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Hartnett: Zibanejad's Return Is Like A Deadline Upgrade For Rangers

By Sean Hartnett
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It didn't take long for Mika Zibanejad to establish himself as integral to the Rangers' winning formula.

The 23-year-old center recorded 15 points in his first 19 games, while providing intelligent play on both ends of the ice, before a broken fibula stopped his season in its tracks.

Since sustaining the injury on Nov. 20, Zibanejad has been itching to return to the lineup. Before being cleared to return to practice, he would hover near the bench at morning skates with his stick in hand and would pass the puck back-and-forth with teammates.

His 25-game absence felt like an excruciating wait for both the player and Rangers fans, who will be hoping his Tuesday night return against the visiting Dallas Stars will provide a change in fortune. The Rangers lost back-to-back weekend games and have played .500 hockey over their last 10 contests.

"It's hard to describe. It has been a long time coming," Zibanjead said following Monday's practice. "I've watched a lot of games, just counting down the days 'til this. Just one more sleep away from it. I'm just excited to be back and help the team however I can. I don't think I'll change anything and I won't, but it's a good time to come back and hopefully pick up where I left off."

Rangers C Mika Zibanejad
Rangers center Mika Zibanejad controls the puck during the game against the Blue Jackets on Nov. 18, 2016, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

The Rangers currently hold the first wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and trail the Pittsburgh Penguins by two points for third place in the Metropolitan Division. With teams hoping to create separation in easily the league's most competitive division, Zibanejad's return to health comes at a crucial time. The talented Swede was really hitting his stride prior to the injury, demonstrating tremendous instincts over 200 feet, making game-changing plays in the offensive zone and thriving on the power play.

"He came out of the blocks and he was going," head coach Alain Vigneault said of Zibanejad's hot start. "He was using the skill that we believed he had and the speed that we believed he had and the understanding of the game. Then, he dipped a little bit. I'm not quite sure why. Prior to his injury, he was playing real well.

"He was back on top of his game," AV continued. "There was a lot of chemistry there with (Chris) Kreider and Pavel (Buchnevich). They were playing well and hard at both ends of the rink, protecting the puck, getting the puck back. That player that I saw at the end, I'm hoping that I'm going to see (him) sooner than later. I understand it's going to take him a little bit of time and I hope that time is going to be short."

The plan is for Zibanejad to skate between Buchnevich and Rick Nash against the Stars on Tuesday. Buchnevich has recorded assists in each of his games since returning from injury, while Nash scored in Saturday's road defeat in Montreal.

"I'm going to feel things out here as far as lines and the chemistry that we can get between certain players," Vigneault said. "I'm going to start (Zibanejad) that way and see how it goes. There might be some in-game adjustments that you need to make -- or in-between game adjustments that you need to make. Right now, depending on the opposition, I've got Nasher or Pavel playing on the right side depending on what I'm seeing as far as the opposition there. We'll feel that line out as we move forward."

Fellow Swede Oscar Lindberg is just one of many teammates looking forward to Zibanejad's impact.

"It's easy to forget how young he is. He's a very smart center and it's going to be big for us -- coming back and helping the team win," Lindberg said. "He's been eager to come back. No one likes being out. It sucks being (on the sidelines) and seeing guys playing when you're injured. He's eager to get back and obviously help the team to win."

Perhaps after such a long layoff, it could take time for Zibanejad to find his A-game again, but he showed almost immediately how much of a difference-maker he can be for the Blueshirts.

His electrifying two-way game can put a real jolt into this team.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey

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