By Matt Calamia
Mats Zuccarello’s regular season did not get off to the start he had hoped coming out of training camp.
Zuccarello was pointless in his first seven games, leading head coach Alain Vigneault to scratch the playmaking winger in Philadelphia on Oct. 24, a 2-1 Blueshirts loss against the Flyers.
How did Zuccarello respond? Scoring a goal the following game in Detroit, which the Rangers would win in overtime over the Red Wings.
It was off to the races from that point on, as Zuccarello scored a team-leading and career-high 59 points over his last 70 games, easily eclipsing his previous career-best 23 points he posted as a rookie in 2010-11.
What a difference opportunity makes.
“It’s been a good season for me, personally,” Zuccarello said on Monday at the team’s breakup day. “There was a lot of help from my teammates, the staff, coaching and everything have believed in me.
“It gives me confidence, and I think that’s [the] No. 1 key for me this season: be able to play with confidence.”
Zuccarello’s increase in production offensively only tells one side of his progressive story. The 5-foot-7 winger played much bigger than that, and was often found in the middle of post-whistle scrums, facing off against players more often than not with height and weight advantages. Zuccarello never shied away from finishing his checks or sticking up for his teammates. He developed an edge that was missing in previous years, adding another layer of skill to his already formidable repertoire.
Zuccarello found success playing alongside Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot, which it could be argued became the team’s most consistent trio the Blueshirts had all season. The trio combined for 140 points — 24 percent of the team’s overall offensive production, with Zuccarello and Brassard finishing in the top four on the team. Brassard’s 18 goals were a career-high while his 45 points were two shy of his career-best.
Pouliot, meanwhile, posted a career-high in points with 36.
Zuccarello and Brassard are both restricted free agents, while Pouliot is unrestricted.
“Definitely want Mats to be at training camp next year, so I want him to get his contract issues taken care of,” Vigneault said at breakup day. “He was a big part of our team. He got off to maybe a slow start, but once he found a little chemistry with some of his teammates, he became a big part.
“He’s a good young man, he’s got good instincts, and if he continues to progress, he’s going to be a real good player for us,” the head coach added.
Zuccarello carried his strong regular season into the postseason, where he registered five goals and eight assists for 13 points, tied for fifth on the team with Chris Kreider.
The experience gained by Zuccarello during the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final is invaluable, according to No. 36.
“You kind of know, have a little feeling of what it takes to win,” Zuccarello said of the the experience gained by him and his teammates. “I think we learned a lot. I think everyone in here is proud to be a New York Ranger. We stepped up for each other, how we battled.”
It’s hard to believe Zuccarello has been in New York for parts of four seasons, but what a difference opportunity makes.