This Rangers playoff legacy hangs in balance ahead of Game 6 against Panthers

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-New York Rangers at Florida Panthers
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

The phrase “to make hay” is antiquated and somewhat nebulous. It’s used often in sports, referring to taking advantage of an opportunity. So, for example, the Florida Panthers, up 3-2 in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Final, need to make hay Saturday in Game 6 at home to close out the New York Rangers and move on to the Stanley Cup Final.

The phrase could also be used for the Rangers, who must make hay when on the power play or when they’re set up in the offensive zone creating good looks against Sergei Bobrovsky and Co.

But there’s something similar that could be more important for New York. Make bread. Or better yet, the Breadman needs to make hay.

In other words, the Rangers need Artemi Panarin, The Breadman, to be a difference maker finally in the conference final. Especially now with their season on the line.

Panarin has been unproductive against the Panthers in the first five games. He has three assists, two in Game 4, and hasn’t scored a goal on only 12 shots. His metrics 5v5 (per Natural Stattrick) are good, though the play of linemates Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniere may have a lot to do with that, but the eye test sees Panarin dancing on the perimeter, consistently losing the puck to the aggressive checking by the Panthers.

He seems to be avoiding the areas where goals are most often scored this time of the year, the dirty areas, those that are most difficult to get to. Florida deserves a lot of credit for keeping Panarin to the outside, in far less dangerous scoring areas. Fair or not, though, there are numerous flags being raised about Panarin’s will or desire to get down and dirty.

Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad responded to criticism and some lousy play in this series with productive outings in the Game 5 loss at Madison Square Garden. Now it’s got to be Panarin’s turn.

Related: No easy road for Rangers facing elimination in Game 6

Rangers need Artemi Panarin to change his playoff narrative

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Panarin opened the Stanley Cup Playoffs with three goals in the first five games, two in the first round against the Washington Capitals and the Game 1 winner against the Carolina Hurricanes in Round 2. He scored the overtime winner in Game 3 against the Hurricanes on a brilliant redirection, and at that time had four goals, each a game winner, and nine points in seven games, all Rangers wins.

Since then, Panarin has gone eight games without a goal and the Rangers have lost five of eight.

Overall, Panarin is averaging 20:33 in ice time, third most among Rangers forwards. He has 40 shots on goal in 15 games. But he’s not altering games, he’s not affecting the result in a positive way consistently enough for New York. Simply, Panarin hasn’t been the difference maker he was in the regular season, when he established NHL career highs with 49 goals and 120 points.

And that’s the can of worms that will be opened should the Rangers be eliminated in Game 6 on Saturday and Panarin again not be a factor.

Fairly or not, it will be debated whether Panarin is a regular-season superstar who can’t get it done in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Does he pile on the points when it’s “easier” in the regular season but is unable to raise his level of play when things get much tougher in the postseason?

Panarin has 781 points in 672 regular-season NHL games. He has 60 points in 72 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

He came under fire in the 2022 playoff run with the Rangers, and much more scrutiny when held to two assists in the seven-game first-round loss to the New Jersey Devils in 2023. His fast start, including the League-high four winners, quieted the noise this spring. But not anymore.

It’s hard to imagine the Rangers escaping South Florida with a Game 6 win, much less rallying for two straight to reach the Stanley Cup Final, without a significant contribution from Panarin. This is his chance to flip the script and change the narrative about his postseason legacy.

More importantly, the Rangers need him. Now. Game 6. Win or go home.

Time to make bread.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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