From behind the Stars’ net, Jason Dickinson picked up a loose puck and fired it around the boards. Waiting on the boards, there he was, in victory green, white and black, wearing his number 36 to stop and control the breakout pass from his new teammate. He turned around and made a quick move to avoid being checked by the Blackhawks’ Marcus Kruger and hit a streaking Radek Faksa in the middle of the ice. The pass created a breakaway for Faksa, which led a 1-0 Stars lead.
The play happened so quickly that if you didn’t know Mats Zuccarello had left New York at 5 a.m. on Sunday morning to play in this game 10 hours later, with players he had never before played with, you would have thought he and Faksa had been playing together for years. The idea Zuccarello knew where was Faksa was going to be, and when, and was able to time the pass to hit him in stride behind the defenseman with essentially a no-look pass was remarkable. It only took 11 minutes and 35 seconds of hockey for the Stars’ trade of Zuccarello to pay off.
One minute and 44 seconds into the second period, the Stars’ newest player would contribute again to the team’s eventual 4-3 win to maintain their first wild-card spot in the West. Tyler Seguin muscled through the defense of Gustav Forsling to find Zuccarello sitting alone in the left circle. Seguin managed to push the puck across the slot to Zuccarello, and he banged home a one-timer.
It was a little over eight years ago, on Christmas Eve, when the Rangers called up Zuccarello to make his NHL debut. A skilled, undrafted Norwegian forward, Zuccarello’s shootout success in the AHL had become a major selling point in New York, where the Rangers desperately needed help in obtaining the extra point. And it didn’t take long for him to get a chance to show his shootout abilities, as the Rangers found themselves in one against the Lightning in his first NHL game.
I can still see him standing at center ice waiting to begin his attempt with Sam Rosen setting the stage.
“In his first NHL game, here he comes, in against Dan Ellis, to keep it alive … slows down … fakes … SCORES!”
Zuccarello celebrated with a subtle fist pump while the MSG cameras panned to the bench where the rest of the team erupted. Zuccarello had done the impossible by getting a smile out of John Tortorella, who was in disbelief at the incredibly slow pace and maneuver used by the miniature rookie to find the back of the net. For a while, that same move became Zuccarello’s signature shootout move, and it seemed like it might never get stopped, despite every goalie in the league knowing it was coming.
Zuccarello became a fan favorite in New York as his jersey became the most popular non-Henrik Lundqvist wardrobe choice of Rangers fans. He was part of the Rangers for seven postseasons, three conference finals and one Stanley Cup Final, falling short of the team’s quest for a championship in their most recent window of opportunity.
Last season, Zuccarello watched as the core of the Rangers continued to be destroyed with Ryan McDonagh and J.T. Miller joining Ryan Callahan, Anton Stralman and Dan Girardi in Tampa Bay and Rick Nash being sent to Boston. Entering this season, Zuccarello’s impending free agency made him a coveted trade asset for the Rangers and the idea of him being separated from the Rangers and his best friend Lundqvist, literally started to ruin his life off the ice and diminish his play on it.
There was still hope the front office and Zuccarello could come to terms on an extension, but when the news broke on Saturday that he would be a healthy scratch for the Rangers’ afternoon game against the Devils, it became clear Zuccarello had played his last game as a Ranger. There is still the idea the Rangers could re-sign him in the offseason, but as a soon-to-be 32-year-old who likely wouldn’t be part of the next competitive Rangers team, coupled with the fact the Rangers let him go in the first place, it’s highly unlikely.
It took an incredible amount of poor personnel decisions, bad big-money contracts, horrible trades and nonsensical negotiating tactics to get to this point. This point being where the 2013-2016 Rangers have been stripped down to Lundqvist, Chris Kreider, Marc Staal and Jesper Fast with no real talent on the way, no timeline for the next competitive/playoff season and no idea when the next window to contend for the Stanley Cup might be.
It should have never come to this and had the Rangers been able to knock off the Devils in 2011-12 or been able to hold a two-goal lead or win an overtime game against the Kings in 2013-14 or hadn’t lost Game 7 at home to the Lightning in 2014-15 then none of this would matter now. The Rangers would have accomplished their goal, they wouldn’t have wasted Lundqvist’s prime and they would have won in the small timeframe they had to win. Instead, those three seasons are remembered as what could have been rather than what was.
Like Lundqvist and the other staples of this recent Rangers team, Zuccarello deserved better than to watch the best years of this core be wasted by jettisoning out the wrong players, and most egregiously, extending the wrong defensemen. Zuccarello deserved better than to spend the 2017-18 season on a team built as if it could still win and he deserved better than to play his last season for the Rangers on a team secretly hoping it would be bad enough to land the top pick in the 2019 draft.
When I turned on the Dallas-Chicago game on Sunday, it became real. It felt wrong to see Mats Zuccarello in others colors, for another team, but it made me smile to see him smile when he celebrated with Seguin, pointing at Seguin the way he would point at his Rangers teammates following a goal.
The camera zoomed in on Zuccarello and sticking out against the victory green, silver, black and white of his new jersey was a Rangers blue undershirt. Maybe, just maybe, he and the Rangers can come to terms on a new deal this summer. Otherwise, that blue Rangers undershirt is the closest Rangers fans will ever get to seeing him wear a Rangers jersey again.