Perhaps the most whimsical sight in the Rangers' locker room this season has been diminutive Mats Zuccarello wearing a baseball cap with the logo from the movie "Goon."
The Norwegian winger is the polar opposite of a hulking enforcer, playing with skill, savvy and an edge all season, and has been the major surprise for the Rangers, who are hovering around .500.
Now 26, Zuccarello, who came to New York as a free agent with the nickname "The Hobbit" in 2010, has been more of a wizard, on pace for a 60-point season that should earn him a longer deal to stay in New York, where he wants to play. He sent that message to management by accepting arbitration last summer, and has become one of the best bargains in the league, already earning every cent of his $1.15 million salary.
The year didn't start well for Zuccarello, and coach Alain Vigneault made him a healthy scratch on Oct. 24th in Philadelphia. But he responded to the benching "like a real pro," Vigneault said, and has been a difference-maker since then.
The 5-7 winger has 10 goals and 20 assists in the last 34 games, leads the team in assists and points, and is tied for first in goals with 10. No small feat.
He has sparked the power play, with 13 points, and has shone in the shootout, scoring twice in four tries and upping his career mark to 8-for-16.
"I'm just trying to compete every night," said Zuccarello, an Oslo native who skated for the Norwegian Olympic team in 2010 and will be named to the squad again next week. But right now, he's concentrating on helping the Rangers.
"It was cool to see the announcement of the U.S. team," he said. "It's not that big of an announcement for Norway. You don't have to be a scientist to know we're not going to win the Olympics, with the caliber of the NHL players on other teams," said Zuccarello, who was 1-2-3 in four games in 2010, including a 5-4 overtime loss to Switzerland. "But at the same time, we've qualified for a reason, we're excited to be there, and going to do our best every game. We're probably going to come up short against the big teams. But if we can win a game, or somehow two, that would be great."
Zuccarello, who played in Sweden earlier in his career, appears to have adapted from the European style to the NHL game, as Vigneault noted when talking about both he and another Rangers winger who has been very productive recently, Benoit Pouliot.
"Both guys were having a really hard time, both sat out, both didn't complain to the world about sitting," Vigneault said. "They rolled up their sleeves and got to work. I thought they were working hard but they both analyzed their game and found a way to get it back on track."
What's impressive about Zuccarello is his attitude. He's survived AHL bus trips, injuries and a stint in the KHL during the lockout. It sounds like a cliché, but he seems to be enjoying himself in practice and in games. And he has cornered the market when it comes to playful headgear.
During training camp in Banff, Alberta, for example, he unearthed a blue Jofa helmet with number 99 pasted on, and sauntered around with that Wayne Gretzky facsimile. "No, I wouldn't wear it on the ice," he told me back then. "I don't have the stones to do that."
The Hobbit's Journey
2010-11 (NYR) 6-17-23 in 42 games
2010-11 (AHL) 13-16-29 in 36
2011-12 (NYR) 2-1-3 in 10
2011-12 (AHL) 12-24-36 in 37
2012-13 (NYR) 3-5-8 in 15
2013-14 (NYR) 10-20-30 in 41 games
The house that Lundqvist built?
For the Stadium Series games in the Bronx against the Islanders and Devils at the end of the month, Henrik Lundqvist will wear pinstriped pads and a mask that honors Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio.
Rookie Conor Allen on some differences between the NHL and AHL: "I'm playing fewer minutes per game; I was up to around 25 in Hartford. And the food. You don't eat as much in the AHL; I'm eating all the time, there's always food around. I'm not complaining, mind you." . . . Chris Kreider, after a haircut: "With my helmet on, I was starting to look like Carrot Top with dark hair."