TAMPA, Fla. — After it had all ended, Mika Zibanejad sat at a podium alongside Chris Kreider, holding back tears.
“It’s just denial,” he said. “I’m empty right now. I don’t know what to say.”
A day before the unceremonious and season-ending 2-1 loss to the Lightning, Zibanejad had cast an upbeat tone, describing the challenge of facing Anthony Cirelli’s line as fun. But that could not have been further from his experience on Saturday night, when he capped an underwhelming conference final with another game in which his line was effectively erased by Cirelli, Alex Killorn and Brandon Hagel.
Zibanejad, who at one point had an eight-game points streak and looked like the Rangers’ best player this postseason, finished the conference final with one even-strength goal and one even-strength assist. Though he managed to contribute on the power play, he had no answer for the Lightning at five-on-five.
Coach Gerard Gallant would later say fatigue had a lot to do with the Rangers’ issues in the back half of the series, saying they felt the effects of playing every other day for 40 days. A despondent Zibanejad refused to agree.
“There’s no fatigue,” he said. “These are the games that we all want to play. … Had nothing to do with it.”
But fatigue or not, Game 6 was a nadir for his struggles.
Gallant tried to throw a spark into the Rangers by mixing up his lines and having Zibanejad center Alexis Lafreniere and Frank Vatrano. That backfired spectacularly, and Gallant returned the lines to their usual configuration following the first period.
When the puck did come Zibenajad’s way in the offensive zone, it seemed to regularly find a way off his stick. His first shot on net cam with 6:55 left in the game, and he would finish with just two.
Since the start of the second round, when the Hurricanes played Jordan Staal’s line against the Rangers’ top group, Zibenejad struggled to break through against checking lines. In that sense, Saturday was a culmination — in which every trouble compounded.
There was no tactical answer for Gallant. He wasn’t going to shelter his top line as a response — Zibanejad simply had to find a way. That was how the Rangers broke through in Game 7 against the Hurricanes, when Zibanejad had two even-strength assists and seemed to have gotten past his issues.
But Cirelli was a step above anything the Hurricanes threw at Zibanejad. On Saturday morning, Tampa coach Jon Cooper called him “[Nikita] Kucherov without the puck” — waxing poetic about Cirelli’s ability to read plays on defense.
As much as anything, that matchup tilted the balance of the series.
And Zibanejad, with the rest of the Rangers, is now headed home.