NEWARK — The Mika Zibanejad renaissance has begun.
“I had a feeling I was playing too safe,” said the Swedish center, who was sidelined by a broken left leg in November and hadn’t scored a non-shootout goal in 15 games since returning. “In the last three or four games, I’ve been stepping back to the old me, before the injury.”
With the Rangers and Devils tied Saturday after regulation at Prudential Center, the circumstances were right for Zibanejad. It was the third consecutive game in which the Blueshirts went to overtime, and one sequence decided their 4-3 win.
Rangers goalie Antti Raanta had just stopped a breakaway by forward Kyle Palmieri, who already had two goals in the game.
“I was waiting, thought he was going to shoot, but he tried to put it behind me, so I tried to put everything I had into my leg and made a split and it hit the skate and went behind the net,” said Raanta, who faced 39 shots.
Defenseman Brady Skjei grabbed the puck and sent a long pass to Zibanejad streaking up the ice. Zibanejad faked a slap shot from the right side, which got netminder Cory Schneider to move, and snapped a shot through his pads for the winner at 1:16 of the extra session.
“That’s something I’ve done before,” said Zibanejad, who scored the winner in a shootout with Toronto on Thursday night. “I’ve seen other guys do it when I was younger, and it worked this time.”
“The goal in Toronto in the shootout gave him some confidence,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “He played a good game. It was his man, Palmieri, with the chance in overtime, but he had a chance to redeem himself and put it between [the goalie’s] legs.”
After giving the Rangers their second straight win and ninth in 11 games (9-1-1), Zibanejad was rewarded with the Broadway Hat. “First time,” he said.
It was a stirring ending to a game in which the Rangers held a 2-0 lead with time winding down in the second period but needed a goal by Adam Clendening with 4:25 left in the third to tie it at 3-3.
Chris Kreider’s deflection went up and over Schneider at 6:40 of the first period and Oscar Lindberg made it 2-0 from the left circle at 17:32 after Jesper Fast’s faked slap shot and pass. But Schneider, who made 17 saves in the second period, kept the Devils in the game, and Adam Henrique gave the Devils life when his wraparound eluded Raanta with 1:32 left in the period.
The wheels came off for Raanta and the Rangers as Palmieri scored twice in the first 1:14 of the third period to give the Devils a 3-2 lead. His first shot went off Raanta’s glove and in 27 seconds in, and he then deflected Andy Greene’s power-play point shot past a screened Raanta.
“Antti gave us a chance in the first [stopping nine shots early],” Vigneault said. “I thought we played extremely well after that until those two minutes and thirty-something seconds.”
Clendening, playing his second straight game for Kevin Klein (back spasms), tied it with 4:25 left on a low point shot on assists from Kreider and Zibanejad. It was the defenseman’s second goal of the season.
“You’ve just got to break their momentum and create our own,” Zibanejad said. “Adam’s goal was a fine example of that.”