NEW YORK -- The way Mats Zuccarello plays the game, with the fearlessness and ferocity befitting a man who is a foot taller than his 5-foot-7 frame, can make you forget that two years ago his career was nearly over, a result of a shot off his head, a brain contusion that left him incapable of speaking for four days and still makes him stumble over certain words today.
It was easy to forget that Saturday, when Zuccarello shined on the big stage with two goals, enough to help the New York Rangers advance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 3-1 win against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Madison Square Garden.
The Rangers won the series 4-2. Zuccarello led them with three goals.
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"It's incredible the impact he has with this team," Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said.
Zuccarello's impact has been growing ever since his career was put in jeopardy on April 24, 2015, when McDonagh's slap shot in the first period of Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins rang off his head, setting in motion a chain of events that put a deep scare through the Rangers organization.
Zuccarello missed the remainder of the playoffs, a run that ended with a 2-0 loss against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final at the Garden.
Game 6 against Montreal was the first time since then that the Rangers had a chance to eliminate an opponent and the first time since Zuccarello was hurt that he had a chance to advance in the playoffs with his teammates.
He grabbed a hold of the opportunity by scoring a game-tying power-play goal at 2:26 of the second period and a go-ahead goal that turned into the game-winner 11:05 later.
"It's special for sure," Zuccarello said. "Of course it's special in front of the home fans that have been supporting me so much. It's a proud moment for sure, but it's only the first round. Gotta stay humble here."
Video: MTL@NYR, Gm6: Zuccarello beats Price for PPG
Then Zuccarello better not read his press clippings after Game 6, because all he'll see is teammates praising him for what he overcame and for the teammate he has become.
"Obviously you guys [the media] see it on the ice, but the stuff in the locker room, he's a big-time mentor for a lot of our young forwards, the way he plays, the size and the skill," McDonagh said. "He backs down from no one. It's great to see him get rewarded here. I'm just ecstatic for him."
Zuccarello is always friendly and available when requested by media members, but he isn't the biggest talker in front of the cameras or with reporters. Behind the scenes he has developed one of the loudest and most influential voices in the dressing room.
The Rangers leadership core of Henrik Lundqvist, McDonagh and alternate captains Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Marc Staal and Dan Girardi include Zuccarello in all of their conversations.
"This year he's made that transition from another guy to one of the top leaders on the team and he showed that tonight," Nash said. "It's fun to watch guys make that transition. … He's one of our top guys, one of the faces of the franchise."
Zuccarello, as McDonagh said, has also become a role model for the young forwards, players like Jesper Fast, Oscar Lindberg, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller and rookies Jimmy Vesey and Pavel Buchnevich.
They not only look up to the 29-year-old Norwegian right wing, they follow him.
"He's always a good example on the ice, off the ice, and he helps every young guy here," Fast said. "I feel like he's been talking more and more from the past seasons. He's been taking more responsibility and that's what we need from him. He's a great guy, a very likeable guy here in the locker room, and a lot of guys listen to him."
They also marvel at him.
They marvel at how he was able to recover from that brutal head injury to resume his career.
"It's not easy to come back from an injury like that," said Staal, who has dealt with his own career-threatening injuries to his eye and head. "You have an appreciation for the thin line."
Video: MTL@NYR, Gm6: Zuccarello slams home Hayes' feed
They marvel at how Zuccarello plays the game.
"Zukey is a competitive little bugger, eh," coach Alain Vigneault said. "He competes every shift and he's become a real big part of our team, not just for what he does on the ice but he brings the team together."
On Saturday they got a chance to marvel at his performance. He scored his ninth and 10th career playoff goals but it was the first time in any of his 54 NHL playoff games that he scored twice.
"When there is time to make a play he's the guy that we count on to make those opportunities happen for us," McDonagh said.
It almost makes you forget what happened two years ago. It shouldn't.
"On the ice things can go south pretty quick, but you definitely have a bigger appreciation for the game and playing in these moments, in these situations," Staal said. "He was 10 feet tall tonight."