TEMPE, Ariz. — It had the feel of an exhibition game, played in a 5,026-seat college arena in which Division I Arizona State plays its games and with the Arizona State band playing in the end zone. But this was no exhibition. This was a real NHL game, with a real two points on the line.
And the Rangers needed them.
They got them because, on his 31st birthday, Artemi Panarin was the Rangers’ best player Sunday. He recorded a goal and two assists and Mika Zibanejad scored on the power play at 12:56 of the third period to deliver a 3-2 victory over the pesky Arizona Coyotes at their temporary home, Mullett Arena, on the campus of Arizona State University.
“We knew it was going to be a battle in here,’’ coach Gerard Gallant said. “They worked hard every shift. And so we’re fortunate to get that power play and get the win.’’
The victory, before a raucous crowd that was mostly composed of Rangers fans, gave the Blueshirts a sweep of their weekend road trip to Dallas and Arizona. The Rangers (5-3-2) had handed the Stars their first home loss on Saturday, and on Sunday, they beat a Coyotes team playing their second game in their new building.
“It was a tied game after two [periods] and we said in the room it’s a big two points for us,’’ forward Alexis Lafreniere said. “And we played as a team in the third. You know, Shesty [goalie Igor Shesterkin] was really good, too. So we found a way to win. That’s what really matters.”
Shesterkin, who had played Saturday afternoon in Dallas in the front end of the back-to-back, returned Sunday, marking the first time he started both ends of a back-to-back since his rookie season of 2019-20.
Gallant said the fact that the game in Dallas was an afternoon game and the game in Arizona was a night game made it reasonable to play Shesterkin in both games.
“He’s got more time,’’ Gallant said before the game. “And he wasn’t real busy in [Saturday’s] game.’’
He didn’t face a high volume of shots Sunday, either. He made 18 saves as the Rangers outshot Arizona 39-20.
In front of a crowd that tilted heavily to the visiting team, the Rangers dominated the first period, holding possession for most of the time in the offensive zone and outshooting the Coyotes 15-7. They also outhit them 13-9, with the most memorable hit the one Sammy Blais delivered to former Rangers defenseman Patrik Nemeth. It put the 6-4, 230-pounder on his back.
But Coyotes goaltender Connor Ingram, a 25-year-old playing in his sixth NHL game, kept the Rangers at bay. He was especially good on the Rangers’ lone power play in the period, his best save coming on a jam-in attempt by Chris Kreider on the doorstep.
The Rangers got on the board at 1:31 of the second period when Panarin took a pass from K’Andre Miller in the high slot, skated through the right circle and zipped a cross-crease pass that Lafreniere jammed in for his second goal of the season.
Panarin was sent off for a hooking penalty that gave the Coyotes a power play that ended up with Lawson Crouse scoring on a one-timer to make it 1-1 at 6:45. Arizona took a 2-1 lead at 11:27 when Shesterkin made a save on Clayton Keller, Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren fumbled the rebound and it went to Nick Bjugstad, who beat Shesterkin with a backhander for his first goal of the season.
Panarin got the goal back when he took a pass from Adam Fox, drove into the Coyotes’ zone on the right wing and lifted a surprise, bad-angle shot over Ingram’s left shoulder to tie it at 2-2 at 18:07