It was only fitting that Mika Zibanejad spearheaded the Rangers’ final win of the season, a 5-4 victory over the Bruins on Saturday, in which the top-line center had two goals including the game winner.
Because even though the matchup in Boston had absolutely no meaning after the Blueshirts were eliminated from playoff contention earlier in the week, Zibanejad had a strong finish to his rocky 2020-21 campaign and allowed his team to do the same.
After recording three points (one goal, two assists) through the first 15 games of the shortened season, Zibanejad managed to find his game, with 23 goals and 24 assists over the final 41 contests, to finish with 50 points.
Zibanejad’s winner at 18:07 of the third period Saturday counted as his 200th career goal.
“We all knew what was going to happen,” head coach David Quinn said of Zibanejad’s slow start. “A lot was made of what went on early in the season, and I think people kind of lost sight of the fact that it was a difficult summer for a lot of people to train. He got COVID right before the season started. Anybody that’s had COVID knows there are lingering effects. Who knows how it affected him? It affects everybody differently.
“But you’re talking about an elite hockey player that means an awful lot to this organization. It was no fluke what he’s done the last two years before this year. And he finished with 50 points after the start he had; I think that really speaks to the type of player he is. We’re fortunate to have him.”
Asked about how his struggles through the first few games culminated in a 50-point season and a milestone of his NHL career, Zibanejad deflected and wanted to keep the focus on the victory.
“Right now, just after this game, I’m happy we won and, obviously, happy I got to 200,” he said.
With forward Justin Richards in the lineup Saturday, the Rangers had seven different players make their NHL debuts this season.
Additionally, 11 of the Rangers’ players in Saturday’s win were 23 or younger, nine of which were rookies.
Kaapo Kakko was scratched for precautionary reasons after getting hit into the boards in the third period Thursday against the Bruins. Richards replaced him in the lineup, playing on the third line. Brendan Smith was ruled out with a lower-body injury. Tarmo Reunanen took his place.
After serving his one-game suspension in Thursday’s shutout loss due to high-sticking Capitals forward Anthony Mantha in the face, Pavel Buchnevich was back in the lineup Saturday. He replaced Jonny Brodzinski.
Zibanejad, Ryan Strome and Alexis Lafreniere finished the season as the only Rangers to have played in every game.