Though he longer wears the Rangers’ blue uniforms, Mats Zuccarello will be on hand to partake in his close friend’s big day at MSG.
On Friday night, the New York Rangers (28-12-4) will welcome back one its longest-tenured pieces from their run of prosperity in the early 2010s. A European native, his blue Ranger sweater began with the number 3 and he became a fan favorite over several seasons at Madison Square Garden.
Of course, we’re referring to Mats Zuccarello.
It’s perhaps little coincidence that the Rangers chose the Minnesota Wild’s visit to honor legendary goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. The Wild (25-10-3) currently host Zuccarello’s modern NHL endeavors after he spent his first nine professional seasons with the Blueshirts, building a sterling reputation as a passionate, unstoppable spirit that helped write some of the most storied chapters in recent Ranger history. Sam Rosen, the team’s play-by-play man, would often remind viewers that MSG attendees were not booing the Rangers, but chanting in support of “Zucc” during play.
Through his time in blue, Zuccarello also fostered a strong friendship with Lundqvist, who is set to become the 11th Ranger to have his number retired by the organization prior to Friday night’s showdown (8 p.m. ET, MSG+/NHL Network). Zuccarello spoke about that relationship as the Wild prepared to make their Manhattan arrival this week. It was a friendship that began upon Zuccarello’s NHL arrival in 2010 and opened in the most natural of hockey ways.
““He was a big player when I came in. “He needed someone to shoot on him, and I was there, so that was the first time I met him,” Zuccarello said on Thursday, per Dane Mizutani of TwinCities.com. “I really think he deserves it and his family deserves it and stuff like that. As a hockey fan I’m going to enjoy being there for a ceremony like that and then worry about the game after.”
Per Dan Rosen of NHL.com, Zuccarello also bonded quickly with Lundqvist thanks to his knowledge of the goalie’s native tongue built during his time in the Swedish Hockey League. Though the Oslo-born Zuccarello is likely renowned Norweigan skaters in league history, he became fluent during an MVP campaign in 2009-10.
Friday will mark Zuccarello’s second game at MSG as an opponent, previously earning a warm reception during Minnesota’s visit to Manhattan in November 2019. He was one of the casualties of the Rangers’ publicized rebuild that also bid farewell to names like Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, and Kevin Hayes.
Zuccarello’s trade was particularly tough on both Rangers fans and Lundqvist himself, who was visibly emotional after his close friend was dealt to Dallas in February 2019. He’d go on to partake in the Stars’ ensuing postseason run signing a five-year deal with the Wild five months after his Rangers tenure ended.
Though it wasn’t broadcast to a national audience, Zuccarello said the separation from his friend produced a similar reaction.
“It (was) special for me to see that,” Zuccarello said in Mizutani’s report. “It was really rough for me, too. You have in your mind you’re going to spend the rest of your life there. Then suddenly, in a matter of moments, I’m gone.”
Though his focus centers on getting the surging Wild, winners of three in a row, another victory, Zuccarello was more than happy to look back on the good times shared with Lundqvist, which produced six playoff appearances, including a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014. He humorously referenced Lundqvist’s renowned sense of style, saying that when the goaltender rocked a suit, he was more than happy to counter with sweats.
But Zuccarello also expounded upon how Lundqvist left a lasting, positive impact on his hockey career, particularly through the way he handled the pressure of a premier role in the cutthroat world of New York sports.
“He was serious, you know. He was every day, boom, boom, boom,” he stated in Rosen’s statements. “I was kind of like the jokester. I was a little bit of a change for him, had some fun, added some jokes. I appreciated his way of being too. His wife, Therese, and I get along well. (His) kids, Charlise and Juli, I think it’s just the whole dynamic of it.”
“He embraced it and went with it and delivered. A lot of other people would have cracked, too much pressure. But he went with it. I think he loved it and it actually made him a better player, the pressure he had every day.”
Zuccarello has since gone on to play a major role for another contender in Minnesota, putting up 38 points in 32 games this season (second on the team behind Kirill Kaprizov’s 49). He won’t be the only Ranger from the Lundqvist era making his return to MSG: his former understudy, Cam Talbot, is scheduled to reassume his former spot in MSG’s nets. Talbot (16-8-1, 2.96 GAA) spent his first two NHL seasons with the Rangers and notably came up big when Lundqvist missed nearly two months with a neck injury during the team’s run to the Presidents’ Trophy in 2015.
“(There was) nothing better for a young goalie coming up like myself than to learn from one of the best to ever do it,” Talbot said of Lundqvist’s impact per Chris Miller of the Star Tribune. “He was the face of that franchise for the better part of 15 years, so there’s no one more deserving to have their number up there than him.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags