Mika Zibanejad on Thursday night became the third Ranger ever to score five goals in a game, definitively pulling his team into the swirl of a playoff race.
“I feel like I’m speechless right now,” an ebullient Zibanejad said after he scored the overtime winner in a 6-5 victory against the Washington Capitals at Madison Square Garden. “The puck followed me today. I was in the right spot at the right time. I’m just happy we won.”
Zibanejad, who leads the team with 38 goals, joined Don Murdoch (Oct. 12, 1976) and Mark Pavelich (Feb. 23, 1983) on the list of Rangers to score five in a game. He also became the 45th player in N.H.L. history to score five goals in a game; it has happened a total of 61 times. The league record for goals in a game is seven, scored by Joe Malone of the Quebec Bulldogs on Jan. 31, 1920.
Zibanejad scored a goal in the first period and another in the second, then notched a hat trick by scoring 12 seconds into the third period to give the Rangers a 4-3 lead, which the Capitals erased about nine minutes later. With only a minute 42 seconds left in regulation, Zibanejad scored for a 5-4 lead, but Alex Ovechkin scored with 43 seconds to go and the Capitals goalie pulled for an extra skater.
Thirty-three seconds into overtime, Zibanejad delivered the winner, sending the Garden into a frenzy rarely seen in the regular season.
Two years ago, ahead of the 2018 trade deadline, Rangers team executives detailed plans to reshape the roster into a future Stanley Cup contender in a statement to fans on social media.
With 15 games left in this regular season after Thursday’s win, the Rangers’ rebuild appears well ahead of pace. Among the youngest teams in the league, they entered March within striking distance of a playoff berth.
A second-half surge has them in contention with the Islanders and the Columbus Blue Jackets for one of the two wild-card spots in the Eastern Conference, despite a string of losses after forward Chris Kreider broke his foot against Philadelphia on Feb. 28.
The team recently lost games against the playoff-bound Philadelphia Flyers and the defending champion St. Louis Blues, a disruption in the momentum built in February, when the Rangers won 12 of 15 contests from Jan. 31 to Feb. 27.
Zibanejad’s performance restored the momentum heading into Saturday’s game against the Devils before a three-game road trip. With their win over the Capitals and the Islanders’ loss at Ottawa on Thursday, the Rangers are only two points behind the Islanders.
“We don’t stop. You just have to keep going,” Zibanejad said after Thursday’s win. “We were on a good streak before. It wasn’t a fluke.”
Zibanejad is in the third year of a five-season, $26.75 million deal. Artemi Panarin leads the team in points (93) in his first season since signing a seven-year, $81.5 million contract last summer.
The pair make up the veteran core of the Rangers along with Kreider, whom the franchise re-signed to a seven-year $45.5 million contract instead of trading him — as they had done with veterans ,such as Mats Zuccarello, Ryan McDonagh and Derek Stepan.
After Kreider’s signing last week at the trade deadline, John Davidson, the Rangers president, said a push for the first postseason appearance since 2017 would benefit the team in years to come.
“We want our club to keep winning. We want them to go through the experience of a chase down the stretch for the playoffs. It’s very important for young people and the veteran players,” Davidson said. “If we get there, fantastic. And if we don’t, it will be a good experience and we’ll just keep moving along as we’re trying to build this into something.”
The chance to be in this position seemed remote before goalie Igor Shesterkin was recalled from A.H.L. Hartford on Jan. 6 and made his much-anticipated first start in a victory over the Colorado Avalanche. The 24-year-old went 9-1-0 after his debut before fracturing a rib in a car accident in Brooklyn, with teammate Pavel Buchnevich as his passenger. Buchnevich was shaken but didn’t suffer any serious injuries. He missed two games and returned to the Rangers’ lineup on Feb. 28.
In Shesterkin’s absence, Alexandar Georgiev has played solidly, while Henrik Lundqvist, who turned 38 earlier this week, continues to dress as a backup. Lundqvist had his first start in almost a month on Sunday, a disheartening 5-3 home loss to the Philadelphia Flyers. In his previous start on Feb. 3 against Dallas, he was blitzed for four goals on 15 shots before being pulled after two periods. It appears likely that Georgiev will play the bulk of the remaining games until Shesterkin, who skated with the team on Thursday, is able to return.
“My job is to come here and give it my all and just be ready when given the opportunity to play,” Lundqvist said. “And when I’m not playing. I try to be supportive to the guys that are playing. That’s what you should do.”
Lundqvist has one year left on his contract, and in his 15th year with the Rangers, his future is murky. The team could buy out his contract, Lundqvist could waive his no-trade clause or he could retire, assured that his Hall of Fame credentials are set.
“It’s been a very unique situation. Whatever happens, you have to try to help the team,” Lundqvist said last week.
After facing the Devils on Saturday, the Rangers will play nine of their last 14 games on the road, where, Rangers Coach David Quinn, said the young squad will get a primer on the rigors of a playoff chase.
The development of standout defensemen Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren, both 22 years old, has been a revelation for a team in search of a core to build upon. Lindgren’s emergence as a physical force alongside Fox allowed the Rangers to trade Brady Skjei to Carolina last week to free up salary cap space. Fox, with seven goals and 29 assists in his rookie season, has impressed Quinn with his playmaking.
“As a staff, we feel really good about our team,” Quinn said. “There’s a really good connection between the staff and our players. We’re all in this together.”