Hartnett: ‘Hobbit’ Zuccarello Making A Difference In Rangers’ Playoff Push
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By Sean Hartnett
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Mats Zuccarello scored a sensational shootout goal that helped lift the Rangers to a crucial overtime win in the Blueshirts’ quest toward locking down a spot in the playoffs. Before the game, head coach John Tortorella challenged Zuccarello.
“He’s got to score,” Tortorella demanded in his pregame press conference.
The 5-foot-7 Norwegian stepped up in the pressured atmosphere of the shootout and delivered under the spotlight by beating Toronto Maple Leafs net-minder James Reimer through the five hole.
“It feels great. Seeing it go in was a good feeling there, it’s about time. I’m just happy to help the team get two points,” Zuccarello said following the Rangers’ 3-2 victory over the Leafs.
Reimer is nicknamed “Optimus Reim” for a reason. Toronto’s goalie has been an imposing force between the pipes for the Leafs this season and was in fine form on Wednesday night, fending off flurries of Rangers chances.
It was critical for the Rangers to take maximum points as even one could prove the difference between being a six-seed as opposed to an eighth-seed in the Eastern Conference — or could prove to be the difference between making the playoffs and an early summer vacation.
“He’s probably the best shootout player in the league,” teammate Carl Hagelin said of Zuccarello, who is a career 6-for-12 marksman in the shootout.
Henrik Lundqvist and other teammates have poked fun at Zuccarello’s stature by deeming him “The Hobbit.” Good-natured joking aside, the diminutive, yet grinding winger is seen as a difference-maker and an improved player since returning from the KHL.
The tallest Ranger, 6-foot-7 Brian Boyle views Zuccarello as an improved player from years past. Zuccarello is playing with a greater edge and without fear in his third stint as a Ranger.
“I think he’s quicker, I think he knows this league a little bit better now. He’s got that experience,” Boyle explained. “I don’t think he really has anything to lose – is his attitude, and it’s been great. I think he’s really come in and made some plays. He looks faster, he’s fit in great, he’s done a great job.”
The shootout can be described as a “lottery” or a “skills competition.” While that is true, Zuccarello isn’t just a shootout specialist. He gives the Rangers an edge around the opposition net with his magic hands, creativity and poise.
“I feel more confident and am playing with good players and getting big minutes. I just have to keep creating chances and work hard — and it’s going to come,” Zuccarello stated.
Hagelin notices the increased confidence in Zuccarello’s eyes.
“He looks confident, he looks quicker,” Hagelin said. “He’s in better shape now, so – I think that obviously helps. You get more confidence and you make plays when you’re quicker and you get to pucks more.”
None of the Rangers are getting carried away with the victory as a massive test is around the corner when the Blueshirts travel to Uniondale to face the rival New York Islanders on Saturday, who are even with Rangers on 44 points, but ahead of them in the standings in seventh place.
“We haven’t clinched anything. We want to climb,” Boyle said.
With eight games remaining, the Rangers, Islanders and Devils will be butting heads over the final three weeks of the season. It’s up to the Rangers to continue controlling their own destiny by taking maximum points when they enter the Coliseum on Saturday.
Who will have the edge when the Rangers travel to Nassau Coliseum on Saturday? Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettHockey.