Zuccarello’s 1st career hat trick in Rangers win over Maple Leafs

Mats Zuccarello recorded his first career hat trick highlighting last night’s 3-1 Rangers win over the Maple Leafs. Reunited with Rick Nash and Derick Brassard, Zuccarello scored once in the second period and twice in the third as the Blueshirts improved to 7-2-2 on the season.

I missed the game but caught highlights. Zuccarello’s first two goals came off pretty set ups from Brassard, who tallied three assists in the victory. Entering Friday, the Rangers center had only two assists in the first 10 games. Coach Alain Vigneault put back together the top line and it paid dividends. Nash also had three assists as the dynamic trio combined for nine points.

On Zuccarello’s first tally, Dan Boyle kept a puck in chipping it down to Nash who started a tic-tac-toe scoring play with Brassard who dished across for a Zuccarello tap in. With the Rangers ahead 1-0, Nash chipped a puck out of the zone leading to a 2-on-1 rush with Brassard threading the needle with a perfect backhand saucer feed for a sweet Zuccarello finish.

The Leafs cut the deficit in half with less than two minutes left in regulation. With goalie Jonathan Bernier pulled for an extra attacker, a Dion Phaneuf one-timer was redirected in front by Joffrey Lupul with 1:51 remaining. Morgan Rielly drew a helper.

At the start of the third, the Leafs had an apparent tying goal wiped out due to “incidental contact.” Only 18 seconds in, ex-Ranger Matt Hunwick fired a shot from a sharp angle that trickled past Henrik Lundqvist who protested. Lupul was in front screening when his skate accidentally made contact with Lundqvist. He barely touched him. But it was enough to cost Toronto. Coach Mike Babcock lost the challenge.

Following Lupul’s goal that cut it to 2-1, Zuccarello completed the hat trick thanks to an unselfish Brassard who passed for Zuccarello who scored into an empty net resulting in plenty of hats on the Garden ice on All Hallow’s Eve. It was a nice reward for a hard working player who always brings it.

To think that Zuccarello is leading the Blueshirts in scoring with seven goals and nine points is a credit to the kind of character he has. It was at the conclusion of the first round that he sustained a serious injury taking a Ryan McDonagh shot off his helmet causing a hairline fracture in his skull and brain contusion. It’s astonishing that the pint sized Norwegian with the huge heart has been able to come back and be the same player. Behind Lundqvist, he’s easily a fan favorite. I am speechless.

If you told me that this team would be 7-2-2 with Nash and Chris Kreider only scoring a combined two goals with only one going into the net, I would’ve called you crazy. The Rangers are finding ways to win despite not playing their best hockey. Kreider and Derek Stepan each have five points. Nash has six. McDonagh has one assist. Until Friday, Brassard was a huge disappointment.

Not many players have played up to par. However, Lundqvist has been brilliant winning five of nine starts with a 1.87 goals-against-average and .943 save percentage. Backup Antti Raanta has replaced Cam Talbot by going 2-0-0 allowing just one goal in two starts. So they’re getting the goaltending.

The play of Swedish rookie Oscar Lindberg has been pivotal. His five goals have been huge. The third line has been the team’s most consistent. The fourth line isn’t scoring with just one goal from Dominic Moore and two helpers from Jarret Stoll. Viktor Stalberg (concussion) missed his second consecutive game. Emerson Etem played again.

The defense hasn’t been great. Vigneault has mixed up his pairings replacing Dan Girardi with the steady Kevin Klein on the top pair with McDonagh. Klein continues to perform well with two goals and a team best plus-eight rating. Girardi now works with Keith Yandle, who leads all Ranger defensemen with six points (1-5-6). Marc Staal and Boyle comprise the third pair. While both have improved their play, they remain susceptible in their end.

I disagree with Vigneault on Dylan McIlrath. He did enough in camp and preseason to get more than one game. I get that the third-year coach wants to establish consistency with the team’s vets on the back end. However, he should also give Boyle nights off when the schedule picks up. Ditto Girardi, who isn’t the same player.

There’s no point in having McIlrath on the roster if he isn’t gonna play. The Rangers next game isn’t till Tuesday against the Caps. If McIlrath doesn’t get in soon, they should send him down to Hartford on a conditioning assignment and recall Raphael Diaz. Keeping McIlrath fresh is important.

The schedule picks up with a back-to-back at Colorado and Arizona 11/6-7. Maybe that’s an opportunity for McIlrath to get back in and rest a vet. Over an 82-game schedule, Vigneault must manage his older defensemen. He should take into consideration how much hockey his core has played over the last two years. That’s a point of emphasis.

There isn’t much else to add. The Rangers are in first place. The Caps are also off to a good start at 7-2-0. They should pose an early test on Tuesday. The Islanders are 6-2-2 and play a classic home-and-home this weekend with the surprising Devils (5-4-1). That gets underway this afternoon. Either myself or Hasan will have a recap later. The Pens are 6-4-0 despite not getting much from Sidney Crosby or Phil Kessel.

The Metro Division will be good all season. It should be fun to follow. To those out celebrating, Happy Halloween! Be safe out there. Trick-or-treat! 😉

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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