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Zuccarello making up for size with skill in N.Y.

Tuesday, 01.25.2011 / 9:23 PM / NHL Insider

By Dave Lozo - NHL.com Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- Mats Zuccarello is the same height of an average high school sophomore. There's no way around it -- the first thing anyone notices when Zuccarello takes the ice is his almost surreal 5-foot-7, 174-pound frame.

But when it comes time for a shootout, there might not be a more imposing figure in the NHL right now.

Zuccarello is 4-for-4 in shootouts after scoring another one Monday night in the New York Rangers' 2-1 victory against the Washington Capitals. He has employed the same blueprint for all four attempts -- skate fast, slow down as he gets closer, sell the backhand and shoot quickly on the forehand as the helpless goaltender slides in the wrong direction.

It's a confident move by a confident player who has just 16 games under his belt with the Rangers and wasn't on the radar of NHL teams until he burst onto the scene with Norway during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Zuccarello was the MVP of the Swedish Elite League last season, but his stature was clearly a turn-off for a lot of NHL scouts.

He went by his full name then -- Zuccarello-Aasen -- and may have shortened it when he came to North America to cut some slack to headline writers and announcers who would get plenty of work splashing his name in newspapers and shouting it after goals. Maybe that wasn't his reasoning, but if you believe Rangers coach John Tortorella, Zuccarello possesses that type of much-needed swagger to succeed in the NHL.

The last thing anyone who is vertically challenged wants to do is shorten things, but the easy-going Zuccarello didn't mind altering his name one bit. Sometimes pint-sized people have a complex about their height and need to constantly show others how being undersized isn't a problem. That can be death for a hockey team, where freelancing individuals who play outside the team structure have no place.

Instead, the 23-year-old Zuccarello is being praised by teammates not only for his immense skill, but for his willingness to ask questions and take directions. His mix of talent, bravado and awareness that he -- an MVP of a major European professional league -- has a lot to learn at this level is winning over everyone in the Rangers organization.

Nothing epitomizes Zuccarello like his first NHL goal, which came in overtime against the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 5. WATCH

First, there was the talent. He was in a situation where most players would have curled out from behind the net and tried to stuff the puck through the legs of goaltender Cam Ward. Wraparounds are almost as effective as a slap shot from center ice in today's NHL and usually a fruitless endeavor.

Instead, Zuccarello stepped out in front, waited for Ward to drop down ever-so-slightly, took a step back, and whipped a wrist shot that went just under the crossbar to give the Rangers the dramatic victory.

After that came something not many noticed. Zuccarello might've won over Tortorella in the euphoria that followed that goal by immediately skating to the Rangers bench and gesturing toward his teammates. Zuccarello didn't turn toward the fans at Madison Square Garden and bask in the warm glow of their love as an individual -- instead he wanted to share the moment with the guys who were just as much a part of the win as him.

In the locker room following his display of skill and a team-first attitude, the confidence made a brief and somewhat forced appearance.

Zuccarello's goal was the type that could only be scored by a handful of elite players in the League. Yet at first, he swore up and down it was a lucky shot.

Where's this confidence we heard so much about from Tortorella? Lucky shot? He hit a puck-sized opening against an All-Star goaltender who won a Conn Smythe Trophy in 2006.

Really? It was a lucky shot?

"Let's just say it was not lucky," Zuccarello finally conceded.

There's no denying Zuccarello has the potential to be a good, and perhaps a great, player in this League whose size will eventually be an afterthought. He has speed, hands, smarts and a belief he belongs.

Heck, there may even come a day when he'll take his game to such great heights that he won't be subjected to columns that end with lines about him taking his game to such great heights.

But until that day comes, consider this another example of how size doesn't matter as much anymore in the NHL.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

Quote of the Day

We've got a team filled with captains, that's what I think. With these first two games we got in, we're really dominating and moving the puck really fast, and it's worked out really good.

— U.S. goalie Brandon Halverson after a 6-0 win against Germany in the World Junior Championship on Sunday