Time, space and the rink shrink for everyone at this time of the year. That includes Artemi Panarin, who is drawing more attention from the opposition as he works at navigating through his first speed bump as a Ranger following more than a half-season of bliss.
“Sometimes I feel that I am watched more closely and sometimes I don’t,” Panarin told The Post following Saturday’s practice, in advance of Sunday’s match at the Garden against the Kings. “I don’t want to say that there is a big difference in the way I am playing, I think I’m still making good plays.”
Panarin has four points (1-3) over his past six games, including a lovely backhand feed that set up Mika Zibanejad for the Blueshirts’ first goal in Friday’s 3-2 loss to Buffalo. Of course, No. 10 had recorded 23 points (6-17) in time immediately preceding 10 contests in relentlessly diving the team and propelling himself into the conversation for the Hart Trophy.
“Sometimes not everything is working,” said Panarin, fifth in the Art Ross race with 72 points (27-45). “Sometimes not everything goes 100 percent all year.”
If there is a fault line to Panarin’s season, it came in the Rangers’ 2-1 victory at the Coliseum on Jan. 16 in which the winger sustained some sort of neck injury. Panarin soldiered through the next game, sat out the match prior to the winter recess, and has played in all five since the break. If he hasn’t seemed quite himself, that’s because he probably wasn’t.
“Last game, against Buffalo, it was good. I was 100 percent. But the game before that, I felt really bad. I don’t know why,” Panarin said. “After that game, I went home and did everything right, getting rest, eating the right food, doing my [routine] that I always do.
“Now I feel good. It’s all good.”
David Quinn has observed the opposition tightening the screws on Panarin. The coach also has observed Panarin probably trying to do too much and cut it too fine, attempting to thread cross-ice passes through thickets of sticks and legs. The first three-plus months, nearly every pass found its way through and onto a teammate’s tape. The first three-plus months, every shot that hit something, whether a stick, a leg or a body, almost magically found its way into the net.
Lately, not quite so much.
“Obviously teams are aware of him with the season he’s having. Teams are paying a little more special attention to him,” Quinn said. “But I also think it might just be the ebbs and flows of a season for a great player.
“He’s going through a stretch here where things aren’t happening statistically for him and I also think when that happens to someone who’s used to being productive offensively, they press. He’s made a lot of turnovers that he usually doesn’t make.”
Quinn said he had talked to Panarin about the state of his game, “but not enough.”
“I need to talk to him before he leaves [the rink].”
Quinn shifted his combinations during the third period of Friday’s match, moving Panarin onto Zibanejad’s left side with Chris Kreider on the right as the Blueshirts attempted to rally from the 3-0 hole they had dug and leaped into against Buffalo. Alas, they came up a goal shy. But the coach is going back to the Kreider-Zibanejad-Pavel Buchnevich, Panarin-Ryan Strome-Jesper Fast top six combos against Los Angeles that have been in place through the guts of the season.
“[Panarin] has found chemistry with Strome,” Quinn said. “I think Kreider and Mika have always had that little connection and bond and it gives us depth throughout the lineup, people worry about two lines. There’s less attention on one line.”
Of course, there is always attention on Panarin, from the opposition, from the coaches, from his teammates, from the fans. He is not only a marquee talent, but a Broadway performer. His 27 goals are four shy of his personal-best established in his sophomore 2016-17 season with the Blackhawks.
There were no leg kicks back then. Panarin came up with his signature celebratory move this year upon joining the Rangers, apparently spontaneously.
“I score the first time, I was so happy,” said the Russian Rockette. “I was so excited. So that’s what I did. And everyone liked it.”
Everyone — well, not the Kings on Sunday — would like to see more.