Much has been made of the essence of Rangers’ youthful players and the experience they gained during qualifying, but the 29-year-old club’s top spot has learned a thing or two about himself as well.
Mika Zibanijad led the Blueshirts with 24 points in 20 games after the season and is still going through his own learning curve, especially in the first round against the Penguins. Linked to a match with Pittsburgh’s GM Sidney Crosby, Jake Goentzel and Brian Rust, Zibanijad allowed his opponents to dictate his play during the first few matches, limiting his offensive production and overall impact on the ice.
That first streak took a sharp turn when Jacob Troba’s booming strike knocked Crosby out of half game 5 and all game 6, but it also allowed Zibangad to walk away from the match and get back to playing his game. He went from four points during his first five games to 20 (10 goals, 10 assists) over 15 competitions, which included six multi-point displays amid more confrontations against some of the NHL’s top lines.
“I think it kind of crossed my mind,” Zipanjad told The Post on Sunday afternoon in Tarrytown. “I worried about it a lot. I think I made it a bigger deal than I should have gotten in the first two games. You obviously saw what happened and what was left of it. The most important thing for us as a team was to win this series – and we did. I know that all The men were helpful, especially the man sitting next to me [Chris Kreider]Obviously, in that match, too.
“It’s helpful. I think it’s more helpful to go into that, to understand being able to just trust myself that I can play and try to play my game than trying to tweak my game to someone else. Sidney Crosby though, I grew up watching it and everything, so I know What he did. I know how good he is and what not, but I think maybe it’s a bigger deal than it should have been. I think starting from me.
“Be able to turn around and use that as a learning experience. I think that’s every day in the NHL, no matter your age. You get more experience, and you learn to deal with these situations as they come.”
Recognizing the need for a balance between being respectable and remaining competitive, Zibanjad said it is important not to lose sight of what he is capable of and what his opponents should be afraid of. As a player who brings a one-time killer meter to the top of the Rangers’ power play unit, puck dispenses abilities while dashing and so much more, other teams should have no choice but to be aware.
There is no doubt that Zibanejad is one of the most dynamic and effective playing leadership positions in the NHL, but maintaining and playing that mindset throughout the 82-game schedule and into the playoffs is the other half of the battle.
“Mika can show so much respect to people sometimes that he forgets how great he is,” said coach Gerard Gallant. “I think that was the biggest step for him last year, it was to see how good and important he is to our team.”
Kreider added of his longest-lived teammate: “He’s one of the best players in the league, believe it or not. I tell him all the time, it doesn’t necessarily matter how you feel. You can’t necessarily have that self-belief and that confidence, but we all have That trust in you.”
For Kreider, who probably knows No. 93 better than most, the whole idea that Zibanegad needs to play with more bravado speaks volumes about his identity as a person. There is nothing conceited about the way Zibanegad carries himself. He is kind-hearted and humble. It’s easy for this type of personality to get caught up in competition.
However, Zipanegad’s experience during qualifying opened his eyes to what it would have been like to play as the center back that he is.
“If I had that pretentiousness,” he said, “I don’t know if I would be the person I am today.” “It’s kind of hard to change characters, sure. That’s not who I am and that’s not who I am right now. I don’t like to see it that way. I obviously want to compete with them. But if I can’t compete against myself to try to improve and beat my own records or My stuff I’m trying to develop, how am I going to be able to compete with this kind of player? That’s not for me to say, it’s not for me to compare and compare myself to someone else. If I try to do that, I think that’s moving away from what I’m supposed to do. I think it’s Also a dissatisfaction mindset.
“I think I’ve learned a lot about myself as a person and as a player and how I deal with things and how I can handle things in the future.”