International Ice Hockey Federation

Mats the man

Mats the man

Zuccarello writes Norwegian NHL history

Published 13.08.2014 16:05 GMT+2 | Author John Sanful
Mats the man
Mats Zuccarello does not only shine on the Norwegian national team but not also with the New York Rangers in the NHL. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Mats Zuccarello has turned an improbable tale of a diminutive player from a country not known for its ice hockey prowess into a success story on Broadway.

Zuccarello has played big for the New York Rangers throughout the regular season and playoffs. As the team’s leading regular-season scorer, he’s been a steady and dependable forward.

In the playoffs, Zuccarello was a revelation. With five goals and 13 points, he was among the team’s scoring leaders while averaging a little over 17 minutes of ice time per game. But he also showed a willingness to take the body and play close quarter NHL playoff style hockey and thrive at it.

A native of Oslo, Zuccarello was the first Norwegian-born player to make it into the Stanley Cup finals. For this reason and his personal success on the ice, Zuccarello is the standard bearer in his country when it comes to ice hockey and visited in the locker room by several Norwegian media representatives after each game of the series.

“We had luck on our side,” Zuccarello said after his team’s only win in the final in Game 4. “They had some chances here but the puck didn’t go in. It’s equitable justice and that’s good to see. From my side we can have three more games like this as long as we win. It’s all about winning. It’s playoffs. You play a game and then it’s forgotten when you play the next.”

The Rangers’ leading scorer over the regular season, Zuccarello played his most important hockey through May and June in leading the Rangers into the Stanley Cup finals.

In fact, his performance got stronger as the season came to a close. Zuccarello scored 24 points in his final 25 regular-season games. His confidence and contribution this season among big names like Martin St-Louis, Rick Nash and Brad Richards belied the fact that he was not part of the Rangers plans just one-and-a-half years ago and spent most of the 2011/2012 season with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate Connecticut Whale.

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Even with his contributions throughout the season and into the playoffs, Zuccarello is humble regarding his success. While he did not get on the scoreboard or, to his mind, played well in Game Four, the win is what was important.

“It is not the best game I’ve played but everybody is working hard,” Zuccarello said. “It’s the Stanley Cup final, you don’t have it every day. It’s hard work that counts. We won thanks to team effort, hard work and physical play.”

Undrafted Zuccarello was not brought in by the Rangers as a high-priced free agent expected to produce big numbers off the bat. Instead, he was signed in the hopes he might bolster the Rangers offence.

Zuccarello started playing hockey as a young boy in his native Norway. He excelled at hockey as a youth and moved through to the professional ranks. As a member of Frisk Asker of the Norwegian league, he played three years in the top senior league before moving to the Swedish Elitserien.

In his second season with MODO Ornskoldsvik in Sweden, he led the league in goals and total scoring. Zuccarello won the Golden Helmet as the league MVP. Created in 1986, the Golden Helmet has boasted some of Sweden’s best players as most valuable player. Zuccarello kept good company with players such as Hakan Loob, Peter Forsberg and current teammate Henrik Lundqvist, who won the Golden Helmet in 2005 with Frolunda Gothenburg.

Zuccarello had demonstrated his ability at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and then the World Championship that spring in representing Norway. It was enough to earn consideration from the Rangers who signed him with the thought that Zuccarello would be a contributor at some point.

Zuccarello was billed as a small but shifty forward who had offensive talent that could help the team. Nevermind the fact that he was from a country that has not produced too many NHL players, Zuccarello was thought to be the player capable of providing offence on a New York team that desperately needed it.

In his first two seasons in North America, Zuccarello split time between the Rangers and the Connecticut Whale. While he put up good numbers with the Whale, he was not able to fully find a place with the big club.

When it appeared things were not working out, Zuccarello signed with the KHL’s Metallurg Magnitogorsk after the 2012 NHL postseason. Who could tell what would happen. Normally when a player does not make the NHL and returns to Europe, they stay rather than go back and face the rigors of life in the National Hockey League. But once the labour conflict in the NHL and Metallurg’s KHL season was over, Zuccarello wanted to get back to the NHL and spent the rest of the season with the Rangers.

Zuccarello spent much time talking to then-Metallurg head coach Paul Maurice, who knew a thing or two about the NHL as a longtime coach with the Carolina Hurricanes.

"When I got over there, I had Paul Maurice as my coach," Zuccarello said. "I talked to him a lot while I was there, about doing what I could to try and get back to the NHL. Talking to him, listening to him, that really helped me."

The Rangers resigned Zuccarello late in March 2013, just prior to the playoffs. He returned with new confidence and played well. This change was certainly noticeable.

When John Tortorella was fired as head coach, Zuccarello worked his way into a regular role in new head coach Alain Vigneault’s squad. While there were some early struggles, including being scratched from the lineup, Zuccarello soon found his place and thrived under Vigneault, leading the team in scoring with 19 goals and 59 points in 77 games played.

Zuccarello is already one of the most prominent players in Norwegian history for his accomplishments in the NHL. With his 30 goals, he has already tied Espen Knutsen for the most tallies by a player from Norway. With 93 points as a Ranger, Zuccarello is 18 points away from being the leading all-time point scorer from his country in the NHL.

The Rangers lost Game Five in Los Angeles and the Cup went to the Kings. It was a bitter ending for an otherwise successful season for Zuccarello.


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