Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider step up for Rangers in sweep against Capitals

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

Since their best players were their best players, the New York Rangers powered their way to a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference First Round against the Washington Capitals. Among those Rangers stars were Mika Zibanejad and his BFF, Chris Kreider.

That those two forwards played prominent roles in the series sweep should give the Rangers a good feeling moving ahead in the postseason because it wasn’t always perfect for the pair during the regular season.

In fact, Zibanejad and Kreider came under some fire this season, mainly for lack of consistent production 5V5.

But the long-time linemates came through against the Capitals in a major way. Zibanejad led the Rangers with seven points in the series, and his six assists are tied for second among all NHL skaters in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kreider had three points, including a pair of even-strength goals.

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Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider answer questions in 1st-round sweep

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at New York Rangers
Credit: Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

After recording an NHL career-high 91 points (39 goals, 52 assists) last season, Zibanejad struggled to come close to that total in 2023-24, when he finished with 72 points (26 goals, 46 assists). He was fifth on the Rangers in scoring, and potted 14 of his goals on special teams (12 on the power play, two shorthanded), which caused much hand wringing outside of the Rangers dressing (though not inside).

Coach Peter Laviolette praised Zibanejad for his solid two-way play and deflected criticism for his drop off in production, especially 5-on-5. Having the star center’s back is paying off so far in the playoffs, where Zibanejad already outscored his production from the 2023 postseason.

In the Ranger’s first-round exit last season, Zibanejad managed four points in seven games against the New Jersey Devils.

Against the Capitals this postseason, Zibanejad has been a force, though only two of his points (assists) were recorded at even strength. Still, Zibanejad was a presence on most every shift. He was attacking on offense, and omnipresent in the defensive end. The reluctant shooter throughout the regular season led the Rangers with 12 shots on goal in the series.

Simply, Zibanejad didn’t look like the player who went 30 straight games without a 5-on-5 goal in the regular season, even though he didn’t have an even-strength goal in the series.

 “It’s my first playoff series against Washington,” Zibanejad said after the series clincher Sunday. “It’s a building you grow up watching ‘Ovi’ and Sidney Crosby play here. Just knowing how loud it is here, heard it from other guys that it’s a fun building to play in, it just makes it a whole lot sweeter.”

Zibanejad’s chemistry with Kreider has been evident since they started playing together years ago. They were solid in the first round, teaming with Jack Roslovic for strong play at even strength, where Kreider scored twice. They were at their best when they kept a deep cycle going, resulting in Kreider’s tip-in goal to tie Game 3 at 1-1 in the first period.

As part of New York’s top penalty-killing unit, Kreider and Zibanejad played a major role in making Alex Ovechkin look human. They were also instrumental in setting up K’Andre Miller’s gorgeous game-winning shorthanded goal in Game 2. The Rangers PK was 15- for 17 in this series with two shorthanded game-winning goals. Zibanejad and Kreider were a big reason for the success there.

So, these Rangers stars lived up to their top billing in the first round. Now the trick is for each to maintain that consistency against better opposition moving forward in this year’s playoffs.

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