This version of Mika Zibanejad changes everything for Rangers

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Less than halfway through the first period of the Rangers’ 3-0 win in Newark Tuesday night, Mika Zibanejad took control of a loose puck through the neutral zone and turned on the jets to skate past two Devils defenders ahead of him on his right.

With five quick strides, No. 93 was suddenly all alone and closing in on Devils goalie Mackenzie Blackwood. He then swiftly got the puck to his forehand and sniped it glove-side to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead.

That score held up until 7:50 of the third period, when Artemi Panarin doubled it for the Rangers before Pavel Buchnevich’s empty-netter capped the game. Zibanejad’s goal proved to be the game-winner, just his fourth one of the season – all coming in the last two months.

What if the Rangers could turn back time and have this version of Zibanejad start the season? Would they still be on the outside looking in at the four playoff spots in the East, relying on the Bruins to lose? How much of a difference would it have made?

There’s no sense in harping on what could’ve been, but it wasn’t until two months into the 2020-21 season that the Rangers’ top-line center started to find his game. After a bout with COVID-19 during training camp, Zibanejad had just two goals – only one of which against a goaltender – and six points through the first 19 games.

Since then, Zibanejad has 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) in the last 23 games. Zibanejad is back to finishing the plays he creates, skating with conviction and making a noticeable difference in games.

“I said to you guys when we talked in the beginning, that I just kind of trust myself,” he said following Tuesday’s win. “Keep working and that’s what I’ve been doing. Obviously, when the puck goes in and you get a little more confident and you get the great support from your linemates as well. I don’t know, I just feel like the pucks are going in now.”

It is because Zibanejad catapulted to the top of the league in 2018-19 and 2019-20 that his slow start to this season was so glaring. He went from back-to-back 70-plus point seasons to clumps of five-to-six straight pointless games early this year.

The Rangers’ one-two punch that was Panarin and Zibanejad last season was unexpectedly just a lone jab from Panarin. The offense suffered, and is a major reason why the team got off to an alarming 4-7-3 start.

Speculation began to swarm around what the Rangers were going to do with the 27-year-old Swede, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent after next season. It was clear that the Rangers wouldn’t be able to compete without a consistent offense-generating center.

But now that Zibanejad is back to his vintage self, which played a big part in the Rangers’ 9-6-1 record in March, management will likely rely on his overall performance next season when making their decisions about his future with the team.

There’s one thing that’s certain: The Rangers are at a completely different level when Zibanejad is contributing. When he’s not, they struggle to compete with teams in the East. How could they stack up to the rest of the NHL?

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