Will the Rangers projected lines unite Panarin and Zibanejad on the top line?

Much of the focus on Rangers stars has been on Artemi Panarin and his two assists in four games thus far, but Mika Zibanejad needs to get going as well. Zibanejad has the same two assists in four games, but is flying under the radar since Panarin is Panarin. Yet there is a case to be made that Zibanejad’s struggles are actually worse than Panarin’s, at least through four games.

At even strength, per Natural Stat Trick, Zibanejad has just five shot attempts. One was blocked, and two missed the net, giving him just two shots on goal in four games at 5v5. As the team’s 1C, that is simply inexcusable. Slumps occur, but as the Rangers get deeper into the series, it becomes detrimental to the Rangers success. Most of the Rangers stars are doing their jobs, but unfortunately Zibanejad and Panarin haven’t kept pace.

On the powerplay Zibanejad has 12 shot attempts, which leads the team, but only five shots on goal and no powerplay goals. One was blocked, so that means half his shot attempts have missed the net entirely. The only true “good” chance Zibanejad had with the man advantage was that first attempt from the bumper in Game 3 that Akira Schmid got with his blocker.

All told, Zibanejad has just 8 shots on goal on 18 shot attempts. It’s a problem for the Rangers, and Zibanejad needs to get going. The question, of course, is how?

Powerplay usage

In case you haven’t noticed, Zibanejad has not been in his office on the powerplay. Even in Games 1 and 2, when the Devils were focused solely on blocking that pass, it was to Panarin, not Zibanejad. Zibanejad found his new home at the bumper spot. He’s still getting the shot attempts, and one might argue it’s from a better spot on the ice, but he’s just missing too often.

Zibanejad in the bumper gives the New York Rangers a much needed righty in the high slot to offer another look. While Chris Kreider burned the Devils for four goals in two games in front, Panarin and Zibanejad were simply not getting anything good. When the Devils started cheating a bit to Kreider, the looks opened for both, but neither have capitalized.

Perhaps this is a hot take, but unless the Rangers change the powerplay personnel –which would be a mistake– then Zibanejad’s spot in the bumper isn’t what’s hurting him or the Rangers. He’s the only player on that unit who excels in the bumper spot for quick one timers while also reading plays and drawing defenders away from passing lanes.

But this only matters if he’s scoring and getting shots on net. For the Rangers to have continued powerplay success and stay relevant in the series, Zibanejad needs to get going on the powerplay. The quick tic-tac-toe one timer is good, but given what we’ve seen from Schmid, perhaps cheating in a bit for rebounds is a better plan?

Even strength matchups

For the most part, Zibanejad has been matched up against Nico Hischier at even strength. It hasn’t gone well, to say the least, and it reminds us of how Anthony Cirelli shut down Zibanejad completely against Tampa. Hischier is doing the same. There is only a net difference of 5 shot attempts, but Zibanejad’s xG share is an abysmal 41% at 5v5, and he has just 7 high danger chances when on the ice.

Simply put: Zibanejad and his linemates aren’t generating quality chances at even strength.

These numbers aren’t an exact science, since Zibanejad hasn’t spent 100% of his even strength time against Hischier. But it’s a high enough percentage that we get the general story. It’s a bad matchup, and since Zibanejad needs to get going, this matchup is not a favorable one.

Gerard Gallant did try to get him away from Hischier and onto Jack Hughes, something that may work in his favor since Hughes isn’t as good defensively, it was only for a little bit in Game 4. Not the best barometer to use since the entire team stunk.

Zibanejad needs to get going – is it simply just hitting the net?

Perhaps the biggest issue with the Rangers is missing the net. Mika Zibanejad needs to get going, we all know this. But perhaps the simplest answer doesn’t necessarily involve wholesale changes on the powerplay or at even strength. The simplest answer is that they –Zibanejad, Panarin, and the Rangers as a whole– just need to hit the net more.

We’ve seen that Schmid leaves a ton of rebounds. Vincent Trocheck’s tying goal in Game 4 was off a rebound. Hit the net, make Schmid make a save, and then crash the net. The only change required is to put shots on Schmid low and hard, forcing him to use his pads and kick out rebounds. Tall goalies that move well are tough to beat, but this is a clear weakness that has been noticeable in two games.

Start small, and start hitting the net with shots. That may eliminate most other scenarios and fixes that involve blowing up the lines that worked in Games 1 and 2. If hitting –and crashing– the net isn’t working, then it’s time to try to play the matchup game and give even more looks on the powerplay.

Getting Zibanejad and Panarin going is certainly a need, but if the Rangers play like they did in Game 4, it’ll be over in six, and in an embarrassing manner.

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