Tonight's Rangers game will be memorable for an 11-round shootout that Ryan Malone finally won for the Lightning, but the impact of Mats Zuccarello, the diminutive forward who played awfully big in his NHL debut, cannot be denied.
Zuccarello played 17:52, including four-on-four in overtime, almost had an assist when Brandon Dubinsky's shot hit the goalpost in the first period, wasn't afraid to bump in the corners, and scored a nifty forehand-backhand-forehand goal against Dan Ellis in the third round to extend the extra session before Malone’s shot gave Tampa the 4-3 win.
"Give the kid high marks," said coach John Tortorella, who told the Norwegian wunderkind that before he sent him to Hartford to play on Sunday. "He played really well and we'll have to talk with (GM) Glen (Sather) and (Assistant GM Jim) Schoenfeld and see where we're at. He made some plays that I didn't think he was going to be able to make, that little pass to Dubi early in the game, so you can see the creativity, you can see his skill, and that's something that this team needs as we continue to build it."
Zuccarello, 22, signed off a MVP year in the Swedish Elite League to a two-year deal, was controlled after his first game on Broadway. He spoke with the assurance of a guy who knows he'll be back, maybe next month, maybe next season.
"I came in pretty nervous and thinking a lot,” he said, “but once the game goes on, you are just right there. It is a fast game, but I took it well and had a decent game. We felt like we should have gotten two points." Tortorella told the right wing: "We just want you to keep on playing, and he wants to play....so I wished him good luck. He's an interesting cat, isn't he?"
It was unusual for Tortorella to throw an untested rookie in so deep, but he took the chance. "It's a hard thing…But I went in with the mindset that we need skill, our club needs skill, and I was not going to hide him. We filled him in on our foundation and how to play, but we wanted him to be creative and let his game go… Usually I start them on a lower line, but you lose Callahan, you lose Gaborik...and this kid has some skill." Asked if Zuccarello would be back on Monday when the Rangers host the Islanders, Tortorella hedged, saying it wasn't totally his call.
Another rookie, Derek Stepan, pulled the Rangers back from a 3-2 deficit at 11:18 of the third period on a tuck-in from behind the left post after his close-in backhander was stopped.
Martin St. Louis had snagged a poor Michal Rozsival pass and sailed in to beat Lundqvist high stickside at the two-minute mark of the first, just as the Garden fans---many in holiday attire---were settling in. Ruslan Fedotenko’s shot from the left circle went past Ellis' stick at 11:16 and Alex Frolov converted a rebound of Artem Anisimov's shot in a scramble in front just 12 seconds later for a 2- 1 lead. But Vinny Lecavalier tipped in a shot for a 3-2 Lightning edge at 14:42 of the second on just the 11th shot for Tampa.
Still, the Rangers came back in the third period for the third time in four game for a point and are 20-14-2 (42 points.)