“I maybe have a hard time enjoying it as much,” Zibanejad said after a decently long pause. He did try to convince reporters in Pittsburgh that the playoffs are fun, but perhaps he and his linemates were having less of it through five games because they’d been so focused on trying (and failing) to stop Sidney Crosby’s line that the strain was overtaking the fun.
“We haven’t created offense maybe enough. Maybe a little too worried about the line we’re playing against,” he said. “Maybe the focus has been too much on that. Trying to work through it, it’s not easy.”
Game 6 was the dam breaking for Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, who had combined for two goals — both from Kreider in the opening two games of the series — coming into Friday’s latest win-or-go-home game. Zibanejad scored the first two, and Kreider scored the next two, including the oopsy-daisy winner with 88 seconds left in regulation from about 50 feet out.
Gerard Gallant was probably able to make an adjustment for Game 6 because Crosby was absent. Ryan Strome’s line had matched up mostly against Evgeni Malkin in the prior games, so Gallant gave Strome the assignment of tending to Pittsburgh’s new No. 1 line of Malkin between Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. That line even without Crosby did some damage in Game 6, but Zibanejad was freed to try to create more.
He did, thanks in large part to the Rangers power play coming to life with two goals. Zibanejad and Kreider had 12 shots on goal between them in a 5-3 Game 6 victory after combining for 29 in the first five games.
Now, this wasn’t a full big-boy game for the Rangers stars. Artemi Panarin had a low-impact night. Igor Shesterkin gets full marks for another strong third period like he had in Game 5, but he still looks nothing like his Hart Trophy-finalist self, giving up at least three goals for the fifth time in the series. That pass to set up the Rangers’ third goal was pretty top-shelf, though.
It was a strange game in a series chock-full of them. Another 2-0 hole, another stretch with the Rangers unable to contain Pittsburgh’s forwards below the hashmarks. K’Andre Miller had a tough game, but not nearly as tough as that of public enemy No. 1, Jacob Trouba, who went from being on the ice for all five Rangers goals in Game 5 to being on for all three Penguins goals in Game 6. The Rangers looked nervous at the start and nervous in the third in a tie game, trying not to be the first to make a mistake.
But there was another beautiful onslaught in the second, the third such stretch the Rangers have had in the series. Their ability to not just rally but grab a game by the horns has been the best thing we’ve learned about them. That they did it with a quick-strike power-play goal was especially sweet since they came into Game 6 with the fewest power plays (12) of any playoff team.
And of course it was Zibanejad. He won the power-play starting faceoff — the Rangers were 4-for-19 on offensive-zone draws in Game 6 — and settled into position for a rocket past Louis Domingue just five seconds in. There were no smiles from Zibanejad like we saw from the younger players in Game 5, nor were they smiling when he cranked a one-timer through Domingue’s legs to tie it 76 seconds later.
Zibanejad was hoping to use this first “real” playoff appearance since his first season in New York to cement his place in the NHL as one of the best No. 1 centers in the league. Instead he’d been chasing Crosby’s dust, losing a lot of faceoffs and defending so much that there wasn’t enough time for offense. When Zibanejad fumbled away a good-looking chance in the opening minutes of Game 6, the word “fun” was likely nowhere near his mind.
But he came to play and broke through. He dragged Kreider with him, too. The Rangers’ 52-goal scorer had looked even less like himself than Zibanejad through the previous three games, not finding space or pucks in front of the opposing net nor doing much in the defensive zone while that line was trying to at least neutralize the Penguins’ top line.
Kreider’s shot will go down as his eighth career playoff game-winning goal, the most in franchise history. He’s now tied for third in Rangers history with 28 playoff goals. He’s a Game 7 win away from his third time rallying from 3-1 down in a series.
Adam Fox had four assists in Game 6 and played perhaps his best game of this wacky series; it was no coincidence that it came with Ryan Lindgren alongside him taking a regular turn. Lindgren might end up being the MVP for the Rangers if they pull off the win on Sunday. His return to action to play through whatever lower-body injury has him looking like he needs a walker after every period has been incredibly important for the Rangers and especially for No. 23.
Tyler Motte, who has been sidelined for the past six weeks, had an energetic return to the lineup Friday and rounded out the forward group well. He was on with Zibanejad and Kreider for the winner. The Kid Line struggled, as did the Justin Braun–Braden Schneider third pair. It was a decidedly mixed bag of data and the eye test in Game 6 — hard to evaluate cleanly or assume anything can carry over to Game 7.
But enough of the big boys came to play. The Penguins were difficult again, even without Crosby, and it took a colossal gaffe from Domingue to clinch a victory.
“We weren’t skating, we weren’t paying attention to the game, we weren’t working hard enough,” Gallant said of the opening period. “Then everything changed. (Zibanejad) feels a lot better. He puts a lot of pressure on himself. He carried us all year long. He felt loose tonight.”
One more night of whatever it takes and the Rangers can get through to the second round. Maybe Zibanejad will crack a smile then.
(Photo of Mika Zibenejad, left, Chris Kreider and K’Andre Miller: Kirk Irwin / Getty Images)