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Tough as nails Mats Zuccarello leads Rangers into second round of NHL playoffs

New York will meet the Senators in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Mats Zuccarello
Mats Zuccarello and the Rangers are headed to the semi-finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Getty Images

Time is a funny thing.

 

On some days, two years can seem like a lifetime ago. On others, there are memories so ingrained in your brain, that it feels just like yesterday.

 

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Exactly 730 days, or exactly two years from Monday, New York Rangers winger Mats Zuccarello led his team into an April 24, 2015, Game 5 matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins up 3-1 in the first-round series. 

 

Just over 15 minutes into the first period, the 5-foot-7 forward made his way to the front of the net as defenseman Ryan McDonagh wound up for a slapshot from the point. 

 

But after being pushed off balance by Pittsburgh defenseman Taylor Chorney, Zuccarello was struck in the head by McDonagh's shot, which was over 90 miles per hour. 

 

Skating to the bench, Zuccarello lost feeling in his right side and more puzzling, couldn't tell team doctors what was ailing him.

 

Zuccarello was later diagnosed with Broca's aphasia, which is a condition sustained when the left side of the brain's frontal lobe is harmed. In this case, it was a screaming six-inch disc of frozen rubber that fractured his skull and caused bleeding in his brain that left him numb on the right side of his body.

 

Broca's aphasia left Zuccarello with the inability to speak and it was not a given that he would make a full recovery. 

 

Always as the underdog given his size, Zuccarello's competitive spirit is on levels not common to the normal human being. In a week, he was released from the hospital, but could not walk quickly or make any sudden movements or he would risk hemorrhaging in his brain due to an increase in blood pressure. 

 

"S*** happens," he said rather nonchalantly when talking about it two years later.

 

By late May 2015, the Norwegian was back on his skates despite needing months of speech therapy in order to basically re-learn English. 

 

Fast forward to Saturday night in Game 6 against the Montreal Canadiens and the Rangers are trailing 1-0. 

 

In need of a spark, the team is given a power play that has struggled mightily in the postseason having gone 0-for-14 in the previous five games of the series. 

 

The smallest player on the ice, whose health and future was in serious jeopardy no more than two years ago, snapped a wrister through Canadiens goalie and Vezina Trophy candidate Carey Price to tie things up. 

 

Eleven minutes later, he nabbed his second of the night and what turned out to be the game-winner to lift the Rangers to a 4-2 series victory.

 

Despite playing in 80 games this year, recording 59 points and with three goals so far this postseason, Zuccarello still isn't 100 percent recovered. 

 

"I miss some words now and then," Zuccarello said. "But I don't think about it that much."

 

But putting together one of his best performances of the season on such a large stage in front of the Madison Square Garden fans made the moment even better for him. 

 

"Of course it's special doing this in front of the home fans that have supported me so much," Zuccarello said. "And my teammates are unbelievable."

 

His work ethic and toughness won the respect of his head coach Alain Vigneault, who has been with Zuccarello throughout his journey. 

 

"He's a competitive little bugger," he said with a smile. "He's become a real big part of our team, not just what he does on the ice. He brings the team together. He's a real good teammate."

 

McDonagh, who was burdened with the feeling of responsibility for Zuccarello's misfortunes, was left in awe of his teammate. 

 

"It's incredible the impact he has with this team," the captain said. "I'm just ecstatic for him."

 

Defenseman Marc Staal, who has had his fair share of injury problems throughout his career, echoed McDonagh's sentiments. 

 

"It's not easy to come back from an injury like that," he said. "You have an appreciation for the thin line."

 

But for Zuccarello, there is time for congratulations and pats on the back some other time. The Rangers are looking for their first Stanley Cup title since 1994 and must prepare for the Eastern Conference semifinals. 

 

"It's a proud moment for sure, but it's only the first round," Zuccarello said. "You have to stay humble here." 

   

 

 
 
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