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Artemi Panarin’s postseason brilliance twisting the knife for Blackhawks

As if being home for the playoffs wasn’t enough of a kick in the teeth for Blackhawks fans, who already were miffed after a miserable last-place season, there was Artemi Panarin on Tuesday night, leaping over Jay Beagle’s stick at full speed without losing control of the puck.

There was Panarin later in the game, finishing off a dazzling 2-on-1
with Cam Atkinson. Two nights earlier, there was Panarin leading the Blue Jackets to victory with a pair of assists. There was Panarin three nights before that, flying down the ice and roofing the game-winner in overtime of Game 1.

Not only is Panarin playing in the playoffs, he’s dominating, up there with Boston’s David Pastrnak and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby as the most dynamic players in the league. Panarin has two goals and five assists in just three games, leading Columbus to a 2-1 series lead over the Washington Capitals. So much for that laughable idea that Panarin wasn’t built for postseason play — an idea peddled by people who apparently didn’t see him put up seven points in a seven-game series against the Blues in 2016 and who put too much stock into last year’s four-game loss to Nashville, when everyone on the Blackhawks stunk.

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Next up for the Hawks: a date with old pal Artemi Panarin in Columbus. (Getty Images)

Panarin is a true star in his prime, an otherworldly talent who bulled his way into MVP conversation this season after willing the Blue Jackets into the playoffs with 12 goals and 24 assists in the last 23 games of the season.

Boy, wouldn’t he look good on a line with, say, Patrick Kane?

By any measure, Stan Bowman’s trade that sent Panarin and Tyler Motte to Columbus for Brandon Saad and Anton Forsberg has been a failure — so far. Panarin finished with 82 points in 81 games, while Saad had 35 points in 82 games, and Forsberg was yanked from the net six times in 30 starts. Bowman, never one to admit defeat, preached patience.

“It’s hard to judge a trade just on one year,” Bowman said two days after the season ended. “I think that’s a little bit unfair to Brandon to say that. Obviously, his numbers were down this year in terms of the number of points he had. But we were never trying to replace Artemi’s points with Brandon points. They’re different players.”

He’s spinning, but he’s not wrong, either. This wasn’t a 1-for-1, skill-for-skill trade. Saad is a two-way force, Panarin is a playmaker. And the Hawks had several reasons — good reasons — for making the deal.

First and foremost, Saad is signed for three more years after this one, while Panarin is signed only through next year, and likely will get a seven-figure salary the Hawks never would have been able to give him.

Secondly, the organizational belief was that Jonathan Toews needed Saad more than Kane needed Panarin. The jury’s still out on that one, as Kane, after posting his two best seasons with Panarin at 106 and 89 points, dipped to 76 points. 

Then there’s the curious case of Saad’s season. All the under-
lying numbers suggest it was a fluke. Saad was a top-10 player in the league in terms of even-strength possession numbers, and his expected-goals-for — a go-to stat in the analytics community — was 28. If Saad had better luck and had those 10 more goals, Panarin’s brilliance might not seem quite so gut-wrenching.

“He did a lot of underlying things which were really good,” Bowman said. “When he was on the ice, our team had a lot of chances. His conversion rate was just really low this year. We look at that as kind of an anomaly. We think he’s going to get back to his normal production.”

So does Saad.

“It’s not like I’m lacking confidence going into next year,” he said. “I think I’m very capable of being a leader this team and helping us get back in the playoffs.”

He’d better. Because, fair or not, both he and Bowman will be judged not just on their own performances, but by Panarin’s. And as the Capitals are finding out, it’s awfully hard to keep up with Panarin.