At 5-foot-7, you might not notice Mats Zuccarello walking down Broadway. But on the ice, the diminutive forward sticks out like a dinghy at a Yacht Club.
The average NHL player is just over 6-foot-1, with legs the size of tree trunks and shoulders you could build a city on. So it’s impossible not to notice – and root for – a guy they call The Hobbit. Recently though, it hasn’t been Zuccarello’s size that has distinguished him on the ice. It’s been his play.
Since being united with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider at the start of November, Zuccarello has pushed his game to a height many thought was out of his reach. I myself was one of the skeptics – questioning whether Zuccarello would even stay in the lineup upon Rick Nash’s return – not because of Zuccarello’s ability but because of his consistency.
He has always shown flashes of brilliance with the Rangers. It’s what has kept Glen Sather calling, a general manager smitten with his own discovery. But it’s also what’s kept his commitments short, for flashes aren’t enough to earn a man a long-term contract. (In four years with the Rangers, Zuccarello has played under three contracts.)
Early on this season, the flashes were few and far between. He was pointless through the first seven games, and had nothing but a depleted roster to thank for a spot in the lineup. It sounds farcical now, but had Nash, Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin all been healthy in October, Zuccarello might not even be with this team anymore.
But they sure are happy he is. For the only thing flashy about Zuccarello’s game of late have been those silky smooth hands of his. Otherwise, the Norwegian forward has been an unwavering bright spot, a steady beam of light illuminating a season growing increasingly brighter.
The Rangers struggled mightily out of the gates, but have won eight of their last twelve since Zuccarello teamed up with Kreider and Stepan. And Zuccarello has ten points in that span, nine of them coming as assists. He’s a clever passer with uncommon vision – which makes it two of them on that line – often making the play that no one else sees. (Except for that other guy on his line, of course. Chemistry, right?)
He’s thriving right now inside a system that asks for creativity. But even when the offense devolves into an old-fashioned game of cycling, of getting pucks deep and winning battles below the goal line, Zuccarello has proved up to the task. He showed prowess in both these areas Saturday night against Nashville, first working the puck from the half-boards to the point on the Rangers’ first goal and then sliding a nifty pass over to Stepan on an odd man rush on their second.
And when he’s not creating offense, he seems to be harrying the enemy, a little man playing with a big man’s insolence. Like most small hockey players, he relishes the opportunity to face up with the biggest guys he can find, commonly taking runs at the Zdeno Chara’s and Paul Gaustad’s of the league to let everyone know he’s not afraid. And thus the way he earns respect is by showing very little of it.
That’s always been a part of his game. This consistency, now extended over three weeks of play, has not. And it has Zuccarello, not so long ago a player with an expiration date, looking like a very big part of this Rangers team.
Some critics might denounce the fact that a fringe player is taking a lead role for a club with Stanley Cup aspirations. They might say it’s a bad reflection on the team. If Zuccarello is one of your most important players, you’re too thin up front.
But there are two sides to that argument. And the other side says that good teams need balance. And good teams that want to play deep into the spring need at least one or two players to exceed expectations. To give the team something they weren’t banking on in October.
Zuccarello’s emergence has allowed Alain Vigneault to separate his best players. Now, you have Nash on one line, Stepan on another, and perhaps even Callahan on a third. The result is three lines, not just one, creating consistent offense.
It’s players like the aforementioned three that you are still most likely to notice while watching this team play. One’s a generational talent, one’s a prescient playmaker, and the other makes up for being neither of these things by playing harder than anyone on the ice.
But keep an eye on Zuccarello, if you can spot him. He’s doing a number of things well for the Rangers right now, which, for the first time in his NHL career, is making his play stand out more than his size.
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