If most of us went to central casting for the proverbial “athlete who can play in New York,” we probably would go looking for someone loud, hip and witty with a cocky streak. Truth is, we would be better off with someone who is quiet, honest and resilient with a clutch streak.
Someone capable of having the week Mika Zibanejad just had for the Rangers.
On Monday afternoon, he was strikingly candid about his play in a series that appeared headed south fast for him and his team. On Thursday night, he scored the Rangers’ biggest goal of the season to date. In between, he celebrated his 24th birthday. All the way through, he was living his Welcome to New York moment.
“Still amazing, still one of the most important goals and one of the biggest goals I’ve scored,” he said Friday morning, hours after beating Carey Price in overtime to give the Rangers a 3-2 win and a 3-2 edge over the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup first-round playoff series. With a veteran’s poise, he added, “But now it’s done. Now the focus goes on to the next game here.”
We will have to wait and see if it ultimately was a smart deal to acquire him from the Senators for Derick Brassard last July 18, just as we will wait and see if the momentum he created will last beyond the first shift in Game 6 Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. What Zibanejad showed in the past few days, though, sure earns him the benefit of the doubt.
From this observer’s perspective, his honesty at his locker after the Game 3 debacle was as impressive as his earnestness in winning Game 5. The young Swedish center had been awful in the opening games against the Canadiens and said so. He did not become defensive about the questions (despite speaking in his second language, having sharpened his English by watching episodes of “Friends”).
Nor did he skip out on the media session altogether, which more than one athlete has done when the New York heat made them sweat. Zibanejad emblemized an old baseball manager’s philosophy that said if you can’t face the media, you really can’t face the person you see in the mirror.
It takes guts to admit shortcomings, as he did five days ago when it seemed as if the Garden roof was falling on the Rangers: “The mistakes I’ve made have been from being way too passive. That’s not the player I am. If I had the answer, it wouldn’t look like this . . . Right now, for whatever reason, I’m not even trying to make plays. I lose the puck in situations where I usually don’t, and that’s not good enough. I know that. But it’s the playoffs. You can’t dwell on things.”
Instead, he and the Rangers put it behind them, quickly. “I don’t think it was a change. I just think we kind of went back to what to what made us successful, and that was playing fast,” he said before the team left Montreal.
Before too long, these playoffs might provide a live measuring stick between two centers who were picked sixth overall in the first round five years apart. Their teams could meet in the second round. Brassard, the older, had 39 points in 81 games this season. Zibanejad had 37 points in 56 games. The former had five points in four playoff games entering Friday night. The latter has three points in five games, including a huge assist on a shorthanded goal as well as the game-winner Thursday night.
As Taylor Swift sings in “Welcome to New York,” a local anthem: “Everybody here was someone else before.” Zibanejad said he has been fortunate to play with good teammates in Ottawa and New York. Honest again, he said, “It’s just up to me to make the most of it.”
He sure made the most of his week, and vice versa.