The Rangers were ecstatic to get their No. 1 center, Mika Zibanejad, back in the lineup Wednesday, after he missed 13 games with an upper-body injury. And it was a storybook beginning when Zibanejad banged in the game’s first goal less than three minutes in.
In the end, the Rangers started fast and held on for a 3-2 victory that was their third in a row and lifted their record to 12-9-2, which is one more regulation loss than they had at Thanksgiving a year ago, before their season fell apart.
Henrik Lundqvist, starting for the fifth time in the last six games, and making his 1,000th appearance as a Ranger, including the playoffs, was sharp under a heavy workload, making 41 saves to earn his seventh win of the season and the 456th of his career. He made 45 saves in the Rangers’ 4-1 victory over Carolina Nov. 7.
Things started fast Wednesday, as the Hurricanes took a penalty 48 seconds into the game, and another penalty 2:39 in, giving the Rangers an early power play and a 5-on-3 advantage for nine seconds. They didn’t score on the 5-on-3, but six seconds after it was over, Zibanejad slammed in a feed from Adam Fox to put the Rangers up 1-0 at 2:54. It was his fifth goal of the season, in his 10th game.
Brendan Smith’s one-timer made it 2-0 at 4:12, and Fox redirected in a shot from Panarin at 18:20 to put the Rangers up 3-0 entering the first intermission.
But a too-many-men penalty by the Rangers – their third in the last four games – gave the Hurricanes a power play, and Ryan Dzingel made it hurt with a tip-in goal at 14:29 of the second period. One minute, 29 seconds later, Warren Foegele crashed the net and, while being cross-checked to the ice by Ryan Lindgren, tucked the puck around Lundqvist and in to pull the Hurricanes within 3-2.
As Zibanejad’s return drew closer and closer, many wondered how, exactly, Rangers coach David Quinn would reconfigure his lineup to fit Zibanejad into it.
The top three lines, after all, had meshed so well together in Zibanejad’s absence, driving the Rangers to an 8-4-1 record during the time he was away. Many speculated that the easiest thing to do would be to shift Ryan Strome to the wing, so he could stay on the same line with Artemi Panarin, and young centers Filip Chytil and Brett Howden would be able to maintain their spots. But, when asked last week about that, Quinn insisted that Strome, who had played so well in the middle of the first line, would remain at center.
When push came to shove, though, Quinn changed his mind. Zibanejad returned to the lineup, playing between long time linemates Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich on the first line, and Quinn broke his promise to keep Strome at center, moving the 26-year-old to the right wing of the second line, where he played with the 20-year-old Chytil and Panarin.
“I love keeping Strome and Panarin together, because of the chemistry they have, and believe me, this was a long-debated decision on how to handle this situation,’’ Quinn said before the game. “Because again, this is a lot of moving parts, and with Mika being out so long, a lot of guys have kind of established themselves in certain areas.
“And it's a good problem to have.’’
Strome, who played a lot of wing when he was acquired last season in a trade from Edmonton, had played center all of this season, with Chytil having been sent to AHL Hartford to start the season. With the team struggling late last month, Quinn decided to break up the duo of Panarin and Zibanejad and dropped Panarin to the second line, with Strome and Buchnevich, for the Oct. 27 game against Boston. That was the game where Zibanejad was injured, and the next game, with Zibanejad out, Chytil was called up from Hartford and Quinn elevated Strome to the first line against the Tampa Bay Lightning, with Panarin on his left and checker Jesper Fast on the right.
Strome had an assist and an empty net goal against the Lightning in a 4-1 Rangers win, and Chytil scored the winning goal. And for the next 12 games, Strome, Panarin and Fast meshed well together, with Panarin scoring seven goals and getting 11 assists (18 points), and Strome getting four goals and seven assists (11 points).