NEW YORK --In his first NHL game, Mats Zuccarello was left with unenviable task of saving his team. The Rangers trailed the Lightning 2-1 in the shootout and a miss by the 23-year-old rookie would end the game. All the pressure that could fit inside Madison Square Garden was riding on Zuccarello’s shoulders. The rookie had to come through.
"I was pretty nervous," Zuccarello said. "But I had to score on this one or I probably won't get a chance like that again."
Moments later, he sent the crowd into a frenzy with a score, trying up the shootout with a wrist shot. The Rangers ultimately lost in the 11th round of the shootout, falling 4-3 to the Lightning.
Zuccarello’s shootout goal highlighted a memorable debut for one of the Rangers top prospects. Called up from the Connecticut Whale of the AHL with Marian Gaborik sidelined, Zuccarello, an undrafted free agent who the Rangers signed in May, played 17:52 and took two shots, along with blocking two shots.
He was demoted back to Connecticut after the game so he could play Dec. 26 in the Whale’s game against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Rangers head coach John Tortorella said he cannot speak as to whether Zuccarello will be called up for the Rangers next game against the Islanders Dec. 27.
“This is probably the greatest night of my life to play in my first game so I’m pretty happy,” Zuccarello said. “Too bad we didn’t get the points.”
Zuccarello had been on a tear in the AHL before his promotion. He had notched 22 points in his last 20 games with the Whale and was tied for second in the league with 22 goals. Zuccarello, who is listed at 5-foot-7, played with Norway in the Olympics and was the MVP of the Swedish Elite League before signing a two-year deal with the Rangers this year.
He said he was nervous at the beginning of the game, but started to get the feel of the game more as it wore on. He received more ice time than he thought, playing in 23 shifts in the course of the game.
Zuccarello admitted he was surprised he was called upon as one of the three initial shooters for the Rangers, but liked that the team put pressure on him, making him feel that the team believes him. He called his goal a pretty luck bounce.
Tortorella had nothing but complimentary things to say about Zuccarello.
“It’s a hard thing for a coach when a kid comes up from the minors to put him in the situations,” Tortorella said. “We need skill, our club needs skill as we continue to build this and I was not going to hide him.
“I try to temper myself because you never know as you go though a long term of it all, but I give the kid high marks, he stood right in there and played real well.”