panarin told

Panarin and the New York Rangers will face Bobrovsky and the Florida Panthers in Game 1 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; ESPN+, ESPN, SN, TVAS, CBC).

Panarin, the Rangers' 32-year-old forward, said he's trying not to think about the matchup against Bobrovsky, the Panthers' 35-year-old goalie and his teammate with the Columbus Blue Jackets from 2017-19. But he can't exactly ignore it, either.

They've been close friends since Panarin was traded to the Blue Jackets and joined Bobrovsky there in 2017. Panarin said he's the godfather to Bobrovsky's 2-year-old daughter, Carolina. Their wives are close and speak often. They have gone on vacation together.

Panarin said he can better explain his friendship with Bobrovsky in Russian because then he could really go into depth. He tried in English anyway.

"First of all, he's an unbelievable guy, a great human," Panarin said. "We can talk about everything all day and we can say anything to each other. Some people you're just like, 'Hey,' and you have two things you can talk about, but with him we can talk about good things, not good things, and it doesn't matter. It's a very honest relationship, I would say."

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Panarin and Bobrovsky played on the Russian national team together at the IIHF World Championship in 2015 and 2016, but they didn't talk much and never really got to know each other.

The only thing they knew they had in common when Panarin was traded to Columbus was that they were each Russian.

"When they traded me to Columbus I was a little upset because I didn't speak with anyone," Panarin said, "but when we met for the first time and our wives met for the first time, we just felt a very interesting chemistry."

They hit it off. 

"They were both at certain phases of their lives where they were getting married or had wives and trying to become fathers, so I think it just lined up really well too," said Blackhawks forward Nick Foligno, who was the Blue Jackets captain at the time. "When you go through those phases of life together with somebody, it's amazing how that bond becomes stronger. Just being around them you could tell they just seemed to both be super driven athletes, obviously, but also men getting their lives going. You could see how they had likes and interests in the same way. I think that's what really created the bond. I think it really helped those two." 

Foligno said Panarin helped Bobrovsky come out of his shell and be more comfortable around the rest of the team.

"When I got there we had (defenseman) Fedor Tyutin and (forward) Artem Anisimov, and then we started losing those guys and I think 'Bob' was really on his own a bit," Foligno said. "It was good for 'Bob' too because he had to start to come around the guys more, didn't have that comfort level, but I think Panarin coming really helped Bob thrive. 

"I noticed a big difference in the way Bob was loose because Panarin is this happy-go-lucky guy. He's not this serious Russian that a lot of times you get, especially for a superstar. He's really happy, loves life, loves people." 

Panarin would create these big celebrations when he would score on Bobrovsky in practice, Foligno said. Bobrovsky, in turn, would chirp Panarin when he made a big save on him. 

"I just really think those two were a great couple in a sense," Foligno said. "They were pretty funny toward each other. I know 'Bread' would get Bob going and vice versa. There'd be some good laughs in the room between those two."

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For Panarin, Foligno said Bobrovsky served as a guide. He's almost four years older and had already been in Columbus for five seasons when Panarin got there. 

"I think he was excited about taking him under his wing," Foligno said, "probably knowing in order to make sure he's an important piece, we've got to make him as comfortable as possible. That speaks to Bob's leadership and who he is as a person. Bread saw that in Bob and that's why the connection was so strong."

After the 2018-19 season, each wanted to become an unrestricted free agent, but Panarin said they talked about trying to sign with the same team.

The Panthers reportedly wanted them both, but Panarin wanted to go to the Rangers and Bobrovsky wanted to be in South Florida.

"I think it would have been tough for us to have joined the same team," Bobrovsky said. "It ended up as it ended up. I think we're both happy; I am happy here, and he is happy there. The reality is we ended up in good spots and life goes on."

So has their friendship.

Panarin said he was rooting hard for Bobrovsky in the playoffs last season after the Rangers were eliminated in the first round by the New Jersey Devils.

Florida went to the Stanley Cup Final.

"I wasn't texting him in the beginning, but after they'd win a round we would talk to each other with the wives, family things," Panarin said. "I tried to not bother him, but my hands were raised for him when he won and got to the Final."

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Each is a focal point for his team; Panarin led New York in scoring during the regular season with 120 points (49 goals, 71 assists) in 82 games, setting NHL career highs in goals and points, and has 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 10 playoff games. Bobrovsky was 36-17-4 with a 2.37 goals-against average, .915 save percentage and tied for the League lead with six shutouts during the regular season, and is 8-3 with a 2.37 GAA and .902 save percentage in 11 playoff starts.

This year, they talked after the first round, Panarin said, but like most of their conversations, it was more about family and life.

"Just a how are you doing, how's the team, but really I would say it was like three percent about hockey," Panarin said. 

They will not talk again until the conference final is over, unless, of course, it's on the ice.

The post-series handshake line, Panarin said, will be intriguing.

"It's kind of interesting to think about what we can talk about in the summer after, but in the game no one is thinking about it," Panarin said. "He's not thinking about me and I'm not thinking about him. I just try to score and he just try to save it. 

"And since he's a goalie, I don't have to hit him."

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