Mika Zibanejad understood the assignment in spades.
With Artemi Panarin sidelined in COVID protocol just hours before taking the ice on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, Zibanejad netted a hat trick in the New York Rangers’ 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While Zibanejad starred, netminder Igor Shesterkin outperformed Lightning Vezina Trophy winner, Andrei Vasilevskiy, with a superb performance in which he stopped all 38 shots that came his way.
The dominating result capped off a home-and-home sweep of the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. It’s the first time the Blueshirts have won consecutive games since winning seven straight from Nov. 21-Dec. 7.
Zibanejad picked up his three goals in the first two periods on Sunday, including two in the Rangers’ three-goal first period that firmly put them in the driver’s seat.
It could have been even more when Barclay Goodrow — who scored two in Friday’s win down in Tampa Bay — came within a centimeter of scoring a third time in four periods against his former team. But his wrister from the left dot over Vasilevskiy’s shoulder and off the right post just one minute into the game.
The Rangers and Zibanejad would get on the board 7:44 into the game on the power play when he beat Vasilevskiy with a wrister from the same left circle that normally would be Panarin’s spot on the man advantage.
He got his second on a 4-on-3 with 7:23 to go in the first when an attempted pass bounced off the stick of former Ranger Ryan McDonagh and behind Vasilevskiy to double the Rangers’ lead.
Just 2:16 later, Ryan Strome put the Rangers up three when his wrister from between the dots fizzed over the glove of the All-Star netminder.
Had it not been for Shesterkin, though, the scoreline could have looked much different despite the offense’s quick start. The Russian netminder was plenty busy in that first period as he faced 18 shots in the opening 20 minutes.
Tampa dominated the first half of the second period, but Shesterkin stayed unbeatable — allowing the Rangers to put the Lightning out of sight.
Zibanejad picked up his hat trick with 3:07 to go after forcing a turnover in the Tampa zone. After intercepting a pass that was deflected to Chris Kreider, Zibanejad drove to the net and tipped home the centering pass to put the Rangers up four.
The helper was Kreider’s third of the afternoon as the main benefactor of Zibanejad’s monster afternoon.
The only question that remained was whether or not the Rangers could see things out — an Achilles heel of theirs throughout this season — while securing the shutout for Shesterkin.
They did just that as Shesterkin turned away all nine Tampa Bay shots in the final frame to cap off the victory.
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