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After missing Classic, Zuccarello plays outdoor hero

by Tal Pinchevsky

NEW YORK -- Following a breakout rookie season in 2010-11 when he had 23 points in 42 games, New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello had every reason to believe he'd be on the ice for the 2012 NHL Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. But after totaling three points in 10 games to start the 2011-12 season, he was sent to the American Hockey League. By the time the Rangers suited up for their 3-2 outdoor win against the Philadelphia Flyers, Zuccarello was out of the Hartford lineup nursing an ankle injury.

It was a difficult season he hasn't forgotten, especially after playing the hero with two goals in the Rangers' 7-3 win against the New Jersey Devils at Yankee Stadium in a 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game Sunday.

"I was happy for the guys playing the [2012] Winter Classic. It's a good experience. So obviously it was a little disappointing not being able to play that. I wasn't good enough to play," Zuccarello said after scoring the game-tying and game-winning goals against New Jersey. "But [Sunday] was probably better playing in front of our own fans in New York, so I'm happy I could play with this group here and at this stadium."

Zucarello stole the spotlight Sunday with the two big goals, each scored on odd-man rushes. But the diminutive Norwegian has been contributing at an impressive pace all season. Playing at one point on every line, Zuccarello now ranks second on the team in goals (15) and points (37). A breakout season for the 26-year-old was made even more special by his inclusion on Norway's team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Before any of that, Zuccarello's disappointing 2011-12 transitioned into another tumultuous season that started with him playing with Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League during the 2012-13 work stoppage. Despite the return of the NHL in January 2013, the Rangers didn't bring Zuccarello back to their lineup until the end of March, essentially signing him to a three-month contract.

Earning two assists in his first eight games last season didn't inspire much confidence, but Zuccarello finished the regular season with six points in seven games. That late-season surge convinced the Rangers to sign Zuccarello to a one-year contract over the summer, setting the stage for a breakout 2013-14 season and one big day at the ballpark.

"I've never been here and baseball is not that big in Norway," Zuccarello said. "But I've lived in the U.S. for quite a while now so I know it's pretty special," Zuccarello said. "To be able to play at this rink and get the win too is pretty amazing."

With his first two-goal game of the season, Zuccarello may have caught some off guard with his standout performance. But no one in the Rangers' locker room was surprised by the 5-foot-7 forward's big day.

"He's a smart hockey player," Richards said. "When smart hockey players get the opportunity like he's getting, usually they'll be good with it. He's getting that opportunity. I love how he sees the ice."


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