Rangers Recall: Mika Zibanejad’s hot streak keeps team atop the East before break

The New York Rangers will enter the holiday break atop the Eastern Conference standings after a resilient 4-3 OT win over the Buffalo Sabres on Saturday night.

With a record of 23-8-1 for 47 points, they are 3 points ahead of the Boston Bruins in the East, and they’re 6 points up on the surging New York Islanders. Overall, the Vancouver Canucks have 2 more points than the Blueshirts, but they’ve played 3 more games to get there.

New York’s points percentage of .734 is the best in the NHL and their 23 wins is tied with for first with Vancouver. It’s been an amazing start for the tenure of new head coach Peter Laviolette.

“They are receptive (to coaching),” Laviolette said. “We’re self aware on what we need to do better and why something isn’t successful. And I do think there has to be a receptive to audience to that.”

Let’s look at some key takeaways in the “Receptive Rangers” climb to the top after beating the Sabres.

Related: Rangers should target Steven Stamkos at deadline

Rangers Recall: Mika Zibanejad leading team to NHL summit

NHL: New York Rangers at Toronto Maple Leafs
Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Mika Zibanejad

After a slow start to the season with just 2 goals and 10 points through 16 games, Mika Zibanejad was done warming up. Over his last 16 games, the Blueshirts top center has potted 11 goals and 12 assists for 23 points.

The 30 year-old pivot is also on a 7-game point streak, recording 13 points (7 goals, 6 assists) during this recent hot stretch. Although his goal scoring is at the forefront, Zibanejad has made some incredible no-look passes to set up line mates Blake Wheeler and Chris Kreider that have left them practically speechless.

“He pumped faked every person in the building and used me as a backboard,” Kreider said after slamming home the OT winner against Buffalo. “I mean the poise– I can’t comment on a play like that, it’s just silly.”

Zibanejad is now a point-a-game player with 33 points in 32 matches. Per NYR PR, Mika’s 22 points ranks fourth in the NHL since November 22.

Hot Wheels

Don’t look now, but 37 year-old veteran winger Blake Wheeler is looking like a fit in the top-six. While it took him awhile to really understand his role on the right side of center Mika Zibanejad and left wing Chris Kreider, he’s now in sync with how they play.

In his last 7 games, he’s notched 7 points (3 goals, 4 assists) with a +4 rating. More importantly, Wheeler is using the size and speed he’s been known for to keep up with his Rangers compatriots.

“I think our line is a not more connected than we were a bit earlier,” Wheeler explained. “Confidence is there, and it’s fun to contribute to the way this team is going. It’s been a lot of new stuff thrown my way (since leaving Winnipeg). I’m just trying to make a contribution.”

After an abysmal start where Wheeler did not register a point in his first 10 games on Broadway, he’s picked up 13 points over the next 22.

Bounce Back Blueshirts

It’s truly amazing how the Rangers bounce back after a loss this season. After 32 games, they’ve lost consecutive matches only once (12/5 vs OTT and 12/9 vs WSH). Even after blowing a 1-0 lead in the third period on Friday against the Edmonton Oilers to lose, they willed themselves to a 4-3 OT win over Buffalo the next night when they clearly didn’t have their best stuff.

“We’re a little more comfortable where we are as a group,” captain Jacob Trouba stated. “There really isn’t the big swings we’ve had in the past. We know how we play the game, and we have the players to put the puck in the net, great goalies, and good defensemen. It’s confidence in the way we play. Sometimes we’ll lose games, but we’re gonna win with the group we have in here.”

That was on full display last night with Igor Shesterkin making three incredible clutch stops in the extra session before Mika made the remarkable play to set up Kreider for the winner.

When you combine everything that Trouba said along with what Laviolette mentioned earlier, it’s not hard to see why this Rangers team may have the best chance to end their current Cup drought.

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