Mika Zibanejad #93 of the Rangers celebrates his second period goal...

Mika Zibanejad #93 of the Rangers celebrates his second period goal against the New Jersey Devils at Madison Square Garden on Monday, March 11, 2024. Credit: Jim McIsaac

There is nothing unusual about a goal-scorer flashing a smile. But there seemed to be something extra to the one on Mika Zibanejad’s face Monday night.

He had just scored the Rangers’ first goal in what would be a 3-1 victory over the Devils at Madison Square Garden, and he was beaming.

Why? Because he knew full well that it was his first five-on-five goal since Dec. 23, a remarkable stretch for one of the Rangers’ best offensive players.

“Obviously, when we’re winning, it takes off some of that pressure,” he said. “When the puck hasn’t gone in for a while, it’s nice to see one go in.

“There’s not much to it. I think my face said it all.”

It was the 20th goal of the season for Zibanejad, who scored in other ways during his 30-game five-on-five drought — power plays, shorthanded and overtime.

But getting him going in all phases will be a key for the Rangers.

“The last few games here, I think he’s been really noticeable on the ice,” coach Peter Laviolette said. “He’s skating with authority. He’s bringing the puck to the net frequently with authority, and because of that, good things are happening.”

The Rangers (42-18-4) were the better team throughout but had trouble closing the deal for the first half of the game. They had an apparent goal by Artemi Panarin waved off when Vincent Trocheck was ruled offside.

They finally scored against Devils goalie Kaapo Kahkonen on Zibanejad’s backhander off Chris Kreider’s feed from behind the net at 12:25 of the second period. Jack Roslovic helped set up the goal by forcing a Devils turnover.

At 19:08 of that period, Erik Gustafsson made it 2-0 with a long shot that evaded Kahkonen through heavy traffic. He was unable to see past the big body of 6-8 Matt Rempe in front of the net.

“Total credit on the goal for him,” Laviolette said of Rempe.

But 22 seconds later, Rempe, who has become a fan favorite, was called for a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct for elbowing Jonas Siegenthaler in the head.

Laviolette reserved comment on the hit until he saw a replay. The Devils (31-30-4) didn’t have to wait. They were furious.

Kurtis MacDermid, who seemed to be looking for a fight all night with Rempe, told reporters after the game that he was disgusted with Rempe for not responding to his call for a fight, and then again for the hit on Siegenthaler.

MacDermid had to be pulled away from Rempe after the elbow.

“There’s a right way to go about things and a wrong way,” MacDermid told reporters after the game. “I kind of lost a lot of respect for him.”

But the Devils did little with their golden opportunity, getting nothing past Jonathan Quick (19 saves). Laviolette cited the team’s use of extra-short shifts for its penalty- killers.

New Jersey did cut the margin to 2-1 when Simon Nemec scored at 17:26 of the third period, seconds after Kahkonen left his net for an extra skater.

But at 18:47, Trocheck’s empty-net goal sealed the victory.

On Tuesday, the Metropolitan Division-leading Rangers (42-18-4, 88 points) will face the second-place Hurricanes (39-19-6, 84 points) in Raleigh. They might not have Rempe in uniform if the NHL decides he needs to sit out a game or more for his sins. But having Zibanejad back in top scoring form is more important down the stretch and into the playoffs.

“It was a good feeling to help the team to win,” he said.

By then he was presenting a stoic face to reporters. But as he said, the earlier smile told the real story.

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