Game #9: Zibanejad’s big night leads Rangers to 5-2 win over Panthers


Mika Zibanejad talked about what needed to happen for the Rangers offense to improve. He spoke following Sunday’s loss to Calgary about needing the second and third effort along with more grit in their game to score goals. He backed it up with a big night with his two goals and two assists highlighting a good 5-2 home win over the struggling Panthers (1-3-3).

On my brother’s birthday, the Rangers picked up their first win in regulation in the ninth game to improve to 3-5-1. It was a good way to conclude a home stretch with a big road trip ahead that starts Thursday in Chicago.

There are a lot of positives to take from this win. Coach David Quinn made a tweak to the first line, moving Mats Zuccarello up with Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. Jesper Fast slid down to the Kevin Hayes unit with improving rookie Filip Chytil. He also reinserted Ryan Spooner, who subbed in for Vinni Lettieri. Cody McLeod stayed in on the fourth line. Pavel Buchnevich worked with Brett Howden and Jimmy Vesey.

Backup goalie Alexandar Georgiev got the start for a banged up Henrik Lundqvist, who according to Quinn, wouldn’t have started anyway. How did he respond? Following a brief stint in Hartford to get some games in, he played extremely well, finishing with 36 saves for his first win this season. That included 13 in a busy first period that saw Vincent Trocheck put the Panthers ahead with a power play goal through a screen. Without his work in net, it could’ve been a different game. Especially in the third when Florida applied tons of pressure following Mike Hoffman’s wrap around goal that put them within 4-2.

The turning point came early in the second stanza. Unsatisfied with a first period that saw them get only five shots on Panthers goalie Michael Hutchinson, the Rangers were much more active. A crucial penalty kill resulted in the first shorthanded goal of the season. With Brendan Smith off for hooking, Zibanejad took a feed from Adam McQuaid in the neutral zone and flew around the Florida net for a wraparound shorthanded goal that tied the game. To hear Zuccarello tell it to MSG’s John Giannone in the postgame, it energized the bench. It was a great play by a talented player, who is being counted on to lead the way. He was just getting warmed up.

A series of undisciplined penalties by the Panthers in an ugly second came back to haunt them. Consecutive power play goals by Zuccarello and Zibanejad turned a tie game into a two goal Rangers lead. On the first one, Zuccarello caught a break when his shot deflected off a Panther and past Hutchinson for a 2-1 lead. Zibanejad won the offensive draw back to Neal Pionk, who passed for an open Zuccarello. Instead of thinking pass, he shot and got the reward.

Up one, Zibanejad increased the margin to two with a pretty wrist shot top shelf through a good Kreider screen. Kreider also picked up a helper for his hard work after feeding Pionk up top. Pionk continued his excellent play with his second assist and sixth in the last three games. His play has been superb since returning to the lineup. As promised, Quinn has delivered by giving Pionk a lot of ice time. It’s paying off.

That’s not all they did in the period. Contrary to a bland first that featured no physical play, the teams ratcheted it up. The Panthers began to get frustrated. As so often happens, that can lead to bad penalties, which the Blueshirts capitalized on. It also can cause some animosity. During a battle near the benches, Maxim Mamin jumped Smith with a sucker punch. Aggravated, Smith got the gloves off and pounded Mamin. He yelled at him about the unnecessary cheap shot. For some odd reason, the refs didn’t give Mamin an instigator. Instead, they gave Smith a misconduct for continuing the dispute. It was a ridiculous call. Total ineptness. That’s been the norm for a while.

Following a soft call on Fast, a hustling Zuccarello drew an even up on Jonathan Huberdeau to make it four on four. The game remained 3-1 after two.

A Zuccarello goal off a Zibanejad face off win increased the lead to 4-1 at 1:27 of the third. It was a simple play well executed. All Zibanejad did was win it back to Zuccarello, who let go of a wrist shot that chased Hutchinson. He allowed four goals on 19 shots. James Reimer relieved him. He didn’t have much to do.

Florida played much better following Zuccarello’s 14th career two goal game. They wound up outshooting the Rangers 14-5. Eventually, they were able to cut the deficit to two thanks to a nice individual effort from Hoffman. Taking a lead pass from Huberdeau, he skated around the Ranger net and had his wraparound bank off Brady Skjei and Georgiev to make it 4-2 with still 9:23 left.

The Rangers didn’t play a good third. Maybe they thought it was over. They spent way too much time defending in their end due to relentless pressure from the Panthers. Similar to a key save he made to bail out Marc Staal in the second, Georgiev was cool. He didn’t blink, making the timely stops to keep the Rangers ahead by two.

On a rare chance off some good effort, Chytil nearly had his first. He made a great move, but had his backhand attempt stopped by Reimer. Chytil is about ready to break out. It should come soon.

Off some nice hustle by who else but Fast to negate an icing, Hayes scored his second into an open net while being checked. That concluded the scoring, giving the Rangers a well deserved victory in regulation.

Three Stars 🌟

3rd 🌟 Alexandar Georgiev 36 saves for first win of season

2nd 🌟 Mats Zuccarello first 2 goals of season, 14th two-goal game

1st 🌟 Mika Zibanejad two goals (4, 5), two assists, shorthanded goal, PPG, game-winner, two big face off wins that led to Zuccarello goals

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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