Rangers center Mika Zibanejad looks on before a face-off against...

Rangers center Mika Zibanejad looks on before a face-off against the Capitals during Game 1 of their NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs first-round 2024 series at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

GREENBURGH — The Rangers held a 2-0 lead in their first-round playoff series against the Devils last year before falling apart and losing four of the next five games, including Games 3, 4 and 7 at Madison Square Garden. It was a devastating collapse, one that everyone who was a part of that team certainly remembers.

But does that loss still haunt them? Are they still thinking about it and letting it drive them as they seek to get past Washington, this year’s first-round opponent.

No, says Mika Zibanejad.

“It's obviously individually, how much you think about it, but I think you use it as a fuel for the summer (getting ready) for the season,’’ Zibanejad, the Rangers’ No. 1 center, said at Tuesday’s morning skate before Game 2 against the Washington Capitals at the Garden. “I don't think that's something that we think about right now. The focus has to be on this series and this game that we have tonight. And we'll see.’’

What last year’s disappointment did drive, Zibanejad said, was individual players’ work over the summer in preparing for the season. And maybe it drove them during the regular season, as well, he said.

“That's really what all year we've been talking about… try to build something; try to work on our game, try to find the identity of our team,’’ he said. “And I think we've done everything that we can throughout this season to make sure that we're ready for this (postseason).’’

The Rangers certainly looked like a driven team all year long by starting fast, finishing strong and shrugging off a little mid-season lull on their way to amassing a league-best 55 wins and 114 points. That earned them the Presidents’ Trophy as the best team in the regular season.

They went into Game 2 against the Capitals leading the best-of-seven series 1-0 after their 4-1 victory in Game 1 Sunday. They looked relaxed at the morning skate and appeared totally methodical in their approach to the series.

A lot of that has to do with the messaging the team is getting from coach Peter Laviolette, who was the Capitals’ coach last season and knows Washington’s personnel and mindset very well. Beyond that, though, Laviolette laid the groundwork for the season at his introductory press conference last summer when he took over as coach from Gerard Gallant. He said he didn’t believe a team could go from regular season to playoff mode as easy as flipping on a light switch, and so he said he intended to have the team play the regular season with a kind of playoff intensity.

Now that the playoffs are here, Laviolette’s messaging to the team is, essentially, keep doing what you’ve been doing.

“We went down the stretch (of the regular season) playing top ranked teams and then playing teams that were fighting for everything just to get into the playoffs,’’ Laviolette said. “And so, I think just trying to address that, about what you would be seeing down the stretch, it's no different here (in the playoffs).’’

The Rangers, of course, are heavy favorites to win this series, given that they were the first team in the league to clinch a playoff spot and Washington was the last. Zibanejad, though, is unbothered by any pressure that might come along with being heavily favored.

“Some people think that you’re the favorite; some other people think it’s the other way around,’’ he said. “But it doesn’t change anything. I don't think it changes anything for us in terms of how we should play, how we would play… We have to be able to kind of just focus on ourselves. We've done that all year, up until this point.’’

Zibanejad acknowledged that his offensive production over the regular season (26 goals, 72 points), was down. The goal and point totals were his lowest over the last six seasons, not counting the 56-game, COVID-shortened season in 2021. But he did have an assist in Game 1, springing linemate Chris Kreider for a breakaway that led to the final goal in that game.

“Point-wise, it hasn't been my best year,’’ he said. “I think I've learned a lot. And it's crazy, I'm 31, (and) people think that after a certain age you stop learning, or you can't do other things. But I think it's any scenario, any situation, any season, you take something out of it.’’

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