You can't keep a good player down. New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad got off to a tremendously slow start to the season with just two goals in his first 20 games, but with the Blueshirts surging in the East, the veteran is up to 19 goals and 45 points through 49 games. That is not a coincidence.
Zibanejad was amazing in the second half of last season as well, though his early struggles this year could also be at least partially chalked up to a Covid-19 diagnosis, something coach David Quinn could sympathize with as he also caught the virus. Having said that, the bench boss never worried about the big picture with Zibanejad.
"People go through stretches in their career where things may not be going their way and all great players go through it," Quinn said. "We knew it was just a matter of time before he was going to find his game and he has done that."
One fun wrinkle of Zibanejad's hot streak - which has seen him put up 15 points in his past 10 games - is his chemistry with Pavel Buchnevich and rookie Alexis Lafreniere, the first overall pick from 2020. Lafreniere also started off the year slowly but is beginning to pick up some points himself.
"He really sees the ice well," Zibanejad said. "He can pass, he can shoot - he has all those attributes. Me and 'Buch' are trying to help him and help each other. It takes a little bit of time to understand each other and get a feel for where other guys are. I thought he's been doing a good job and we're getting the goals, so that's nice."
For Quinn, Lafreniere's work ethic has become more NHL caliber recently - not to say that the kid was loafing before, but now he better understands the approach needed at this level in order to thrive.
"For guys that have success offensively, a lot of the things they've done throughout their career, they have to alter a bit to have success at this level," Quinn said. "He learned that. This kid continues to put the effort in and gives the team a jolt of incredible energy and optimism. He's playing with a big-time level of confidence, as he should be. We knew he was a special player and he has certainly shown more and more of that."
Zibanejad's latest outburst saw him notch a hat trick in a big win over Buffalo. It was his third trifecta of the season, but he doesn't necessarily have a golden secret to success.
"I've probably had better games where I didn't have three goals; the puck just seemed to go in," he said. "When you have that feeling, you just keep shooting."
And the Rangers need him to keep shooting. With seven games remaining on their schedule, the team is hot on the trail of Boston for the final playoff spot in the East, but the Bruins have two games in hand. New York has gained ground in the past 10 games and they do close out the season with two games against Boston, but it is certainly gut-check time. Zibanejad's solution? Just handle your business.
"That's the only thing we can control, as cliche as it sounds," he said. "We'll try to win games and see how far it takes us; that's our mindset right now."