GREENBURGH, N.Y. — Mika Zibanejad only faced his former team once this season, on the final regular-season weekend in a meaningless game for the Rangers in Ottawa.
Things are slightly more consequential now. Zibanejad and Derick Brassard swapped teams in July and each had a big impact in getting the Rangers and Senators to this second-round matchup that begins Thursday night.
Zibanejad scored the Game 5 overtime winner against the Canadiens to tip the series in the Rangers’ favor. The 24-year-old goes back to Ottawa trying to not make this series any bigger than it already is, even as it’s against the team he played with for five seasons.
“When I saw the schedule and the playoff tree I knew it was a possibility, but like I said, it’s like any other team now. I just want to get to four first,” he said. “You try to think that way obviously. It’s your old team, a team you played for quite a bit. It’s the playoffs and you try to focus on what you can do, what you can control and not who you’re playing.”
Alain Vigneault made sure to have a brief chat with Zibanejad before Tuesday’s practice but isn’t concerned. His young center was far from good the first two games against the Canadiens but turned his game back on for the last four, posting a goal and three assists as the Rangers took charge.
“I met him quickly this morning to make sure he was in the right place,” Vigneault said. “Sometimes players want to put a little too much pressure on themselves, but he’s in a good spot. He’s got to go up there and do what he did the last four games the last series against Montreal — just play. Make the plays, skate with the puck, have fun with it. If he does he’s going to be fine.”
As for Brassard, there’s plenty of close friendships from his three-plus seasons in New York, but every one of his old teammates is well aware of their pal’s playoff abilities. Brassard had 44 points in 59 games over four Rangers playoff runs, tied for 11th in franchise history.
Naturally, he’s leading the Senators with eight points in their six games so far.
“I’m definitely going to tell all my players, Brass for the next two weeks is not their friend anymore,” Vigneault said. “No little tapping of the butt as we go by on the ice. Brass has been a very good player for them and we’re going to have to play him hard and smart. They can get together after the series. He’s been one of their most effective players up front.”