Mats the man

Norwegian forward among Rangers’ most important weapons

13.06.2014
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The New York Rangers’ Norwegian scoring leader Mats Zuccarello battles for the puck with the Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty during Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final. Photo: Scott Levy/NHLI via Getty Images

NEW YORK – Mats Zuccarello has turned an improbable tale of a diminutive player from a country not known for its ice hockey prowess into a success story on Broadway.

Zuccarello has played big for the New York Rangers throughout the regular season and playoffs. As the team’s leading regular-season scorer, he’s been a steady and dependable forward.

In the playoffs, Zuccarello has been a revelation. With five goals and 13 points, he is among the team’s scoring leaders while averaging a little over 17 minutes of ice time per game. But he’s also shown a willingness to take the body and play close quarter NHL playoff style hockey and thrive at it.

A native of Oslo, Zuccarello is the first Norwegian-born player to make it into the Stanley Cup finals. For this reason and his personal success on the ice, Zuccarello is the standard bearer in his country when it comes to ice hockey and visited in the locker room by several Norwegian media representatives after each game of the series.

With New York’s win on Wednesday in Game Four, Zuccarello still has the chance to be the first Norwegian to win the Cup, although it’s still an uphill battle with Los Angeles leading the series 3-1.

“We had luck on our side,” Zuccarello said after the game. “They had some chances here but the puck didn’t go in. It’s equitable justice and that’s good to see. From my side we can have three more games like this as long as we win. It’s all about winning. It’s playoffs. You play a game and then it’s forgotten when you play the next.”

The Rangers’ leading scorer over the regular season, Zuccarello has played his most important hockey through May and June in leading the Rangers into the Stanley Cup finals.

In fact, his performance has gotten stronger as the season came to a close. Zuccarello scored 24 points in his final 25 regular-season games. His confidence and contribution this season among big names like Martin St-Louis, Rick Nash and Brad Richards belied the fact that he was not part of the Rangers plans just one-and-a-half years ago and spent most of the 2011/2012 season with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate Connecticut Whale.

Even with his contrubitions throughout the season and into the playoffs, Zuccarello is humble regarding his success. While he did not get on the scoreboard or, to his mind, played well in Game Four, the win is what was important.

“It is not the best game I’ve played but everybody is working hard,” Zuccarello said after Wednesday’s game. “It’s the Stanley Cup final, you don’t have it every day. It’s hard work that counts. We won thanks to team effort, hard work and physical play.”

Undrafted Zuccarello was not brought in by the Rangers as a high-priced free agent expected to produce big numbers off the bat. Instead, he was signed in the hopes he might bolster the Rangers offence.

Zuccarello started playing hockey as a young boy in his native Norway. He excelled at hockey as a youth and moved through to the professional ranks. As a member of Frisk Asker of the Norwegian league, he played three years in the top senior league before moving to the Swedish Elitserien.

In his second season with MODO Ornskoldsvik in Sweden, he led the league in goals and total scoring. Zuccarello won the Golden Helmet as the league MVP. Created in 1986, the Golden Helmet has boasted some of Sweden’s best players as most valuable player. Zuccarello kept good company with players such as Hakan Loob, Peter Forsberg and current teammate Henrik Lundqvist, who won the Golden Helmet in 2005 with Frolunda Gothenburg.

Zuccarello had demonstrated his ability at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and then the World Championship that spring in representing Norway. It was enough to earn consideration from the Rangers who signed him with the thought that Zuccarello would be a contributor at some point.

Zuccarello was billed as a small but shifty forward who had offensive talent that could help the team. Nevermind the fact that he was from a country that has not produced too many NHL players, Zuccarello was thought to be the player capable of providing offence on a New York team that desperately needed it.

In his first two seasons in North America, Zuccarello split time between the Rangers and the Connecticut Whale. While he put up good numbers with the Whale, he was not able to fully find a place with the big club.

When it appeared things were not working out, Zuccarello signed with the KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk after the 2012 NHL postseason. Who could tell what would happen. Normally when a player does not make the NHL and returns to Europe, they stay rather than go back and face the rigors of life in the National Hockey League. But once the labour conflict in the NHL and Metallurg’s KHL season was over, Zuccarello wanted to get back to the NHL and spent the rest of the season with the Rangers.

Zuccarello spent much time talking to then-Metallurg head coach Paul Maurice, who knew a thing or two about the NHL as a longtime coach with the Carolina Hurricanes.

"When I got over there, I had Paul Maurice as my coach," Zuccarello said. "I talked to him a lot while I was there, about doing what I could to try and get back to the NHL. Talking to him, listening to him, that really helped me."

The Rangers resigned Zuccarello late in March 2013, just prior to the playoffs. He returned with new confidence and played well. This change was certainly noticeable.

When John Tortorella was fired as head coach, Zuccarello worked his way into a regular role in new head coach Alain Vigneault’s squad. While there were some early struggles, including being scratched from the lineup, Zuccarello soon found his place and thrived under Vigneault, leading the team in scoring with 19 goals and 59 points in 77 games played.

Zuccarello is already one of the most prominent players in Norwegian history for his accomplishments in the NHL. With his 30 goals, he has already tied Espen Knutsen for the most tallies by a player from Norway. With 93 points as a Ranger, Zuccarello is 18 points away from being the leading all-time point scorer from his country in the NHL.

With success in Game Five, the Rangers now must head back to Los Angeles in the hopes of winning another to bring it back to the Garden. Zuccarello knows it will not be easy.

“It will be tough in Los Angeles; they will want to make it clear as soon as possible but we will hopefully give them a battle and go there with our best hockey,” he said.

“We are a tough team to play especially when Henke [Henrik Lundqvist] is on top. Anything can happen now. You have to win a game to win four so we’re on the way. We won on a bad day so if we have a good day and luck on our side, we will win as well.”

Game 5 will be played in Los Angeles on Friday.

JOHN SANFUL

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