Artemi Panarin isn’t ready to talk about what transpired at the end of February, forcing him to take a two-week leave of absence from the team.
“It’s probably not the time to discuss it right now,” Panarin said Monday after the Rangers’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. “I have nothing to hide. I will address everything after the season, but right now the focus is on the game and not these discussions.”
Those were Panarin’s first public comments since taking that leave, which came on the heels of his former KHL head coach, Andrei Nazarov, telling a Russian tabloid that the star winger beat an 18-year-old woman at a bar in Latvia 10 years ago while playing for Vityaz Podolsk.
Witnesses and Latvian authorities, however, said such an incident never happened.
Panarin is an ardent supporter of Alexei Navalny — the largest opposer of Russian president Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin — which is why many suspect Nazarov made such accusations.
Given Putin’s drastic measures to keep his opposition quiet — including the alleged poisoning last summer of Navalny — it was believed that Panarin took the absence to ensure the safety of his family back in Russia.
However, a report from ESPN’s Emily Kaplan also hinted that Panarin took that time to rest up a lingering back injury.
“Maybe I rested more, and maybe that’s the lesson, that sometimes you should rest and you’ll play better,” he said of his training regimen while away.
Monday night’s loss to the Flyers was Panarin’s second game back from that leave where he looked like his usual self, posting a three-point night with a goal and two assists.
“You can see our lineup just looks totally different when he’s in there,” his head coach, David Quinn, said. “We’re just a much more balanced team. You add a player of that caliber into your lineup, you’re a lot more dangerous, your whole team feels better about itself.
“He certainly has given us that jolt in the two games he’s played.”
He and the Rangers are next in action on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. ET) against the very same Flyers.