The New York Rangers have an impressive 32-13-5 record this season after they finished 27-23-6 last season and missed the playoffs. This season they have relied heavily on star players Igor Shesterkin, Adam Fox, and Chris Kreider, who are all in the midst of excellent seasons.
Despite finding ways to win games, one of the Rangers’ weaknesses is their lack of depth at center, especially with Ryan Strome struggling. One of the keys to the Blueshirts’ success so far is the all-around strong play of Mika Zibanejad.
Zibanejad’s Recent Play
Although Zibanejad has played very well throughout this season, he has produced more offensively lately. He had just five goals and 16 assists in the first 28 games but has 14 goals and 16 assists in his last 22 games. New York’s record is 14-6-2 in those 22 games despite having some key players out of the lineup during that stretch.
The Rangers have relied very heavily on Zibanejad, as their other centers have all struggled recently. Strome has just three goals in his last 16 games, despite having numerous scoring chances. The Blueshirts also haven’t gotten much production from their other centers, and Filip Chytil has just five goals and seven assists in 41 games. Kevin Rooney has six goals but has gone 23 consecutive games without scoring a goal.
Additionally, despite their impressive record, the Rangers have struggled to create scoring chances at even strength, and Zibanejad has been one of their few players who has been able to do so consistently. He has formed excellent chemistry on a line with Kreider, and the two have forechecked effectively, set each other up, and put pressure on opponents.
Zibanejad has recently come up with timely plays both offensively and defensively. He made an important blocked shot in front of the net as the Rangers held on to beat the Ottawa Senators 2-1 on Sunday. He is also the Rangers’ best center on faceoffs, winning 52.5 percent of them this season. He won a faceoff to set up K’Andre Miller’s game-winning goal in the final minute of New York’s 3-2 victory against the Seattle Kraken on Jan. 30. He has also won some key faceoffs in the defensive zone to help the Blueshirts hold on late in close games.
Zibanejad’s Play on the Power Play and Penalty Kill
Though they have struggled to score at even strength, the Rangers have an excellent first power-play unit, and have scored on 26.6 percent of their power plays this season. Zibanejad’s strong play at center is one of the driving forces behind the success of the unit and he already has 11 goals and 11 assists on the power play.
After struggling to get his heavy slap shot on goal early this season, Zibanejad has been much more accurate recently, sometimes scoring and sometimes creating rebound opportunities for Kreider. He used his slap shot to score the game-tying goal in the third period of the Rangers’ 3-2 shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Feb. 17. He has also made some one-touch passes from the slot to set up teammates.
The Rangers have also been excellent on the penalty kill this season, and have killed 83.2 percent of their penalties. While Shesterkin’s stellar goaltending is key to their success, the Blueshirts have a lot of strong penalty killers and Zibanejad is one of their best.
Zibanejad uses his long reach to disrupt passes, consistently wins one-on-one battles for the puck, and isn’t afraid to block shots. He is also a threat on the penalty kill. He has created some odd-man rushes and he already has three assists while shorthanded this season.
For the Rangers and Zibanejad Moving Forward
The Rangers could certainly use more production from their other centers but Zibanejad’s impressive play has helped them continue to win. He has done it all for the Blueshirts and is playing like a star after signing an eight-year, $68 million contract extension last season.
The Blueshirts could make a trade for a center before the trade deadline; however, whether or not that happens, they will continue to rely heavily on Zibanejad down the stretch. He has certainly stepped up for the Rangers, and his all-around strong play has been one of the key factors in the team’s success this season.
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.