Rangers adjust struggling top power play unit, Zibanejad looks to get on track with the series up for grabs

With an extra day to prepare for a pivotal Game Five, the Rangers made an adjustment to the struggling top power play unit.

In the first two games of the first round series against the Hudson rival Devils, they went 4-for-7. That led to identical 5-1 blowout wins in Newark. However, when the Battle of Hudson shifted to Manhattan, the Devils adjusted their penalty killing unit by being more aggressive.

The end result was an unproductive 0-for-8 in consecutive losses at MSG. While they generated some good looks in a 2-1 overtime defeat in Game Three, that wasn’t the case on Monday. They went 0-for-3 with four power play shots. None, which made Akira Schmid work. He won his second straight start by making a routine 22 saves.

Now, the series is tied at two apiece. Both teams had an extra day off. After indicating he wouldn’t adjust much yesterday, Rangers coach Gerard Gallant did alter his key top five-on-four unit.

As expected, Mika Zibanejad was back in the left circle. An area where he did plenty of damage during the regular season. He finished third with 20 power play goals. Many came on his lethal one-timer from that off wing. Of his team-leading 39 goals, 19 were on one-timers. A statistic MSG Network analyst Steve Valiquette provided.

With Zibanejad still without a goal through the first four games, he needs to get on track. This isn’t unfamiliar territory for the top center. During last year’s first round series against the Penguins, he didn’t have a goal in the first five games. However, he flipped the script by scoring three goals over the final two games to help the Blueshirts complete a comeback from three games to one down.

Zibanejad was very candid in a postgame interview with New York Post columnist Larry Brooks. The recently turned 30-year old understands his importance to the team’s success. But he doesn’t want to change his overall game either. He is a responsible two-way pivot who plays all three zones. He had some interesting thoughts following the Game Four disappointment.

“You and I have talked at different times this year about what I learned going through that, and what I know is that I can’t let the fact that I haven’t scored get into my head,” Zibanejad told Brooks after Game Four. “I can’t let that change the rest of my game that is also important.

“If it were up to me, I would have seven goals by now. Obviously I’m frustrated. I’m not happy. I know this is part of my job and I know that questions arise about it when we are losing. But I can’t dwell on that and I can’t dwell on me. It’s all about us.”

He also made sure to point out what the Devils did better to even the series. The Rangers weren’t as sharp at home. They had a combined 34 giveaways in the two losses. Way too much to be successful. Puck management will be crucial for them to bounce back and take Game Five.

“I think we feed into what the Devils are able to do,” Zibanejad said. “We obviously didn’t start well. There’s been bad execution. I don’t think we got up to the level of play we wanted to and needed.”

By making smarter decisions with the puck, they can limit turnovers in the neutral zone that fuel the Devils dangerous transition. Their speed was much more noticeable at The Garden. Especially during Game Four. They’re the faster team. The Rangers can ill afford to trade chances with their bitter Hudson rival. They must slow the tempo down.

“For me, yes, I want to score to help the team,” Zibanejad added on his offensive struggles. He has two assists. “Last year, I didn’t score until Game 6, so I am familiar with this situation. The next couple of days, I have to look to see what I can do to be more effective, to get into better position to get the puck to the net and to create. I have to trust myself.”

By moving Zibanejad back to his office on the power play, that should give the Rangers a better chance. Artemi Panarin, who’s also without a goal, was shifted to the right circle. An area that saw him score the memorable overtime winner in Game Seven to beat the Pens.

Obviously, Gallant isn’t going to deviate from the personnel that started red hot. The five-man unit of Zibanejad, Chris Kreider, Panarin, Patrick Kane, and Adam Fox had plenty of early success in Games One and Two.

They will have to make better decisions with the puck due to the Devils pressuring Fox at the point and taking away Kreider in front. They’re capable of making backdoor plays utilizing Kreider, who can then set up a cutting Zibanejad.

The Rangers are 0 for their last 11 on the man-advantage. So, that must change. Special teams have been a key all season.

That said, they’ll also need to be better at five-on-five. The Devils played a smart defensive game by taking away time and space to create turnovers. The Blueshirts will have to be more concise. Take a page from Gallant by chipping pucks in. It can’t always be the fancy plays. At this time of year, they have to do what it takes to win.

It’s all about execution. We’ll have a better idea tomorrow night.


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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