Return of 'Elimination Mika' Zibanejad keeps Rangers alive vs. Devils
The Rangers were staring into the abyss of a disappointing ending to a season full of lofty expectations if Game 6 went awry, but they responded with what Gerard Gallant called their “best game.”
Now Rangers-Devils is set for a deciding Game 7 on Monday at The Rock and the Blueshirts could be buoyed by what happened in the second period of their 5-2 victory Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
Elimination Mika returned.
On a night when several big-name Rangers made crucial contributions, the biggest one came from Mika Zibanejad, who scored the goal that gave the Rangers a lead they never relinquished. Zibanejad, who led New York with 39 goals during the regular season, had not scored before that in the series. Star Rangers not scoring – Artemi Panarin has been shut out – was a major theme of the series, but now Zibanejad is on the board.
Last year, Zibanejad thrived in elimination games. The Rangers played six of them, winning five, and he had four goals and seven assists in those games, matching the highest total for one postseason in NHL history. Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams both did it in 2014, too. With a goal and an assist in Game 6, Zibanejad has five goals and eight assists in his last seven elimination games.
“I can’t sit here and lie and say it wasn't a good feeling, seeing the puck go in,” said Zibanejad. But, he added, “the wins are all that matters. And we got the win that we needed and wanted and now we just keep on going.”
Still, Zibanejad looked like the weight of the hockey world melted from his shoulders as he celebrated the goal.
“Guys like to score and he’s a big-time player for us and it was a big goal,” Gallant said.
Zibanejad wasn’t the only one to soar or score, of course. Chris Kreider tallied again, giving him six goals in the series, and he added two assists. Vladimir Tarasenko also scored, Adam Fox had two more assists and Igor Shesterkin stopped 34-of-36 shots, some of them in spectacular fashion.
“Everybody was really good,” Gallant said. “The big guys stepped up. Big difference.”
Gallant and several other Rangers praised Zibanejad’s two-way play during the series, even if he wasn’t a nightly visitor to the score sheet. Defense has been a key for the Rangers in this series, too – they’ve allowed 13 goals in six games – and Zibanejad’s been a part of that.
“I’m sure it feels good for him (to score),” said Rangers’ captain Jacob Trouba. “I don’t think anybody in our room was too concerned about it. I think he’s been playing some good hockey. He’s obviously a great two-way player and if he’s not scoring goals, he impacts the game in a major way. He’s one of our top players, one of our best leaders.”
Trouba recounted how during the year Zibanejad was seeking his 40th goal and found himself in a two-on-one break. He passed the puck. “I think that’s the type of teammate, type of player he is,” Trouba said. “I don’t think anybody here is concerned about Mika scoring goals.”
During a postgame interview session, sitting next to Zibanejad, Kreider offered an explanation of sorts, noting that his pal “has to play with me, right? Not exactly a prodigious playmaker.”
“I beg to differ on that,” replied Zibanejad.
There’s plenty of evidence on video to support Zibanejad’s objection – Kreider set up Zibanejad’s goal with a nifty backhand pass from behind the net and also assisted on Tarasenko’s goal.
“I’ve been trying to shoot and now the puck goes in,” Zibanejad said. “I don’t know…I wish I scored on every shot. This would be a really simple game, an easy game. But it’s not. Obviously, playing with the guys I’m playing with, they keep trusting me and I keep trusting myself.”
It worked Saturday night. Now the Devils are on the brink, too, standing there with the Rangers. One team’s season will go on, the other’s will be over.
The Rangers responded when they were one step from being closed out. Game 6 was their best. As Gallant said of his team, “Well, they got some character and some pride and they didn’t like the way the last three games went.
“(Saturday) was a chance to redeem ourselves a little bit and now we give ourselves a chance for Game 7.”
And Zibanejad finally scored. He has starred in elimination games. What a boost for the Blueshirts if he can do it again on Monday, too.