Panarin Game 1 bug SAT

GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Artemi Panarin, as he typically does, opened with a joke about what is different about him going into the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season as opposed to last year.

"I feel the same," the New York Rangers forward said. "It kind of sounds not great if I feel same. I mean, maybe I play the same, but I hope not."

Then Panarin smiled. He knew what he was doing, basically deflating what is a memory from the playoffs last season that he'd like to forget.

Panarin's comment came after the Rangers won 4-0 against the Ottawa Senators on Monday to clinch the Presidents' Trophy as the NHL's best team in the regular season. It was after he had 18 shot attempts, seven on net, looking to become a 50-goal-scorer for the first time.

He finished with 49 goals, 71 assists and 120 points in 82 games, 20 more goals and eight more assists than he had in the same number of games last season.

But Panarin followed last season's 92-point regular season by getting just two assists in a seven-game series loss to the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference First Round. He picked up his two assists in a 5-1 win in Game 1. He was shut out the rest of the way.

The Rangers didn't lose solely because Panarin couldn't score, but his absence on the scoresheet hit them hard.

"It's mental and I feel terrible," Panarin said after the Rangers were eliminated.

On Thursday, nearly a year later and after the Rangers’ first practice in preparation of opening the playoffs with Game 1 against the Washington Capitals in the first round at Madison Square Garden on Sunday (3 p.m, ET; ESPN, SN, TVAS), Panarin clarified how he really feels going into the playoffs this year versus how he felt last year.

"More confidence," he said. "That's the difference, 28 points. I feel exactly that much different, exactly that much better."

Panarin had his best regular season by a landslide, scoring at least one point in 67 games, finishing in the top five in goals (fifth), assists (fifth) and points (fourth). He should at least be a part of the voting for the Hart Trophy as the League's most valuable player to his team. To no one's surprise, he was voted the Rangers team MVP.

But the playoffs have arrived so all of that is moot, except for Panarin's confidence.

"I feel motivation because hockey is my life and that's why I play," Panarin said. "I like the emotions. Of course, if we win it's better than if we lost, the emotions. Sometimes you need losses to see the difference."

The way last season ended hurt him. Panarin is hopeful that he's better for it.

"Maybe," he said. "I'm not sure. Regular season, yes. But we'll see. Mentally, of course, if you have 28 more points you feel better, but the playoffs is a different tournament so it's hard to know now."

The one thing Panarin does know is that he felt great this season and still does, joking that he feels like he's 16 again.

He's 32.

"Pretty fun season," he said. "I slept well this regular season, almost every night. It's good to have that experience in life, but no time for relaxing."

Panarin said his path to being consistently elite this season was paved by his chemistry with linemates Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafrenière, by being pushed by the first-year coaching staff led by Peter Laviolette, by the success of the team that set franchise records with 55 wins and 114 points, by his faith, and by luck.

"Everything came together I would say," he said.

It did, Laviolette said, because of Panarin's desire to be elite.

"He's a fierce competitor," Laviolette said. "What's on display oftentimes is his playmaking ability, his game, his ability to score, but when you watch him compete on a daily basis in practice and then for an extended season when your eyes are on your team from a coaching standpoint, I think you appreciate his competitiveness."

Laviolette didn't have that appreciation for Panarin before this season because he'd only coach against him a handful of times each season.

Panarin had 341 points (100 goals, 241 assists) in 268 games across his first four seasons with the Rangers, good for fourth in the NHL from 2019-23, but even center Mika Zibanejad, his teammate for his entire time in New York, noted that Panarin was different this season.

"He's always been one of the best, but he's really, and it's weird to say, taken another step and it's awesome to see," Zibanejad said. "He's going to be a big player for us going forward here."