Mika Day At Garden! Eighth career hat trick for Zibanejad and huge first period from Shesterkin carries Rangers to statement win over Lightning


For a while, you wondered if we’d ever see the same Mika Zibanejad from ’19-20 when he caught fire prior to the long pause. In fact, we attended his remarkable five-goal game which was Capped off by a highlight reel overtime winner to win it 6-5. That was Mika Night. Sunday afternoon was Mika Day.

In a much earlier start without Artemi Panarin (protocol), Zibanejad had the magic back. He again stepped up big time by recording his eighth career hat trick to highlight a statement 4-0 win over the Lightning at MSG. He wasn’t the only star. Igor Shesterkin shined brightly with an unbelievable first period. He stopped all 18 Tampa shots (38 overall in his 2nd career shutout) while Zibanejad scored twice on the power play followed by an important Ryan Strome goal at even strength to build a 3-0 lead.

This was a terrific game by the Blueshirts. Without their top scorer and minus both Ryan Lindgren and veteran defenseman Patrik Nemeth (who played well in the New Year’s Eve win at Tampa), they sure delivered a message to the rest of the league. In sweeping a two-game home-and-home series with the champs, who were healthier in the rematch, these were the biggest two wins of the season.

Many naysayers pointed to a 3-8-2 record versus playoff opponents prior to the pair of games. Now, they can eat crow or cry about charts and foolish ‘Expected Statistical’ crap in their basements. Games aren’t decided by that. Rather by the way the team plays. And while they were out-attempted by a wide margin in a very wide open first period that probably favored the Bolts, it was the brilliance of the goalie along with the star of Zibanejad that stood out the most.

Zibanejad got the party started early on. With the Rangers on the power play, he waited for Chris Kreider to move just out of the way of Andrei Vasilevskiy, whose vision was interrupted enough for Mika to get that patented wrist shot through low stick side for the game’s first goal. Of note, Zibanejad was back in his office in the left circle. A place he did most of his damage in his career season two years ago. It’s where he should be even when Panarin returns.

Despite falling behind, the Lightning certainly got their scoring chances on Shesterkin. What they discovered was that the recently turned 25-year old Russian was a brick wall. He celebrated his birthday on Dec. 30. It’s hard to believe he was a fourth round pick in 2014 who went number 118. If there’s one thing the organization can do, it’s find goalies late in drafts. When healthy, it’s my belief that Igor is every bit as good as Henrik Lundqvist. The proof is in the chants from the crowd. It’s gone from, “Hen-rik, Hen-rik,” to “Ig-or, Ig-or!”

Indeed, Czar Igor as friend Sean McCaffrey of bluecollarblueshirts.com likes to call him, is the heir apparent to Number 30. When his jersey goes up to the rafters later this month despite the ridiculous whiny crap from Larry Brooks, it’ll be a very special night at the World’s Most Vaccinated. The torch will officially be passed to Igor Shesterkin, who when healthy is a big difference maker for this team.

He showed it in the first period. In between a pair of Zibanejad power play goals including a pass for Kaapo Kakko that banked right off former Rangers’ captain Ryan McDonagh, there was Shesterkin denying the dangerous Lightning time and time again. Two of his best stops were stoning Brayden Point in the slot off a good Anthony Cirelli feed, and then stretching out to rob Mikhail Sergachev with a great glove save. That one may as well have been from the old Lundqvist highlight reel. There was a time when his glove was pretty good. Just ask Alex Ovechkin. He’d be a lot closer to Gretzky if not for the work Henrik did over their careers.

If there was a momentum shift that told you it wasn’t Tampa’s day, it wasn’t the Zibanejad bank shot off McDonagh that made it 2-0. We’re talking about the Lightning here. They were turned away by Shesterkin, who must’ve had at least seven great saves. It was the Strome goal at five-on-five that really was meaningful. Taking advantage of a Cirelli turnover in the neutral zone, Barclay Goodrow gained the Tampa zone and found Strome open in the slot for the third goal. One that snuck underneath Vasilevskiy, who wasn’t at his best. It was his first game back.

Even up three, the Rangers were hanging on defensively. They let Shesterkin do most of the work in the first. By the second, it wasn’t only the performance of the brilliant Vezina candidate that kept the Bolts in check. After being on their heels the first seven minutes, the home team picked it up. They blocked several shots with Alexis Lafreniere making a good play to take away a chance and Chris Kreider diving in front of a shot to lead by example. There was also a big hit from Jacob Trouba on Mathieu Joseph that resulted in, “Trouuu” chants from the crowd. It reminded me of the classic “Beuuuukk” chants. He’s gaining a reputation as one of the game’s best open ice hitters.

The best part of the win was how the defense improved over the contest. Even without Ryan Lindgren and Patrik Nemeth, the kids stepped up. K’Andre Miller had a second straight strong game. He played a few more minutes with Trouba as they were relied upon more by coach Gerard Gallant. It’s all about improvement. Speaking of stepping up, Libor Hajek was back with Adam Fox. He was solid in extended time. Rookie third pair Zac Jones and Nils Lundkvist were okay. With the exception of Jones getting turned around by the very tricky Point on a chance, they were fine.

Still leading by three, there was some anticipation for Zibanejad to get the hat trick. We’ve seen it before. It was a subtle play that lead to his eighth game of three goals or more. In a strange play, he knocked down a clearing attempt to keep the puck alive. This would be challenged by Lightning bench boss Jon Cooper. Then Kreider swatted the puck before making a good pass over for an easy Zibanejad tap in for the hat trick.

As hats flew down with fans celebrating, Cooper made the coach’s challenge. After a lengthy review, it was determined that Zibanejad’s stick wasn’t high. To the naked eye based on the replays, it looked okay. He was crouched down and looked like his stick was low enough. That’s exactly what the refs determined on video review. It was the right call. There wasn’t enough conclusive evidence to overturn it. Even as Steven Stamkos pouted, he was brushed aside by an emphatic ref who if you read lips gave him an expletive. Cooper just shook his head. It wasn’t his team’s day.

After Shesterkin made 11 more saves for 29 through two periods, all that was left was whether he’d get that category where there’s a zero next to his name on the game sheet. To my observation, it looked like the Zibanejad third goal which made it 4-zip really took the wind out of the Lightning’ sails. Psychologically, it’s a huge difference being down three compared to four.

We saw that in how the Bolts played the third. It wasn’t so much that they gave up. They didn’t. They’re repeat Stanley Cup champs for a reason. But none of the nine shots they got ever felt like they were destined to get by the razor sharp Shesterkin. Or Shestyorkin. If you prefer Russian like me since I took it in high school and mastered the language (94 on the Regents), that’s Игор Шестёркйн! Очень хорошо Хоккей.

Part of the third was also how the Blueshirts defended. They didn’t give up too much. You didn’t see Shesterkin having to stand on his head in the first. That was even true for the second where they blocked at least nine shots. The Lightning also had some attempts go wide. You also noticed some over passing. Something you see when a hot goalie is in a zone.

It was a much better game from Shesty, who wasn’t at his best Friday or in the Panthers’ loss. Maybe the way he denied the three big Lightning shooters in the skill competition got him going. It was his third game back. It takes time for a goalie to get sharp. That was evidenced by Vasilevskiy giving up a couple of goals he normally has.

One of the real takeaways from this victory is they beat a healthier Lightning. They had Vasilevskiy, Cirelli and Erik Cernak back. But none of it mattered. That is what was most impressive about the win. Not only did it back up their hard fought fugaze shootout win in what can best be described as a strange and sloppy game.

They did it by out-Lightning the Bolts. Especially in that fast paced race track that was a very entertaining first period. It really was great action by both teams. The score could’ve been very different if not for Igor. The play of the goalie matters. Ask some of my Bolts friends about how much Vasy means to their team. I’ve watched a lot of their games. More often than not, Vasilevskiy is their best player. I put him in the MVP conversation with the Oilers’ twins and Ovechkin.

If Shesterkin could stay on the ice, perhaps you could make a case for him as well. But that’s more of a long-shot. Overall, it was a great win. The best of the season. Especially with the Oilers coming in tomorrow night for the second of a back-to-back.

I’m going to say this right now. If our team doesn’t get sucked into another run and gun with the flawed Edmonton team despite McDavid and Draisaitl, they’ll win. Forecheck them to death. We know what happened at Edmonton. They don’t want a repeat. Especially if it’s Alex Georgiev in net like last time. This is a different team now. I expect them to win tomorrow and move Dave Tippett one step closer to the unemployment line. We’ll find out soon enough.

One other point of emphasis from today’s game. I thought Lafreniere played well. He was very active throughout. His defensive awareness is improving. He is coming back defensively and making good reads. He also looked more noticeable with a real center as opposed to the incomplete and puzzling Fil Chytil. I don’t see it at all with him. Even Julien Gauthier got a clean breakaway in the final period where Vasilevskiy easily turned him down. Imagine if Gauthier had hands.

I also want to give credit to Greg McKegg. The Keg Man played a solid game on the fourth line. He’s a gamer. There’s nothing wrong with having him fill in for Kevin Rooney until he’s medically cleared. McKegg works hard and hustles. That plays in this league. Dryden Hunt fits much better on the checking line too. Keep him there.

There’s nothing else left to add. It was a very good day for the Blueshirts. Let’s keep it going.

BATTLE OF HUDSON 3 STARS

3rd 🌟 Chris Kreider, NYR (3 assists including perfect set up for Zibanejad hat trick, diving block, a real leader)

2nd 🌟 Igor Shestyorkin, NYR (38 saves including 18 for 18 in first period for 2nd career shutout)

1st 🌟 Mika Zibanejad, NYR (3 goals for his 8th career hat trick, dominant throughout)

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 New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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