In a relatively stoic sport, it’s rare to see reactions like the overwhelming exuberance after Mika Zibanejad put on an historic display with more than a touch of showmanship.
Zibanejad scored five goals, including a spectacular breakaway finish for the game-winner just 33 seconds into the three-on-three overtime, sealing a dramatic 6-5 Rangers victory over the Capitals at the Garden on Thursday night.
The Rangers star was left almost speechless after he became only the third player in club history to score five goals, joining Don Murdoch (1976) and Mark Pavelich (1983). So everyone else did all the hyperbolic talking for him.
Coach David Quinn walked into his postgame press conference and said, “Well that happened.” Even owner James Dolan came down to the locker room to pat Zibanejad on the head and say, “Great game.”
“The puck followed me today, I guess,” said Zibanejad, who now has a team-leading 38 goals on the season — and a ridiculous 14 goals in his past 10 games — despite missing 13 contests early on with a neck ailment. “I was at the right spot at the right time. I was a lot more happy that we won, and we were able to do it. It’s a night I’ll remember for a long time.”
It’s a night everyone is going to remember for a long time. The Rangers (36-27-4) got to within two points of the Islanders (who lost to the Senators) for the second wild-card spot and broke a three-game losing streak in the most dramatic way possible. They blew three separate one-goal leads to the Capitals (40-21-6), who have won just four of their past 12 games and had been beaten by the Flyers at home on Wednesday night.
After Zibanejad completed his hat trick just 12 seconds into the third period for a 4-3 lead, Alex Ovechkin scored his first of two at 9:22 to tie it. Then Zibanejad scored his fourth on a power play with 1:42 remaining in regulation to make it 5-4, but with Washington netminder Ilya Samsonov on the bench for an extra attacker, Ovechkin scored again with just 42.9 seconds left to tie it, 5-5.
In the overtime, Artemi Panarin (three assists) made an all-world breakout pass to spring Zibanejad, who, in a blur of stick-handling, roofed a backhand that set the Garden aflame with emotion.
But five goals, and the context of this surprising playoff push, did any of it sink in?
“No, I don’t understand,” Zibanejad said. “I feel like I’m speechless. I don’t know what else to say to you guys. I’m sorry.”
So let Ryan Strome take a stab. Strome has marveled at watching Zibanejad up close for almost two full seasons, including the first two goals Zibanejad scored that made it 2-1 at 5:29 of the second period after old pal Carl Hagelin opened the scoring at 7:05 of the first.
“I can sit here and talk about him all night,” Strome said. “What he means to this team can’t really be put into words.”
Goalie Alexandar Georgiev, who hasn’t been at his best the past two games, had 29 saves in his fifth start out of the past six games since presumptive No. 1 Igor Shesterkin suffered a broken rib in a Brooklyn auto accident.
“Oh my God, that was unbelievable,” Georgiev said. “What a night for him. He got the ‘W’ for us today. Special player.”
Even in the middle of the game there was drama. Ilya Kovalchuk scored his first goal since being traded from Montreal to Washington to tie it, 2-2, and Tony DeAngelo made it 3-2 with a backdoor finish at 14:42 of the second — a lead that lasted 15 seconds before a Garnet Hathaway tip beat Georgiev to make it 3-3 going into the third.
Then Zibanejad and Ovechkin went toe to toe in the third period, until the Rangers star was the one who came away with the spotlight.
“It’d be hard-pressed to match that,” Quinn said. “You just sit back and watch and enjoy it, because it was a special night in so many ways for him, and for us, to win a game of that magnitude, the ebbs and flows of it. Just a special night, not just for Mika, but for all of us to be part of it.”