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Weekend Takeaways: Rangers’ lengthened lineup firing on all cylinders

When Artemi Panarin scored the New York Rangers’ 12th goal of the weekend — and his fourth in a 6-2 whacking of the Carolina Hurricanes — he gave Jimmy Vesey the “all you” point in recognition of the latter’s beautiful backhand, under-duress dish from the boards.

Of course, Panarin did his part on the play, too, spinning to his forehand in the slot and whipping the puck past Frederik Andersen on the glove side. And that’s the really good news for the Rangers right now; from stars like Panarin to role players like Vesey to shiny new toy Vladimir Tarasenko, everybody is pitching in to try and get this final-four team from a year ago to the next level.

On Friday night, Tarasenko scored 2:49 into his Blueshirts tenure to land the opening salvo in a 6-3 win over the Seattle Kraken. Twenty-four hours later, Tarasenko’s countryman and old pal, Panarin, recorded the first four-goal game of his career as New York downed the Metropolitan Division-leading Hurricanes in their own barn. 

With that, a Rangers team that was two points out of the playoffs on Dec. 4, well past the quarter-mark of the season, pulled to within six points of Carolina for the Metro lead and three of the New Jersey Devils for home-ice advantage in a possible ‘Battle of the Hudson’ playoff series (!).

Since that date more than two months ago, the two teams with the best points percentage in the entire league (.796) are the Rangers and the very same Hurricanes team they just shellacked. In terms of five-on-five expected goals percentage during that same stretch, New York ranks fourth behind only the Boston Bruins, Tampa Bay Lighting and Kraken.

So while it’s fun to draw a line between the Tarasenko pickup last week and the Rangers suddenly hanging touchdowns on opponents, there’s obviously a lot more going on here and this weekend only served to highlight some of it.

Vincent Trochek had two helpers in his first game back in Carolina to give him four points in the two wins; backup Jaroslav Halak made 27 saves against the Canes to pick up his seventh straight win and run his save percentage to .927 in that time; Mika Zibanejad scored his 16th power-play goal of the year on Friday and only Leon Draisaitl has more; even Kaapo Kakko tallied against Seattle to break a 16-game drought, then potted an empty-netter against Carolina. Alexis Lafreniere also grabbed assists in each game, giving him eight points in his past eight outings. If both he and Kakko can keep it going, now you throw Tarasenko in there and a team that struggled to find goals last year has suddenly really lengthened the lineup.

The fact we’ve gone this far without even mentioning the team’s fantastic D corps tells you the Rangers have something cooking. That was true before the Tarasenko acquisition, it’s even more the case now and if another Russian guy — goalie Igor Shesterkin — finds his true ‘A’ game by the playoffs, ending a near 30-year Cup drought on Broadway is officially in play. 

Other Takeaways

• You might think Panarin, with his six points, was the runaway weekend Art Ross winner, but linemates Nick Schmaltz and Clayton Keller of the Arizona Coyotes both had a half-dozen points themselves. In fact, at least one of them drew a point on all eight of the goals scored by Arizona this weekend in two overtime losses to the Blackhawks and Blues. It’s great to see Keller having a strong season after his breakout was cut short last year with a broken leg. Schmaltz, meanwhile, now has 13 points in his past seven games as he is playing on the right side with Barrett Hayton in the middle and Keller on the left. 

• Arizona’s loss to St. Louis came when Ryan O’Reilly scored the overtime winner in his first game in over a month thanks to a broken foot. If the Bo Horvat trade loosened the logjam, it feels like the Tarasenko swap might break the dam. Could O’Reilly follow his former teammate out the door in St. Louis? Stay tuned, because this feels like the week rumours morph into realities across the league.

• Are things finally coming together for Cody Glass? The 2017 sixth-overall pick — and very first in Vegas history — snagged an assist in Nashville’s 2-1 shootout win over the Flyers on Saturday, giving him eight points in his past 10 games. Glass has basically been playing at a 60-point place since Christmastime and he’s centring an effective top line between Matt Duchene and Filip Forsberg. His first full year in Nashville is offering promise. 

Weekend Warrior

Do they make ’em like Dustin Brown anymore? I mean, even when they did, he was still a rare bird. Two things to acknowledge about the career King who just got a statue outside of Crypto.com Arena (*sniff* it’ll always be Staples Center to me); First, he took the right approach — hard as it must have been — when it was time to hand the ‘C’ to Anze Kopitar. Also, he really did have a great third act, scoring at basically a 25-goal pace from 2017-18 through 2020-21 when many had written him off as a 10-goal guy. 

Red and White Power Rankings

1. Toronto Maple Leafs (32-14-8) Realistically had the Leafs lost Friday in Columbus in their first game back after the break then waxed the Jackets at home, everybody would be fine. Instead, they won the first game, then lost at Scotiabank Arena and coach Sheldon Keefe was not happy about https://www.sportsnet.ca/nhl/article/keefe-calls-out-maple-leafs-effort-in-weak-loss-to-last-place-blue-jackets/ it.

2. Winnipeg Jets (33-19-1) The big boys weren’t going to let the Jets drop their first game back as All-Star Game participant Josh Morrissey went 1-1-2, Blake Wheeler had two goals and a helper and Mark Scheifele, after scoring in the 4-1 defeat of Chicago on Saturday, is just six goals shy of his career-best 38. Scheifele has a real shot at 50 this season. 

3. Edmonton Oilers (30-19-5) How many storylines in Edmonton would you go through before getting to the fact Ryan Nugent Hopkins — who scored the final goal in a 6-3 win over Ottawa Saturday — could equal his career high in goals (28) and points (69) with a really good week? His age-29 season is proving to be something as he’s on pace for 36 goals and 96 points 11 years after being the first-overall pick.

4. Calgary Flames (25-18-10) Jakob Pelletier and Dennis Gilbert both scored their first career NHL goals on Saturday afternoon in Calgary’s big 7-2 win over Buffalo. Isn’t that adorable?

5. Ottawa Senators (24-24-3) You knew when Anton Forsberg was being carried off the ice late in Saturday’s loss to the Oilers that it wasn’t good. On Sunday, we learned the goalie tore MCLs in both knees and is done for the year. Tough, tough news for a 30-year-old whose been a .911 goalie since joining Ottawa nearly two years ago. 

6. Montreal Canadiens (22-27-4) Stick tap and more to Alex Belzile for scoring his first NHL goal at 31 years old on Sunday versus Edmonton. The Habs completed a sweep of their annual Super Bowl Weekend home afternoon games and the sneaky storyline might just be how productive 28-year-old Mike Matheson has been when in the lineup. Injuries have kept the local boy out of the lineup for long stretches in his first year with the Canadiens, but with three points in wins over the Islanders and Oilers, Matheson is playing at a 47-point clip in 19 contests. 

7. Vancouver Canucks (21-28-4) After being dropped 5-2 by the Red Wings in Detroit on Saturday, the Canucks turn around and host the Wings on Monday. 

The Week Ahead

• The 2022 Stanley Cup Final combatants will duel for the second time in less than a week on Tuesday, as Colorado hosts Tampa Bay after getting blasted 5-0 by the Bolts last time out in Florida. 

• The Canadiens make their first trip to Toronto this season on Saturday. The rebuilding Habs are actually 2-0-0 versus their “forever rivals” this year. 

• The Hurricanes will participate in the first outdoor game in franchise history Saturday when they host the Washington Capitals at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. If you take the Kraken — who will host Vegas in the 2024 Winter Classic — off the board, that leaves just Arizona, Florida and Columbus as the only teams that have never taken it outside for a regular season NHL contest. 

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