Mika Zibanejad heating up at perfect time as Rangers look to put Capitals’ backs to wall

Mika Zibanejad Rangers
New York Rangers’ Mika Zibanejad (93) celebrates after scoring a goal during the first period in Game 2 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup first-round playoff series against the Washington Capitals, Tuesday, April 23, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

The largest indictment surrounding previous playoff runs by the New York Rangers — which ended all too prematurely by their standards — was that their biggest players could not leave their mark on the largest of stages. 

Mika Zibanejad is doing everything he can to rectify that notion this postseason.

The Blueshirts’ veteran center has a goal and two assists as his side has jumped out to an expected 2-0 advantage in their first-round series against the Washington Capitals. That has nearly matched his output from last year’s first-round series loss to the New Jersey Devils where he could only muster a goal and three assists in seven games.

He stole the show in Game 2, helping pace New York to a 4-3 victory at Madison Square Garden much in part to his special-teams contributions. 

Zibanejad gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead with 5:32 to go in the first period on the power play when he rifled a wrister from the right dot past Capitals goalie Charlie Lindgren.

Nursing a 3-2 lead late in the second while on the penalty kill, he played provider for K’Andre Miller by stealing the puck from Washington star Alex Ovechkin in the neutral zone. Streaking down the left wing of the Capitals’ zone, he played a 1-2 with Chris Krider in close before dropping a pass back to an open Miller, who rifled what proved to be the shorthanded winner home with 3:08 to go in the frame.

“Mika’s been awesome for us, especially these last two games, doing a lot of different things for us, on the power play, the PK, five-on-five, at the end of the game, the beginning of the game, whatever you want to say,” Miller said. “He’s really been a special player for us and we’re grateful to have him…

“I don’t get how Mika saw me there. It’s an unreal play by him. And Kreids taking off three of their guys, bringing all the attention to him, and I was just sneaking in down the pipe and tried to get something on it.”

This is a glimpse into how good Zibanejad can be when it all comes together, which has not been the case for stretches this season. His goal-scoring dropped significantly this season, shrinking from 39 last year to 26. His points total also dropped from 91 to 72.

Timing is everything, though, and the Swede got hot at the right time leading into the playoffs. Across the final seven games of the regular season, he posted nine points (2G, 7A).

“I think he’s been really good. He’s been playing in high gears,” Rangers head coach Peter Laviolette. “I do notice him and the high levels of speed that he’s playing at and the areas that he’s getting to in trying to get his shot off and trying to create. That’s obvious to me.

“I think there were times down the stretch before the playoffs started where he was hitting that level, but for me I think it’s nice to see that he has walked it right into the playoffs.”

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