We know that Mika Zibanejad contributes in myriad ways even when he is not scoring. But here’s the thing, the Rangers need their No. 1 center to score if they are going to make an imprint on the NHL.
And No. 93 is off on one of his patented streaks, scoring goals even when he loses the puck on a move, as he did Sunday in Florida against the Panthers, and even when he is trying to make a pass to the front, as he did at the Garden on Tuesday against the Hurricanes.
“Obviously I want to score and help the team,” said Zibanejad, who has scored four in the last three games after going eight straight without one. “But I try not to focus on too much. The focus is on winning games.
“That’s all it is.”
The Rangers recorded one of their most impressive victories with this 5-3 triumph over a Carolina team that had won 11 straight games and had gone 17 straight (15-0-2) without losing in regulation. The Blueshirts competed and improved from start to finish, overcoming deficits of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 (entering the third period). They are 10-2-1 over their last 13 contests.
“I think we’re at a point where we have some confidence in tight games against good teams because of the identity we built over the last year-and-a-half, and maybe even before that when we were building,” said the Swede, whose team is 3-2 in the last five games when trailing after 40 minutes. “We know how we have to play in order to be successful.”
Of course, they have to get the puck in and get the puck out, the latter of which the Blueshirts failed to do at the defensive line on each of Carolina’s first two goals. They need to score on the power play. They need to defend. And, yes, they need their marquee forwards to score.
So it’s two straight games in which Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin have scored goals, with Chris Kreider having chipped in with two against the Puddy Tats. Of course it is important to have secondary scoring, but it is essential for this team to get primary scoring … and in the bunches that generally accompany a Zibanejad heater.
Again, before the center beat Andrei Vasilevskiy from the right side in the first period in Tampa, the drought was at eight games. Worse than that, Zibanejad’s five-on-five production was lower than it had been in 10 seasons. He entered that game scoring 0.5 goals-per-60 minutes, nearly a third of his 1.43 in 2019-20 and down from last season’s 0.65. He’d recorded just 1.76 points per 60:00, down from 2.79 in 2019-20 and from 2.12 last season. Regardless of his other contributions, he wasn’t scoring at even-strength. The power play was stumbling, too.
But it all changed with that goal against Vasilevskiy. There was different body language. There was different authority. Maybe a different look in his eyes.
“There’s an extra jump in your step when the puck goes in, but I don’t think that’s unique to me,” Zibanejad, who leads the club with 19 goals, told The Post. “What I find for me is that when the situation is different and pucks are not going in, I might be more hesitant to shoot. There’s some hesitation.
“It’s been that way my whole career.”
Kaapo Kakko’s elevation to the first line with Zibanejad and Kreider has made the unit a possession machine that, while operating below the hash marks, opens ice for No. 93 up top. Vitali Kravtsov has played a fair amount of imposing hockey the last three games while appearing to increasingly rely on his instincts.
If there was a downer in this one, it was Filip Chytil’s third-period demotion to the fourth line after faulty work in the defensive zone through the first two periods. Chytil (who changed places with Barclay Goodrow) and fourth-line mates Sammy Blais and Julien Gauthier got only one shift in the third, though No. 72 was on for the late power play on which he scored the empty-netter to seal it.
Again, though, this was an impressive one that the Rangers earned. And it was one through which Zibanejad continued streaking.
“I have always evaluated myself on playing a complete game, not by goals and not by points,” Zibanejad said. “From the time I started to get a lot of ice time here four or five years ago, the only thing that matters is whether I am doing enough to help the team win.”
But do you want to know what helps the team win? Zibanejad scoring goals. That’s (also) what helps the Rangers win games.
That’s what he’s doing. That’s what they’re doing, too.
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