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Zuccarello's hat trick leads Rangers past Maple Leafs

by Mike G. Morreale

NEW YORK -- New York Rangers left wing Rick Nash believes Mats Zuccarello is one of the smartest linemates he's ever had.

Zuccarello proved it on Friday when he scored three goals for his first NHL hat trick to lead the Rangers to a 3-1 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden.

"He seems to be around the puck a lot and seems like he always has a good effort each night," Nash said. "He finds the areas and I think the one thing that's underrated is his hockey sense. He understands the game and finds you all over the ice. He's one of the smartest players that I've played with."

Zuccarello, who scored once in the first period and twice in the third, completed his hat trick by scoring his team-leading seventh goal of the season into an empty net with 48 seconds remaining. The multiple-goal game was the second for Zuccarello this season. He scored twice in a 4-2 victory at the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 9.

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault decided to reunite the line of Nash, Derick Brassard and Zuccarello for the first time in six games. The trio began the season together, but Vigneault switched Brassard and Derek Stepan, his top two centers, on Oct. 18.

The reunion paid off; Nash and Brassard assisted on each of Zuccarello's goals.

It marked the first time in almost four decades that a player for the Rangers scored at least three goals that were assisted by the same two players, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. On March 30, 1976, Steve Vickers scored four goals; Jean Ratelle and Rod Gilbert each assisted on the first three.

"They had their best game of the year," Vigneault said of his top line. "Not only offensively did they make some real solid plays that led to Grade A opportunities that they were able to finish, but I thought both ends of the rink, they were real solid."

The win by the Rangers (7-2-2) was their fourth straight at the Garden. They have outscored the opposition 15-3 in that span. The Rangers are 4-0-2 in their past six games overall.

Forward Joffrey Lupul pulled the Maple Leafs (1-6-2) within 2-1 with 1:51 remaining in the third period. With goaltender Jonathan Bernier off for an extra attacker, he redirected a shot by Dion Phaneuf past Henrik Lundqvist (24 saves).

"I thought we had some opportunities and thought Bernier had his best night of the year," Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said. "We did some good things, but we have to find a way to win games."

Bernier, now 0-5-1 in six games, made 23 saves.

Zuccarello made it 2-0 with his second of the game 5:34 into the third when he completed a 2-on-1 with Brassard after a feed from Nash triggered the rush.

"It's always fun to score goals," Zuccarello said. "For sure it's not every day that you score three, at least not me."

The Maple Leafs thought they had tied the game at 1-1 just 12 seconds into the third when a shot from the left point by former Rangers defenseman Matt Hunwick point deflected past Lundqvist. However, referee Chris Rooney waved off the goal, ruling that Lupul interfered with Lundqvist in the crease.

"That was one of the plays we wanted to do and that was to get pucks to the net with a guy right in the crease," Hunwick said. "I didn't really think there was much contact there, but obviously the referees thought differently and it didn't go our way."

Babcock challenged the ruling, which was upheld after a video review.

"I think it's the right call because I couldn't come out [to challenge the shot]; he comes in and even though he doesn't make contact right away, he's there so I can't come out," Lundqvist said. "When the puck hits me, he bumps into me so I thought it was the right call."

Zuccarello scored his first goal in four games when he completed a tic-tac-toe passing sequence with Nash and Brassard at 9:41 of the first period.

"We've played with each other for a while now, and especially me and Brassard, we're kind of connecting," Zuccarello said. "It's not every day we're going to connect like this but it's really nice when it happens."

It was another disappointing night for the Maple Leafs, who were unable to turn their chances into goals.

"We did a lot of good things but the bottom line is we just didn't have that little bit more to find a way to win the game," Phaneuf said. "We did a lot of good things but we just need to find that little extra gear."

The Rangers are off until they host the Washington Capitals on Tuesday. The Maple Leafs return home to play former teammate Phil Kessel and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday.

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mikemorrealeNHL

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