This is what they Rangers wanted when they acquired Mika Zibanejad from the Ottawa Senators for Derick Brassard last summer.
On Tuesday at Madison Square Garden, Zibanejad — whose level of play has kept getting higher as the playoffs roll on — produced his best all-around game of the postseason at the right time, and against his former club, leading the Rangers to a 4-1 win that brought them back into the Eastern Conference semifinals.
After dropping the first two games in Ottawa, the Blueshirts, who have been resilient after losses all season, were desperate to avoid falling into a 3-0 pit in the best-of- seven series.
All four Rangers lines scored, and the defense rebounded from the stomach-churning 6-5 overtime loss in Game 2, when they coughed up three separate two-goal leads.
Zibanejad, who turned 24 last month, laid the groundwork Tuesday morning. “There’s a lot of words that could describe how we have to play today, but it comes down to our battle level,” he said. “We have to make sure we outwork them and make that extra play to get the win and the bounce on our side.”
He and the Rangers backed up his words.
From behind the net, Zibanejad found Mats Zuccarello in front, and the winger beat Craig Anderson low at 5:31 for Zuccarello’s fourth playoff goal. They scored the next three goals before the end of the second period, and protected the lead in the third.
“They were quick, they were fast and we were behind on everything: behind on our thinking, behind on our execution, behind on our physicality,” Senators coach Guy Boucher said.
Brassard had the nickname “Big-Game Brass” as a Ranger, but Zibanejad is getting close. He leads the team in points in the playoffs with seven, and has a goal or assist in four of the last five games. The Swedish center finished with six shots on goal, three other shot attempts and three hits in 17:14.
“The first few games in the Montreal series, I wasn’t too happy with it, but I knew what I had to do,” he said. “For me the battle level is the big difference . . . and just skate. When I try to play on my instincts more than trying to think out there, it works better for me. I’m not as passive. But we can’t be satisfied with one game.”
Game 4 is at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, and Game 5 returns to Canadian Tire Centre on Saturday afternoon.
“It was a big game for us, no question,” said Henrik Lundqvist, who finished with 26 saves. “We felt like we played well enough to get at least one win in Ottawa. We came out in the first period and we set the tone and there’s no question I think we were the better team tonight. We played with the speed, and the emotion, and the determination and we got it done.”
In a dominant first, Michael Grabner, set up by Zuccarello, made it 2-0 at 13:24, as the Rangers controlled the puck for 75 percent of the time and peppered Anderson with 15 shots.
The Senators pushed back in the second, but just didn’t seem to have enough. Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone collided, triggering a two on one. Derek Stepan fed Rick Nash in the left circle, and Anderson only could get a piece of Nash’s wrister for a three-goal lead at 12:21. Oscar Lindberg scored his first post-season goal when J.T. Miller drove the net, drawing defenders, and backhanded a pass to Lindberg at the right post for a goal at 18:17. Lundqvist lost his shutout when Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who scored four goals Saturday, beat him 32 seconds later.
“It says that we can erase an emotional loss,” Nash said. “We’re still down, so the next game is that much of a bigger deal.”