This key battle could determine winner between Rangers and Panthers

NHL: New York Rangers at Florida Panthers
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

When the puck drops on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden to signal the start of the Eastern Conference Final between the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers, there will be many small battles within the battle to monitor.

How will the Rangers deal with the extremely physical Panthers? Can the Rangers’ special teams continue to give them the edge in these playoffs? Will Igor Shesterkin outduel Sergei Bobrovsky in goal?

These are many of the storylines coming into the series with more to develop from period to period. However, there is one key battle that if the Rangers can win, could mean advancing to the Stanley Cup Final.

Mika Zibanejad versus Aleksander Barkov.

Related: The evolution of Vincent Trocheck

Rangers need the best from Mika Zibanejad

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

For years, it’s been argued that Mika Zibanejad is one of the best two-way forwards in the League today. That being said, the highest he’s ever finished in voting for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded to the best defensive forward, was 15th back during the 2021-22 campaign.

Meanwhile, Aleksander Barkov has just won his second Selke Trophy (previously in 2020-21). Deservedly so, as he’s been one of the top defensive centers since entering the League back in the 2013-14 season.

“I think it starts with the team, obviously,” Barkov said upon winning. “We have great systems, defensive-minded systems. So, we always think about the defensive side first. And then, obviously, you want to — as everyone else — you want to play with the puck as much as possible and play in the offensive zone. And offense is usually the best defense. So, I think, as a team we’ve done a pretty good job with that, so it helps individually as well.”

Taking a closer look at their numbers over the last three seasons, you’ll see very little disparity between the two centers.

3-YEAR AVGPts/GmOn-Ice EVGoalsFor%SH Pts/60PP Pts/60FO%
Mika Zibanejad159.51.77.2650.4
Aleksander Barkov1.1861.91.256.6356.3
Per NHL Stats

Over a three-year period, Barkov is averaging just .18 more points than Zibanejad, and holds a slight edge in on-ice even strength goals (61.9% to 59.5%). When you delve further into special teams play, Zibanejad has a significant advantage scoring more points per 60 minutes of play shorthanded and on the power play.

“I think he’s been really good. He’s been playing in high gears,” coach Peter Laviolette said during the Capitals series. “I do notice him and the high levels of speed that he’s playing at and the areas that he’s getting to in trying to get his shot off and trying to create. That’s obvious to me.”

The 30-year-old center is bringing it in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with 14 points (three goals, 11 assists) in 10 games.

“He’s turned it up a notch for sure,” teammate Vincent Trocheck noted. “Mika is very soft-spoken and mild-tempered, always, but he’s competitive and we all can see that. He leads by example.” 

Of course, the 28-year-old captain of the Panthers is playing pretty well himself with 13 points (five goals, eight assists) in 11 postseason games. When the series shifts to Florida for Game 3, it’s almost a given that Florida head coach Paul Maurice will deploy him against Trocheck’s line with Artemi Panarin and Alexis Lafreniere.

At the end of the day, whether these two are nose-to-nose in the face-off circle, or simply eating up valuable minutes against other lines, the difference in winning this series could come down to who played better.

Anthony Scultore is the founder of Forever Blueshirts and has been covering the New York Rangers and the NHL... More about Anthony Scultore

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