Zuccarello puts on show for streaking Rangers in 4-3 win over Leafs

This Zucc's For You: Mats Zuccarello celebrates his game-winning goal with less than a minute left in the Rangers' 4-3 win over the Leafs. AP Photo by Seth Wenig/Getty Images

This Zucc’s For You: Mats Zuccarello celebrates his game-winning goal with less than a minute left in the Rangers’ 4-3 win over the Leafs. AP Photo by Seth Wenig/Getty Images

How hot a start is it for Mats Zuccarello? Another three-point effort from the Rangers’ leading scorer was the difference in an exciting 4-3 home win over the Maple Leafs at MSG Sunday night. His team-leading ninth goal with 53.3 seconds left in regulation gave the Blueshirts a ninth straight win.

It’s the first time they’ve won that many in a row in 43 years. They’re now 14-2-2 with a league best 30 points. The 18-game start is the best in franchise history.

“He’s on top of his game,” coach Alain Vigneault said afterwards of the 28-year old Norwegian who’s become his team’s most consistent skater. “He’s been playing real well and his enthusiasm is contagious.

“There’s no doubt that he is well liked and well respected by his teammates, and I think everyone is happy that he’s playing so well right now.”

During the nine-game winning streak, Zuccarello has starred recording 12 points (5-7-12). Over a stretch that’s seen the Blueshirts outscore opponents 32-13, he has posted three multi-point games. That included his first hat trick in a Oct. 30 win over Toronto. In a recent 6-3 win over St. Louis, he had a goal and two assists. A day after being held in check in a 2-1 shootout victory at Ottawa thanks to Dan Boyle, he was at it again posting his third three-point game in the last eight.

The more they win, the more Zuccarello’s imprints are on the team’s play. It’s not just having a knack for scoring the big goal as he did when he backhanded home a Ryan McDonagh rebound past Jonathan Bernier at 19:06. It’s the play making too. He also set up two goals with brilliant feeds. The first was to a trailing McDonagh who converted a 3-on-1 to tie the score 44 seconds into the second period.

“When you (have) more confidence, you make those plays,” Zuccarello said. “It’s a nice feeling to be that confident. The whole team is like that. We have a good stretch here, so it’s a good feeling.”

Zuccarello’s uncanny ability to draw attention while finding open teammates has been a constant. With the game knotted again following a Joffrey Lupul put back late in the second, a attacking Zuccarello went around former Ranger Matt Hunwick and slid the puck in front for a Derick Brassard finish that made it 3-2 at 3:37 of the third.

To their credit, the Leafs didn’t give up. As they had throughout the match, they bounced back with captain Dion Phaneuf evening the score off a Tyler Bozak face-off win with 14:45 left. Phaneuf’s right point shot dipped under backup Antti Raanta who outside of that goal against, was steady improving to 4-0-0 with 23 saves.

With the game tied, the Rangers twice had to kill off penalties. The first was a successful kill of a Chris Kreider cross check in the offensive zone. The second was with Brassard off for hi-sticking. Dominic Moore made two shorthanded bids but was caught from behind on each.

As time approached a minute to go, the contest looked to be headed to a 3-on-3 derby. As I pondered whether this team could finally score in it, McDonagh had a nice rush and low shot which Bernier kicked out. Zuccarello was right there to backhand it home sending the crowd to their feet in familiar chants of “Zuuuccc! Zuuuccc! Zuuuccc!”

That’s the kind of special player he’s become. At first when it was suggested on Twitter that last year’s team might have won the Cup had they had Zuccarello, I disagreed. But the more you watch him, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that they would’ve at least gotten past the Lightning with a healthy Zuccarello. Whether or not they would’ve defeated the Blackhawks is too hard a question to answer.

Zuccarello has become the fabric of the team. He means so much. Who would’ve ever thought a pint sized Norwegian would be so vital? It’s still hard to believe how well he’s playing after the near career threatening injury sustained on a McDonagh shot in Game 5 of the first round against Pittsburgh. From a brain contusion and hairline fracture in his skull to the best forward on the roster.

It was already storybook. Now it’s a show from the most popular Blueshirt outside of Henrik Lundqvist. Simply amazing.

Notes: Peter Holland got the Leafs on the board first at 17:57 of the first. … Derek Stepan scored from 100 feet out when his long wrist shot from center ice went through Bernier at 13:55 of the second. Lupul tied it less than four minutes later when he beat Keith Yandle in front for a rebound of a Byron Froese deflection. … Dylan McIlrath returned to the lineup. He paired with Yandle mostly finishing minus-two with three hits in 17 shifts (11:00). They were also on for Phaneuf’s tying marker on a lost draw from Stepan. … After getting dominated early, the Rangers came out on top going 39-and-37 on face-offs. Brassard (12-and-8), Moore (7-and-4) and Jarret Stoll (9-and-5) all had good nights. … Rangers now have three days off before a two-game Florida trip with stops at Tampa Thursday and the Panthers Saturday.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Dan Girardi, NYR (assist, 4 SOG in 6 attempts, 2 blocked shots, +3 in 36 shifts-20:45)

2nd Star-Ryan McDonagh, NYR (3rd of season, assist, 5 SOG, +3 in 33 shifts-22:03)

1st Star-Mats Zuccarello, NYR (9th of season, 2 assists, +2 in 16:52)

Paris, France In Thoughts: Prior to the national anthems sang by Heather Cox, there was a moment of silence for all the victims in the horrible Paris, France tragedy. The French national anthem was played. Polite applause followed.

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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