Monday, January 17, 2011

From Worlds Apart Zuccarello and Stepan Bring Rangers Present and Future Together

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There is no denying the results of the last two games are certainly less than what the New York Rangers had hoped for following their huge win last Thursday against Vancouver.  As a team they had two games with sluggish play in the first forty minutes and torrid rally attempts in the final period which both came up a goal short.  Combine that with the overall offensive struggles for the overall month and there might be some red flags popping up around the way.  I know the easy thing to do this morning is focus on Gaborik and his benching, but not today, as I would rather focus on the best thing I saw this weekend.  The biggest bright spot in the weekend and the month as a whole has been the play of rookies Mats Zuccarello-Aasen and Derek Stepan. 

We talk often of chemistry between players and how they search for it to develop between combinations that should otherwise work; well there is no searching for it with these two as they have a feel for each other that is special.  The pass by Stepan to Zuccarello in Montreal and then by Zuccarello to Stepan against Philadelphia showed not only the vision and passing skill each player has individually but the connection they have to one another.  It is why when coach Tortorella goes through his next set of lineup roulette this pair must be left together at all costs.  From this point that pair should be as inseparable as Boyle and Prust have been all season.  When training camp started I envisioned these two being dominant players together this season, but I expected it to happen in the AHL not at this level. Turns out this pair did not want to wait and the Rangers are very thankful for that as they are being asked to carry a heavy burden right now.

In both games you saw these two rookies take the game over and spark the team in their comeback efforts.  The fact they led the effort is not totally surprising considering both players have shown a propensity to show up in big spots this season, and neither has been overwhelmed by the stage since being brought here for regular season action.  Stepan obviously has a longer track record having earned his spot out of camp and played 47 games at this level.  Overall season numbers of 13-14-27 place him second on the team behind Brandon Dubinsky.  Those numbers also have him tied with number 1 overall pick Taylor Hall for second in rookie scoring.  Stepan had his bumps in the road early in the year, but he fought through it and continued to work to get his game back to where he is accustomed and the results have shown.  Along with just pure results the fans have been witness to his passing skill, tremendous vision, hockey sense, two-way play, willingness to take the body and a maturity you do not often see in a player his age.

For Zuccarello the path was not as easy as he struggled in preseason and was sent down to the AHL to adjust his game to the new style.  It would have been easy for a young player coming off an MVP year in the SEL, the world’s second best league, to take the demotion badly, but that is not the character Zuccarello showed.  Zuke understood the weaknesses in his game and sought to improve them and in his 33 games with the Hartford Wolfpack/Connecticut Whale he did just that while totaling an impressive 25 points.  When Zuccarello came back in December he brought a better understanding of the style of play, a stick that was two inches shorter and all the skill he had shown everywhere else he had played before.  Since his recall he has displayed all of the same qualities as Stepan though his willingness to scrap and take the body is all the more impressive given his size.  His flair for success in the shootouts has been huge for the club as well. 

When a team is struggling, as it is right now, to score goals you expect veterans to step up first.  That has not been the story of the Rangers season, which has seen the veterans missing in action and even the younger veterans like Dubinsky were unaccounted for this weekend, so up stepped Stepan and Zuccarello to center stage.  The leadership and desire for the puck these two showed this weekend while many of their teammates were fighting the game and the puck bodes extremely well for not only the future but the present in Rangers hockey.  Add that to their chemistry they have with one another and the team might have landed a heck of a successful experiment.

The difference between good players and great players is that innate desire to want the puck on your stick when the game is on the line.  It is one of those things that cannot be taught as some have it and other just do not.  For these two young players that desire to take the final shot or make the final play is there in spades. Both obviously have much growth to go in their complete games at the NHL level, but with the desire they have for the puck at the end and their ability to improve that they have shown over their careers you can bet they will get there.  Stepan proved that each year at Wisconsin and then here with the Rangers.  Zuccarello showed that with Frisk in the GET-ligaen (Norway), Modo (SEL), Hartford (AHL) so there is no doubt he will continue to work on and improve his game at the NHL level.  That combination of natural skill, desire to get better and being big enough for the stage makes them key figures not only in the present but the future of New York Rangers hockey. 

While they started their hockey journey’s worlds apart in Hastings, Minnesota and Oslo, Norway they are showing on the ice, to the delight of 18,200 that pack Madison Square Garden, the ability to grow and be at home together in New York, New York.  All told the Rangers would have loved to get four points out of this weekend, but the three they got out of this combination might be worth more when all is said and done.