Mika Zibanejad, Rangers centers peaking when it matters most

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NEW YORK — Protecting a one-goal lead in the final minute of regulation, Mika Zibanejad watched Sebastian Aho cut through the neutral zone. As the Carolina Hurricanes’ forward neared the New York Rangers’ blue line, Zibanejad pounced and, clutching his stick in his left hand, poked the puck away. He proceeded to out-battle Jake Guentzel for possession and whacked the puck toward Carolina’s empty net from his knees.

Brent Burns scooped the puck off the goal line before it crossed, robbing Zibanejad of a hat trick, but the final burst of effort from the Rangers’ center all but clinched a Game 1 win for New York.

“I’m just trying to make sure that he can’t get into the zone,” he said after the 4-3 victory to open the second round. “(Aho) is a shifty player. This time it worked out.”

It’s the type of little play the Rangers’ centers have been making since the postseason began. The group — led by Zibanejad and Vincent Trocheck — is playing as well as it has all season, and the bump in performance is coming at the perfect time.

“I trust all four of our centers in the dot, know that they’re going to go out there and dig in and give us the best chance to win a faceoff,” Chris Kreider said. “They’re going to be responsible defensively; they’re going to contribute offensively.”

Zibanejad, who at his best is a force offensively and defensively, scored New York’s first goal of the second round early in the first period. He eluded Teuvo Teravainen in the low slot, where he received a pass from Jack Roslovic and zipped it past Frederik Andersen. Later in the period, he helped the Rangers quickly take advantage on their first power play. Trocheck made a backhanded pass to Kreider at the goal line, and the wing spun to make another backhanded pass, this time setting up Zibanejad for a one-timer seven seconds into the power play.

He capitalized, scoring his second goal. An elated Kreider screamed and skated toward his friend to celebrate.

“Everyone knows Mika is such a responsible player up and down the ice,” defenseman Braden Schneider said. “In the playoffs, for the start of this, he’s taken it to another level. He’s all over our D-zone, he’s talking, he’s breaking pucks out. And then he’s getting up and making things happen in the offensive zone as well. He’s a leader for us, and he sets the tone for us.”

The Rangers got only one more power play the rest of the period, and they once again made fast work. Trocheck, who played for the Hurricanes from 2020 to 2022, nearly set up Zibanejad for another goal, sliding a puck to him backdoor. The pass was a little in front of Zibanejad, and he couldn’t quite gather it for a shot. Fortunately for New York, the puck bounced right to Trocheck, who backhanded it in.

“It’s a really good (penalty kill) that we’re playing against, so we have to execute, and I thought we did that tonight,” Zibanejad said. “It’s something we’re going to have to keep doing if we’re going to have some success against these guys.”

The goal gave Zibanejad his 10th point in five playoff games. Trocheck, who had a goal and an assist and led the team’s forwards in ice time, is up to 8 playoff points. The two also helped the penalty kill keep Carolina off the board in five tries. Kreider, wearing a customized Trocheck shirt after the game, said the center “does everything for us.”

“He’s somebody that we just count on for both sides of the puck,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “Tonight was more just a reflection of the regular season.”

Zibanejad had another chance to complete a first-period hat trick late in the frame. After the Hurricanes couldn’t escape their defensive zone, Zibanejad got a puck all alone in front of Andersen. He faked a slap shot, hoping to freeze the goalie, then tried to drop the puck back to Artemi Panarin. Unselfishness, in that instance, proved a little costly, as Panarin couldn’t get a shot on net.

“If I come in a position like that, I’ll do whatever decision I think is best at the moment, and this wasn’t my greatest decision if you look at it,” Zibanejad said. “It’s gonna happen.”

And after Zibanejad’s monster night, it was more than forgivable.

“Mika, you scored two. Can you talk about the one you passed up?” Kreider deadpanned after listening to Zibanejad’s answer about the play.

Center depth has been a constant with recent Stanley Cup champions. The Vegas Golden Knights won with Jack Eichel and William Karlsson last summer, and the Colorado Avalanche had a one-two punch of Nathan MacKinnon and Nazem Kadri the year before. The Tampa Bay Lightning featured Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli during both their Stanley Cup runs. The 2019 St. Louis Blues didn’t have superstars, but Ryan O’Reilly is an elite two-way player and Brayden Schenn had 50-plus points the season St. Louis won the Stanley Cup.

Boasting strong players up the middle is imperative for teams trying to make deep runs, and the Rangers have that going for them. Even beyond Zibanejad and Trocheck, Alex Wennberg and Barclay Goodrow have contributed this postseason. The Rangers had more than half of the expected goal share when either was on the ice at five-on-five Sunday, according to Natural Stat Trick. Both also played on the penalty kill.

General manager Chris Drury prioritized center depth at the trade deadline, acquiring Wennberg for a second-round pick and a conditional fourth. The move came with far less fanfare than Carolina trading for Guentzel, the Avalanche getting Casey Mittelstadt or Vegas snagging Noah Hanifin and Tomas Hertl, but it helped solidify New York up the middle. That has paid dividends. Through five games, the Will Cuylle–Wennberg–Kaapo Kakko line has yet to be on the ice for a five-on-five goal, though Carolina managed to score against them at six-on-five in Game 1.

“It’s huge,” defenseman Ryan Lindgren said of the team’s centers. “Great depth all around, but obviously, we’ve got some great centers and we’re doing a great job.”

With Wennberg in the fold, Jonny Brodzinski has been healthy scratched and Goodrow has played exclusively on the fourth line. Brodzinski had a nice season, appearing in a career-high 57 games, but Wennberg is a no-doubt upgrade in the bottom six.

The looming question up the middle is what happens with Filip Chytil. The 24-year-old, who had a 22-goal, 45-point 2022-23, has missed most of this season with concussion issues, but he’s been at practice recently skating with no restrictions. If he’s ready, Laviolette could choose to enter him into the lineup at some point. Should Chytil play center rather than wing, he’d likely make the most sense on the third line, which would bump Wennberg to the fourth and Goodrow likely to the wing. Zibanejad, Trocheck, a healthy Chytil and Wennberg up the middle would make for a formidable foursome.

Through five postseason games, even without Chytil, the centers have been all Laviolette could have hoped for in the playoffs — exactly what the Rangers have needed.

(Photo: Josh Lavallee / NHLI via Getty Images)

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