Rangers’ Zibanejad trying to up game to next level vs. former team

Henrik Lundqvist stopped 26 shots and four different goal scorers for New York helped the Rangers win 4-1 against the Senators and cutting Ottawa’s series lead in half at 2-1.

NEW YORK – It was a trade that never made complete sense on the surface.

By adding veteran centre Derick Brassard last summer, the Ottawa Senators sent a player five years his junior and a second-round pick to the New York Rangers.

When you strip away all the salary cap implications and past histories and hometown connections, it was ultimately a trade that said a lot about Mika Zibanejad. He was the young, right-shooting centreman – a former sixth-overall pick, the organization’s highest selection in 15 years – that the Senators were willing to part with.

The team was making a gamble. They were essentially betting against him developing into a player they’d come to regret dealing away in his prime.

While we still don’t have any definitive answer on that front, it is an intriguing transaction to revisit with the Rangers now facing the Senators in a second-round series. Zibanejad was a standout in a 4-1 victory here in Game 3, but has had an up-and-down post-season by his own admission so far.

And, 10 months on from the trade being completed, you get the sense the Rangers are still trying to figure out what exactly they have in the soft-spoken Swede.

"You know, we’re going to be sitting here in a couple years probably saying ‘he was a real good player’ or we’re going to say ‘he never quite figured it out,"’ coach Alain Vigneault said after Wednesday’s practice at Madison Square Garden. "That’s part of him working at his game, working at his mental game, working with our sports psychologist and trying to put it all together."

The easiest thing to overlook when we judge any athlete is what happens between the ears. Were you to simply tune into Tuesday’s game and see Zibanejad blow past Senators defenceman Ben Harpur before sliding the puck to linemate Mats Zuccarello for a goal while falling to his knees, you’d conclude that everything is going just fine.

But it has been a grind, and at times, a struggle.

Zibanejad broke the fibula in his left leg in November and missed nearly two months. As recently as last round against the Montreal Canadiens, he felt unsure about what he was doing on the ice – not forcing the issue enough in games and seeing his line get hemmed in their own zone as a result.

"I’ve been trying to say it to myself that … mistakes are going to happen," said Zibanejad. "I feel like I’d rather do mistakes being aggressive and really trying. I’m trying to make the plays I know I need to do and I have to do, and I think making mistakes in my game is better than to make mistakes when I’m passive.

"I think that’s what kind of frustrated me a little bit in the first three games of the Montreal series – that I was too passive, I was too, I don’t know, nervous, whatever you want to call it. It just wasn’t good enough."

New York has outscored its opponents 6-3 at even strength with him on the ice during the playoffs, but it has been a rollercoaster to get there. Zibanejad had just 34 per cent possession in Game 1 against Ottawa before tilting the ice the next two games – with New York out-attempting the Senators 33-23 while he was playing.

The 24-year-old felt that Tuesday’s game might even have been his best performance since returning from the broken leg on Jan. 17.

"I think the battle level was good," he said. "Skating a lot more. I think that’s something I’m growing through the playoffs – not thinking too much, just playing on my instinct. That’s been something I’ve been trying to find.

"It’s so easy for me to say that and it’s a lot harder to do, obviously."

He has steered clear of discussing the emotions that accompanied the July 2016 trade that sent him to Manhattan. He didn’t see it coming. Zibanejad was in the process of building a house in the Ottawa area at that time.

The Senators were extremely high on Brassard, who grew up across the bridge in Gatineau, came with a favourable contract and had shown himself to be a reliable producer in high-pressure situations. He also played for head coach Guy Boucher in the QMJHL and was originally drafted by the team’s chief professional scout, Jim Clark, when Clark worked for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Still, on some level, they also had their doubts about Zibanejad.

The Sens had given him NHL games as an 18-year-old and once hoped he’d develop into a No. 1 centre. It hasn’t happened. A scout that works for another team describes Zibanejad as a "happy-go-lucky kid that hasn’t found his internal drive train."

Here he is now trying to take his game to the next level while facing his former team.

"That’s something I’m working on," said Zibanejad. "It’s not going to happen over night, but it’s something I’m trying to work on every day. That’s all I can say."

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