Through all the line juggling that Rangers coach David Quinn has done while continually searching for offense this season, one thing has remained constant: Mika Zibanejad has been the undisputed No. 1 center.
The numbers through the first eight games weren’t spectacular for Zibanejad, but he broke out Tuesday night with two goals and two assists — both on goals by new linemate Mats Zuccarello — in a 5-2 victory over the Florida Panthers at the Garden. For Zibanejad, the four points matched a career high, and his five goals and nine points lead the team.
“That’s one of the big things about my game. I have to be able to be productive offensively and still have solid defense and an all-around game,’’ Zibanejad said. “But it’s obviously frustrating when you want to be an offensive guy and you don’t get the bounces and some kind of result from it.’’
If the production hadn’t been as great as Zibanejad would have liked, Quinn certainly knew just how much the Swede has meant to the Rangers.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am for him that he’s getting rewarded, statistically,’’ Quinn said. “Because I know early on he was playing really good hockey and not getting rewarded. I’ll tell you, he’s a complete player. I knew he was a good player before I got this job; I didn’t know he was this good.’’
Zibanejad scored one shorthanded goal and one power- play goal and won two faceoffs that ended up setting up Zuccarello’s first two goals of the season. The two alternate captains have not often played together at even strength, but in his search for offense for his goal-starved team, Quinn decided to put Zuccarello on Zibanejad’s line, along with Chris Kreider.
The goalfest made a winner of backup goaltender Alexandar Georgiev, who returned from a two-game stint in the minor leagues last weekend and started in place of Henrik Lundqvist, whom Quinn said had a minor upper-body issue. Georgiev made 36 saves to earn his first win of the season and he said it was personally satisfying to rebound from his previous NHL start, when he allowed seven goals in an 8-5 loss to Carolina on Oct. 7.
“Yeah, the wins feel, always, the best,’’ he said. “The team played really well, so I’m thankful for that.’’
Actually, according to Quinn, the Rangers (3-5-1) didn’t play so well in a first period he said “was probably as bad a period as we’ve played all year.’’ The Rangers were outshot 14-5 and trailed 1-0 on power-play goal by Vincent Trocheck at 18:15.
But Zibanejad’s shorthanded goal at 3:10 of the second period turned things around. Zibanejad swooped in from the right side, circled behind the net and banked a wraparound shot off goalie Michael Hutchinson’s skate and in for his fourth goal of the season.
The Rangers then scored on consecutive power plays, with Zuccarello scoring his first goal of the season on a shot from the left circle that deflected in off a Panthers defender at 11:36, and Zibanejad beating Hutchinson with a wrist shot from the top of the left wing circle at 16:08.
Zuccarello scored an even- strength goal at 1:27 of the third, to make it 4-1, before Mike Hoffman pulled one back for Florida (1-3-3) at 10:37. Kevin Hayes added an empty-netter with 51.9 seconds left.
It makes for a nice getaway for the Rangers, who are embarking on an eight-day, four-city road trip to Chicago and California.