Mats Zuccarello, a proverbial diamond in the rough, is and always will be a gem in the eyes of Rangers fans. They still embrace him for having turned himself from an unknown Norwegian player into a National Hockey League dynamo. They always cherish his value to the team, even if his greatest value this season is in being trade bait.
Whenever he touches the puck and especially when he scores a goal, which he did Tuesday night for the first and second times this season, the crowd at Madison Square Garden reacts with a fervor and tenor it reserves for no one else. “Zooooooooook” is their chorus to the biggest little 5-8 player they know.
They know he was an undrafted free agent, in whom the Rangers just saw something eight years ago. They recall how the team re-signed him in 2013 when he was a free agent and how then-general manager Glen Sather figured a way under the salary cap to keep him in 2015, despite having threatened to trade him. At the time, Sather sheepishly said, “We don’t know if that ever would have happened.”
He is a special guy among teammates, too. Even those who were not here at the time know the harrowing story from Game 5 of the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinal, when he was hit in the head by a slap shot and was staggered so severely that he could not speak. Thus, when Zuccarello was blasted at the blue line late in the game against the Flames Sunday night — a shot that looked really bad at first, although it did not prove damaging and was not ruled illegal — teammate Brady Skjei immediately went after Rasmus Andersson, the guy who did it.
Even though it led to a Calgary goal, Skjei believed he had to settle a physical score. Someone had to do something because it was Zuke who was hit. Mika Zibanejad, who was united with Zuccarello before the 5-2 win over the Panthers in which each scored twice, said: “He’s the type of player who makes everyone around him good.”
All of this is backdrop to the unusual situation in which Zuccarello, 31, finds himself in 2018-19. He was among the few veterans who was spared in the housecleaning that began the rebuilding phase last winter. But the trading deadline this season will be another opportunity for the team to get younger and lower salaried. The better he plays, the more appealing he will look to someone else.
It would hurt Rangers fans to see him go, it would hurt him more. For now, all he can do is try as hard as he always has.
“I’ve been here for a long time now. It’s mutual,” Zuccarello said, with the Broadway Hat hanging in his locker stall. “I love being on the ice here, being in New York. This has been my team my whole career. Obviously, I’ve got a love for the city and the fans and the building. It’s a privilege to go out there every night and play for this team.”
Before Tuesday, it also was a struggle to play this season. The Rangers were 2-5-1 and Zuccarello was goal-less. “I never evaluate my game based on goals. I know I’m not the best goal-scorer,” he said. “But it’s always nice to get a goal now and then.”
A day earlier, Zibanejad smiled when he said he wished Zuccarello would shoot more. Late Tuesday night, Zuccarello shrugged and said, “I took two shots.”
Truth is, he has shot, scored and passed enough to have been one of only eight Rangers all-time to have led the team in points in at least four seasons. No wonder that when David Quinn wanted to shake some life into a dormant attack, he put the popular little guy on the top line. The coach said, “Give Zuke an opportunity.”
The Rangers gave Zuccarello an opportunity to play in the NHL and he has given them and their fans more than they could have imagined.