Artemi Panarin and Viktor Tikhonov were doing their standard postgame act — half serious interview, half vaudeville routine — in the Blackhawks’ dressing room following Sunday’s victory over the Edmonton Oilers. It’s become standard procedure by now: A reporter asks a question, Tikhonov interprets, Panarin starts answering, and Tikhnov interprets the answer as Panarin speaks.
Panarin already has become a master of one-liners, but this particular question — about his growing confidence — garnered a more lengthy, thoughtful response.
“I played a couple games not so well, and started thinking about things that were outside of my control,” Panarin said through Tikhonov. “I was a little embarrassed about my game. The guys came up and told me I needed to relax a little bit, trust in myself, and remember that I’m a good player.”
With that, Panarin cast a wary eye at Tikhonov and nudged him with his elbow.
“I’m an OK player,” Tikhonov clarified.
Yes, Panarin understands. He understands the language a lot better, with Tikhonov saying he’s picked up most of the hockey terms he needs to receive orders on the bench. He understands how fortunate he is to be back on a line with the hottest player in the league, Patrick Kane, who is on a 10-game point streak and was named the NHL’s “first star” of the week after posting four goals and five assists in four games to tie Tyler Seguin for the league lead in points. And Panarin understands the modest nature of an NHL dressing room, where boasting is verboten, and the team always comes first.
It’s one reason why Panarin shrugs off talk that he’s the early frontrunner for the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year. For one thing, he’s 24 years old and doesn’t think of himself as a rookie (Kane was 19 when he won the Calder in 2008). For another, he doesn’t want to spend too much time thinking about his stats, even though he’s at a point-a-game pace with four goals and 11 assists through 15 games — first among rookies, and eighth in the league overall.
“If I start looking at the league leaders and the stats, that kind of gets in my head,” Panarin said. “I definitely don’t look there. I’m just trying to play well. It just happened that I couldn’t score [for 11 games]. It wasn’t [about] the goals, it was the way I was playing. I wasn’t exactly happy with the way I was playing. [Sunday] was much better. I hope that there won’t be any more games where I lose my confidence.”
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville generally agreed with Panarin’s “embarrassed” assessment of his last few games, when he was playing on the top line with Jonathan Toews. But reunited with Kane and countryman Artem Anisimov — really the only reliable line the Hawks have had all season — Panarin broke out immediately.
“I thought he was always fine, but I still thought there was more pace to his game, and we saw that pace [against Edmonton],” Quenneville said. “I just thought he had more directness to his game.”
The chemistry came right away for Kane and Panarin. As the rookie gets more comfortable in the NHL and with the English language, it’s only getting better.
“It’s not that bad, communications-wise,” Kane said. “I kind of figured out how to speak to him, words he understands. If it really comes down to it, you just tell Anisimov to tell him something. He’s a great kid, he loves playing hockey, and he loves trying to do well. It was nice for him to get on the board again and score a few goals. Hopefully we can keep this going moving forward, because they’re fun players to play with.”