The Rangers are not a team that would have felt this way back in October, when their schedule was full of holes, but here in mid-November, the three days they have in between games right now have not been a wholly unwelcome break. That applies to no one more than the Rangers' two leading scorers.
David Quinn knew the calendar ahead of time, of course, which is the reason he felt comfortable leaning so heavily on his top line, and Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome in particular, on Saturday night in Sunrise against the Florida Panthers. And as they have done with striking consistency since Mika Zibanejad was lost to injury and those two were put together, they continued to deliver, having a hand in all three Ranger goals while both turning in career-high minutes.
While Strome has raised his game, Panarin has barely skipped a beat through 18 games as a Ranger: The left winger leads the team in goals (nine), assists (14) and points (23), and on Wednesday night will take the longest point streak of his career into the Blueshirts' second meeting this season with the League-leading Washington Capitals.
The Rangers made Panarin their centerpiece signing of the summer offseason, and all Panarin has done in his first seven weeks in a Blueshirt is show why.
"I think the past couple years we've been looking for a guy to lean on a little bit," said Panarin's linemate Jesper Fast. "Like, you have a guy who's always like creating and always is a threat in the offensive zone every time he gets the puck. That's what we're getting from him right now."
Panarin has 17 of his points (5-12--17) during his ongoing 11-game point streak, including five multi-point games in the last six. It is the longest streak of his career, and only four players have put together longer ones this season -- David Pastrnak (13), Brad Marchand (13), Nathan MacKinnon (13) and NHL leading scorer Leon Draisaitl (12), with only Draisaitl's streak remaining active entering Tuesday's slate of games.
And the fact that his production has only heated up since Zibanejad, his center to start the season, went out is partly a testament to how Strome has embraced the responsibility that has been handed down. Strome started last season bouncing around Edmonton's lineup and struggling to just two points in his first 18 games; one year later he has 18 points through 18 games -- second on the team to Panarin -- which makes it 51 points (24-27--51) in 81 games since Jeff Gorton grabbed him for Ryan Spooner nearly a year ago to the day, last Nov. 16.
There is no way to predict the lineup ramifications once Zibanejad is ready to return from his upper-body injury, but on Tuesday Quinn sounded certain about one thing: "I'll be shocked if we move Strome" from center to the wing.
"Stromer's a smart player -- I think they complement each other well," the Head Coach said, speaking of his top line. "Bread enjoys playing with him. Fast has given that line a little bit of honesty, a little bit of a straight-line approach to the game where those two guys might be a little more East-West. I think the line in general has a good balance to it."
Certainly they did in their most recent outing, when Fast set up Strome for the Rangers' first goal with a brilliant pass from left half-wall to right post; Panarin scored the second with a skipping wrist shot off of Strome's pass in transition and Fast's screen in front; then Panarin teed up Tony DeAngelo for the third goal.
In all, Panarin and Strome played a remarkably identical 27:57 against the Panthers, career highs for both and the most by any Ranger forward in a 60-minute game in nearly 18 years, since Pavel Bure's 28:32 in a game in March of 2002. Strome has spoken recently about the adjustments he has been making, mostly in recovery between games, given the minutes he has inherited from Zibanejad; he had prepared himself for that kind of workload, which is not to say that he expected it.
"I felt really, really good during the game. Afterwards I kind of hit a wall on the plane," the 26-year-old said. "In general, though, the more you play, the more you kind of get into it too.
"Honestly I didn't even know it was that many minutes until after the game -- someone said that to me after, I was like, 'Oh my God, I didn't even know.' When you're in a game and you're playing well -- we had the puck all game, if felt like, so you get that swagger, and you're in the zone, and you're scoring. We were on the ice for three goals-for; it feels like you can get five goals, so you want to keep going."
Having Panarin on his wing helps. Strome has 11 points since Zibanejad made his exit after 20 minutes of the Oct. 27 game against the Bruins; of those 11 points, Panarin has had a point on the same goal eight times.
"He challenges you to be better based on how skilled he is," Strome said. "You want to keep up to him and make plays. It's been really fun, honestly."
"Just look at him and the plays he makes, the situations he creates for himself and the time he gets -- it's really unbelievable," Fast said of Panarin. "A lot of people look to him and they want to take him away, even though he makes plays and he wins his battle 1-on-1. So I just try to help him as much as I possibly can."
With eight points through his first 17 games, the versatile, defensively responsible Fast is on pace for his own career high in scoring. For three weeks he has been part of a trio whose task at the outset might have been just keeping the seats warm until Zibanejad was ready to return, but which instead has heated up all on its own.
"Obviously Artemi's Artemi, I think I've done a good job, and Quickie, just the role he plays, he doesn't change who he is every day no matter if he's on the first or fourth line, he just brings the same effort," Strome said. "I think the Coach has found some trust in that, and going forward if we're a line he can count on, then we've done our job."