It was the Mika and Igor show at Madison Square Garden, Sunday afternoon.
Mika Zibanejad took care of the offense with his 8th career hat trick and Igor Shesterkin brilliantly handled the goaltending with his 4th career shutout and second this season, in an impressive 4-0 win over Tampa Bay.
By the way, the rest of the team was pretty good too as the Rangers put together their most complete effort of the season. “All of our players stepped up, best players were obviously good today,” coach Gerard Gallant said after the game.
The win gave the Rangers a sweep of the home and home series with the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. There has been some concern as to whether this young Rangers team can play with the big boys.
Defenseman Adam Fox, who had two more assists, said this short two game series says a lot about the team. “It speaks a little bit of growth. Not only did we beat a good team, we did a good job of holding the lead that we got early. We’re going to have to do a lot more of that if we wanna be respected around the league,” the 23-year old defenseman said after the game.
Shesterkin made 38 saves, including 18 in the first period, to record his fourth career shutout and second this season. With Ryan Strome in the penalty box for slashing, the Vezina Trophy contender made six saves and looked nearly impenetrable as he kept the explosive Tampa Bay offense off the board.
Shesterkin knew who was on the other side of the ice, but he wasn’t out to prove anything against his Russian counterpart, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who has two Stanley Cups. “As you can see by his playing, one of the best players so it definitely felt nice to beat him and Tampa as well,” Shesterkin said through an interpreter afterwards.
The Rangers, like every other NHL team, are dealing with Covid and it hit their best player, as Artemi Panarin entered Covid protocol before the game. The Rangers’ leading scorer will have to miss at least three games, but the next man up mantra served the team well.
The Rangers were down two starting defenseman as well. Ryan Lindgren had not cleared protocol and Patrik Nemeth was a last minute scratch because of a non-Covid illness so rookie defenseman Zac Jones was in the lineup and skated with rookie defenseman Nils Lundqkist. “They were out there against the top line sometimes and did real well,” Gallant said.
Alexis Lafreniere played with Strome and Barclay Goodrow, who had another strong game against his former team. Lafreniere did not get on the score sheet but made himself a factor, defensively.
Zibanejad got the show going at 7:44 of the first period. The Rangers were on the power play and Fox fed Zibanejad at the top of the left face off circle, where he fired a wrister past Lightning goaltender Vasilevskiy for a 1-0 lead.
Less than five minutes later, the Rangers were once again on the power play and it took only eight seconds to cash in a second time.
After a face off win (Rangers had a 30-19 advantage in the dots) in the offensive zone, Fox had the puck and passed it to Zibanejad again on the left side. The Rangers’ center was actually passing the puck to Kappo Kakko, who was at the side of the net, but it deflected off of former Ranger and Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh’s stick and into the net for a 2-0 lead.
Fox now leads all NHL defenseman with 28 assists, one more than Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who was kept off the score sheet.
A few minutes later, Goodrow caused a turnover in the offensive zone and passed to Strome who was trailing in the slot. Strome used Lafreniere as a screen and shot the puck past Vasilevskiy for a huge, 3-0 lead after one.
Zibanejad completed the hat trick late in the second period as he deflected the puck past Vasilevskiy, off of a nice feed from Kreider, who assisted on all three hat trick goals.
The Lightning felt Zibanejad touched the puck with a high stick before it got to Kreider, but after a few minutes, the call on the ice was upheld and the Rangers had a 4-0 lead.
Zibanejad is in one of his goal scoring streaks with six in the last five games, after five in the previous 28 games. “First one was on the power play, second one deflected off their stick and third one, great pass by ‘Kreids.’ When you’re in that kind of momentum, you seem to make the right decisions of where to go,” Zibanejad said. “The pucks find you and that’s what it did today.”
Both Zibanejad and Kreider have nine points in their last five games as the Rangers sit third in the Metropolitan Division (21-8-4) with 46 points, one point behind second place Carolina and two points behind first place Washington.
“We wanna play these types of games, we want to play against this type of opponent. We showed it to ourselves that we could play with them and happy with the two wins out of these two games,” Zibanejad said.
Rangers cannot savor this one too long as the explosive Edmonton Oilers make their only visit to the Garden Monday night. The Rangers will be looking to avenge a 6-5 loss in overtime in Edmonton, back in early November, where they blew a 4-1 lead.