‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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“The Hobbit” is hot in the theaters and even hotter on the ice.
Having beaten out Anchorman 2, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has remained No. 1 at the box office.
The action-packed adventure film has earned wide praise from critics for its breathtaking visuals. It has been hailed by professional reviewers and moviegoers alike as a crowd-pleasing spectacle.
Well, there’s another Hobbit who has become the toast of many area hockey fans in a season where the Rangers have failed to satisfy paying customers due to their underwhelming 17-18-2 start.
Affectionately referred to as “The Hobbit” by both teammates and fans, diminutive Rangers winger Mats Zuccarello has caught fire in his fourth season in the NHL.
Zuccarello has collected 15 points (six goals, nine assists) over his last 15 games. On Sunday night, Zuccarello recorded his fourth point in three games by scoring on a second-period one-timer in the Rangers’ 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild.
Zuccarello made an impact all over the ice on Sunday and was impossible to contain. He constantly drove to the net with ferocity and vigor. The Garden faithful rose to their feet to salute Zuccarello with loud cheers and chants of “Zuuuuccccc” when Rangers public address announcer Joe Tolleson announced the Norwegian winger as the game’s first star.
Zuccarello works his socks off every night, a lot more than stats would suggest. He’s attempting to squeeze every bit of ability out of his undersized 5-foot-7, 179-pound frame. That kind of hard work should be contagious. Zuccarello is doing everything in his power to push the Blueshirts in the right direction.
There’s a rise of expectation when Zuccarello carries the puck. Some may call him a Hobbit, but “Zucc” has a strong measure of wizardry in his game, as evidenced by flashy passes that draw awe from the crowd.
On a roster that boasts star names like Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Derek Stepan, Zuccarello is the most creative Ranger.
It’s his unique combination of spirited play and tremendous vision that has allowed Zuccarello to turn some heads and cement his place with the Rangers after fighting hard to prove that he has what it takes to become a mainstay in a league where the average player is 6-1 and 203 pounds.
“He’s a hard worker,” goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said earlier this season. “He works hard in practice, he has a great attitude and he is a great player. He sees the game so well. You know, he opens it with his passing and he can shoot the puck. He plays hard every night. I’m happy for him.”
Alternate captain Richards said he appreciates Zuccarello’s spirit and abilities as a play-making forward.
“He’s been competing hard throughout most of the year,” Richards said of Zuccarello last week. “He’s a feisty player and a very smart player. He creates a lot of opportunities for his teammates.”
Since being scratched in Philadelphia on Oct. 24, the pint-sized winger leads the Rangers with 25 points (eight goals, 17 assists) in their last 29 games. Zuccarello’s 17 assists are tied for the team lead and his 25 points rank second, behind Richards.
You’re in for a treat whether you see the latest Hobbit flick in theaters or head to the arena to watch Zuccarello work his magic.
TALBOT STARTS ON MONDAY?
A Rangers team source confirmed on Monday that Lundqvist, Marc Staal and Taylor Pyatt skated in the morning. The Rangers did not hold a full team practice.
That would suggest that Sunday night’s starter, rookie Cam Talbot, will start against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday night in the second of back-to-back games.
Talbot has been brilliant, going 7-2, with a microscopic 1.67 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage.
Meanwhile, Lundqvist has struggled in his ninth NHL season. The former Vezina Trophy winner is 10-15-2 with a 2.77 GAA and .905 save percentage.
Steve Zipay of Newsday reported that Talbot will start against Toronto. Head coach Alain Vigneault refused to announce his starter following Sunday’s victory. He was scheduled to speak at 4:45 p.m Monday.
You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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