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Hartnett: Stadium Series Puts Zuccarello’s Breakthrough Season On Display

Norwegian Has Been Arguably The Most Consistent Ranger This Season
Mats Zuccarello #36 of the New York Rangers celebrates a second-period goal against the New Jersey Devils with teammates during the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Yankee Stadium. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Mats Zuccarello #36 of the New York Rangers celebrates a second-period goal against the New Jersey Devils with teammates during the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series at Yankee Stadium. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

As the snow flurries began to fall at Yankee Stadium, the energized Rangers were able to turn the tables after the Devils surged to a 3-2 first-period lead.

The Devils’ ageless duo — Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias — put on a show in the first period. New Jersey’s “Czech mates” were causing constant havoc, making life difficult for Rangers star netminder Henrik Lundqvist.

It could have been a memorable day in the Bronx for Elias and Jagr, but Lundqvist and the Rangers’ blueliners immediately settled themselves when the second period got under way.

Someone was going to step up and write themselves into history at the first-ever outdoor professional hockey game held in the five boroughs. It turned out to be the diminutive forward who has been arguably the Rangers’ most consistent player of the 2013-14 season.

That man is, of course, 5-foot-7 Norwegian winger Mats Zuccarello.

Zuccarello and the Rangers were able to exploit New Jersey for odd-man rushes as the Devils suffered constant defensive breakdowns.

At 17:14 of the second period, John Moore chased down a long pass by Derick Brassard as Moore fed a pass across the slot that Zuccarello finished to tie the game at three. Suddenly, Yankee Stadium erupted into booming Zuuuuuuccccccc chants.

Later in the period, Brassard sprung onto a loose puck at center ice and marched down ice with Zuccarello and Moore on a 3-on-1 chance. Brassard slid the puck to Zuccarello, who again beat legendary Martin Brodeur. The Rangers were suddenly ahead 4-3 and it was becoming a miserable day for Brodeur as the Zuuuucccccc chants grew louder.

Brodeur would eventually surrender a career-worst six goals against the Blueshirts before Devils head coach Pete DeBoer called for relief, as both he and Brodeur agreed that it would be wise to let Cory Schneider take over when the third period began.

“I had a conversation with him and we both agreed,” DeBoer said of the decision to switch to Schneider for the third period.

Schneider wasn’t able to keep the third frame clean as Derek Stepan scored a seventh goal after a debatable penalty shot was awarded. Nothing seemed to be going the Devils’ way as the snow continued to whip around the hallowed building in the Bronx. The Rangers proceeded to shut down the Devils in third period, holding New Jersey to five shots as the Blueshirts won their first of two Stadium Series games, 7-3.

TEAMMATES IMPRESSED BY ZUCCARELLO’S BREAKTHROUGH SEASON

For much of the national audience watching Sunday’s Stadium Series game between the Rangers and Devils, it may have been a first look at the pint-sized, yet all-effort Zuccarello. You could call Zuccarello “Biggie Smalls,” because he plays so much larger than his small stature would suggest.

Famed rapper Notorious B.I.G. delivered the line “if you don’t know, now you know” in his debut single, “Juicy.” That line would apply to Zuccarello, who is finally receiving major recognition for the “biggie” role he’s playing for the Blueshirts.

Zuccarello has become a cult hero, hypnotizing Rangers diehards with his magic passes and gusty goals. He’s on pace to score 23 goals and register 34 assists in 2013-14. The tiny Norwegian affectionately nicknamed “The Hobbit” has currently collected 15 goals in 53 games and is only trailing Rick Nash for the Rangers’ team-best 17 goals.

Teammate Brian Boyle thinks that the entire hockey world should take notice of Zuccarello’s huge 2013-14 campaign — that is if they aren’t already.

“They better know who he is, they should have known by now,” Boyle said. “He’s a great player for us, he’s huge. You can see his skill level. Pucks are bouncing everywhere, he can settle it down and make plays.”

Lundqvist pointed to Zuccarello as a key player for the Blueshirts throughout the season. He recognizes that Zuccarello makes intelligent decisions on the ice and has the ability to make big plays.

“Zucc was obviously one of our key guys today and he’s been that way for an entire season, I feel like,” Lundqvist said. “Coming up with big plays and making smart decisions with the puck. He works hard all over the ice, and so far this year, he’s just been so good for this team. Yeah, he has a really strong game. I’m happy for him.”

Linemate Brassard says that the Rangers’ third line, featuring Benoit Pouliot, himself and Zuccarello, are enjoying themselves on the ice and taking it upon themselves to make game-changing plays.

“As a line, we try to make a difference,” Brassard said. “He’s been really good all year. I really enjoy playing with him and Benny. Every day I enjoy even practicing. We have a lot of fun. He’s someone who has a lot of passion. It’s been a month or so that we’ve been playing on the same line. It’s a lot of fun.”

ZUCCARELLO REFLECTS ON BIG DAY AT YANKEE STADIUM

On Saturday, Zuccarello equaled the record for most goals scored in a regular-season outdoor game.

For Zuccarello, it was special to have a big game outdoors at Yankee Stadium. While baseball doesn’t have a large following in Norway, Zuccarello was delighted to have a huge performance at the famous ballpark in the Bronx.

“I know it’s a pretty special building to  play in,” Zuccarello said. “I’ve never been here, and baseball is not that big in Norway. But I’ve lived in the U.S. for quite a while now, so I know it’s pretty special. It’s special for me too, coming from Norway, and to be able to play at this rink and get the win is pretty amazing.  So, yeah, we were happy about today.”

Every player has their pregame rituals. Before Sunday’s game, Zuccarello kicked around a soccer ball in the corridors of Yankee Stadium to get loose and relax.

When Zuccarello steps onto the ice, he’s all effort and all business.

“I played some soccer and just relaxed,” Zuccarello said. “Then go out there and work hard.”

NASH CONTINUES TORRID PACE WITH 11 GOALS IN 11 GAMES

Rick Nash was able to extend his goal-scoring streak to five consecutive games. Nash has been the hottest player in the NHL of late, scoring 11 goals in his past 11 games.

“We simplified our game and ended up coming back,” Nash said. “We kept it simple and kept it safe. It was exciting to get two points.”

DOM MOORE PLEASED WITH LINE CHEMISTRY

Veteran forward Dominic Moore opened the Blueshirts’ account in the first period with a determined effort, collecting and scoring a loose Brodeur rebound after Anton Stralman rifled a shot at net.

Moore feels that as a whole, the Rangers are gaining some very solid chemistry. Alain Vigneault’s forward lines have been intact since J.T. Miller was sent to Hartford of the AHL on January 11.

“It was a strong effort from top to bottom,” Moore said. “All the lines are starting to develop some good chemistry. That starts to gel when you spend time playing together. You talk a lot, you start to hash things out. We’ve kept consistency there for probably almost six weeks, I would guess now. It’s starting to build.”

The Rangers are 12-3-1 in their past 16 games. Much of that success is due to every player knowing his role and the chemistry that has been built up.

You can follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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