The New York Rangers, who currently boast the most points in the NHL with 30, now have a guy in Mats Zuccarello who they can call a star.
By Robby Sabo
Last Spring, millions of the faithful watched on in desperate hope that their New York Rangers could somehow overcome a late two goal deficit to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
Hope still remained, in abundance. I mean why not? This was the same group who received a miraculous goal from Chris Kreider in Game 5 of the previous series against the Washington Capitals. It kept them hanging by a thread, with just enough life to allow another 3-1 series deficit to be overcome.
Frustratingly, however, it wasn’t to be. The Rangers officially ran out of gas against Tampa. Understandably so too. Half of their blueline was dealing with serious enough injuries that would’ve had you and I crying for months.
Ryan McDonagh, acting as the captain his teammates know him to be, had his foot frozen before each game to deal with a serious fracture. Marc Staal played through a small fracture on his left ankle – one he sustained towards the end of the regular season while blocking a shot. Keith Yandle played through a sprained AC joint he picked up during the Pittsburgh series.
Considering this, to think the club came within 60 minutes of getting back to the Stanley Cup Final for a second time, was rather remarkable.
Still, despite the battle-tested nature of this team dealing through the plethora of serious injuries they sustained, something seemed to be missing.
This was the lack of a star player not named Henrik Lundqvist.
Let’s remember who this team is for a moment. Battle tested and gritty are the first descriptions that come to mind. Over the course of four seasons, New York has played in an absurd 12 Stanley Cup Playoff series (winning eight). A real argument can be made that this group is the most “championship tested” of any non-championship New York sports team of all-time.
They simply battle. They’re also a collection of talented guys who Glen Sather and Jeff Gorton molded into a team. They’ve known each other for quite some time and play like it.
Watching the Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks take on each other in the final was a stark reminder that the Rangers weren’t quite there yet. They lacked the star power each of these clubs ran out to the ice each night. There was no Jonathan Toews, or Patrick Kane, or Steven Stamkos for New York who could save the day on an off night. If Lundqvist didn’t play to an obscene level every night out, the Blueshirts were most likely going to struggle.
One guy who wasn’t around, and who didn’t run out of gas in the Tampa series was Mats Zuccarello. Of course, Zuccarello was lost for the remainder of the playoffs (as it turned out to be) after taking a McDonagh puck to the head in the series clincher against the Pittsburgh Penguins of Round 1.
Zuccarello, the man who many in the media glossed over as “just another injury” at the time, became the rallying cry of the squad and the main reason the Rangers couldn’t overcome Tampa.
Losing this guy spiked his stock to an all-time high. Suddenly the entire hockey world knew just how valuable the the 5’7”, 28-year old Norwegian was.
As it was, the Blueshirts struggled at times to produce a consistent flurry of offense in the playoffs. Their lineup would often become stagnant, as their most notable goal-scorer, Rick Nash, couldn’t even dream of smacking the back of the net with rubber.
Zuccarello’s absence was the main issue, and now after what we’ve witnessed through 18 games during the 2015-16 regular season, this is a definite explanation.
Zuccarello is hotter than just about any hockey player on the face of the planet right now. He’s tallied 18 points (9 goals, 9 assists) on the season, while picking up 12 points in his last eight contests.
His marvels included a hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 30, and a three point night in which he added the game-winning goal against those very same leafs last night.
On his game-winning goal Toronto net-minder Jonathan Bernier had zero shot of stopping:
This one was downright filthy, the way he setup his center-iceman Derrick Brassard in front of the net:
And finally, on the first goal of the night although the entire world knew he was going to pass it over, he still managed to do so with precise accuracy:
The guy is more than just hot at the moment. Taking the goaltender out of the equation, he’s the Rangers best player and 2015-16 MVP up to this point.
He’s an NHL All-Star.
Mats Zuccarello is exactly what this team needs.
Some of the magician-like things he does with the puck lend to absolute brilliance that cannot be stopped at anytime. It’s not something we’ve seen from him his entire career, but now he seems to be coming into his own – that very special place stars find themselves in when the time is right.
Glance at the past Stanley Cup Championship winners from recent memory. The Blackhawks, the Los Angeles Kings, the Boston Bruins, the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Detroit Red Wings? What do they all have in common? They all enjoyed plenty of star power.
In fact, aside from the Kings with Jonathan Quick, none of these champions boasted a star goalie. Instead, they relied on an ordinary goalie who was fortunate enough to play behind an all-world five-man group.
The only thing the Rangers were missing in their championship hunt was that missing ingredient of star power in front of Lundqvist. They’ve always boasted a very talented and deep group. There’s no question about that. But having a guy, or two (maybe Rick Nash), or three (perhaps Ryan McDonagh), who Alain Vigneault can turn to when things get rough, is the last piece of the puzzle.
Zuccarello is that star they’ve been waiting for. The only question remaining is who will join him?
[su_button url=”https://elitesportsny.com/2015/11/15/new-york-rangers-now-the-best-team-in-the-nhl-after-leafs-victory/” target=”blank” background=”#000080″ size=”10″ wide=”yes” radius=”0″]NEXT: Rangers Defeat Leafs Behind Zuccarello’s 3 Points[/su_button]