Monday will mark the second anniversary of a hideous moment for Mats Zuccarello. On Saturday night, the diminutive Rangers forward put up another memorable game to help put that awful night in 2015 further behind him.
Zuccarello scored twice in the second period, with the second goal proving to be the game-winner and series-clincher as the Rangers dispatched the Canadiens in six games with a 3-1 victory at Madison Square Garden.
It certainly was the best playoff night in a long while for the 5-7 Zuccarello, who missed the bulk of the Rangers’ run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2015 after being struck in the head by Ryan McDonagh’s slap shot in Game 5 of the first-round series against the Penguins.
Left unable to speak for much of that summer, Zuccarello made a tremendous recovery to play all of the last two seasons unscathed. And on Saturday night, he provided the offensive force that drove the Rangers into the second round.
“The heart of a lion,” teammate Derek Stepan said. “I’ve said it before, he’s my favorite player to watch. He’s so skilled, he plays big — he’s on that superstar level, the elite of the elite, to me.”
Zuccarello demurred when asked if he thinks much about that night from 2015 and the months that followed. “I miss some words now and then, but I don’t think about it that much,” he said.
He made plenty happen in the second period, starting with the Rangers’ first power-play goal of the series. His wrister snaked through Carey Price to tie a game that the Canadiens had threatened to take over after a desperate first period.
The second goal was the product of pure work by Zuccarello and linemates Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller. Zuccarello finished the series with a team-high three goals, but Miller and Hayes had lagged. They all contributed as Hayes whipped a pass for Zuccarello at the side of the net and he banked in a shot off Price’s pads.
“It’s special for sure,” Zuccarello said. “It’s special to do it in front of the fans who have supported us for so long. I’m going to enjoy it tonight. But then we have to regroup for the next series. It’s only one round.”
One round is all Zuccarello had the previous two springs. His Rangers were bounced in five games last year and he managed to leave the hospital to attend one of the games in the 2015 Eastern Conference finals.
Now the Rangers are on to the second round and Zuccarello is leading the charge. It’s a long way from two years ago.