In sports, single moments can weave together multiple strands of the season’s stories. Michael Del Zotto’s flawless short-handed gamewinner on Saturday night was one of those moments for the Rangers. Would The King have blocked the shot? Was the power play headed back to the dark days of 0-36? Had we really gotten the better deal with Kevin Klein, who started the season as Optimus Clutch but whose luster has faded slightly, over Del Zotto, whose presence on the ice and in his postgame, two days before the deadline, could be seen as a sort of Dickensian ghost of trade mistakes to come?1
We thought the hockey gods had been appeased when Ryan McDonough inadvertently bared Henrik Lundqvist’s throat for Brad Malone way back on January 31st , ushering in a month of games that, while messy, put the Rangers in first place for the first time this season. But the 2014 Stanley Cup Final taught us how fickle, if not downright sadistic, those deities can be. As far as the Rangers’ schedule goes, March comes in like a Predator and goes out like Ovechkin,2 so they’ll be lucky to stay near the top, much less at it. Cam Talbot has made some incredible saves, but anyone who was wondering now knows for sure that he’s no Lundqvist. There’s still no firm date for Hank’s return, and, after a spectacular first two-thirds of the season, Rick Nash seems to have stopped Nashing and may be playing hurt, or at least dinged-up. For the sort of fan who loses sleep (hi), there are lots of long nights ahead.
It wasn’t just the loss to the Flyers that left Rangers fans sleepless that Saturday. Earlier that afternoon, GM Glen Sather hung a “For Sale” sign around the neck of scrappy Mats Zuccarello, a.k.a. the Hobbit, the heart of the team. The whole heart thing may seem like a tired cliché, but Zucc keeps Blueshirt blood pumping to the point that the label is almost literal, and it’s not easy to imagine the Rangers without him. Fans were furious, but the more levelheaded reminded the rest of us of some unfortunate realities, such as cap space and the team’s need for defensive depth. It didn’t help that Zucc, a forward, had spent a good part of the season refusing to shoot. At no point was this more evident than in an overtime loss to the Stars on February 8th, when he went so far as to turn his back on the net while holding the puck just outside the crease, looking to pass instead. (He got the message and scored two goals against Toronto later that week.) Saturday night’s game against the Flyers didn’t do him any favors, either. Although it might have been his last game as a Ranger, he gained no points and thus next to no screen time, and when he did it was for a shoving match with – of course – his former teammate, Del Zotto.
As of Sunday, it didn’t look good for Zucc, and Rangers fans shuffled through the stages of Sports Mourning (Anxiety, Anticipatory Rage, Actual Rage, Brief Nostalgia, More Rage, Acceptance/So Who Can We Get?) Twitter was spattered with shots of the little wing either clinging to his taller linemates like a lemur, or hurling himself at opponents so huge they seemed to barely register his presence, like Zdeno Chara. Meanwhile, as if oblivious to the coming apocalypse, the Rangers’ fan site posted the latest installment the Boys in Blueshirts series, in which Zucc and Carl Hagelin play a sort of Scandinavian Statler and Waldorf, giggling helplessly while bowling, cooking, and stopping by the Bronx Zoo. For those of us waiting to hear Zucc’s fate, watching it was like soothing a paper cut with a dash of salt and lemon.
Monday afternoon, the Rangers re-signed Zucc to a four-year, 18 million dollar contract; Monday night they played a spectacular game against the Predators, featuring a gorgeous game-winning assist from a very happy Hobbit.3 Sports fandom means learning to let go (after bitching relentlessly on Twitter, of course), but this time I’m glad we don’t have to. For the next few weeks – and months, ideally – the Rangers are going to need all the heart they can get.
- Yes, we did. And Klein could be an even better deal if AV put him on the power play. Let’s see what happens now that Yandle’s in town. ↩
- Can anyone think of a weather phenomenon that is gorgeous, dangerous, and unintentionally hilarious at the same time? If so, insert Tom Wilson joke here. ↩
- …only the first year of which includes a no-trade clause. Don’t get me started. ↩