Mats Zuccarello takes long way home, through Russia, with Rangers

Mats Zuccarello of the Rangers looks on against Mats Zuccarello of the Rangers looks on against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the second round of the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 2, 2014 in Pittsburgh. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Justin K. Aller

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Arthur Staple Arthur Staple

Staple, with Newsday since 1997, has covered high school sports, hockey and football.

These Rangers are chock full of good stories, of good leaders, good players and one great goaltender.

None of that might be happening now if it weren't for one good decision Mats Zuccarello made.

The diminutive Zuccarello, signed after the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver while playing for his native Norway, hadn't caught on during parts of two seasons with the Rangers. When he left North America for the KHL after the 2012 NHL postseason -- that Rangers team reached the Eastern Conference finals, like the current one, but Zuccarello didn't play a single postseason game for John Tortorella -- he figured he wasn't coming back.

At 24, perhaps the best hockey player in his less than hockey mad country, appeared to have his cup of coffee, 52 games over two seasons, and that was that.

"When I got over there [with Metallurg Magnitogorsk], I had Paul Maurice as my coach," Zuccarello said of the current Jets coach. "I talked to him a lot while I was there, about doing what I could to try and get back to the NHL. Talking to him, listening to him, that really helped me."

Zuccarello played with Evgeni Malkin during the NHL lockout in the KHL and finished off the season with 11 goals and 17 assists in 44 games, playing with a renewed sense of purpose, changing his diet and having worked on his skating and strength to make sure he didn't leave anything undone.

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Glen Sather, desperate for some scoring touch at the close of the lockout-shortened NHL season, offered Zuccarello a contract when Metallurg's season ended in March. The Rangers saw a different young man.

"You could tell he had a little more confidence in himself," Marc Staal said.

Tortorella is known as a coach who has his preferred players, but the change was evident to him as well. Zuccarello played all 12 playoff games last spring, with a goal and six assists, second to Derick Brassard in postseason scoring. Torts is gone now. Zuccarello had to earn his keep with a new coach, Alain Vigneault, and it was rocky early on -- Zuccarello was a healthy scratch for a game in October.

But, much like the Rangers as a team, Zuccarello began to thrive in December as he found a home on the right side with Brassard and Benoit Pouliot. Zuccarello had 16 goals and 28 assists in 51 games from Dec. 2 on and ended up leading the Rangers in scoring, barely a year removed from thinking his future lay in Europe.

Most important, in this postseason that has seen so many ups and downs, Zuccarello has been the most consistent Rangers forward. He's tied with Martin St. Louis for the team playoff scoring lead, his line with Brassard (now injured) and Pouliot has been the Rangers' best all spring and Zuccarello hasn't shied away from the pesky side of playoff hockey.

He was more than willing to throw all 170 pounds of himself into the fray against the Flyers and Penguins, jousting occasionally with Malkin, his NHL lockout teammate in Magnitogorsk.

He will be a restricted free agent after this magical postseason ride ends and he will be due a rather large raise from the $1.15 million he's making now, one of the many difficult decisions Sather and assistant GM Jeff Gorton have to make this offseason.

But Zuccarello seems as essential to the Rangers going forward as any of their cornerstone defensemen, an unsung little guy who has only been No. 1 or 2 in scoring for the team in two postseasons and a regular season.

All because he decided to keep working when he got to Russia. "I figured it was my last chance," Zuccarello said. "I wanted to prove I could play here."

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