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Hartnett: Rangers Winger Mats Zuccarello Has Become A Full-Blown Star

Zuccarello Is The Rangers' Leading Scorer With 28 Points
Mats Zuccarello (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Mats Zuccarello (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

Two different Norwegian sensations have made it big in America in 2013. First, comedy-duo brothers Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker (better known as Ylvis) produced an accidental viral hit that exploded into a worldwide phenomenon.

Ylvis’ “The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)” became a megahit despite its obvious intent — satirizing the ridiculousness of electronic dance music. The song was only meant to be a promotional video for the season premiere of their Norwegian late-night show: “I kveld med Ylvis” (“Tonight with Ylvis”).

Yet, the song took on a life of its own. “The Fox” rocketed up the Billboard Hot 100 chart, peaking at No. 6 and becoming the highest-ranked song by a Norwegian artist on the list since A-ha’s 1985 number one hit, “Take On Me.”

Norway’s other unexpected triumph is, of course, New York Rangers winger Mats Zuccarello — who has become an essential player for the Blueshirts in his fourth season in the NHL.

Previously, Zuccarello was a fringe player for the Rangers. The pint-sized winger bounced between New York and Hartford in his first two seasons and spent most of 2012-13 with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL before joining the Rangers for their final 15 regular-season games.

Zuccarello was able to turn a few heads by notching seven points in 12 playoff games before the Boston Bruins eliminated the Rangers in the Eastern Conference Finals.

His playoff surge convinced general manager Glen Sather to award the diminutive Norwegian with a one-year, $1.15 million contract during the summer.

‘ZUCC’ WILL EARN A BIG RAISE THIS SUMMER

Zuccarello is giving the Rangers a tremendous bang for their buck in a season where star forwards Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Brad Richards are playing below their typical level of production and captain Ryan Callahan has been shelved for large stretches of the season due to various injuries.

The 5-foot-7 winger is currently leading the Rangers with 28 points and 19 assists. His nine goals only trail powerful winger Chris Kreider’s team-leading 10 goals. Zuccarello is currently on pace to finish the season with 19 goals, 39 assists and 58 points.

Stats alone cannot begin to demonstrate Zuccarello’s impact in 2013-14. You need to watch Zuccarello regularly to fully understand his progression into becoming the Rangers’ foremost playmaker.

Zuccarello has the ability to make his own space and pick out teammates rushing to net like an NBA point guard dropping dimes. He’s got a little bit of old-school J-Kidd and Steve Nash in his game.

On Sunday night, Zuccarello turned his stick into a magic wand by unleashing one goal and two assists in the Rangers’ 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. All three of his points were scored on the Blueshirts’ perfect 3-for-3 power play.

Zuccarello led the comeback after the Rangers went down, 2-1, late in the first period by scoring a goal on a pass that was intended for Benoit Pouliot.

Where Zuccarello really stood out was on the Rangers’ third goal, where he carried the puck across three lines. Zuccarello weaved past Lightning defensemen like a hot knife through butter, before dropping off a pass to Kreider in the high-slot that allowed Kreider to bear down on Anders Lindback and score a backhander.

On the Rangers’ fourth goal, Zuccarello skated across the point, drawing the attention of multiple defensemen and unleashing a cross-ice pass to Derick Brassard who nudged the pass to Pouliot who put the finishing tip-in past Lindback. Pouliot has now taken his consecutive points streak to seven games.

It’s clear that Zuccarello has become an indispensable figure for the Rangers in a year where Henrik Lundqvist, Nash, Stepan and Richards largely haven’t found their game and Callahan and Marc Staal have missed big chunks of the season due to injury.

He’s in line to earn a substantial raise in the summer of 2014.

Perhaps Norweigan duo Ylvis should consider making a song about their remarkable countryman’s dazzling stickhandling and playmaking abilities ahead of the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

LUNDQVIST RETURNS TO NET, ALLEN SHINES IN DEBUT

Sunday marked Lundqvist’s first win since December 15. The 31-year-old netminder was previously sat down for three consecutive games while Alain Vigneault rode 26-year-old rookie Cam Talbot.

While Lundqvist wasn’t at his best in Tampa, he did rise to the occasion in a pressured third period. The Lightning unloaded 16 shots on Lundqvist in the third period and had to work hard to preserve the Rangers’ victory, making 37 total saves.

Meanwhile, rookie defenseman Conor Allen made an impressive NHL debut at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

The 23-year-old did not look overawed by the occasion. Allen logged 15:47 in total ice time and was able to register two shots.

Vigneault leaned on the rookie in the third period, favoring Allen over Michael Del Zotto and Justin Falk.

According to Andrew Gross of The Record, Staal said he will make his return to the Rangers’ lineup on Tuesday against the Florida Panthers.

Staal hasn’t played since suffering a concussion against the New Jersey Devils on December 7.

Should Anton Stralman return on Tuesday from a left wrist injury, Vigneault will be forced to scratch Del Zotto and Falk. If that is the case, the Rangers’ six defensemen to dress against the Panthers would be Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Allen, Stralman, Staal and John Moore.

You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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