Zuccarello returns to Philly
On pace for a career season as Minnesota Wild fight for a playoff spot
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
Now that Mats Zuccarello has played almost four seasons for the Minnesota Wild in the National Hockey League’s Western Conference, any trip to the East Coast is a return to an arena where there are memories of playing there during almost 10 seasons with the New York Rangers. With the revised scheduling in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, there haven’t been coast-to-coast travels for any team.
On March 3, he and the Wild played the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center, scene of intra-division rivalry games with the Rangers.
“It’s nice to be back here and I had some good matches here,” he said following the morning skate. “It’s been a while. I can’t remember the last time I was here.”
The Wild and Flyers had last played each other on Dec. 14, 2019. Minnesota overcame four deficits with two goals in 25 seconds with less than eight minutes to play for a 5-4 win that snapped a four-game losing streak. Zuccarello had an assist on the first goal on the goal that made it 1-1. Ryan Hartman carried the puck across the blue line, dropped a pass to Kirill Kaprizov to his right and skated toward the goal. Kaprizov deked (faked) a Flyer, zipped a pass to Zuccarello in the left face-off circle, who ripped a shot toward the goal where Hartman tapped it in. Zuccarello had a team-high seven shots in 21:01, causing Flyers broadcasters to comment how he used to hurt the Flyers “when in a Rangers uniform.”
On Jan. 28, Zuccarello’s return to Madison Square Garden was extra special, as his former teammate, Swedish goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, had his number 30 retired and dropped a ceremonial puck between Zuccarello and the Rangers’ Mike Zibanejad. Plus, the crowd let out a “Zuuuucc!” cheer. He scored the tying goal—his first career point against the Rangers—in what ended up a 3-2 Wild victory.
“I’ve been back there twice now and both times have been special, especially last time with Hankie’s jersey retirement,” said Zuccarello, almost choking up. “So, that was fun for me to be a part of that. I see myself as a good friend of him and his family. It was special for me to see him get the honor that he deserved.”
For Zuccarello this season, he could hit some milestones despite a short bout with covid. “The 10 days off sucked, but once I came back, I felt good,” he said.
He is second on the team in scoring with 17 goals, 37 assists for 54 points (as of March 3), is +20 and has just 10 penalty minutes. His and Kevin Fiala’s goals against the Rangers tied the Wild record for the second longest consecutive point game streak of 10. Fiala tied the record two games later, but Zuccarello lost the streak in the game following the Rangers at the New York Islanders. He had five goals, 13 assists, 18 points during the run. He has since scored a point in 18 of the last 22 games.
His top points total was 61 in 2015-2016; goals 26 in 2015-2016, assists 44 in 2016-2017. With 27 regular season games left, he is 19 points away from 500 career points. The Wild are led by Kaprizov with 24 goals, 41 assists, 65 points and four others have at least 16 goals: Hartman (21), Marcus Foligno (18), Fiala (17), and Joel Eriksson Ek (16).
“When the team wins and does well, you do better, you want to be a part of that and the confidence is high,” said Zuccarello. “I’ve been playing good with Hartman and Kirill. We found some chemistry. It’s nice in that way, but I don’t think about (milestones) much.”
The Wild were 5-3 in October, 10-3-1 in November, 8-1-1 in January, and for a while were in first place in the Central Division. They are now in third place (32-17-3, 67 points) 17 points behind first-place Colorado, three behind second-place St. Louis. The top three teams in each division qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs and then two wild-card teams. Nashville (64 points) and Dallas (63) are on the Wild’s tail. Entering the Flyers game, the Wild had lost seven of their last 10.
“I think you go through surges during the season where everything is clicking and then you go through stages where you feel like everything goes against you,” explained Zuccarello. “That’s kind of where we’ve been the last seven games where we feel like we’re not getting the bounces. We could probably turn it around today.
“We’re a deep team. We have four good lines. Colorado is a good team. They’re doing well. We haven’t been playing that good as of late. It’s the stretch of the season where you need to pick up your pace and be ready. All teams right now are scrambling to get to the playoffs or in the chase. So, every game now is tough. I think on a good day we’re really good. We can compete with everyone, but we have to play our style of hockey and obviously have some confidence and fun.”
Once a team reaches the Stanley Cup playoffs anything can happen. Zuccarello wouldn’t mind coming to the East Coast in a few months. It would mean the Wild are in the Stanley Cup finals.
This article originally appeared in the March 18, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.