Game #50: Zibanejad’s first hat trick as a Ranger does in Devils 4-3

The first meeting of the season finally took place in Game 50 for the Rangers and Devils. On a frigid night at the end of January in Newark, the Rangers got a hat trick from Mika Zibanejad (3-1-4) to do in the Devils 4-3. His line with Mats Zuccarello (3 primary assists) and Chris Kreider (team best 23rd goal) dominated the Devils, who were without key defensemen Sami Vatanen and Ben Lovejoy.

It showed throughout as the game went on. For a while, the Rangers refused to shoot the puck on Devils starter Keith Kinkaid. In fact, they only registered two shots in the first 14:54. It was strange. The Devils took advantage of two Rangers’ penalties, cashing in with a pair of power play goals from Nico Hischier (goal, assist for 10th multi-point game of season) and Marcus Johansson (8th of season).

On the first one that Blake Coleman drew on Marc Staal (holding), Pavel Zacha out-muscled Neal Pionk off the puck to free it up for a turnaround shot from Hischier for a unassisted goal at 5:10. It was his 14th. Up till that point, the Rangers penalty kill was doing a good job. But all it took was one mistake for the puck to wind up behind starter Henrik Lundqvist due to a very soft play by Pionk. Why he was back paired with Staal is inexplicable while Tony DeAngelo sat. I would love to know coach David Quinn’s reasoning behind it. Brendan Smith paired up with Kevin Shattenkirk most of the contest. He actually played well.

The second Devils power play tally came from Johansson on a great effort play. With Jesper Fast off for a questionable tripping minor, he followed up a Brian Boyle shot that ricocheted off the goalpost by diving to put home a rebound with Pionk on the ice literally. Another bad play by the second-year defenseman, who’s clearly struggling and should be the odd man out for Saturday against the Lightning.

Johansson’s goal gave the Devils a two-goal lead with 3:42 left in the first period. Even though they were up two, they didn’t exactly dominate play at five-on-five. In many ways, the Rangers were their own worst enemy. Despite having sustained forecheck pressure on a few shifts, they passed up shots. None more glaring than Pavel Buchnevich on a mini break. Kevin Shattenkirk made a perfect outlet for Buchnevich at the Devils blueline. He then broke in and for some reason, opted to try a fancy move rather than shoot from a good angle. It was exasperating. Needless to say, he didn’t see many shifts in the first two periods.

Finally beginning to dictate play, the Rangers got a late power play off a offensive zone draw. Referee Kevin Pollock called Johansson for interference on Vladislav Namestnikov with seven seconds left. Incensed by the call, both Johansson and New Jersey coach John Hynes didn’t like it. The MSG replays seemed to indicate why it was called. Johansson prevented Namestnikov from skating through.

You don’t expect to score with so little time left in a period. However, the Blueshirts made it work thanks to a Zibanejad win back to Kevin Hayes. Hayes wasted no time shooting for Zibanejad, who easily redirected the puck in for a goal with 1.8 seconds remaining. Hynes gave a blank stare in the direction of Pollock. But really, he should’ve been upset with the lazy coverage by his penalty killers in front. Zibanejad’s 18th from Hayes gave the Rangers some life into the second.

The second was largely controlled by the Rangers. In particular, Zuccarello who was everywhere during the top line’s shifts. The Devils had no answer for the cohesive trio that features their leading scorer Zibanejad and top finisher Kreider. Zuccarello is their best playmaker, who makes things happen by being a water bug. Ever since he acknowledged that his struggles had more to do with the trade deadline, he’s been tremendous. That continued on Thursday night with his three assists giving him a dozen points (4-8-12) over the last six. His value is increasing with each big game.

There wasn’t much in terms of scoring during the second. In a period they outshot their opponent 12-5, the Rangers needed a atrocious call on Miles Wood to help get the game tied. After taking a outlet pass, the speedy Wood had a couple of steps on a hustling Smith, who came back hard to shove the gritty Devils forward into Lundqvist. Somehow, they thought that was goaltender interference. That was just abominable.

Later on, they watched Namestnikov get shoved hard into the boards during the third. Even though they didn’t cash in on the dubious call on Wood, they got another opportunity over a minute later when Smith drew a hooking minor on Blake Coleman.

Taking full advantage of an early Valentine’s gift, Hayes moved the puck down for Zuccarello, who had way too much space to pass across for a wicked Zibanejad shot from the left circle for number 19 to tie the game at 16:36.

In a period they dictated, they got nabbed for yet another bench minor, causing steam to come out of Quinn. I’ve lost track. Is that seven or eight too many men on the ice minor penalties? Fortunately, it didn’t cost them.

Kreider made it three straight goals on another dominant shift down low by the top line. Zibanejad made a good play to keep the puck alive to Zuccarello, who came around the net and found Kreider for a quick wrist shot that surprised Kinkaid for a 3-2 lead at 4:43.

But before they could get too comfortable, an awful turnover by Jimmy Vesey led directly to Devils defenseman Egor Yakovlev tying it just 53 seconds later. Vesey’s lazy giveaway allowed Hischier to keep it in and feed Johansson, who dished across for a Yakovlev one-timer that beat Lundqvist. It was his second of the season. He played in place of Vatanen, who was placed on injured reserve.

Unlike the first two periods full of special teams, there were no penalties called. It was played at even strength. The two bitter rivals took turns getting chances. A few times throughout the game, the Devils tested Lundqvist’s glove. It was up to the challenge. He robbed Kevin Rooney a couple of times. Shots were 9-7 Devils in the third.

However, they had issues with the Zibanejad line all night. Quinn made a interesting move, benching Vesey in favor of Buchnevich following his turnover. The much maligned 23-year old Russian had been stuck on the fourth line without receiving any power play time. He’d barely played six minutes. But having used his speed and shot to create a chance which Kinkaid stopped, Quinn gave him a reprieve.

As it turned out, Buchnevich rewarded the coach by keeping a dominant shift going after coming on for a changing Kreider. After he moved the puck behind the net for Zuccarello, the creative puck wizard centered for a cutting Zibanejad, who made a brilliant move and sweet backhand finish for the hat trick with 4:36 left in regulation. His 20th proved to be the game-winner.

The Devils eventually pulled Kinkaid for an extra attacker. However, they were unable to beat Lundqvist, who actually was pretty good despite allowing three to get by him. Quinn even sent Buchnevich out for a defensive shift to help protect the lead. Staal protected the puck in the corner while absorbing a couple of checks as time expired.


3rd 🌟 Nico Hischier, Devils (14th of season, assist)

2nd 🌟 Mats Zuccarello, Rangers (3 primary assists)

1st 🌟 Mika Zibanejad, Rangers (1st hat trick as a Blueshirt-#’s 18, 19, 20, assist for a 4-point game)

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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