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Mika Zibanejad, Rangers hope to light up Lightning again

Dec 9, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; New York Rangers center Mika Zibanejad (93) before the game against the Colorado Avalanche at Ball Arena. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

In the second matchup of the season between last season’s Eastern Conference finalists, the New York Rangers will look for another victory over the host Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday.

The teams opened the campaign going head to head on Oct. 11 in New York, where the Rangers prevailed 3-1 to get a bit of satisfaction after falling in six games to the Lightning last spring.

If form holds true, center Mika Zibanejad should be right in the middle of any New York productivity.

In a 29-goal output during the 2021-22 regular season, Zibanejad torched the Lightning for four goals and a shootout winner.

He netted the lone goal in a shootout to give New York a 4-3 win on New Year’s Eve in Tampa, then he notched a hat trick two days later in a 4-0 victory over the Lightning in New York. He beat Tampa Bay for a third time when he scored the tiebreaking goal in the last minute for a 2-1 win in Tampa on March 19.

At home against the Lightning in the 2022-23 season opener, Zibanejad scored twice — netting a game-winning marker — and Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin made 25 saves.

The Rangers were held in check Tuesday by the Washington Capitals and goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who stopped 32 shots in a 4-0 triumph. It was the second time New York was blanked this season.

Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said he felt he didn’t need to analyze portions of the game or blame the loss on the team’s preceding four days off.

“Let’s face it, one team showed up ready to win and wanted to win a hockey game, and the other team didn’t,” Gallant said. “They had the same (time off). We just didn’t play well.

“We looked sloppy every way on the power play, missing shots, missing the net a lot. We just had a bad game. (Kuemper) was outstanding, played a great game and did a good job, but a lot of (our) guys didn’t show up to play hard tonight.”

Since the end of a seven-game winning streak, New York has dropped two of its past three.

The Lightning broke a two-game losing streak on Wednesday night by cruising past the visiting Montreal Canadiens 4-1.

Tampa Bay got two goals from Brayden Point, giving him a team-best 19, and a strong defensive effort anchored by goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, who beat Montreal for the 11th straight time in the regular season.

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who notched two assists, said a key to improving to 13-4-1 on home ice was winning on special teams.

Point scored on Tampa Bay’s lone power play, while the penalty-kill unit stopped all five Montreal man advantages.

“It’s something we’ve talked about, and we want the penalty kill to be the difference-maker in games,” Hedman said on the Bally Sports Sun broadcast. “Arguably, that’s where games are won and lost, so we try to stay out of the box as much as we can. … We’ve done a good job killing them.”

Across the past 11 games, Tampa Bay has killed off 29 of its opponents’ 31 power plays.

Lightning right winger Nikita Kucherov took over the NHL lead in assists on Monday when he collected his 37th on Point’s power-play goal in the first period. He had been tied with both members of the Edmonton Oilers’ high-scoring duo, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

–Field Level Media