We’d say the last time something like this happened was when John Tortorella benched Marian Gaborik in the third period of Game 5 of the Rangers’ 2012 conference finals against the Devils, except doing such a thing was pretty much standard operating procedure for the coach.
Hence, no shock value there.
This, though, on Thursday night in Newark was different. This was different with David Quinn, who for the first time in his three seasons behind the bench brought down the hammer on one of the Rangers’ marquee players by dramatically reducing Mika Zibanejad’s ice time in the first period before sitting him for the first 10:46 of the second.
Finally, after weeks of giving Zibanejad the benefit of the doubt he had earned not only down the stretch last season, but through the entirety of the center’s work under Quinn, the coach had seen enough, following another period in which The Swede was a cipher on the ice.
And so he sat him. Sat him after a team-wide desultory opening 20 minutes, in which the Devils only could build a 1-0 lead thanks to Igor Shesterkin’s exceptional play in nets, and sat him through the midpoint of the second, by which time the Blueshirts had tied it 1-1 on Chris Kreider’s power-play goal.
Shock value here, all right.
“I didn’t love his game, I didn’t love what we were seeing — I didn’t love a lot about our first period — but obviously he’s had a tough start to the season and maybe sitting him for a while would give him a little jolt and give our team a little jolt,” Quinn said after the Blueshirts stormed back for a 6-1 victory. “I did like what I saw when he came back out.
“I was just going to see how he was playing, how he was competing, how he was skating. If I thought I saw an uptick in his play, I was going to continue to play him and if not, he was going to continue to sit. That’s really what it came down to.”
This was a headline-packed game. Kreider, off on one of his patented Did. You. See. Chris! streaks, recorded his second hat trick within five games, giving him nine goals in the past six matches. Shesterkin, who has elevated his game over the fortnight, was forced to leave with 5:52 remaining after sustaining an apparent right-leg injury that could force him to miss a spell of time. If so, it will have significant ramifications for this 9-9-3 team that has gone 5-2 in the last seven.
But the benching of Zibanejad will reverberate. You never know how a player as prideful as Zibanejad will react to something like this. You also don’t know how his teammates and best buds will react. Let’s not forget. He was one of the best players in the world last season. He was one of the best centers in the league the year before that. And he was benched.
“I think he’s letting the stats and all the pressure slow him down a little bit,” Quinn said. “I think it’s getting to him.
“This is a guy who has been a fearless player, he’s been a courageous player and he still is a guy who gets in the battle but something is just missing. We certainly continued to try and let him play his way through it, he certainly earned that opportunity, but right now we’ve got to continue to play the guys who are playing well.”
Zibanejad played with purpose through his final 13 shifts and 9:05 of ice, continuing to excel on the penalty-kill unit that went 4-for-4 in this one. He was involved, jumped on a free puck to set up Alexis Lafreniere for the dart that made it 6-1 at 18:27 of the third for the freshman’s sixth point (3-3) in the past six games.
(And, whoa boy, Quinn has suddenly gotten so much better at developing youngsters, correct?)
Zibanejad’s decline has been cloaked in mystery. Its long-range, big-picture ramifications are stark. But the small-picture ramifications of this benching will be stark, too. There is no question his mates have his back, with Kreider issuing an unsolicited captain-like testimonial in support of his beleaguered friend and colleague. You could almost hear Mark Messier standing up for Brian Leetch. Almost.
This was a night of significance for the Rangers and for Quinn, who benched a star and whose team responded with 40 dominant minutes in its wake.
“I think anytime you sit one of your top players that certainly gives everybody a bit of a wake-up call and I just thought we got better as the game went on,” the coach said. “If that had something to do with it, I don’t know.”
The Rangers and Quinn had been waiting on Zibanejad for 20 games. The coach didn’t wait for 21. Now we all wait to see how the alternate captain responds to this.