With the score tied, the game halfway over and the season on the line, the Rangers naturally would have been happy to accept a goal from anyone.
But there was no one they would rather have gotten one from in that spot than Mika Zibanejad, who was looking for his first goal of the playoffs.
Then, suddenly, there it was, a goal that put the Rangers ahead for the first time en route to a 5-2 victory over the Devils on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
The result forced a deciding seventh game in the teams’ first-round playoff series on Monday night at Prudential Center in Newark.
Zibanejad already had played a key role, as his shot during a power play bounced off Chris Kreider’s leg and past Devils goaltender Akira Schmid to tie the score late in the first period.
Then came the game-changer, when Kreider passed from behind the goal to Zibanejad in the slot. He beat Schmid to his glove side, and it was 2-1 at 10:10 of the second period.
So there it was: Two pillars of the franchise’s recent history coming through when it mattered most.
Zibanejad and Kreider finished one-two in the regular season in goals scored for the Rangers with 39 and 36.
“I’m not going to sit here and lie and say it wasn’t a good feeling seeing the puck go in,” Zibanejad said. “But the wins are all that matters, and we got the win that we needed.”
He added: “I’ve been trying to shoot and now the puck goes in. I wish I scored on every shot. This would be a really simple game, an easy game, but it’s not.”
Zibanejad said the key was that he kept trusting himself and that teammates kept trusting him, too.
That was evident as coach Gerard Gallant and his players took turns praising Zibanejad for his all-around game — goals or no goals.
“I’m sure it feels good for him, but I don’t think anybody in our room was too concerned about it,” Jacob Trouba said. “I think he’s been playing some good hockey. He’s obviously a great two-way player. Even when he’s not scoring goals, he impacts the game in a major way.”
Gallant said, “Mika’s played good all series. He’s played great defensive hockey. Mika’s done a great job.”
But . . .
“Everybody wants to score, so it’s huge for him,” Gallant said. “He wasn’t playing bad, but guys like to score and he’s a big-time player for us and it was a big goal for us.”
Kreider was not through. Later in the second, he dropped a deft pass to Vladimir Tarasenko, who scored at 18:25 of the second to make it 3-1.
Schmid had allowed only two goals in the teams’ previous three games.
The scoring outburst made Gallant look smart. He had shuffled his lines in advance of Game 6, among other things replacing Patrick Kane with Tarasenko on the top line, joining Zibanejad and Kreider.
By the end of the second period, all three of them had a goal.
Tarasenko, who had not scored a goal since Game 2, said the key to breaking such droughts is: “You have to not think about it. When you think about it, it only gets worse. Trust the process, trust your work, do the right things, get net-front, get in the hard areas and goals will come.”
After a slow start, the tide turned for the Rangers late in the first period when Kane charged up the middle on a breakaway.
Dawson Mercer got a piece of the puck when he dived at Kane, but he also got a piece of his skate, bringing Kane down for a tripping call.
Not long after that, at 19:35, Zibanejad’s long, off-target shot bounced past Schmid off Kreider to tie it.
The goal was Kreider’s fifth on the power play in this series and his 16th in potential elimination games in his career, tying Mark Messier for the NHL career record in that category.
“Obviously, it’s nice for guys that maybe have the expectation and pressure and want to contribute a lot,” Adam Fox said, “but it’s going to take a team effort.”
Fair enough, but that effort will be far more manageable if Zibanejad can parlay Saturday’s breakout performance into an ongoing star turn.