WASHINGTON — Henrik Lundqvist was fine when he was talking about the game, and the goals he allowed, and all the other stuff that occurred during the Rangers’ 6-5 overtime loss to the Capitals on Sunday.
Then he was asked to talk about Mats Zuccarello, his best friend on the team, who was traded to Dallas on Saturday night for a conditional second-round pick in 2019 and a conditional third-rounder in 2020.
That was a lot harder.
“It’s tough,’’ Lundqvist said after a long pause, his voice cracking, his face contorting and tears welling up in his eyes.
“He’s my friend . . . ,’’ Lundqvist tried saying before realizing it was pointless to go on.
“I can’t talk,’’ he finally said. And that was that.
But if he couldn’t say out loud what Zuccarello meant to him, Lundqvist did share his feelings about him on Twitter on Saturday night. He posted a photo of them celebrating together on the ice the night the Rangers beat the Canadiens in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals to book their ticket to the Stanley Cup Final.
“One of the most unique player [sic] and teammate I ever played with. Brings so much to the table. Will miss you a ton!’’ Lundqvist tweeted, adding a sad- face emoji and continuing to describe the photo by saying, “My favorite moment as a Ranger, ‘We’re going to the finals!!’ #36 #Zuuuuk’’
(In his first game for Dallas on Sunday, Zuccarello had a goal and an assist against the Blackhawks — but suffered an upper-body injury (possibly a broken right arm) while blocking a shot and reportedly is expected to miss at least four weeks.)
It isn’t only Lundqvist who loves Zuccarello. The (allegedly) 5-8 Norwegian right wing, who signed with the Rangers as a free agent in the summer of 2010, was beloved by all in Rangers universe — from his teammates to his coaches to the fans delivering tributes to him on Twitter.
Everyone knew Zuccarello had to go because he is 31 and in the last year of his contract, about to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. Once the Rangers decided they weren’t going to sign him to a contract extension, they had to move him to get assets back.
The 2019 second-round pick they received will become a first-rounder if the Stars win two playoff rounds. The 2020 third-rounder will become a first-rounder if Zuccarello signs a contract to stay in Dallas.
Zuccarello was the first Ranger to go in the hours leading up to Monday’s 3 p.m. NHL trade deadline. Forward Kevin Hayes and defenseman Adam McQuaid, also set to become unrestricted free agents this summer, are almost certain to be traded. They were held out of the lineup for the second straight game Sunday to protect them against potential injury.
Former linemate Mika Zibanejad, who also was close to Zuccarello, said the emotions he and the rest of the team felt Sunday were different from what they felt Saturday — when they anticipated Zuccarello would be traded — but no less sad.
“I found out it happened yesterday, around dinner, and I talked to him,’’ Zibanejad said. “I talked to him after . . . last night. It [stinks]. Not only is he a great hockey player and a great leader in the group — and the guy a lot of people turn to and look at for a guy leading by example — but for me personally, and a few others on the team as well, he’s a really close friend of mine. We became really good friends over these two-and-a-half, three years I was here. It’s obviously not going to break up just because we don’t play on the same team, but it [stinks].
“Obviously, you’d rather have him here, but you’ve got to kind of move past it and wish him all the best. He deserves it. Obviously, I want to see him back here in July [as a free-agent signing].’’