Artemi Panarin, Kaapo Kakko propel Rangers to slump-busting win

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It did not come easily, make no mistake about that.

But this time, the Rangers made it work. This time, the Rangers found a way to win a game.

Their four-game losing streak (0-3-1) ended in Philadelphia on Thursday with a 3-2 shootout victory in which Kaapo Kakko and Artemi Panarin scored in the skills competition while Alexandar Georgiev stopped two of the three tries he faced.

The shootout became necessary when the Flyers’ Joel Farabee tied it at 18:46 of the third after Philly had pulled Carter Hart for the extra attacker. That score negated Brendan Smith’s go-ahead goal off a lovely Panarin setup at 8:21 of the third.

The Rangers had been suffering through a goal-scoring famine, in which they’d been outscored 11-4 while losing their last four contests. Panarin returned to the lineup after missing the previous two matches with an unidentified upper-body injury, rejoining linemates Ryan Strome and Kakko.

Panarin’s return bumped Julien Gauthier into street clothes, with David Quinn opting to scratch the 23-year-old winger who took strides last week after he had sat out five straight earlier in the season, but had a relapse in Tuesday’s loss to the Devils.

“I thought he was making good progress but I thought he had a real tough night the other night,” Quinn said of Gauthier, who scored his first NHL goal on Feb. 10. “We had other guys too, up front [who played poorly], but when you watch it, talked about it, I just thought he had a real tough night.”

Gauthier turned the puck over in the defensive zone and then appeared to be late in coverage on Nick Merkley’s third-period goal that boosted the Devils to a 4-2 lead in their eventual 5-2 victory. He had a dreadful 25 percent Corsi rating, on for six attempts for and 18 against.

That wasn’t the only lineup change for the Blueshirts, who were forced to play without K’Andre Miller (unidentified upper-body injury) for a second straight night. The rookie’s absence, coupled with Jacob Trouba’s forced exit from the active roster with the broken thumb he sustained blocking a shot on Tuesday, meant the Rangers went without their second pair.

Jack Johnson, who missed the previous eight matches after suffering a groin injury in Buffalo on Jan. 26, was rushed back into service after having had one practice. He partnered with Brendan Smith on the second pair (the two were sixth and seventh on the blue line depth chart when the season opened), while Libor Hajek and Anthony Bitetto formed the third tandem. The Ryan Lindgren-Adam Fox unit, natch, was the matchup pair.

The Rangers might have been at less than full strength, but they were surely in better condition that the Flyers, who hadn’t played since Feb. 7 and had six regulars (Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, Travis Konecny, Oskar Lindblom, Justin Braun and Scott Laughton) on the COVID-restricted list and therefore unavailable to play.

Perhaps predictably, the Rangers had all sorts of difficulty exiting their zone through the first 20 minutes, which ended with the Flyers on top 1-0 after Nicolas Aube-Kubel was credited with a score from the crease just 59 seconds into the match off a wild scramble. Despite the breakdowns, the Blueshirts surrendered only six shots on net.

Georgiev, 0-2-2 in four starts since shutting out the Islanders on Jan. 16 in the second game of the season, was extremely sharp throughout the opening period. The netminder came up with a key two-on-one save on Farabee at 5:30, stopped Aube-Kubel on a left circle one-timer four minutes later and then perhaps came up with his best save by denying Michael Raffl alone in front after the winger had picked up the ricochet of a headman feed off the back wall before driving to the net.

The Blueshirts tied the score at 3:24 of the second period on their first power-play goal since Doug Harvey was at the point with Camille Henry setting up at the doorstep for the redirect. Well, not quite, but when Blackwell, who was inserted onto the second power-play unit along with Bitetto, deflected Pavel Buchnevich’s drive past Carter Hart, it marked the team’s first score with the man-advantage in 16 opportunities, dating back six games to Feb. 1.

The remodeled defense performed well, for the most part able to keep scoring chances to a minimum while the Rangers played a controlled game marred by their predilection to take offensive-zone penalties. By the time the second period had ended, Strome had been hit with two such infractions, with Chris Kreider and Kakko taking one apiece.

Buchnevich had a glorious opportunity to break the tie when he was awarded a penalty shot at 16:41 after being slashed on a breakaway by Ivan Provorov. But Hart, who denied No. 89’s initial backhand try with the glove, got his blocker down to stop Buchnevich after a head feint and a couple of dekes. Buchnevich is now 0-for-2 on penalty shots for his career, also rejected by Toronto’s Frederik Anderson on Dec. 28, 2019.

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