The Rangers did not hold a morning skate Tuesday in South Florida, opting instead to conduct their normal game-day meetings at the team hotel. This is the normal course for the Rangers on their trips down to play the Panthers since the BB&T Center is so far from the hotel.
All of the healthy players---including the still sidelined Marc Staal and Derek Dorsett---practiced on Monday. The lone exception was team captain Ryan Callahan, who took a well-deserved maintenance day.
In the dressing room after practice, laughter was abundant and the team seemed relaxed and confident---a by-product for sure of a three-game winning streak and having posted an 8-2-1 record down the stretch thereby solidifying their place in the Eastern Conference standings.
Mats Zuccarello playfully teased Rick Nash about the "monster hit" he delivered during practice on Nash, who only stands nine inches taller than the 5-foot-7 Norwegian.
"This is great, I am having so much fun," said Zuccarello. "I just want to get up and go the rink and be with the guys every day."
Blessed with an upbeat, positive, fun-loving personality, Zuccarello has always enjoyed his time with the Rangers---starting with the 42 games he played with the team in 2010-11---but there is something different this year for him. Part of it is consistently winning games---the team is 8-3-1 in the 12 games Zuccarello has played since re-signing---and the other part is getting the chance to have consistent ice-time as a top-six forward really for the first time in his three-year tenure with the Blueshirts.
"I had fun before, too, but it's kind of different when you feel more a part of the team by playing a litte bit more," noted Zuccarello, who has three goals, three assists, and six points in his 12 games this season. "Of course I think you also have to be serious, come to the rink every day and do your job and try to earn that playing time. It's not going to come for free. That's why I think we have a perfect mix right now."
Rangers head coach John Tortorella has praised Zuccarello upon his return to the NHL for his creative offensive play, as well as for his improved defensive play. Zuccarello has also played more physically down below the hash marks, and his teammates have taken notice of his improved conditioning.
"I didn't see a lot of Zucc last year, but he is faster this year, for sure," Brad Richards said of the popular Zuccarello who spent much of 2011-12 in the minor leagues. "You can see his improved skating, and part of that is his conditioning. He (and Taylor Pyatt) have helped me play better being my linemates."
Zuccarello has high praise for his center, Richards, as well, calling the Rangers alternate captain "a real role model" for the players on the team, and for him personally.
"Brad has been in this league a long time, has won the Cup, and is a role model for us younger players," said Zuccarello. "It's the way he works so hard every day, and the way he talks to you on the ice. For me it's being able to talk to him about hockey. Outside he is a normal guy like the rest of us, but on the ice you can see that he knows the game and has good advice. Off the ice he is one of the guys, jokes around, but on the ice he is a great leader. It's what a role model should be like."
Both Zuccarello and Richards spoke Monday about their on-ice chemistry. Certainly the Rangers want to see more of that when they skate against the Panthers tonight as they try and lock down a playoff berth in the East.
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