New York Rangers star winger Artemi Panarin rejoined the team on Wednesday up in Boston as they prepare for their Thursday-night matchup against the Bruins.
He had taken a leave of absence on Feb. 22 after his former coach, Andrei Nazarov, at Vityaz of the KHL — Russia’s top professional league — told pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda that Panarin bet an 18-year-old Latvian woman 10 years ago at a hotel in Riga.
After he and the Rangers both denied the accusations, reports saw Nazarov’s claim quickly unravel as teammates and Latvian authorities denied any such incident.
Nazarov’s claims look to be more of a calculated attempt to tarnish Panarin’s reputation more than anything. The Rangers’ star has been critical of Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and a vocal supporter of the Kremlin’s top opposer, Alexei Navalny.
Panarin posted a photo on Instagram on Jan. 21 expressing his support of Navalny with the caption “Freedom for Navalny.”
Navalny was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison in early-February after a Moscow court turned his suspended sentence in a 2014 criminal case for fraud into a full custodial term. This after he recovered from being poisoned by the Novichok nerve agent, a Soviet-era chemical weapon, back in August. Many suspect that it was Putin and the Kremlin who carried out the assassination attempt.
It was believed that Panarin took the leave of absence to ensure the safety of his family back in Russia.
Now back in the fold, Panarin is expected to take part in at least one of the Rangers’ two games in Boston against the Bruins — and it could not have come any sooner.
The Rangers managed to go .500 in Panarin’s absence, going 4-4-0 in eight games; although they are currently on a two-game skid after losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins. With just 23 points in 24 games, the Rangers sit in sixth-place out of eight teams in the Eastern Division.
While Panarin ranks third on the team with 18 points (5 G, 13 A), the Rangers’ offense as a whole is a shell of what it once was last season — when it was one of the more overwhelming attacks in all of hockey. Their 67 goals this season are tied for ninth-fewest in the league.