He was on the ice for only 13:32 minutes last night (with no points), but his presence made all the difference in the world in the Blueshirts’ 4-1 victory over Anaheim. Mika Zibanejad had been out with a concussion for nine games (since November 28th), during which the Rangers went 6-2-1. But don’t be fooled by the numbers–Mika is essential to the team’s success as the season and post-season will move along.
Despite their recent record, the Rangers had been inconsistent of late. Part of it has been goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s recent tendency to let in easy goals, and some can be attributed to defensive errors, but most of the inconsistency has been up front, where the coaching staff has had to make a patchwork effort to make up for the lack of their number one center.
At the time of his injury, Zibanejad was the team’s leading scorer (22 points in 24 games), and deadly on the power play. Even with Mika missing one quarter of the team’s games this season, he is currently tied with Chris Kreider with five PP goals. Without him, David Desharnais was filling that role, and although Desharnias has been a big asset for the team, he is better suited for a bottom six role than for the first line.
Injuries are always possible, make that probable, during the season. Some players can be replaced without much fanfare, but Zibanejad is not one of them (absent a trade). His offensive potency is required for this team to be consistently a winning club. It was hard work (and some luck) that got them through the nine games of his absence, but it likely would not have continued for a long stretch. It is extremely hard for any team to go far without a first line center, and New York is no execption.
In the meantime, the third line of Michael Grabner, Kevin Hayes, and Jesper Fast looked excellent last evening. In addition to three points and a plus four rating, they had some outstanding chemistry. All three have been contributing offensively thus far this season, and it will be very interesting to see how they will work as a trio going forward.
As good as the third line was, defenseman Brendan Smith continued his struggle last night. This is where plus/minus is very deceptive—Smith was +3, but the giveaways led to scoring chances, and it is far from the first time in the past month that he has been giving the puck away. Yes, his numbers for the season look fine, but on the ice is an entirely different story. After being such a reliable pickup at the trade deadline, Smith has shown very little of the same consistency this season.
The problem with Smith is really exacerbated by the fact that the Rangers gave up some of their defensive prowess by adding Kevin Shattenkirk to their blueline. The offensive upside to Shattenkirk is worth it, but only if there are enough reliable players on the back end to make up for his lapses (which are actually have diminished some as the season has gone along). Smith was someone New York has counted on to fill this role. Thus far, it has fallen more to Lundqvist to do so, and that has not always been a sure thing.
In any case, after last night’s win, the Rangers are third in the Metropolitan Division–they face the second place Devils tomorrow night.