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Rangers' outlook brighter after Mika Zibanejad's strong game, return of Artemi Panarin

Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith (1) stops a

Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith (1) stops a shot by Rangers' Mika Zibanejad (93) during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, March 7, 2021, in Pittsburgh.  Credit: AP/Keith Srakocic

Things were looking pretty bleak for the Rangers after they were shut out by the Boston Bruins on Thursday. They had lost three in a row, had slipped to nine points out of a playoff spot and seemed to be perilously close to being finished as far any realistic chance of making the playoffs was concerned.

Then Artemi Panarin returned to the lineup for Saturday’s game, the whole team seemed to get a lift and the Rangers dominated the Bruins, 4-0. As they return home for a pair of games at the Garden against the Flyers on Monday and Wednesday, their outlook suddenlyis much brighter.

However, while Panarin’s return to the lineup certainly made the Rangers a much better team, the most exciting development for them on Saturday had to be the game Mika Zibanejad had. Playing between his two longtime linemates, Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich, he was the kind of driving force that he had not been for most of the season. He had two assists and was a plus-3 in 20:48 of ice time.

"We’ve been in this situation before this year where all of a sudden it looked like our season may be slipping away,’’ coach David Quinn said. "Having [Panarin] in the lineup certainly gave us a jolt, but I also loved Mika’s game. [He] was the dominant player we all know he’s capable of being. Kreider was outstanding. Buchnevich was outstanding . . . [Ryan] Strome had a strong game. I could go up and down the lineup.’’

For most of the season, Zibanejad hardly resembled the player who scored 41 goals in 57 games last season. He had a handful of effective games before Saturday, but the production simply had not been there consistently.

He missed all of training camp after contracting COVID-19, so maybe that was the reason, but the bottom line was that his three goals and 11 points in 26 games is not enough from the team’s No. 1 center.

It was always going to be a tall order for the Rangers — the youngest team in the league — to make the playoffs this season, especially in the current format in which the entire 56-game season takes place exclusively within the stacked East Division.

Their chances of making the playoffs are virtually nil without Panarin and Zibanejad playing the way they did last season, and for most of the season, it didn’t look as if Zibanejad would hold up his end of the bargain.

But if Saturday’s game was an indication that Zibanejad is about to turn things around, maybe the Rangers can dream about getting back into the playoff hunt.

Zibanejad won’t allow himself to start talking about turnarounds, though. Every good game he’s had has sparked hope that maybe he’s about to be his old self again, and he hasn’t sustained it yet.

"You can’t look ahead,’’ he said after Saturday’s game. "We’ve got to keep improving . . . and keep doing the good stuff that we did today. We’ve got to find a way to string a couple of these kind of games together.’’

New York Sports