The absence of Mats Zuccarello in the second and third rounds of last year’s postseason likely prevented the New York Rangers from reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year. As it was, they managed to get to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, but perhaps they would have won it if one of their main catalysts on offense had been in the lineup.
Zuccarello suffered a scary injury after taking a wayward Ryan McDonagh slap shot to his face in Game 5 of New York’s first-round series against Pitssburgh, as he sustained a skull fracture and brain contusion. More frighteningly, he lost the ability to speak for a brief time. He was extremely fortunate to have been able to fully recover and live a normal life, let alone play hockey again.
Now, not only has Zuccarello healed, but he has come back and played the best hockey of his career. Maybe he was given special powers during his recovery process, but whatever the case might be, the Rangers have to be thrilled at how he has played so far.
Zuccarello Leading the Offense
Through Sunday’s exciting home win over the Toronto Maple Leafs — New York’s ninth straight — Zuccarello leads the Rangers with 18 points (nine goals, nine assists) in 18 games. That is elite production, and the diminutive winger could be looking at his first All-Star Game selection if he keeps it up.
He has been the main catalyst on the team’s top line with Derick Brassard and Rick Nash, and along with the Rangers’ strong goaltending, is one of the primary reasons why the club sits atop the NHL standings.
“Zuke” has also not been piling up his points quietly. As Rangers broadcaster Sam Rosen frequently points out, he is good for several spectacular passes per game. He also scored a highlight-reel goal against the St. Louis Blues last week, undressing a very good defenseman in Jay Bouwmeester.
In the victory against the Leafs, Zuccarello not only scored the winning goal with less than a minute left in regulation, but also added two beautiful assists, including one to Brassard to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead early in the third period.
His play on that Brassard goal illustrates several of his attributes. First, he showed great patience in taking the puck wide and waiting for the play to develop, rather than throwing it toward the middle into traffic, where the play likely would have been broken up by the defense. He also showed good speed in creating a little bit of separation on the perimeter, as well as an ability to maintain control of the puck.
Then his awareness and vision were on display, as he found Brassard at the top of the crease. Lastly, the precision of his pass was impeccable, as he not only got it through the defense, but also put it right on Brassard’s tape for an easy tap-in.
So far this season, plays like this have been the norm for Zuccarello. His dazzling performance thus far has not gone unnoticed by his teammates.
Derek Stepan on Mats Zuccarello: “Don’t think there’s a guy in the NHL playing better hockey than Mats.”
— Andrew Gross (@AGrossRecord) November 16, 2015
Stepan on Zuccarello: “The way everyone’s talking about him every game, it’s starting to become something that he does every single night.”
— Seth Rothman (@RothmanHockey) November 16, 2015
Putting Zuccarello’s Success into Perspective
Zuccarello has been a solid offensive player and fan-favorite (those “Zuuuuuuccccc” chants can be heard even in road arenas) for a couple of years now. It was not a smooth beginning for him in the NHL, however. After turning some heads with his strong play for a weak Norway team in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, the Rangers signed him to a contract and he played a handful of games for the club in 2010-11, in addition to spending some time in the minors.
Zuccarello put up a respectable 23 points in 42 games for the Rangers in 2010-11, but was not given a consistent opportunity by then-head coach John Tortorella, as he did not embody the grinding style Tortorella loved. He left the Rangers for an opportunity in the KHL in 2012, but soon returned in 2013 for the latter stretch of that lockout-shortened season.
Likely not coincidentally, Zuccarello’s ups and downs in the NHL (and AHL) finally came to a positive end in the 2013-14 season, once he had a new head coach in Alain Vigneault. Vigneault has allowed Zuccarello and the Rangers to play a more fast-paced, open style that still does not sacrifice defense. Under this system, Zuccarello found consistency in his game and thrived with a career-high 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) in the 77 games, leading the entire team in scoring for the regular season.
While Zuccarello took a minor step back last season with 49 points (15 goals, 34 assists), his play picked up in the latter part of the season, and his production, creativity, and overall spark were sorely missed in the Rangers’ final two playoff rounds.
Now he is back and better than ever, on pace for 41 goals and 41 assists this season. While he should not be expected to end up putting up those types of numbers, Zuccarello could very well be looking at a career year. And heck, with the way he’s playing and the level of skill he has demonstrated, a point-per-game season could be possible. In any event, he has been the Rangers’ leader on offense to this point.
Zuccarello is known to use one of the longest sticks in the league, despite his small stature, helping him optimize his deft puck handling and passing skills. At a mere 5’7″ and 179 pounds, Zuccarello has had to rely on making the most of his skill and finesse game to get as far as he has. He has gotten better and better, and not only does he belong in the NHL, but he is a leader and difference-maker.
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist recalls first seeing Zuccarello play in the Olympics, and not only being impressed with his performance then, but also with how he has acclimated to the NHL and grown into an indispensable player for the Blueshirts.
Hank on 1st time he saw Zucc: “I saw this little guy with the longest stick ever making these incredible plays.” pic.twitter.com/PIHjp4IbCk
— Seth Rothman (@RothmanHockey) November 13, 2015
Zuccarello was extremely fortunate to be able to continue his career in hockey, and he is certainly making the most of it. The Rangers also have to be relieved that they did not end up trading him at last year’s trade deadline, as they came to an agreement on a four-year contract extension worth $4.5 million per year, after some strong rumors that the team would cut ties with the winger. That contract is now looking like quite a bargain. Zuccarello makes the Rangers a more dynamic team and will be critical to their chances of bringing home their first Stanley Cup championship in over 20 years.