GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- Eleven months after the puck hit him in the head and knocked the words out of his mouth, New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello is leading the Rangers in scoring while still dealing with minor effects of a brain injury that could have jeopardized his career and maybe even his life.
There's the slight slur in his speech, which he didn't have for four days after he was struck in the left side of the head by defenseman Ryan McDonagh's slap shot in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 24, 2015.
Zuccarello's speech returned with the help of a speech therapist. He was diagnosed with a brain contusion. He didn't return to the Rangers lineup until the start of this season.
"I still miss a bunch of words sometimes," Zuccarello said. "I'm better in Norwegian, but English, if it goes too fast I mix up words. When I take my time and think about what I'm going to say it's all good. But when I kind of get wound up or excited you can hear it. That's a small bump."
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It seemed bigger to Zuccarello in the winter, when he realized his slurring got worse as the weather got colder. He also toe picks more often now than before. It happens regardless of if he's skating or walking. And then there is the occasional numbness in his right leg.
"They said this is as good as it's going to get maybe, at least for now," Zuccarello said. "You can't think about it."
He has been told the effects of the head injury shouldn't affect his long-term health, so Zuccarello said he feels comfortable going on as normal, living his regular life. He's getting by just fine, to the point where he leads the Rangers with 54 points and is second with 23 goals heading into the game against the Boston Bruins at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN1).
Zuccarello has played all 73 games this season. He also has shown no hesitation in going to the front of the net, a risk that might not seem to be worth the reward when you go through what he went through.
"You always tell yourself, 'No, I'm going to be the same, I'm going to be the same.' But you never know until you're in that situation," Zuccarello said. "I don't feel like I've changed a lot, so that's good."
It's great for the Rangers, because in many ways Zuccarello is their beating heart because of how he plays and what he's overcome. In many ways he's an inspiration to his teammates on a daily basis.
"You see him that first night and he's all wired up in the hospital, it's a scary scene and you don't know what's going to happen, the outcome, how he's going to progress," said McDonagh, who admitted to battling against his guilt because the puck that hit Zuccarello came off of his stick. "You just want him to be like himself; be the fun, energetic guy I've always known and we love here in New York. Certainly we didn't know if he was ever going to play again. But thankfully he was able to recover and progress."
"He's loving the fact that he's back here playing," McDonagh said. "Not just because of what he went through but because he loves playing hockey, being in the locker room atmosphere, being around the guys. It's been everything and more to see him come back and play the way he has been, carrying our team up front, being that offensive spark and energetic player for us."
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His path back easily could be taken for granted now because time has passed and his injury, fortunately, has healed enough to allow him to lead a normal life and be the player the Rangers need him to be.
Zuccarello, though, isn't foolish enough to take anything he has for granted. He might never again. Playing hockey for him has become more of a blessing than a career.
"You appreciate things more when you go through an injury like that," he said. "At the end it wasn't that serious, but it wasn't far away from being more serious than it was. I was lucky."
For a while he wondered if he wasn't. He vividly remembers how in the days after sustaining the injury he tried and yearned to say something, anything, only to find he couldn't.
"It was frustrating not to be able to say what I wanted to say," Zuccarello said. "There's a lot of people who have it worse than me. But when you've been normal and then you're like that, it's tough."
He remembers his doctor constantly telling him he was going to be OK, and trying like heck to want to believe him.
"You believe him, but that's kind of your only hope. He's the expert," Zuccarello said. "Obviously you want to believe him. But when you're there in the hospital it seems far away from getting back to playing, or even getting back to talking. There were some scary moments."
He does, however, recall getting words like yes and OK to come out of his mouth, and what a victory that was for him. He remembers watching the Rangers in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Washington Capitals, thinking he might be able to join them soon.
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"Maybe play in the [Eastern Conference] Final," Zuccarello said. "I think that was really a wish, a dream in my head."
He said he'll never forget the ovations he received from the fans at Madison Square Garden when he was shown on the scoreboard during playoff games he attended.
"Humbling; so special," Zuccarello said. "Madison Square Garden, the New York Rangers, it doesn't get cooler."
This season isn't a dream, although at times it might feel that way to Zuccarello. He had a tough summer because of his limited training time. But the doctors were right. He was able to get back and be himself again, even with the occasional slur, toe pick or numbness in his leg.
"It's been better than I thought it would be," Zuccarello said.
He said he can't imagine what life would be like if it were worse, so he doesn't try. He instead thinks about getting back to the playoffs, staying healthy and doing what he only could dream of doing last spring.
"I don't want to go around thinking about what happened," Zuccarello said. "We have nine games left and hopefully we can get it together here to get some playoff hockey again."