New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello has been at team practice for the past several days and has been competing well. He was held out of the first three games for the Rangers since suffering a non-displaced fracture in his hand during the Olympics for Team Norway. In those three games, the Rangers won a convincing game against the Chicago Blackhawks before falling to both the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins in tough losses.
While team defense and overall play were the issues that factored into the two losses, Zuccarello has had an energetic spark for the Rangers this season that seems to raise the play of his teammates.
The Rangers third line has not suffered as much as some would think without Zuccarello. That line, featuring Derick Brassard, Benoit Pouliot and rookie J.T. Miller, have scored three goals and registered two assists in the past three games. Though not a conventional third line, this is excellent production that any team in the NHL could hope for.
Where does that leave Zuccarello, who has played and produced more like a top-six forward this season?
There are two options, both of which hinge on the status of Ryan Callahan. While Callahan and the Rangers continue to negotiate up to today’s 3 p.m. trade deadline and are getting closer to a deal, there is still no guarantee that an agreement is made. If Callahan cannot agree to a contract and is dealt for picks and prospects, then Zuccarello may slide on to the second line with Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin.
Zuccarello and Richards are both playmakers that create opportunities with their passing. Putting the team’s two leading scorers on a line would continue to improve the attack while not missing a beat without Callahan on the team. If the Rangers and Callahan do finally see eye to eye after drawing negotiations out for the past few weeks, Zuccarello will go back with old linemates Brassard and Pouliot and be expected to continue their excellent work this year.
Whichever the outcome, the addition of Zuccarello back into the lineup will be crucial to the Rangers’ playoff push. While he will not play tonight, there is a good chance that Zuccarello could return on Friday, March 7 against the Carolina Hurricanes. The Rangers are in the final division playoff spot in the Metropolitan division, with the Columbus Blue Jackets tied in points but with one less regulation-overtime win to separate the two.
The wildcard race is up in the air as well, as the teams in the Atlantic division have shown more quality and performance. Zuccarello’s addition can provide the boost the Rangers need to get hot at the right time down the stretch.