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Breakout season not satisfying to Mika Zibanejad

Center would gladly trade in his goals if it somehow could put the Rangers in the playoffs.

Rangers center Mika Zibanejad skates against the Toronto

Rangers center Mika Zibanejad skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the third period at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Two more goals in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Jets raised Mika Zibanejad’s total to 25, which gave him the team lead and left him two short of his career high of 27. They also raised his point total to 56 in 56 games. His previous career high had been 51 in 2015-16, his last season in Ottawa.

But Zibanejad, one of the league’s hottest players and the center of one of the hottest lines during the last two months, was positively miserable after the game, another loss that pushed the dream of a playoff spot even further away.

It’s hard for Zibanejad to appreciate having a career year when the team isn’t doing well.

“I’m just trying to show myself every game, every practice, that I can keep up. I want to keep up this level of play,’’ he said that night. “I just want to show that it’s not a fluke; it’s another step in my career. Of course I’d be lying if I say I don’t know that it’s my career numbers. But at the same time, you don’t enjoy it if your team is not benefiting from it, and we’re not winning. That’s what we’re in this business for — winning. And if you don’t do that, good or bad, you don’t really care.’’

Zibanejad, 25, came to the Rangers in the summer of 2016 in the Derick Brassard trade, which essentially was the start of the Rangers’ rebuild. It’s been the best move of the process. Zibanejad has grown into the role of a legit No. 1 center entering the peak of his career.

His numbers this season project roughly to 36 goals and 82 points in 82 games, though those numbers may tail off if the Rangers trade linemate Mats Zuccarello and/or second-line center Kevin Hayes before the Feb. 25 deadline.

Still, Zibanejad has the look of a player who could be built around in the Rangers’ reconstruction project. The native of Huddinge, Sweden, plays on the power play and the penalty kill and leads all Rangers forwards in average ice time at 20:13. And he continues to fight for a playoff spot that no one really expects the Rangers to get.

“Winning is my only focus,’’ he said. “Do you want to be one of the top players? Do you want to be one of the elite players? Absolutely. I think everyone wants that. But it’s not just going to come.

“I don’t like talking about [individual success] when we’re not winning and we’re not in a good spot, so the main focus is getting the team back on track and giving it all and still hope for the best,’’ he said. “It’s not going to die until either we have an ‘X’ [for clinched a playoff spot] or an ‘E’ [eliminated from playoff contention] next to our team name. I just hope it’s an ‘X.’ ’’

Both are played with sticks

Growing up in Mimico, Ontario, a hotbed for lacrosse in Canada, Rangers defenseman Brendan Smith briefly pondered playing professional lacrosse rather than hockey. His older brother, Rory, played pro lacrosse and his younger brother, Reilly — who currently plays hockey for the Vegas Golden Knights — was the No. 1-rated lacrosse player in Canada at 15 or 16 years old. He might have been the No. 1 overall draft pick in the National Lacrosse League (NLL) had he opted to play lacrosse instead of hockey.

“Obviously, the money in both sports, if you go pro, is [not comparable],’’ Brendan Smith said when asked what made him choose hockey. “And at that time, you were getting drafted to the OHL or getting scholarships [to U.S. colleges to play hockey], so you couldn’t get hurt . . . We made the decision that it was better, familywise, financial-wise — there were so many variables — to choose hockey.’’

Rory Smith, 32, went the lacrosse route and played 10 years professionally in the NLL. A rugged 6-foot, 200-pound defenseman who was something of an enforcer, he piled up record numbers of penalty minutes. He played for the Canadian team that won the gold medal at the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships in the Czech Republic in 2011. 

It's 1979 again

It’s been 25 years since the Rangers won the 1994 Stanley Cup, which the organization celebrated a week ago, reuniting that group of champions before the Feb. 8 home game against the Carolina Hurricanes.

But 2019 marks a couple of other anniversaries — five years since the Rangers lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 and 40 years since they lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the Cup Final in 1979.

There’s a book out that tells the story of that 1978-79 season, including the birth of the derogatory Denis Potvin chant that still is heard at Rangers games home and away.

It’s called “Before 94,’’ was written by Mark Rosenman and Howie Karpin, and features a foreword by Dave Maloney, currently the Rangers’ radio analyst and, back in 1978-79, the youngest captain in Rangers history. It’s available on amazon.com.

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