DENVER – It was here, 21 months ago, where the Rangers played their last regular-season game of the 2019-20 season, losing to the high-flying Colorado Avalanche, 3-2, in overtime on the night of March 11, 2020. The next day, the NHL shut down because of COVID-19.
That point they earned from that overtime loss was crucial for the Rangers at the time, as it got them within two points of a playoff spot in a tight playoff race in the Eastern Conference, with 12 games remaining. They never got to play those 12 games.
The league – and just about every sports league, professional or amateur – shut down for months, before the NHL eventually resumed play in August, moving directly to the postseason, played in the "bubbles’’ of Toronto and Edmonton. The Rangers made the expanded, 24-team field, but lost a best-of-five preliminary series to the Carolina Hurricanes in three games in Toronto.
On Tuesday, Mika Zibanejad remembered that last visit to Colorado vividly.
"We were starting to heat up during that part of the season,’’ Zibanejad recalled at the morning skate at Ball Arena, where the Rangers played the Avalanche Tuesday night. "It was a tight game. We tied it up (on Pavel Buchnevich’s goal, with 13 seconds left) and, unfortunately lost in overtime.’’
Moments before the opening faceoff, the news had broken that the NBA was halting its season after one of its players tested positive. Everyone expected the NHL to follow suit, but the Rangers and Avalanche played their game that night, not knowing what would happen afterward.
"We went back to the hotel, and kind of just waited for … some type of statement, I guess,’’ Zibanejad said. "And then (we took the) next flight back home. It was crazy times.’’
Tuesday night’s game was the Rangers’ first in Colorado since that final one in 2020. It was also their second game against the Avalanche in seven days. They had lost to Colorado, 7-3 last Wednesday in Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers, who entered Tuesday night’s game with a record of 18-6-3 -- good enough to be holding down a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division – were hoping to play better than they did last week against the Avalanche, when their seven-game winning streak came to an end.
"We owe it to ourselves to come up with a better performance than last week,’’ Zibanejad said.
Zibanejad entered the game with five goals and 16 assists in 27 games -- not bad numbers, but nowhere near what he was doing the last time he was in Colorado. He scored his career-best 41st goal of the season against the Avalanche, in his 57th game of the season. And he finished that year as the hottest player in the NHL, with 11 goals in his last six games, and 23 in his last 22.
"The pucks were going in,’’ Zibanejad said of that period. "Obviously, I’m trying to bring back that feeling, if possible.’’
Zibanejad can’t pinpoint what, if anything, he was doing so well on that streak nearly two years ago, now, that he may not be doing these days.
"I maybe shot a little bit more back then, but the pucks went in,’’ he said. "I felt like I scored every game at that point, and when you're hot like that, then you just keep going; you don't think about it. You don't second-guess. You don't take that extra second to think about what you're going to do with the puck. It's just automatic.
"And when things are not going for you … you kind of second-guess your decisions, and you're thinking, maybe,’’ he said. "And just half-a-second in this league… the chance is probably gone.’’