(AP) – Earlier this year, Mats Zuccarello was the best player on an overmatched Norway team at the Olympics in Vancouver. On Thursday night, the diminutive forward will make his NHL debut on arguably the grandest stage of all.
With oft-injured Marian Gaborik sidelined again, Zuccarello will suit up at Madison Square Garden for the New York Rangers as they take on Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Rangers (20-14-1) recalled the 5-foot-9 Zuccarello from Connecticut of the AHL on Wednesday about 10 months after he became the most recognizable name for the 10th-place Norwegians at the Winter Games, where he had three points in four games.
During his first season in North America, the Oslo native was second on the Whale with 13 goals and tied for third with 24 points in 32 games.
“It has always been a dream of mine to play in the NHL, a dream that I never thought I could reach,” the 23-year-old told the Rangers’ official website in June. ” … The Rangers are an Original Six club with a great history and they are giving me the best chance to play on their team. I’m real happy about that, but in the end it’s up to me.”
Unlike Sweden and Finland, which have sent hundreds to the NHL, Zuccarello becomes only the seventh Norwegian to play since the 1978-79 season – a list that includes former Blue Jackets Espen Knutsen and Ole-Kristian Tollefsen and current Avalanche defenseman Jonas Holos.
Zuccarello, who is physically similar to Lightning playmaker Martin St. Louis, could face major expectations in his debut by taking Gaborik’s spot in the lineup while the high-scoring Slovak deals with a sore groin. Gaborik, who has an extensive history of lower-body injuries, has missed 13 games this season with a separated shoulder and flu-like symptoms.
“I don’t think it’s anything real serious,” coach John Tortorella said of Gaborik’s latest injury. “He said (the groin) was sore after practice the other day and it was sore (Wednesday), so I think the next few days should help him, with just missing the one game and then we don’t play again until the 27th.”
Zuccarello, named MVP of the Swedish Elite League last season after scoring 64 points in 55 games, could lend a boost to New York’s injury-plagued offense. Despite playing in just 22 games, Gaborik is tied for third on the team with 19 points while Ryan Callahan – second with 23 points – is expected to be out until the end of January (broken hand).
New York also will be without defenseman Michael Del Zotto (stomach virus) on Thursday.
The Rangers haven’t played since a 4-1 loss Saturday at Philadelphia, snapping a three-game winning streak.
Tampa Bay (19-10-5) opened a three-game road trip Wednesday by falling 2-1 in overtime to the lowly Islanders. Ryan Malone opened the scoring in the first period, but the Lightning saw their four-game win streak end.
Still, Tampa Bay picked up a point and is tied for second in the Southeast Division with Atlanta, one point behind Washington.
“We have a goal before Christmas, and that’s to be first in our division. We got a point and we’re playing well as of late. We’ve just got to forget about this one,” said Stamkos, second in the league with 26 goals.
Stamkos had a goal and two assists and Malone scored twice in a 5-3 home win over the Rangers on Nov. 24, but the Lightning have been outscored 20-7 during a four-game losing streak at MSG.
Updated December 22, 2010
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