Rangers leading Capitals series thanks to Mika Zibanejad and limiting Alex Ovechkin

This Rangers-Capitals series is tilting, at least in part, in the way one star on each team is performing: While Mika Zibanejad, the player of the game in Game 2, is soaring for the Blueshirts, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin has been mostly invisible.

No wonder the Rangers are up, two games to none, in the best-of-seven first-rounder. New York edged the Caps, 4-3, Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. Zibanejad’s play is not the only reason the Rangers are ahead, of course.

But he really stood out in Game 2, whether it was picking Ovechkin’s pocket to force a turnover and start a sequence that led to a shorthanded goal or scoring on the power play to give the Rangers their first lead in yet another comeback victory.

Zibanejad even created havoc on the penalty kill long before setting up K’Andre Miller’s second-period shortie, generating several first-period chances that made it feel like a shorthanded goal was inevitable.

“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.”

Just how special he's been was on display on Miller’s goal. Zibanejad surprised Ovechkin, who had the puck near center ice. Zibanejad took the puck away and started toward the Caps goal. He passed the puck to Chris Kreider, who drew heavy Capitals attention, and Kreider gave the puck back to him. Then Zibanejad slid the puck to a trailing Miller, who scored, giving the Rangers a 4-2 lead they’d need.

“I don’t get how Mika sees me there,” Miller said. “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.”

Overall, the night saw Zibanejad pot his seventh career power-play goal in the playoffs with the Rangers. It was also his 13th multi-point playoff game with the Blueshirts, tying him with Kreider and Walt Tkaczuk for the fifth-most in team history.

His strong play might be just the tonic if he’s less-than-happy about his regular season, in which he finished fifth on the Rangers in scoring. One year after notching 39 goals and 91 points, Zibanejad had 26 and 72 this season.

No one will ever remember the lower totals if the Rangers go on a deep playoff run. And they’ll need this version of Zibanejad to do it.

Apr 16, 2024; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) against the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center.

And to finish off this series, they may have to continue to silence one of the greatest scorers in NHL history – Ovechkin, whose 853 career goals are second only to Wayne Gretzky’s 894.

Ovechkin may be 38 years old, but he still led Washington with 31 goals this season. He’s obviously still dangerous, but he’s had only one shot on goal in the first two games. Several other attempts have been blocked and at least two have simply gone wide of the net.

Rangers head coach Peter Laviolette wasn’t giving anything away about stopping Ovechkin. “He’s a player that can make a difference in the game,” the coach said. “You know, we’re, I guess, mindful of that and do our best.”

Caps coach Spencer Carbery acknowledged that Ovechkin “looks a little bit off. He’s struggling.” The coach noted that the Caps will be able to manage line matchups on their home ice – Game 3 is Friday night in Washington – and that may help free Ovechkin.

Carbery noted that Ovechkin, on most nights, “should get four or five looks, whether they go in or not. ... He’s not getting those looks.” Also, the coach said, the Rangers are effectively blocking his shots – they blocked five in Game 1 and three in Game 2.

Still, Carbery added: “He can flip it. That’s one thing about O. He can flip it in one game and now all of a sudden be a difference maker. I expect him to step up.”

Will he in Game 3? We’ll see. The Capitals were much better in Game 2 than they were in the opener, and they continue to try to tempt the Rangers into mayhem with feisty play. If Ovechkin starts scoring, that would help make it a tighter series.

But the Rangers have flexed their depth – they have eight different goal-scorers in the first two games. They got a goal from their best scorer, Artemi Panarin in Game 1, and a big hit from Panarin in Game 2. Yes, the Rangers have been feisty, too.

And they had a breakout game from Zibanejad, one of their big names. So far, at least, he’s one star in this series who’s made a big difference.