A year ago, almost, Mika Zibanejad had the game of his life – of almost anyone’s life – when he scored five goals, including the game-winner, in a 6-5 overtime win over the Washington Capitals on March 5, 2020, at the Garden.
Zibanejad became the third Ranger to score five goals in a game, behind Mark Pavelich, in 1983 and Don Murdoch, in 1976, had done it before. But their performances had come in blowout wins for the Rangers; in Zibanejad’s case, he wasn’t just stat-collecting in garbage time. His third goal gave the Rangers a 4-3 lead late in the third period, but Alex Ovechkin tied it. Then Zibanejad’s fourth put the Rangers up, 5-4, before Ovechkin tied it again, in the final minute, to force overtime.
Finally, Zibanejad had the last word when he scored in overtime to end the game.
"I don’t understand it,’’ Zibanejad said that night. "Today I was at the right spot, at the right time... It’s a night I’ll remember for a long time.’’
A year later, Zibanejad doesn’t have half as many goals on the season as he did in that one game. It is a different year for him, for sure.
"Last season, he scored everything,’’ his linemate, Pavel Buchnevich, said. "I think at some point, everything (will) go into the net. I hope it's coming soon.’’
That has been the hope all season long for Zibanejad, who has just two goals in 20 games this season. He had a career-best 41 last season, in 57 games.
But the Rangers’ No. 1 center has been stuck in an unexplainable funk since missing all of training camp after having had COVID-19. There are nights when he generates several golden chances, but is foiled by a brilliant save by the goaltender, or a broken stick at the worst possible time, or some other impediment. And there are other nights when he generates nothing.
"He’s just unlucky,’’ Buchnevich said. "I think he played well. We had chances the last couple of games.’’
It is at the point where coach David Quinn seems anxious to seize upon any opportunity to heap praise on Zibanejad, as he did following Tuesday’s 3-2 win over hapless Buffalo. Zibanejad, who is 2-5-7 in 20 games this season, had a brilliant assist on Buchnevich’s first-minute, breakaway goal in that game. He also forced a turnover that led to Buchnevich setting up Alexis Lafreniere’s goal that made it 2-1. But still, he finished without a shot on goal in 16:36 of ice time. His linemates, Lafreniere and Buchnevich, got 18:35 and 18:11, respectively. And Ryan Strome, nominally the second-line center, played 17:56.
Asked about his top line, Quinn joked, "Which top line?’’ But then he started his answer by complimenting Zibanejad.
"I thought Mika really started showing signs of his old self throughout the course of the game,’’ the coach said. "I thought Buchie had a good night, and Laffy obviously gets the goal of going to the net. It's always going to get one line that gets two (goals).’’