Teammates and fans alike often gently poke fun at Mats Zuccarello‘s height, 5 feet, 7 inches, affectionately referring to the 29-year old Norwegian as “The Hobbit”, referencing the short in stature but high in might creatures from The Lord of the Rings franchise..
But on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, Zuccarello made sure he had the biggest impact on his team as they continued their quest for a Stanley Cup, helping end the first leg of that (unexpected?) journey against the Montreal Canadiens as soon as possible.
Zuccarello‘s pair of second period goals helped the Rangers erase an early deficit in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series, powering them to a 3-1 victory to take the series by a 4-2 final. It’s the first time they’ve won a playoff series in less than seven games since the 2015 quarterfinals over Pittsburgh.
Early on, it appeared the Rangers would be forced to head back to Bell Centre for a dramatic Game 7, as Montreal came out flying. The Canadiens outshot the Rangers 11-6 in the period and dominated time in the Rangers’ zone, breaking through thanks to the efforts of an unlikely source, Alexei Emelin, he of two regular seasons goals, broke through to put the Habs up 1-0, off an assist from Alexander Radulov, who departs from the playoffs tied for third in points. The Rangers held off a Montreal rush for the remainder of the period to be down only 1-0 at the first break.
It was then Zuccarello took over the proceedings.
Said to have roused the team up with a message to “rise the occasion” according to WFAN’s Sean Hartnett, Zuccarello awakened the Rangers’ long dormant power play unit. Fruitless in 14 prior opportunities in the series, Zuccarello, assisted by brilliant passing, broke the drought with a score while Jordie Benn served two minutes for holding. His heroics were only beginning, as just over 11 minutes later, he put in yet another one, his third of the postseason, to give the Rangers a lead they would not relinquish.
Desperate to save their season, Montreal upped the pressure, but was stopped by
Henrik Lundqvist each time. Most notably, Lundqvist made a huge stop on Tomas Plekanec in the penultimate minute, a save rivaled only by his glove stop of Shea Weber, known his slap shots breaking the century mark in terms of speed. Shutting down Montreal’s star skaters proved vital to the Rangers’ victory. Leading scorer Max Pacioretty, for example, was held to no goals in the six games, tallying just one assist.
After Lundqvist’s epic save, the Rangers would add in an empty netter, as Derek Stepan impressively dumped one the length of the ice to send MSG into hysterics.
All-time, the Rangers are now 9-7 against Montreal in the NHL playoffs, having run into them more than any other opponent. This series win was their third in a row over Montreal, having also claimed victories in the 1996 quarterfinals and 2014 conference finals.
The Rangers now await the winner of the other series of the Atlantic bracket between the Ottawa Senators and the Boston Bruins. Ottawa currently leads the series 3-2, with Game 6 slated to go down Sunday afternoon (3 PM, NBC). The Rangers swept their regular season set with the Bruins, though they dropped two of three to Ottawa.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490