KANATA, Ontario — Right now, that trade that Ottawa made when it sent Mika Zibanejad to the Rangers for Derick Brassard in the summer of 2016 isn’t looking so good for the Senators, is it?
Zibanejad, who blossomed into a true No. 1 center last season and who is looking at reaching even higher heights, reminded the Sens again what a mistake they made giving him up three years ago after he recorded his third career hat trick in leading the Rangers to a 4-1 victory on Saturday night.
Zibanejad scored on the power play, at even strength and shorthanded on a two-on-one. He added an assist on a goal by Artemi Panarin to help the Blueshirts improve to 2-0.
“It’s special for him to come back here, as always, I think, and he put out a pretty incredible performance,’’ defenseman Marc Staal said of Zibanejad. “Sometimes that line looks like they’re playing a video game. They hit a couple buttons, tape-to-tape, back door, looks pretty . . . It’s a huge advantage, obviously, to have them playing like that, and then having a power play that’s scoring like that, you’re going to win a lot of hockey games.’’
The Rangers scored two power-play goals (Panarin one-timed a nifty pass from Zibanejad) in three attempts, and the line of Panarin, Zibanejad and Buchnevich combined for nine points, with Panarin getting a goal and an assist, and Buchnevich three assists.
One of Buchnevich’s assists came on Zibanejad’s second goal, a pretty, tic-tac-toe play where Panarin sent a cross-ice pass to Zibanejad, who fed across the crease to Buchnevich, who sent it back to Zibanejad for the goal. Zibanejad couldn’t believe Buchnevich gave him the puck back on the play.
“I thought I made a pretty good pass to give him an empty-netter, but apparently he didn’t want it,’’ Zibanejad said. “I’m happy I was ready for it, and it went in, through his legs. And I think it hit the post or something. But yeah, it was an unbelievable play and I was just happy I was at the right spot.’’
Coach David Quinn was a lot more pleased after this win than after Thursday’s 6-4 win over Winnipeg. “I thought we were better in a lot of areas,’’ Quinn said. “I thought our puck support was better, I thought we defended better, I thought we generated a little bit more offensive zone time, and our special teams were huge tonight.’’
The Rangers did play better defensively, and while some of that may have had to do with the relative strength of the rebuilding Senators, some of it, too, may have had to do with Quinn mixing up his defense pairs. He broke up the No. 1 pair of Jacob Trouba and Brady Skjei in order to separate his two 21-year-old rookies, Adam Fox and Libor Hajek. Hajek played with Trouba and Fox partnered with Skjei.
Both players seemed much better than they were in the opener — everyone was, really — and Quinn had praise for Fox, who made the pass to Panarin that resulted in Zibanejad’s pretty even-strength goal.
“I thought Fox had a really good game,’’ Quinn said. “He’s got great poise; he sees the ice so well, and for a guy that’s in his second game in the league, he looked composed out there.’’
The Rangers took an early 1-0 lead on Zibanejad’s first goal, a power play rebound of a Trouba shot at 6:04 of the first period. Ottawa equalized on a deflection goal by Brady Tkachuk — Quinn’s former star forward at Boston University — at 12:14.
But Zibanejad scored twice more in the second period, completing the hat trick with his shorthander at 12:07 and putting the Rangers firmly in control.
Alexandar Georgiev made 31 saves to earn the win.