The puck was meandering through neutral ice and back toward the Rangers' blue line, and Artemi Panarin was gliding back to fetch it. As he did so he took a couple quick peeks back over his shoulder: With the first he got the lay of the land, saw that his defender was peeling off. With the second, for just a fleeting a moment, he locked eyes with Mika Zibanejad, who at that moment leaned on the edges of his skates near the red line, to make a cut into the middle of the rink. And in that moment, they both knew.
It was goal at first sight.
"We had that little bit of eye contact right before," Zibanejad recalled on Friday. "I'm just trying to find that middle, and at that point, with Bread with the puck on his stick, I know that he's going to find it, and you've just got to get open. And he does it again."
Panarin pivoted around the puck and in the same motion whipped a pass straight up the gut -- straight into Zibanejad's stride, in behind two defenders who were toast the moment Zibanejad turned on his edges, and was there any doubt on Thursday night that Zibanejad, with four goals already in his pocket, was going to finish off this one too?
The play made it goal No. 5 of a magnificent game for the magnificent Rangers center, tying a franchise record -- only three Blueshirts have ever scored five in one night -- and winning a game that moved the Rangers to within just two points of the playoff berth they have been hunting down since January. It was a thing of beauty, too, from start (Panarin's vision and pass, and his third assist of the night) to finish (Zibanejad's pull-away speed and backhander upstairs).
And it was the kind of goal that could only materialize between two players who have gotten to know one another, who have gained an understanding of where the other one is going to take a play and what the other one capable of doing. This was a goal that would not have been scored in November, to win a game the Rangers would not have won in November, either.
"I don't know if we wanted it to work so badly that it kind of got a little bit messed up and a little bit too much maybe in the beginning of the season," Zibanejad said, "but right now it's just playing hockey, and reading off each other."
The hockey that Zibanejad and Panarin are playing in 2019-20, both together and apart, has given the Rangers a one-two scoring punch in their lineup that hasn't been seen on Broadway in more than two decades, not since a brilliant brief window when two all-time greats called Madison Square Garden home: Not since the dream duo of Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky took their partnership to New York for that one memorable season in 1996-97, when the Rangers put together a run to the East final.
It is not just the thrill that shook the Garden down to its fibers on Thursday night that attest to this; the raw numbers say it, too: The Rangers have played 67 games this season, and not since Gretzky and Messier in '96-97 have they had two different players surpass 70 points at this juncture of the season. Of the four, no one had more than Panarin's 93 points, which stand as this season's third-most in the NHL.
Whereas Gretzky made the scoresheet in 48 of the Rangers' first 67 games in '96-97, Panarin has points in 52 different games this year. Zibanejad has the same 71 points as Messier, with five more goals in five fewer games played -- his 38 goals are a career high in just 54 matches.
One notable difference -- apart from the obvious, that both Gretzky and Messier already had built up Hall of Fame pedigrees well before they joined forces in New York -- is that both those two by then were pretty well established as all-time great centers, whereas Zibanejad and Panarin on paper would seem perfect candidates to slot together on ice. David Quinn has had myriad reasons to strategically resist putting them together on a line for the lion's share of Panarin's first season in a Blueshirt -- the balance in lines, the matchup problems that separating them presents, plus the ability to play with Panarin that Ryan Strome has demonstrated, as well as Zibanejad's long-running chemistry with Chris Kreider -- but lately, as the temperature rises on the playoff push and as the Rangers press on without the injured Kreider, Quinn more and more has shuffled the deck to link them up late in games.
And lately the two have been building an on-ice rapport that has made them an even more potent weapon for Quinn to pull from his holster when it's time.
"They're both very, very smart players, and they both compete," Quinn said. "There's a huge level of respect between the two, they really genuinely like each other. It really lends itself to be a pretty good combination when we do use them."
Panarin has points in 14 of the last 15 games, while Zibanejad has been a goal-scoring machine not just on Thursday but for the entire the second half of the season -- for the year, he ranks second in the NHL in goals per game, at 0.70 to Alex Ovechkin's 0.71. But taking in the recent sample size of the last seven games, he has scored 11 goals in that time, and Panarin has assisted on seven of them, four at even strength, two of them overtime game-winners. All have been primary assists.
"If you look at the early stage of the season when we started playing together 5-on-5, it was new, and it was nerve-racking playing with a guy like that," Zibanejad admitted. "He's so skilled, he has the puck quite a bit during the shift. So just watching him and Stromer and Quickie (Jesper Fast) play, and then you get a chance to play with him, you just want to get open. I just try to use my speed, and try to be available as much as I can for him, and he's so good at just getting two, three guys to (defend) him.
"It's fun now," Zibanejad said. "Especially now when I've seen him a little bit more up-close and kind of understand his game, it's fun to be out there with him the few times we are."
Lately those times have included 3-on-3 overtimes -- the Rangers have had two of those in the last 10 days, both of which the duo of Zibanejad and Panarin started and finished almost in the same breath. Last Tuesday at Nassau Coliseum, Panarin teed up Zibanejad for a bomb that beat the Islanders just 28 seconds into extra time; Thursday against the Caps, Panarin's lead pass set up Zibanejad's winner, his fifth of the night, 33 seconds in.
"Obviously you all saw that the pass is right on my tape, as it usually is," Zibanejad said. "Right on my tape, I don't have to slow up or anything like that -- I come with speed. … He keeps doing it every game -- the pass to Tony (DeAngelo) as well. It's just the type of player he is; he reads the game so well. His hockey IQ is through the roof."
"Same thing on Long Island," Quinn said, referring to the OT play Panarin made when he was bottled up by Islanders, but then slapped a pass against the grain into space for Zibanejad to waltz in and rip it. The Head Coach was speaking specifically about 3-on-3s on Friday when he said something that rings true under any circumstances -- more true today, and about these two Rangers, together or apart, than about any one-two punch that New York has had in a generation.
"To have that much ice, and have those two guys out there?" Quinn said. "Dangerous for the opponent."