NEWARK — The day Mika Zibanejad turned 28, he celebrated by scoring the winning goal in a 5-3 victory over the Devils at the Prudential Center.
That was fun, but it came in a regular-season game in the COVID-delayed 2020 season.
On Tuesday, he was hoping for a bigger celebration in a bigger game on a bigger birthday in the same arena.
The Rangers center turned 30 just in time for Game 1 of the Rangers’ first-round playoff series against the Devils.
“I think this is a fun way to spend your birthday,” he said after an optional morning skate, “especially with Game 1 of the playoffs. That’s awesome.”
The good news for Zibanejad and the Rangers is he still is playing at a high level. In the regular season, he had a team-high 39 goals and 52 assists.
His 91 points were one short of Artemi Panarin’s team lead, and he appeared in all 82 games.
But 30 can be an alarm bell for professional athletes, signaling they have more time behind them than ahead, and must be more vigilant than ever about keeping up with younger counterparts.
Asked how he plans to stay sharp in his (relatively) old age, Zibanejad said, “Well, I’ve been 30 for a few hours, so let me answer that question in a few years.
“But yeah, 30 seems maybe a little bit older now than it used to. Thirty means you have a lot of experience and you’re right in your peak. It’s a nice, round number, and I’m excited for it.”
Zibanejad spent his first five NHL seasons with Ottawa and has been a Ranger for seven years now, scoring 204 of his 268 career goals for them.
He has been at once a steadying force and a dynamic talent on a team peppered with fellow 30-somethings that hopes to take down the younger, faster Devils.
Zibanejad knows how the Devils without playoff experience feel.
He recalled his first visit to the postseason, having just turned 20 in the lockout-delayed 2013 season, when he scored one goal in 10 games for Ottawa against the Canadiens and Penguins.
“It was nerve-wracking,” he said. “It was a long time ago . . . Obviously, you can feel it in the building, you see all the towels and you know it’s different than the regular season.
“It’s intense, it’s fun, it’s a high-compete level. So that’s something we look forward to.”
The big question in the series is whether the Rangers’ experience will be a decisive edge against a Devils team that could be nervous — or could be too young and oblivious to feel nerves.
“It’s hard for me to say, because I’m sure my first playoff experience is not the same as other guys’,” Zibanejad said.
“We’re all different human beings. We react differently, the emotions, how you control them, whatever it might be. We’re all so different.”
Zibanejad had 10 goals and 14 assists in 20 games last spring as the Rangers got within two victories of the Stanley Cup Final.
“To have that experience, to have that run, obviously the ups and downs and just the joy of being there and playing and obviously being close,” he said when asked to look back.
“That’s last year. At the same time, that’s definitely something that drives us to go further.”
Zibanejad is appreciated by Rangers fans and avid hockey fans more broadly, but he has not yet achieved the kind of crossover stardom that reaches beyond the hockey world.
He has earned that kind of attention but can secure it for eternity if he plays a big part in the Rangers winning a Stanley Cup.
At 30, he and his fellow less-than-young Rangers might be running out of time to make that happen.
There was no better time to start the process than Tuesday — for Zibanejad as much as anyone, given his built-in party mood.
In that 2021 game at the Rock, he scored a power-play goal with three minutes remaining. He had an assist earlier in the game.
“Some good memories from that [birthday],” he said before Game 1. “Hopefully, create another one tonight.”