Rangers’ Centers Reawakening

The New York Rangers are comfortably in playoff position and have avoided any prolonged losing streaks all season. For much of February and early March, they had been doing that without much production from their centers.

Now, Mika Zibanejad, Kevin Hayes, and Derek Stepan appear to be waking up, making the Rangers an increasingly dangerous postseason opponent.

Stepan Breaks Drought

Heading into Sunday’s game at Joe Louis Arena against the Detroit Red Wings, Derek Stepan was mired in the worst goal-scoring slump of his career. One of the Rangers’ best all-around players, Stepan had endured a 23-game goalless streak.

That finally came to an end in the third period against the Red Wings. Stepan took a cross-ice pass from Chris Kreider and deposited the puck upstairs for a power-play tally.

While the late goal likely didn’t affect the outcome of the Rangers’ 4-1 victory since they were already up 3-1, it was undoubtedly significant for Stepan, who said he reached out to former-Ranger Martin St. Louis for advice during his slump.

Even with his unforeseen goal drought, Stepan is still tied for second on the Rangers with 47 points (13 goals and 34 assists). He plays in all situations and is someone the Rangers rely on heavily in high-leverage situations. If this goal helps get him back on track with the playoffs around the corner, that’s great news for the Blueshirts.

Zibanejad Finding His Game

Another Rangers pivot, Mika Zibanejad, has had his share of difficult stretches this season. He had gotten off to a decent start, with 15 points in his first 19 games, before breaking his fibula in brutal fashion on Nov. 20. After potting two goals in his first game back against Dallas on Jan. 17, he too struggled to find the back of the net again. While his drought never became quite as severe as Stepan’s, he still went 15 games before scoring an overtime winner against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 25.

Zibanejad repeated the feat against the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 6, proving himself to be somewhat of a three-on-three overtime specialist.

Two games later, the 23-year-old Swede lit the lamp twice on the power play in what was ultimately a rare road loss for the Rangers against the Carolina Hurricanes. Nevertheless, the game showed that Zibanejad might be in the early stages of a scoring binge, as the two-time 20-goal scorer now has four goals in his past eight games.

Like Stepan, Zibanejad is a player the Rangers can lean on in all situations. If goal-scoring can become a more consistent part of his strong all-around game, Zibanejad will become a matchup problem for opposing teams.

Hayes Back on Track

Kevin Hayes, the center of what is essentially the Rangers’ third top line with Michael Grabner and J.T. Miller, also endured a bit of a dry spell through most of February and early March. He too, however, is heating up.

After failing to score a goal in 10 consecutive games, Hayes scored a beauty against the Florida Panthers in an eventual 5-2 win.

Against the Red Wings on Sunday, Hayes scored again and added an assist to eclipse his previous career-high of 45 points, achieved in his rookie season two years ago.

Hayes has also become a more versatile player for the Rangers this season, getting extensive minutes on the penalty kill for the first time in his career and taking advantage to the tune of seven shorthanded points the most in the league.

All three of the Rangers’ top centers are multi-talented players who contribute to the team’s success in many different ways. Incredibly, they all struggled to score goals during the same general time period, but the Rangers still won their share of games. What that illustrated was two things: 1) each player helped the team in other ways, and 2) the Rangers are a deep team that will be especially potent with this trio of centers finding the scoresheet consistently.

The Rangers might have their warts on defense, but with the depth of their scoring attack and strong play down the middle, they aren’t exactly a team anyone should be wishing to face in the postseason.