By Sean Hartnett
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Mika Zibanejad showed flashes of brilliance during an injury-hit debut season with the Rangers. There was plenty of evidence of his high-ceiling potential, but it was very much a learning season for the 24-year-old center.
A broken left fibula sustained on Nov. 20 at Madison Square Garden caused Zibanejad to miss 25 consecutive games. When he returned to the lineup in mid-January, it took time for the Swede to rekindle his scoring touch after he began his Rangers career with a robust 15 points in 19 games. Zibanejad went 15 straight games without a goal between Jan. 19 and Feb. 23.
He admitted that he was "overthinking" and not playing on impulse during the goal drought. An overtime winner against the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 25 seemed to spark his play. Zibanejad finished the final two months of the regular season with 13 points in 19 games. He closed out the regular season with 37 points in 56 games, an average of 0.66 points per night a slight bump up from his 0.63 average during his final season in Ottawa.
Once the playoffs rolled around, Zibanejad struggled early in the first round against the Montreal Canadiens. Game 4, however, was a turning point. Although he finished without a point, Zibanejad played with zealous energy and seemed to elevate his game after being reunited with Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich. The trio had shown great promise together earlier in the season.
Kreider then connected with Zibanejad on the Game 5 overtime-winning goal.
"For me, it has been just allowing myself to be as good as I can, allowing myself to just play," Zibanejad said. "I think that if I try and be careful and not make mistakes, it costs me more than anything in the first couple of games. After that, I just tried to play my game. Mistakes are going to happen.
"If you look at the games I don't play well, I'm not skating enough," he continued. "I'm kind of waiting for something to happen, instead of making something happen. I know I have the ability to do that. It's just frustrating for myself to get trapped in a situation where I put myself in a bad situation where I'm afraid of making mistakes. I think it's hard to grasp on why and what not. For me, it's just going out and playing. Many times, I find a way out of it by just playing and just going out there and having fun. Almost playing with a little bit with an edge, but also with a little bit more."
Zibanejad went on to finish the playoffs as the Rangers' leader with nine points in 12 games, though it should be noted that his shooting percentage fell to 5.9 after he found twine 11.8 percent of the time during the regular season.
"It felt like it was a step in the right direction," Zibanejad said of his first season with the Rangers. "Finding ways to stick to my game and when you're getting into a funk, you try to get out of it somehow. I'm really looking forward to next year. You just can't wait to get started again."
Zibanejad is a restricted free agent this summer and has arbitration rights. He pulled in an average-annual value of $2.625 million over a two-year term. He'll be in for a decent raise.
The enduring image of Zibanejad that sticks out in my mind was his desperation to return to the lineup. Unable to hit the practice ice, he would pass pucks to teammates from the opened gate of the bench while dressed in street clothes.
"There's still a lot of room for improvement," Zibanejad said. "But I think it's a tough year to evaluate with the injury and being gone for that long -- and being able to build the consistency. I know that's a thing that's been talked about before. It's hard to get some type of evaluation from it, since it was an inconsistent season with the games. I missed 25 straight games, so it's harder that way, I think. But I'm not using that as an excuse. For me it's hard to evaluate how I should see this season. I'll take the good and try to do it better, and the things I want to work on and really put the effort in this summer."
That kind of desire should be heartening for Rangers fans. Zibanejad might be a work in progress, but he's working hard to realize his full potential. If he does, the Rangers will have themselves a quality two-way center who might one day blossom into a true No. 1 center. He's got the size, the speed, the playmaking skill, a heavy shot and the defensive awareness to become an elite player at his position. Next season, the Rangers will need him to make a big leap.
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