Mika Magic: Zibby’s big night leads Rangers past Cats

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For all the talk about Mika Zibanejad’s recent “stale” play, as he put it a couple of games ago, he looked rejuvenated on Sunday. The center, who snapped an eight-game goal drought against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday, socked two more in Sunrise as the Rangers defeated the  Florida Panthers 5-3 at FLA live arena for their ninth win in 12 games.

The victory, coupled with the NewYork Islanders falling 4-1 to the Seattle Kraken, saw the 20-12-5 Blueshirts back above the playoff line. It was a back-and-forth affair that reflected the team’s similar East-West style of play, one the Rangers executed better.

A SUNDAY SPECIAL:

We haven’t seen much late success by the Rangers’ power play and penalty kill, but both combined 6/8 in the contest, with the Blueshirts potting two of their goals on the man advantage.

After failing in their first attempt for their 18th unsuccessful try in their last 19, Mika Zibanejad scored on a breakaway chance just as the 4-on-4 switched into a Rangers power play, where the puck bounced off his stick and through the legs of Sergei Bobrovsky to give the visitors an early 1-0 lead.

In my recent posts, I’ve brought up the power play woes and have suggested changes, such as Zibanejad or Artemi Panarin being removed from the first unit if they would keep their tactics the same.

On Sunday, the Rangers cycled efficiently, and players were constantly moving, creating havoc for the penalty-killing Panthers. As Gerard Gallant said in a recent presser, “When you work hard and compete, good things happen.”

They added another two later in the contest, one coming on a two-way individual effort by Vincent Trocheck. After breaking up a breakaway chance, Trocheck raced up ice and finished a saucer feed from Kreider to uplift the overwhelming contingent of Blueshirts fans in attendance and extend the advantage to 4-2.

New York initially doubled their lead early in the second by turning defense into offense. Braden Schneider moved the puck off an impressive right pad save from Jaroslav Halak before eventually joining the rush and allowing the Rangers to go to work down low. Schneider slapped the puck off the right side boards, which found Kaapo Kakko behind the net, who then found a cutting Zibanejad in the slot to make it 2-0.

Florida would punch back, and although they were hampered by the Blueshirts’ penalty kill twice, they finally solved Halak when Nick Cousins walked down the right side and scored through a screen from the circle to give the Cats life. The momentum for the hosts was short-lived because Chris Kreider restored the two-goal cushion 107 seconds later, depositing his net front opportunity courtesy of crisp passing by Adam Fox and Kakko.

The only special teams’ blemish of the night arrived towards the end of the second period when Florida finally capitalized on their fourth power play opportunity after Sam Bennett wired one past Halak from the right dot, making it a 3-2 contest.

HALAK NETS WIN #3:

Jaroslav Halak was solid in net and now has two straight wins to his name, his last coming on December 17th in Philadelphia. The netminder made 32 saves on 35 shots, including 27 over the final two periods, and finished with a +1.84 Goals Saved Above Expected.

Of the three he let up, the one he would probably want back is Eric Staal’s goal early in the third period, as the former Ranger turned and fired from the right circle, cutting Florida’s deficit to 4-3. But Halak’s teammates would pick him up and bookend the scoring when Artemi Panarin found the loose change and slipped it home for his 10th goal of the year to wrap up the win.

MARV’S 3 STARS:

BROADWAY HAT: Alexis Lafreniere

Ben Harpur admirably gave the team’s victory hat to Alexis Lafreniere, crediting his “hard work” and good attitude despite being a healthy scratch on Thursday. Lafreniere was ineffective playing with Filip Chytil and Jimmy Vesey, but nothing particularly concerning came off the line’s play either.

3. Vincent Trocheck:
The contract keeps looking better and better. Trocheck’s rough two-way play in the third, including his goal that gave the Rangers insurance, reflected the reasons the Rangers went after him in the first place last Summer. It also made amends for a sluggish start from the center, who took a penalty in the first period and had a giveaway that led to a good Panthers scoring opportunity. The multi-point night makes Trocheck over a point-per-game player for the season, as he’s now got 37 points(11-16) in 34 games.

2. Kaapo Kakko:
The winger looked right at home on the line with Zibanejad and Kreider and was forced to be reckoned with down low refusing to get knocked off the puck, which is his he earned his two assists on the night.

1. Mika Zibanejad 
Mika scored twice in a game for the fifth time this season, and the Rangers remain undefeated when he does that. Mika may not be looked at around the league as something other than a first-line center. Still, every time it seems as if he’s doubted, for instance, other hockey fans telling me he’s “overrated,” Mika rises to the occasion and shows his high hockey IQ that allowed him to be a good defender and his creativity on offense as we saw on his first goal.