WASHINGTON - The Rangers don't have a string of players sidelined by injuries like their first-round foe, the Pittsburgh Penguins. However, a piece of the puzzle on the team that won the Presidents' Trophy remains missing.
Mats Zuccarello, who scored 15 goals and 49 points during the regular season, is resting at home and recovering from the effects of being struck in the head with a shot while battling in front of the Penguins net on April 24. Several players said Tuesday they had spoken to the popular Norwegian winger recently and that he was in relatively good spirits, "just waiting it out." The team has only said that Zuccarello is out indefinitely; a spokesman had no update Tuesday.
So Zuccarello, whose creativity on the ice and zest for the sport is evident, will miss his fourth postseason game Wednesday night when the Rangers, trailing the Capitals 2-1 in their second-round playoff series, lace up the skates for Game 4.
Before he was injured in Game 5 of the Pittsburgh series at Madison Square Garden and hospitalized for a night, Zuccarello had played just 4:56, but already had three shots on goal, two misses, a hit and a blocked shot. In the previous four games, he had two assists on the power play, 10 shots and nine hits, while playing about 17 minutes a night.
Without a doubt, Zuccarello made his presence felt, especially his chemistry with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard. Nash had 43 goals and Brassard posted career highs in goals (19), assists (41) and points (60).
Tuesday, Brassard said the Rangers miss "the passion [Zuccarello] brings . . . He's someone that competes every night, he shows up to play every night. We're missing that a lot obviously. The way he plays the game, it's a big loss for our team, but we try not to think about it too much. Right now, we're not scoring a lot of goals, so everyone, as a team, has to step up."
Said Derek Stepan: "It's a big hole, we have to have guys fill in and do the best we can to produce with him out."
In four regular-season games against the Capitals, Zuccarello had three assists. In his absence, with three reconstituted lines, the Rangers are 1-2 against the Capitals and have scored just four goals.
Slumping Martin St. Louis has played the last three games in Zuccarello's slot, and has one assist. But coach Alain Vigneault thinks that line is "close to being difference-makers. You've got to believe in these tight games, sooner or later, it's going to pay off. This is a results-oriented business; you can play real well and do the right things with and without the puck at both ends and through the neutral zone," Vigneault said.
"But at the end of the day, you expect Marty St. Louis to find the back of the net. You expect Rick Nash to find the back of the net. You expect Derick Brassard to help those two guys and himself find the back of the net. But with the quality of the goaltending we're seeing and the quality of defensive play from both teams, there are not a lot of Grade A chances."
Notes & quotes:In each of their last three playoff series and in five of their last seven, the Rangers have won Game 4. They also have won both of the last two series in which they trailed two games to one (against Pittsburgh in 2014 and Washington in 2013).