Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad must ‘do better job’ for Rangers vs. Panthers

NHL: New York Rangers at Detroit Red Wings
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Like most NHL teams, the New York Rangers rely on their star players to produce offensively. But as the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Final returns to Madison Square Garden for a pivotal Game 5 with the series tied 2-2 on Thursday, much of the focus will fall on Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, who have struggled mightily to score against the Florida Panthers.

They’re not the only top Rangers guns who’ve been quiet against the Panthers. But Adam Fox and Artemi Panarin got untracked a bit Tuesday, each with a pair of assists in New York’s 3-2 overtime loss.

Though Kreider was held without a shot on goal Tuesday, Zibanejad did have six, including one on the power play that deflected off goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and off the crossbar in the first period. Still, neither forward has a point in the series.

“We’ve got to do a better job of advancing pucks up the ice and establishing O-Zone presence,” Kreider told reporters postgame. “A lot of that falls on me, I gotta be able to get in there, win pucks, get my body on pucks, move my feet, and allow us to get up the ice and start rolling.”

The Rangers were out-attempted 19-5 when Kreider and Zibanejad were on the ice at 5v5, surrendering 10 scoring chances while creating just two of their own.

Kreider was extremely hard on himself after the game, taking the brunt of the responsibility for the top line’s lack of offensive production.

“I just needed to make a couple plays. I think I single-handedly harpooned a few of our possessions in the O-Zone,” Kreider said. “Throwing a couple passes that didn’t sit flat or just whiffing on them entirely. Everyone’s on the same page, everyone was clicking, and I personally needed to execute a little better and I think we would have been more efficient.”

It’s an admirable sentiment from the longest-tenured Ranger, but Zibanejad also plays a part in the line’s struggles. Mika got off to a red-hot start to these Stanley Cup Playoffs, tallying 13 points and three goals in the first eight games, recording a point in every contest.

He’s cooled off significantly, recording just one point in the past six games and riding a nine-game postseason goalless drought.

That more or less aligns with Kreider’s rough stretch. Kreider hit the score sheet once in his past seven games. Granted, that one time was pretty spectacular as he willed the Rangers to a second-round series win over the Carolina Hurricanes with a natural hat trick in the third period of the decisive Game 6. However, outside of that amazing burst, he, like Zibanejad, has struggled to impact the game.

“They’re working,” Laviolette noted postgame, addressing his top line’s lack of production. “We’re spending a little bit too much time playing defense, and so we’re not able to move and generate the way that we want to out there. [The Florida Panthers] come at you hard, they dump a lot of pucks, they forecheck hard, and so you’re not spending time in the right zone. [Zibanejad and Kreider] want to get into the offensive zone where they can make an impact in the game. That’s something I thought we did a much better job at home of controlling the play.”

Related: How Chris Kreider avoided game misconduct in Game 4 against Panthers

Rangers need more from Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Carolina Hurricanes at New York Rangers
Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Florida utilized the benefit of last change on home ice to match up 2024 Selke-winner Aleksander Barkov with Zibanejad and Kreider’s line. They’ve also seen a lot of Sam Reinhart, who finished fourth in Selke voting, in the series.

It was Barkov who helped set up the game-winner on Tuesday, driving to the net and drawing a hooking penalty from Blake Wheeler after Niko Mikkola poked away an ugly pass in the offensive zone by Zibanejad. Reinhart scored the overtime winner just 13 seconds later, blasting a one-timer by Igor Shesterkin to give the Panthers the win.

Zibanejad and Kreider were out-attempted 41-10 in the two games in Florida, hemmed in by the Panthers’ excellent top unit.

The numbers get a little better when you factor in the two games at MSG, but they’re still being out-attempted 66-30 and out-chanced 25-11 over the course of this Eastern Conference Final series.

The continued lack of production led Laviolette to make a change entering the third period.

With Filip Chytil a healthy scratch in Game 4 in an effort to manage his workload upon return from injury, Jack Roslovic got the start on the right wing besides Kreider and Zibanejad. However, before the start of the third period, Laviolette bumped up Kaapo Kakko, who was a healthy scratch just two games ago, to join the first line.

“The change was made for me based on Kaapo and what I saw in the first part of the game,” Laviolette explained. “He was moving, he was protecting pucks, he was looking to create and generate, and so, to try and make that switch to see if it could try to move the needle in the direction of the offensive zone.”

The change didn’t spark much as Florida dominated the bulk of the third period, out-attempting the combination of Zibanejad, Kreider, and Kakko 8-1.

The series returns to MSG on Thursday for arguably the Rangers’ most important game of the season. Up to this point, it’s been the likes of Alexis Lafreniere (three goals), Barclay Goodrow (three goals, one game-winner), and Vincent Trocheck (two goals) that have led the charge offensively for the Blueshirts in this series.

Shesterkin has continued to shine in net, posting yet another brilliant performance with 37 saves in the 3-2 loss on Tuesday.

At some point, the Rangers will likely need their stars to contribute. The Eastern Conference Final is now essentially a best-of-3. New York has home ice in Game 5 and the potential Game 7. That could allow Laviolette to control the matchup for his first line and get them away from the dominant Barkov line.

But defensive matchups aside, Zibanejad and Kreider just haven’t looked sharp this series. The Rangers have battled hard to be two wins away from a Stanley Cup Final appearance. A productive first line led by Zibanejad and Kreider could make the difference to actually get all the way there.

Lou Orlando has spent the past two seasons as a New York Rangers beat reporter for WFUV Sports. The... More about Lou Orlando

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