Mika Zibanejad scare serves as stark reminder for Rangers in Stanley Cup pursuit

This was a reminder of just how fragile the pursuit of the Stanley Cup can become. This was a reminder that it is impossible to bubble wrap the Rangers until the playoffs begin. This was a reminder that calamity is just around every corner, whether via slap shot that becomes friendly fire or a mid-ice collision creating collateral damage.

The Rangers seem to have avoided catastrophe on the Island on Tuesday night with Mika Zibanejad apparently having escaped a concussion after going splat! face first down on the ice, where he remained in a prone position for a scary minute after a mid-ice collision with Adam Pelech at 8:51 of the third period that was either accidental or disguised to look that way.

Head coach Peter Laviolette, enraged and perhaps shaken when he convened his postgame press briefing, left no doubt that he believed Pelech’s hit on Zibanejad as No. 93 steamed across the ice to the bench for a change was intentional. That would have been a polite term for it.

“He came back at the end — from that vicious hit, yeah,” Laviolette said of Zibanejad, who watched the final shift of this 4-2 defeat from the bench. “He came back from that vicious shoulder [and/or] elbow to the head.

“Watch it. Vicious — from behind.”

Mika Zibanejad of the New York Rangers is tended to by the trainer during the third period against the New York Islanders at UBS Arena on Tuesday. NHLI via Getty Images

When asked if he thought that Pelech had intentionally clocked Zibanejad in the head as the defenseman stood at center ice looking away from the play, the Blueshirts coach said, “I do.”

Listen, the consequences of an injury to a Ranger at this point of the game are obvious and more significant than a point or two in the standings. In dropping this one, the Blueshirts’ division lead over Carolina was cut to three points with the ’Canes’ victory in Boston, but the Rangers still maintained their three-point conference lead over the Bruins.

So this was not a particularly damaging night in the standings for a Blueshirts team that is 24-6-1 since the game before the All-Star break. But it could have broken them. Not only would the consequences of a serious injury to Zibanejad be massive, with 10 seconds to go, Noah Dobson made no pretense of anything other than driving Vincent Trocheck through the back wall from behind when the Blueshirts were pressing for the equalizer having pulled Igor Shesterkin. That was ugly.

Referee Kelly Sutherland and sidekick Peter MacDougall abdicated. They called nothing as the Islanders swept the other way for an empty-netter that solidified their position in the playoffs. This was another reason Laviolette was irate.

“Vicious,” he said. “From behind. Both.”

And you know what? Tragedy flashed in front of every generational Rangers fan when Zibanejad’s first period slap shot caught Chris Kreider in the ankle at 5:15, sending the winger to the room for a handful of shifts. On a night that Zibanejad was apparently not concussed, he was not 1972 Dale Rolfe to Jean Ratelle, either.

The Rangers were caught with their pants down by a desperate opponent for the first 20 minutes, falling behind 3-0 before constructing their game and dominating the final two periods. They competed hard and went to the dirty areas even if their talent game was not at its peak.

The other side played hard, too, as witnessed by Matt Barzal throwing himself in front of Artemi Panarin early in the third period in protecting a one-goal lead.

Mika Zibanejad of the Rangers is tended to by the trainer during the third period against the New York Islanders at UBS Arena NHLI via Getty Images

Zibanejad followed one of his most assertive games on Sunday against Montreal with a spirited first period, mixing it up with Brock Nelson, fighting for position, while also chipping in on the power play that struck twice in the second period. If the power play represents the club’s singular offensive weapon, 6-for-12 over the last four contests augurs well for this group that features the club’s most productive players.

Laviolette sat Matt Rempe and constructed a checking line with Barclay Goodrow, Jonny Brodzinski and Jimmy Vesey to match against the Barzal-Bo Horvat-Casey Cizikas unit. The matchup line didn’t match up in this one. The composition of the fourth line is something that Laviolette will have to ponder leading into the postseason.

So much of this season has been about the Rangers’ culture of unity. It’s a corny all-for-one, one-for-all ethos that has been preached from Day One by Laviolette and embraced by the playing personnel.

Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) is helped off the ice after a collision against the Islanders. Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

“It was hard out there tonight, having to get through of all of that,” the coach said. “But our guys kept fighting and battling to the end.”

That was pride talking on a night the Rangers avoided calamity.


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