However, the circumstances under which the 27-year-old Swedish NHL star notched his natural hat trick and three assists in the second period made it even more impressive.
Yet Zibanejad made everything look easy as a playmaker, setting up Pavel Buchnevich twice at 1:38 and 3:38 and Jacob Trouba at 7:30 to give New York a 5-0 lead in the middle frame. Then the 187-cm, 94-kg centre morphed into the trigger man.
It took just 16:59 for Zibanejad to collect six points. And it came virtually out of the blue.
The former 2011 first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators (sixth overall) had underperformed all season long, although his pair of assists in a 4-0 win over the Boston Bruins on 13 March provided a glimmer of optimism. Zibanejad missed the first week of training camp due to COVID-19. Even now, he has only six goals and 17 points in 28 games. Last year, the Stockholm native racked up a career-high 41 goals and 75 points in just 57 games.
“Everyone is going to go back to last season, and the expectation is obviously higher, but if the puck doesn't want to go in, it doesn’t want to go in,” a low-key Zibanejad said. “I've been trying to get myself through this, and it hasn’t been easy, but it is what it is. It’s one game, but I feel like the game just overall has been feeling a little bit better for the past little bit here.”
Zibanejad claimed the spotlight in what was an eventful day NHL-wide. Wednesday’s headlines ranged from three-point outings by scoring title rivals Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers in a 7-3 smackdown of the Calgary Flames to the firing of Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger amid a 12-game losing streak.
To put Zibanejad’s feat in historical context, Trottier was just 22 when he lit up the crosstown rival Rangers in a 9-4 shellacking on 23 December 1978. Like Zibanejad, the moustachioed 22-year-old centre had three goals and three assists in the second period. This future six-time Stanley Cup champion and Hall of Famer became just the fifth NHLer ever to total eight points (5+3=8) in one game.
It’s a little surprising to discover that all-time greats like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, whose heyday was the wide-open 1980’s, never had more than a four-point period.
Darryl Sittler, whose 10-point game for the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 11-4 thrashing of Boston on 7 February 1976 remains the NHL record, topped out at five points in the second period. Other modern-day names who enjoyed five-point periods include Ray Ferraro (1989, Hartford), Cliff Ronning (1993, Vancouver), Sam Gagner (2012, Edmonton), Peter Stastny (1982, Quebec), and Jari Kurri (1984, Edmonton).
One thing is for sure: the month of March agrees with Zibanejad. On 5 March 2020, he enjoyed another personal best with five goals, including the overtime winner, in a 6-5 victory over the Washington Capitals. That made Zibanejad just the third player in Rangers history to score five goals in one game after Don Murdoch (12 October 1976) and the late Mark Pavelich (23 February 1983).
This has been a challenging season for the Rangers. That goes beyond saying farewell to 15-season goaltending legend Henrik Lundqvist. Panarin’s recent eight-game leave of absence, the controversy surrounding now-departed defenceman Tony DeAngelo, and the growing pains of rookie #1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere (2020) and sophomore #2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko (2019) are just some of the other flashpoints. Not to mention the effects of the pandemic.
“It’s been a different, different year, a different season,” Zibanejad said. “Obviously, not just with no fans and the way things are right now, but around the world as well. So, a lot of firsts this year. Obviously you get a little shock when you hear [the coaching staff is out], and you’ve just got to be able to adapt. And I thought our guys did a great job.”