NEW YORK (AP) — Mats Zuccarello has worked hard to become a consistent scoring leader for the New York Rangers.
The 29-year-old Norwegian shuffled between the minors and the NHL after signing with the Rangers in 2010. He spent the 2012-13 season in the KHL during the NHL lockout before re-signing with New York in March 2013. Zuccarello then had a breakout season after that and has led the Rangers in scoring three of the last four years.
“He wasn’t even a regular player my first year and earned his spot with (Derick Brassard) and (Benoit) Pouliot, which became a real good line for us,” said Alain Vigneault, who took over as coach of the Rangers in June 2013 and led them to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season. “And ever since then he’s been improving his game both offensively and defensively.”
Two years ago, Zuccarello suffered a head injury that nearly ended his career when he took a slap shot by teammate Ryan McDonagh to the back of his helmet early in Game 5 of a first-round series against Pittsburgh. He sustained a fractured skull that caused bleeding in his brain.
He’s bounced back strong since then, putting up team highs of 61 points in 2015-16 and 59 this season. Now, after getting the tying and go-ahead goals in the clinching Game 6 victory against Montreal in the first round, the 5-foot-7 right wing leads the Rangers against the Senators in the Eastern Conference semifinals that begin Thursday night in Ottawa.
Zuccarello scored three goals in the first round, leading a balanced offence that had eight players scoring a goal and 18 getting at least a point. New York, which boasted four strong lines during the season, is the only remaining playoff team that had at least one player with 20 or more points on each line.
“They’re a deep team,” said Ottawa’s Viktor Stalberg, who played for the Rangers last season. “They’ve got good speed up front. … I thought we did a good job last series and we’re excited about this matchup. We really feel like there’s a chance for us to do something here, but it’s going to be tough. We got our work cut out for us.”
The Senators also roll out four good lines that can play up-tempo to support a strong neutral-zone defense. Defenseman and captain Erik Karlsson led the team during the season with 71 points, and had six assists in the first round.
Some other things to know about the Rangers-Senators series:
In addition to Stalberg (Senators) and Matt Puempel (Rangers), both teams will each see another familiar face on the other bench: A trade last summer sent Brassard to Ottawa and Mika Zibanejad to the Rangers. Both played well in the first round, with Brassard leading the Senators with eight points, and Zibanejad tops on the Rangers with four.
Brassard spent four seasons in New York and still has many close friends on the Rangers.
“Definitely going to tell all the players that Brass, for the next two weeks, is not their friend anymore,” Vigneault joked. “There will be no tapping of the butt as they go by on the ice. … We’re going to have to play him hard, we’re going to have to play him smart. And they can get together after the series.”
After outplaying Carey Price, the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist now goes against the Senators’ Craig Anderson. Lundqvist was sharp against the Canadiens, earning his 10th postseason shutout and making a career-high 54 saves in the overtime loss in Game 2. He finished the series with a 1.70 GAA and .947 save percentage. Anderson had a 1.94 GAA and a .921 save percentage against Boston and also had a shutout.
The Rangers scored at least one power-play goal in 10 of the last 15 games of the season, going 13 for 38 in that stretch. They were then 0 for 14 over the first five games of the first round before scoring on their lone chance in Game 6. Ottawa closed the season 1 for 17 on the power play over the last seven games, and then went 5 for 23 in the first round. Both teams were just under 80 percent on the penalty-kill during the season. The Rangers then went 17 for 20 in the opening round against Montreal, while the Senators were 13 for 16 against the Bruins.
The teams are meeting in the playoffs for the second time. The Rangers won in seven games in the first round in 2012. The Senators won two of three matchups during this regular season. Anderson was in goal for both Senators wins, while Lundqvist only played in the Rangers’ 3-1 loss at Ottawa on April 8.