Rangers’ Zuccarello changing game for the better

Mats Zuccarello has improved his game, and is fighting to remain in the NHL. (AP/Niklas Larsson)

Sometimes, all a player needs is some time away from the NHL in order to succeed.

This is exactly the case for New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello. After spending much of last season down in the AHL and part of this year playing overseas, Zuccarello is back in the NHL and is trying to show that he can be a full-time player in the league.

Before last night’s game between the Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden, Rangers head coach John Tortorella told team web site beat writer Jim Cerny that Zuccarello had to be proactive and get something done in order to help the hockey club.

Zuccarello, 25, must have gotten the message as he showed the team and their head coach why he belongs in the NHL again. He worked hard, was not afraid to go to the net, got into some rough stuff with Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf and when it mattered most, he came through in the clutch with the game-winning goal in a Rangers 3-2 shootout win.

This was a long time coming for the man everyone calls “Frodo” because of his small stature. Things have not always been easy for the Norwegian-born forward but with his clutch shootout goal and being given the “Broadway Hat” by his teammates as the club’s most valuable player last night, it looks as if Zuccarello’s game has changed for the better.

When Zuccarello first came to the Rangers during the 2010-11 season, he was someone that could create some offence and score some big goals in the shootout. That season, Zuccarello had six goals and 17 assists for 23 points in 42 games and had a few game-deciding goals in the shootout.

With that said, Zuccarello could not do much else as a player. He had trouble staying on his feet as he could easily be knocked off the puck and was also someone who had a lot of trouble in his own zone.

If you are a player in Tortorella’s system, that kind of play will not work. After playing in just 10 games last season and having two goals and one assist, he was sent down to the Connecticut Whale of the AHL where was just about a point-per-game player with 36 points (12 goals and 24 assists) in 37 games.

After the season, however, Zuccarello went to the KHL to play with Magnitogorsk Metallurg and did well in 44 games with the team. Zuccarello scored 11 goals and added 17 assists while also contributing four points (two goals and two assists) in seven playoff games.

When the Rangers were struggling to generate consistent offence in late February and early March, Rangers general manager Glen Sather looked into getting Zuccarello back. A few weeks later, the team signed Zuccarello to a one-year, prorated $700,000 deal.

While he has played in just six games with the team so far, it is easy to see that Zuccarello is a different player this time around. His offence is still there, he has more of a nose for the net, he does a much better job of back-checking and because he has retooled his game, Tortorella is giving him more minutes.

The key for Zuccarello now will be to continue his strong play while also continuing to show the team and its coaching staff that his game has changed more than enough to be a regular in the NHL.

For tonight at least, Zuccarello came through like an NHLer when it mattered most.

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