Mika Zibanijad of Rangers has become the center of attention

You wondered if Mika Zibanijad could be a real superstar, and with five playoffs, he was giving you an answer.

The Rangers were on the verge of elimination, returning to Pittsburgh 3-2 late, and Zibanijad had not yet scored in the series. His streak – the Rangers’ top streak – was restricted by Sidney Crosby and Jake Goentzel. It was minus 4 in games 3, 4 and 5.

Nothing about it was fun. But you already know how this story ends.

Here are the Zipanegad numbers from 6 vs penguins game Onwards: 10 games, eight goals, nine assists. Entering Friday’s second game of the conference final against Lightning, Zibanejad leads the Rangers in playoff points with 21 points – behind Conor McDavid (29) and Leon Drystel (28) at the top of the tournament.

What has changed? Rangers coach Gerard Gallant politely rejected this hypothesis.

“He played great hockey for us right from the start,” Gallant said on Thursday. “Obviously he puts more pucks on the net and gets more scoring chances, but he has played a great game since the first game of the regular season. He is a two-way player who competes every night and gets chances because he works hard.”

Rangers center Mika Zipanjad celebrates after defeating the Lightning in the first game of the 2022 Stanley Cup Eastern Conference Finals at Madison Square Garden on June 1, 2022.
Rangers center Mika Zibanijad celebrates after defeating Lightning in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final.
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Zibani Nejad is no MacDavid, carrying the Oilers on his back and making a case to be considered among the all-time greats; Nor is it Nathan McKinnon, the Hart Prize contender at the heart of the avalanche. But after five seasons between real playoff appearances (not counting the 2020 bubble), Zebaninejad answered every question he was asked.

“It’s huge for us,” Alexis Lavrinier said. “Obviously he is one of our best players. I think he is one of the best in the league.”

Yes really. This was proved by Zibanjad with his performance in the tournament.

“He really stepped up in these playoffs,” Lavrinier said. “And when you see a guy like that playing the way he plays with his work ethic, for guys like us it’s just about getting ahead and trying to keep playing the way he does.”

Zibani Nejad, a soft-spoken player with a big stick, joked after the first match that he needed four attempts with a timer before one of them got in, and climbed. Rangers advanced 6-2 in the third period. But the sequence that Rangers’ first powerful play unit started was an exclamation point at night – discus ride to Zibanejad for one timer over and over until Lightning goalkeeper Andrei Vasilevskiy could no longer handle it.

“When you play with these guys, in my position, you try to be ready for any pass,” Zibanjad said. “It worked today so it was good. The biggest thing was winning.”

Justin Brown, a 12-year-old NHL veteran with the Sharks and Flyers before coming to New York on a trade deadline, played against Zibanejad for a decade. He saw a player who excelled in small spaces.

“You knew he was highly skilled and defensively responsible,” Brown said. “But how impressive it is to catch bad pucks in the neutral zone, do the right play, do the right thing. Little things separate good players from great players.

“And now, he’s playing great. It’s about those little details. D-zone, neutral, make the right plays. Playing strength, he was special.”

Rangers center Mika Zipanjad (93) smiles in the third period of game one of the 2022 Stanley Cup Eastern Conference Final against The Lightning at Madison Square Garden.
Rangers center Mika Zipanjad (93) smiles in the third game of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final.
Danny Wilde / USA Today Sports

This has always been the book about Zibanejad – a two-way hub that can get the little things done. Even as Zipanegad put in a point per game this season, it was Chris Kreider’s 52-goal goal alongside him that caught the eye.

But it was Zipanjad who outlasted Kreider with 77 points in the regular season with 81 points, and it was Zipanjad who rose to the spotlight in the post-season. When Kreider scored just over a minute into the first game, it was Zipanegad who skated right past Nikita Kucherov to put him in his way and extend his points streak to six games – the longest post-season points streak of his career.

If the Rangers can make it to the Stanley Cup Final, they won’t have the star power of playing. With McDavid or MacKinnon on the other side, that’s a foregone conclusion. But here, against lightning? Number 93 may be the best position in either team.

Just three weeks ago, Zibanijad was outplaying, outplaying and overtaking Zibanijad, and Rangers were on their way to an early playoff exit.

How quickly these things can change.

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