By Sean Hartnett
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Mika Zibanejad has begun his second season with the Rangers in scorching form, collecting four goals through three games. The 24-year-old center thrives when he keeps his game simple and doesn’t overthink. That’s the key for a player whom the Rangers are relying on to be a focal point of their offense and a No. 1 center.
Zibanejad ended last season admitting that the mental aspect of his game wasn’t where it needed to be.
“If you look at the games I don’t play well, I’m not skating enough,” Zibanejad said at the time. “I’m kind of waiting for something to happen, instead of making something happen. I know I have the ability to do that. It’s just frustrating for myself to get trapped in a situation where I put myself in a bad situation, where I’m afraid of making mistakes. I think it’s hard to grasp on why and what not. For me, it’s just going out and playing. Many times, I find a way out of it by just playing and just going out there and having fun. Almost playing with a little bit with an edge, but also with a little bit more.”
Fast-forward back to present day. Zibanejad extended his goal-scoring streak to three consecutive games Sunday, as the Rangers defeated the Montreal Canadiens 2-0 at Madison Square Garden to secure their first victory of the season. In his play and the words he speaks, Zibanejad is projecting confidence.
“It’s early, but I’m trying to play a little more with my body and trying to use my strength,” Zibanejad said. “I’m trying to shoot as much as I can when I have an opportunity.”
Pavel Buchnevich fed the puck to Zibanejad from behind the net after Chris Kreider got into the right place to keep the play alive. Zibanejad’s tough-angle shot sneaked between Carey Price’s blocker and right pad.
The Kreider-Zibanejad-Buchnevich line accounted for three points (one goal, two assists) in the victory. Collectively, the trio has nine points this season. The Rangers have scored nine goals so far. At least one member of the line has played a hand, with a goal or an assist, in six of the club’s nine goals.
“If we have a bad shift, we try to just put it away and really focus on the next one,” Zibanejad said. “We’re talking on the bench quite a bit, trying to support each other. It seems to work right now.”
Last season, Zibanejad flashed his high-ceiling potential early on. He notched 15 points in his first 19 games as a Ranger. His hot start was interrupted when a broken left fibula caused him to miss 25 consecutive games. Zibanejad endured a tough patch in February, as his shooting percentage fell to 5.6 percent during the month. He, however, finished strong, ending the 2017 playoffs as the team’s leading point-getter with nine points in 12 games.
Just like his debut season with the club, Zibanejad has started his second season in the Big Apple as an energetic and dominant center. Even his faceoff percentage is higher than it’s ever been, at 55.7 percent. That’s well above his career faceoff win rate of 49.6 percent. Head coach Alain Vigneault is holding Zibanejad to a high standard and expects the former sixth overall pick to continue delivering the goods.
“There’s no doubt that Mika knew we put a lot of faith in his play,” Vigneault said. “We signed him to a long-term deal, and we expected him to be an impact player on the team. I think the way he has started is the way that he has to continue. He has to continue to be a force on the ice — a difference-maker — and that’s what we expect from him.”
Henrik Lundqvist stopped 34 shots to earn his 62nd career shutout, moving past Hall of Famer Turk Broda for 16th on the all-time NHL leaderboard.
Next up for the Rangers is a St. Louis Blues team that has begun the season a perfect 2-0-0. The Blues will be in action on Monday afternoon against Islanders at Barclays Center, then face the Rangers on Tuesday night at MSG.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey