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Mats Zuccarello survives Rangers’ purge, and glad he stayed

Rangers right wing Mats Zuccarello sets before a

Rangers right wing Mats Zuccarello sets before a faceoff against the Flames during the third period at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 9, 2018. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

CALGARY — Sometimes it’s not the guys who were traded away whom you feel bad for. It’s the guys who stayed behind.

Henrik Lundqvist, who celebrated his 36th birthday Friday by starting in goal against the desperately-fighting-for-a-wild card-spot Calgary Flames, is the most obvious Ranger to feel sorry for. The face of the team is playing behind a young defense every night and knows the odds of winning are long.

But there are other popular veterans going through this rebuilding process along with Lundqvist. And saying goodbye to friends and losing hockey games isn’t fun for them, either.

After the Rangers notified their fans in that Feb. 8 letter that they had decided to tear the team down and start again from scratch, Mats Zuccarello thought he was one of the guys who might be traded.

“Yeah, of course,’’ Zuccarello said after Thursday’s practice in Vancouver when he was asked if he wondered if he’d be part of the purge that sent away Nick Holden, Rick Nash, J.T. Miller and captain Ryan McDonagh before Monday’s NHL trade deadline. “I mean, in a rebuild, it’s not guaranteed that you’re still going to be here.

“Obviously, you don’t want to get traded — I love it here,’’ he said. “This is the only [NHL] team that I’ve ever played at, so, uh, it’s been a tough year all around, you know?’’

There are those who say Zuccarello, 30, has not been the same since that frightening head injury he suffered in 2015 when he was hit in the head by a shot from teammate McDonagh in a first-round playoff game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He suffered a fractured skull, had a brain contusion and bleeding on the brain, and lost the ability to speak for a few days.

But he returned the next season with career highs in goals (26) and points (61), and over the past four seasons, he’s averaged 19 goals and 57 points per year.

With the trade deadline behind him and an uncertain summer ahead, Zuccarello is focused on the present. He entered Friday on a four-game scoreless streak, but in Wednesday’s 6-5 overtime win over Vancouver, he played on a line with the newest Ranger, Vladislav Namestnikov, who had a goal and an assist in his Rangers debut after coming from Tampa Bay in the McDonagh-Miller deal.

“Really good player. Nice guy, humble. I like that,’’ Zuccarello said of Namestnikov. “He plays with some swagger on the ice and [he’s] really good with the puck. I really enjoyed his game [Wednesday], so I think we have a lot of younger players that are playing good and are going to be good hockey players.

“But for me, I think the most important thing is that you play with heart and effort every game,’’ he said. “You play with 100 percent every game, and if you do that, we’re going to be all right.’’

New York Sports