David Quinn had one play left to try and get the struggling Mika Zibanejad out of the season-long scoring funk he’s been in. It was something the Rangers coach had avoided doing, but he couldn’t avoid it anymore. On Saturday, he finally put his No. 1 center, Zibanejad, together with his No. 1 winger, Artemi Panarin.
Zibanejad and Panarin played together Saturday afternoon in the Rangers’ 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals and Zibanejad ended up scoring his first goal in 13 games, although it came shorthanded and into an empty net. Still, the Rangers will hope that ending his long drought could be the start of Zibanejad getting back to being the dynamic offensive player he has been the past two seasons.
Playing with Panarin, a finalist for the Hart Trophy last season, should help.
"We've just been inept offensively, and, you know, I've always been a big believer in putting your best players together to form a line,’’ Quinn said when asked about putting his two best offensive players together. "But just the way the year evolved last year, and the balance that we had with two lines, I thought made us a unique team, offensively. This year it just hasn't happened, and, I probably stayed with (them on separate lines) too long.’’
Quinn waited as long as he could for Zibanejad to come around on his own, but it just wasn’t happening. Finally, in Thursday’s shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the coach took his No. 1 center off the power play in the second period, which got everyone’s attention. He had threatened to start taking away opportunities from Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, saying the two had "run out of veteran status ticket that they've had.’’
"Listen, we've all talked about Mika's struggles. and, you know, to me, he's still finding his game,’’ Quinn said, when asked about that afterward. "And at some point in time, the people that are playing better (have) gotta go out there. So, that's kind of what the thought process was.’’
But Quinn knows as well as anyone, the Rangers going anywhere without Zibanejad turning things around. Entering Saturday he had one goal, and two assists, through 15 games. Not coincidentally, the Rangers had scored just 2.33 goals per game, a rate that was 26th-best in the 31-team league.
When the 2019-20 season ended prematurely, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zibanejad was the hottest player in the league. The 27-year-old Swede closed the season with 23 goals in his last 22 games, 17 in 13 and 11 in his last six – including a team-record tying five in the 6-5 overtime win over Washington at the Garden in early March. He finished with a career-high 41 goals in 57 games.
Asking him to reproduce those kinds of numbers would be a little much, but if the Rangers are to have a chance to chase a playoff spot again this season, Zibanejad is going to need to score some goals and put some points on the board. Quinn is hoping Panarin will be able to help him do that.
Kravtsov close to return
The KHL season is in its final week, and that means Vitali Kravtsov is getting that much closer to joining the Rangers for the stretch drive. The 21-year-old forward has enjoyed a fine season for Traktor Chelyabinsk. Entering Saturday’s game against Dinamo Minsk, he was tied for the team lead in goals with 15 despite playing in only 47 of the team’s 56 games.
Kravtsov was the victim of a vicious hit a few weeks ago but came out of it OK, according to Rangers associate general manager Chris Drury.
"We all saw the hit, but he’s good,’’ Drury said. "He’s come back, he played . . . Yeah, he’s good.’’
Drury said the Rangers are very happy with Kravtsov’s progress. After a rough 2019-20 in which Kravtsov came over to North America, got sent to the minor leagues, pouted and at one point went back home to Russia, the Rangers decided to loan him back to his old club, Traktor, for the entire KHL season plus playoffs. And Drury said staying in one place seems to have been good for Kravtsov.
"He’s moved around a lot growing up, to always put himself in the best position to continue to develop,’’ Drury said. "Like all our prospects, especially ones transitioning from different countries, there’s a bit of a learning curve. He’s no different than anyone else. But he’s a good kid, he wants it bad, and we’re working with him to get the most out of his ability and get him to New York as soon as we can.’’
That will be after the KHL playoffs, which could go to late April. Traktor is in fifth place in its division and definitely will make the playoffs. How far the team goes will determine how soon Kravtsov can join the Rangers.
Of course, once he gets to New York, whenever that is, he’ll have to serve a quarantine before he can start practicing with the team and playing games, so it might be a little while yet before Rangers fans get to see him.