In the tall shadows cast by the baseball playoffs, Mats Zuccarello is writing a terrific comeback story for Broadway.
During the NHL playoffs last spring, the Norwegian winger -- small of stature but with a heart as big as an outfield -- suffered a skull fracture and lost the power to speak for several days after being struck by teammate Ryan McDonagh's shot in front of the net against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
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While hospitalized with wires connected to his bruised brain, he confessed later that he was more concerned about a return to a normal life rather than his hockey career.
But after a long, cautious recovery during the summer, Zuccarello appeared in training camp and began the climb back. He had not skated much, and the forward still wondered if he would regain his skills.
To the surprise of almost everyone, Zuccarello was in midseason form before the season -- scoring in exhibition games, digging in the corners and displaying his infectious personality off the ice.
On Friday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Rangers' 11th game of the season, Zuccarello put an exclamation point on his return. Reunited with former linemates Derick Brassard -- perhaps his closest friend -- and Rick Nash after five games apart, Zuccarello scored the first hat trick of his career in a 3-1 victory.
Zuccarello's line posted nine points, and he leads the team with seven goals. He had 15 during the 2014-15 season.
"It's not every day we're going to connect like this," he said after the caps and hats rained down onto the ice and the "Zuuuuuccccc" chants, which began with his empty-netter with 48.6 seconds left in regulation, ended. "But it's really nice when it happens."
It's even nicer when he is beautifully set up. "All the goals I scored, it's just Nasher and Brass,'' he said. "I'm just a lucky guy to put it in an open net. Even I can't miss every open net I get."
The re-formed line made an impact early. They used speed and pinpoint passing to convert at 9:41 of the first period, starting with Nash's rush down the left side, a pass to Brassard in the slot and his quick pass to Zuccarello, alone in the lower right circle. Zuccarello whipped the puck past Jonathan Bernier for his fifth goal of the season and a 1-0 lead.
At 5:34 of the second period, Brassard and Nash again combined with Zuccarello. On a two-on-one rush, Brassard's backhander was tapped in for a valuable insurance goal.
Bernier was pulled with just over two minutes to play, and Joffrey Lupul brought the Maple Leafs within a goal with a deflection with 1:51 left. But Zuccarello finished his hat trick with an empty-netter.