Does Mika Zibanejad qualify for the Comeback Player of the Year Award, and if so, can we just present it to him this minute and get on with the rest of the season?
Because the Swede represents an epic landslide unto himself after making history with his second consecutive hat trick and six-point game against the Flyers. This one came Thursday, in the Rangers’ 8-3 burial of the Flyers in Philadelphia, which followed last Wednesday’s 9-0 rout at the Garden.
It was 6-0 by the 2:42 mark of the second period for the Blueshirts, who are 4-1 under acting head coach Kris Knoblauch and 5-1-1 in the seven games since Artemi Panarin rejoined the lineup March 13 in Boston, while outscoring opponents by an aggregate 34-14.
The six points for Zibanejad give him 17 (7-10) over the last seven contests and 18 (8-10) in the 10 games since he was nailed to the bench for the first 10:46 of the second period at the Devils on March 2. Coming out of that one, Zibanejad had eight points (2-6) in 21 games. He now has 26 points (10-16) in 32 contests.
“I don’t know if self-doubt is the right [term] but definitely it was a struggle for me to get the puck in the net,” said Zibanejad, who became the third player in NHL history and the first since 1942-43 to record multiple six-point outings against the same opponent in a single season. “But I tried to stick by the work and trust myself that it was going to come. Obviously now it’s really been going for me, and the whole team as well.
“You try to take it one game at a time, especially when things are not going well, but even more so now when the puck is going in. I’m just trying to keep level-headed and keep working.”
A few more games against the Flyers, who have surrendered 57 goals in their last 12 games, and Zibanejad might be able to track down Connor McDavid for the Art Ross Trophy.
Everything seems possible all of a sudden, with the Blueshirts drawing within three points of the Bruins for the final playoff spot in the East Division, though Boston holds three games in hand.
Everything seems possible, with Igor Shesterkin looking spry upon his return after a three-week absence in a 41-save performance that was necessary when his teammates played as if loopy after building that 6-0 lead. Everything seems possible, with Adam Fox recording five assists to boost a nascent Norris Trophy campaign. Everything seems possible after another bravura night from Panarin and Ryan Strome.
A year ago, the Rangers’ two top lines gave the team its identity. More to the point, the identity was crafted around Panarin and Zibanejad, who finished the season as two of the top 10 players in the world. Welcome back.
“We’re kind of seeing it,” said Fox, who quarterbacked the power play that struck for three goals on four shots within 3:19 of its first three opportunities with the man-advantage. “We were holding teams to low goals early in the year, but were unable to get that offense.
“Obviously scoring goals on the power play helps. We were getting chances early in the year but not capitalizing. Now we’re finding some goals and getting goals helps guys’ confidence and creates more chances.
“That helps and I think we’re not cheating the game. We’re getting chances off the rush and capitalizing on that. It starts at the back end.”
Shesterkin said he had been aware of his three-week absence at the start of the match. But he got into it quickly with a pair of difficult saves in the first seven-plus minutes to keep the game scoreless.
Then, the deluge, with Strome scoring a redirect in front off a gorgeous feed from Panarin, while noted media critic Jakub Voracek was nearby but inattentive at 8:01. Pavel Buchnevich got his first of two off a two-on-one feed from Chris Kreider 52 seconds later. It took nearly five minutes for Zibanejad to get his first, tipping in Fox’s power-play drive at 13:36.
There were three more within the first 2:42 of the second that drove Carter Hart to the bench, Zibanejad scoring on a sharp angle one-timer from the low left circle at 0:54 just 1:12 before ripping home a one-timer from the high slot to complete the hat trick at 2:06 that came 36 seconds ahead of K’Andre Miller’s long one that might have hit a Philly defenseman in front.
The Rangers began sniffing for points and became sloppy following that one, and the Flyers crept within 6-2 by 13:34. But Shesterkin sparkled throughout the final period in which Philadelphia poured 18 shots on net for a total of 44.
So it ended 8-3. Maybe it’s time for the Rangers to stop presenting Zibanejad with the Broadway Hat after nights like these and just give him the whole damn haberdashery.