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Red-Hot Zibanejad Seeking Right Fit on Left Wing

With Kreider Hurt, Rangers Enter 'Feeling-Out Process' as Zibanejad Continues Tear

by Michael Obernauer

Among the first things that jumped out at Phil Di Giuseppe when he first played with Mika Zibanejad was how many times a play would look like it had died, only for Zibanejad to suddenly revive it.

"I noticed that from day one," Di Giuseppe said. "So many times you're not sure if he's going to get the puck or maybe he's not going to get the puck, but he ends up getting the puck. So I figure my biggest thing is just to get to the front of the net, because you know he's going to get it, and then he's going to create something."

Call it Di Giuseppe's first lesson in sharing ice time with a player of Zibanejad's skill set, but not the last. Because as the Rangers set about the task of landing on a player best suited to play the red-hot Zibanejad's left wing during the time that they will be without Chris Kreider, David Quinn has put Di Giuseppe first in line for the opportunity. No one is carving any names in stone for that spot -- Quinn on Monday called it "a feeling-out process," and others already have gotten looks there -- but for now they will be writing Di Giuseppe's name at the top of the whiteboard when the St. Louis Blues come to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.

"It's not about giving guys looks," the Head Coach said, "it's about who is going to allow that line to have success."

Di Giuseppe stepped into the role immediately after Kreider went down blocking a shot in Friday's first period in Philadelphia, suffering a fractured foot, then again for a good portion of Sunday's return match with the Flyers at the Garden. Zibanejad finished both games with Artemi Panarin on his left as the Rangers were trying to mount comebacks, but on Tuesday night will start the game with the 26-year-old former second-round pick against the defending champs.

"I believe my job is just to come in here and add some work ethic and some determination in my play, so that's what I focus on," Di Giuseppe said after the Rangers' practice on Monday in Westchester. "And then if I can chip in, that's fantastic."

"He works. And in the situation that we're in, we need to work," Zibanejad said of Di Giuseppe. "I thought it was pretty good (on Sunday). It's maybe not the easiest thing to kind of get a full understanding how he likes to play, and how we're going to make it work, in a short period of time. I'm sure it'll be good -- we talked again today during practice, we're going to try to get an understanding and just go from there."

The direction Zibanejad has been going, he is putting together one of the remarkable seasons from a Rangers center in decades, even despite missing a month in the fall to an upper-body injury. He scored twice more on Sunday, giving him eight goals in his last eight games, and 32 for the season, setting a new career high in just 52 games played.

Zibanejad, who lost 13 games to his injury in October and November, now stands ninth in the NHL in points per game (1.25), fourth in goals per game (0.62), and has posted multiple points in 20 different games this season. He was the NHL's Second Star for the month of February; on Sunday, the first day of March, he finished with three points, in only his second full game this season without Kreider in the lineup.

"Kreids is a unique player that way and there's not many guys like him in the League," Zibanejad said, "but I think we need to just keep playing the way we have been." He added that with his regular linemate, his teammate for the last four seasons in New York, injured and the home stretch of the schedule underway, the weight he feels on his shoulders is no different than it was last week, or last month, or on Opening Night for that matter.

"We've all got to up our game a little bit when a piece like (Kreider) and what he brings to the team is missing," Zibanejad said. "But I've been putting enough pressure on myself all year, and any time I step out there, to contribute in any way I can, especially offensively with the role I have. The pressure doesn't change."

He and his right winger, Pavel Buchnevich, accounted for all the Rangers' scoring on Sunday; all three of their goals came on power plays. Buchnevich's goal was his 16th this season, six shy of his career high, but more than half of them have come since Jan. 21 -- eight goals in the last 16 games for a player who closed out last season scoring nine times in the final 17 games. Kreider had 24 goals and 45 points when injury struck.

Enter, for now, Di Giuseppe, who has done enough in his first 15 games in a Blueshirt that his Coach wants to see more -- Quinn on Monday likened his game to Jesper Fast's, and said he continues to discuss how to move forward with Kreider's spot together with his staff and with Zibanejad and Buchnevich.

Last Thursday in Montreal, it was Di Giuseppe -- on a line that night with Brett Howden and Kaapo Kakko -- potting an Adam Fox feed in the second period to pick up his first goal as a Ranger, the first of five straight goals from the Blueshirts in a come-from-behind victory in Montreal, their franchise-record ninth straight win on the road.

"I liked his game the other night" against the Flyers, too, Quinn added. "I love his pace. He plays a lot like Fast -- he's got that hard-working mentality, gets to the net, plays at a pace. He can create room for Buchie and for Mika."

"Any time a coach has confidence in you, that's a key factor for every player," Di Giuseppe said.
"I'm just trying to be extra good on the forecheck, get (Zibanejad and Buchnevich) the puck and then go to hard areas so it'll open plays for them, and get some screens on the goalies for them."

But Di Giuseppe, who began the season in Hartford after signing with the Rangers as a free agent in July, has scored 14 goals for the Wolf Pack this season, and since his most recent call-up -- there have been three, but he has stayed with the big club since being summoned on Feb. 2 -- has shown himself to be a player who won't be shy about pulling the trigger.

"If I'm in a position to shoot it, I'm going to shoot it," Di Giueseppe said, "and obviously playing with those guys they're going to get you the puck, so I look forward to that. I think that'll only create more chances and more opportunity. But at the end of the day, I'm going to get in there, try to get the puck to them and then go to open areas."

"You've just got to make sure you talk to whoever you're playing with," Zibanejad said. "Obviously it's an adjustment that way -- when you play with someone for so long (like Kreider), you kind of know where they are and what you're expecting from the other one. I think that just comes from talking on the ice, off the ice. Just make sure everyone's on the same page."

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