The New York Rangers entered this season with high expectations after playing excellent hockey late in the regular season last year. One of the driving forces behind that success was the great play of Mika Zibanejad, who developed into a star center. He got off to a very slow start this season, struggling to produce offensively, but in recent games he has broken through and once again is playing like a star for the Rangers.
Zibanejad’s High Expectations and Disappointing Start to the Season
When the coronavirus pandemic brought a halt to the 2019-20 NHL season, no one was playing at a higher level than Zibanejad. He had 24 goals and 16 assists in New York’s final 25 games of the regular season, including a spectacular five-goal performance against the Washington Capitals. His one-timer was powerful and accurate and he excelled on the power play.
Every time Zibanejad had a shift, it felt as though the ice was tilted in the Rangers’ favor. He finished with 41 goals and 34 assists in just 57 games, and was one of the team’s best defensive forwards.
Entering this season, the expectation was that he would continue to play like a star, but his season got off to a rocky start as he missed most of training camp after testing positive for coronavirus. He returned just in time for the season opener and while he didn’t miss any games, he looked rusty early in the season.
In the first few weeks of the season, Zibanejad seemed to be a step slower and his timing was clearly off. He struggled to connect on his slapshots and frequently missed the net on scoring opportunities. In his first 15 games of the season, he had just one goal and two assists.
During New York’s next eight games, he began to play better and created more scoring opportunities while playing well defensively. He was skating better and was more noticeable on the ice, but still struggled with his shot, fanning or missing the net on too many of his slapshots. However, he still had two goals and six assists in those eight games.
Zibanejad’s Recent Play
The Rangers played one of their best games this season when they beat the Boston Bruins 4-0 last week. Zibanejad played very well, assisting on the first two goals of the game. He also was excellent while shorthanded, winning battles for the puck to kill time, as the Rangers killed all five of Boston’s power-play opportunities successfully.
Two games later, against the Philadelphia Flyers he played one of the greatest periods in NHL history. In the second period, he scored a natural hat trick while adding three assists in the period as the Rangers routed the Flyers 9-0. He had one goal at even strength, one goal on the power play and one goal shorthanded.
In Saturday’s game against the Capitals he continued his strong play with an assist on the opening goal of the game. Then, with the score tied 1-1 late in the third period, he made a great individual effort, hustling down the ice after a dump in. He knocked Washington defenseman Brenden Dillon off the puck, stealing it and scoring from a bad angle with a great wrist shot. New York went on to win the game 3-1.
The Rangers have dealt with a lot of adversity this season with key players missing many games. That, along with Zibanejad’s slump have made it difficult for the Blueshirts to get much momentum going, but they have recently gotten key players like Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba and Filip Chytil back in the lineup and Igor Shesterkin is expected to return from a groin injury soon. New York is currently in sixth place in the MassMutual East Division, but still has time to make a push for the postseason.
In order to have any chance at the postseason, the Rangers needed more production from Zibanejad and his play over the last five games should give the team hope that he’s broken out of his slump and is now on a hot streak. Going forward, New York will have to ride his strong play along with the great play of Panarin to string together wins in order to make their push for the postseason.
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, rooting for the Rangers, Yankees, Giants, and Knicks. When my dream of playing shortstop for the Yankees fell short, I started writing about sports instead. I’m a proud graduate of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.