NEW YORK -- Mika Zibanejad got to the puck first because the New York Rangers got to the puck first all game long against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday.
Zibanejad got to the puck first along the right-wing wall in the Ottawa zone. He was moving fast as he curled into the corner, basically rimming himself around the boards and behind the net as he protected the puck, shielding off Senators defenseman Ben Harpur.
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He tried a move at the near post and lost the puck. He got it right back because the Rangers got the puck back from the Senators all game long too. Off-balanced and falling, Zibanejad made a perfect pass to Mats Zuccarello at the left hash marks. Zuccarello left no doubt. He finished.
That play by Zibanejad embodied the kind of terrific night it was for the Rangers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Senators. They won 4-1 to cut Ottawa's lead in the best-of-7 series to 2-1.
"There is no question that we were the better team tonight," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. "We played with speed, emotion and determination. And we got it done."
The Rangers also played intelligently and they finished with authority by not giving the Senators a sniff of a comeback in the third period, a far cry from Game 2, when they allowed Ottawa to tie the game with two goals in the final 3:19 before the Senators won it in the second overtime.
Zuccarello, Michael Grabner, Rick Nash and Oscar Lindberg scored. That's one forward from each of New York's four lines producing a goal.
Video: OTT@NYR, Gm3: Zuccarello buries Zibanejad's feed
J.T. Miller had by far his best game of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, leading the charge for the fourth line and making a phenomenal play to set up Lindberg for his goal that put the Rangers up 4-0 at 18:17 of the second period.
Miller, who played 12:02, third fewest among New York forwards, was first on just about every puck he could get to and made several smart plays to help the Rangers break out of their zone too.
"They're a team that pressures real hard and don't give you a lot of space and time to make plays, so you have to be able to see what's there and make the play in front of you," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "I thought he did a good job tonight."
Vigneault, with help from assistant Jeff Beukeboom, who handles the defense, deployed his six defensemen properly, using Brady Skjei (20:13) and Brendan Smith (19:39) more and Marc Staal (16:17) and Nick Holden (14:29) less.
Video: OTT@NYR, Gm3: Grabner slips puck past Anderson
That was a change from Game 2, when Staal and Holden were on the ice for the most goals and scoring chances by Ottawa of all the New York defensemen.
Lundqvist did his part when called upon, making 26 saves. He wasn't called upon often. The Rangers had a 4-1 lead after two periods, and Lundqvist had to make maybe two difficult saves. Maybe.
"We didn't give up that much," Lundqvist said. "It felt like we were in control for the most part and played a really smart game."
They did it with high-percentage puck placement that led to an aggressive and fast forecheck. That's how the Rangers were first to the puck all game.
Video: OTT@NYR, Gm3: Lundqvist robs MacArthur in front
The Senators thrive when they play within their structure through the neutral zone. They thrive by putting up a wall and not letting the opposition through. The Rangers didn't let them set up that wall in Game 3 and instead forced them to turn and go back to get the puck.
"In the other games, trying to get through the neutral zone, they would trap it up and we had one guy coming with speed, and that turns into a one-man forecheck and it's almost impossible to get the puck back with one man going," Nash said. "Tonight, it was like a five-man forecheck, the three forwards and the D were coming in. It just made it that much easier to retrieve the puck."
It caused chaos for the Senators, who didn't have enough players going back to get the puck because of their 1-3-1 setup. Ottawa goalie Craig Anderson tried to help out at times, but it turned into an adventure for him trying to play the puck.
Anderson was out of his net trying to play the puck when Grabner scored.
Beyond that, once the Rangers retrieved the puck, they had the Senators chasing them around the zone. The Rangers cycled well and dominated down low.
It was never more apparent than in the first period, when the Rangers had a 2-0 lead, a 15-5 advantage in shots on goal and a 26-12 edge in total shot attempts. The entire period was played at even strength.
"It was guys just realizing what works," Nash said.
Video: OTT@NYR, Gm3: Nash finishes a two-on-one rush
It's too simple to say the Rangers will just do the same thing again in Game 4 and have the same result, but three games into the series the blueprint is obvious.
Be fast, smart and aggressive. Make the high-percentage play. And, for crying out loud, finish the game.
"It's easy to talk about it and be prepared for it, but to actually go out and do it, that's the tough part," Zibanejad said. "We did a good job with that."