Zuccarello's zipping around
Zuccarello's zipping around
“Hopefully Canada’s jet-lagged,” says Norway star
Now, a cynic would quip that the Norwegians’ hopes will go downhill rapidly in this tournament, especially as they face the defending champion Canadians in their opener on Thursday. Norway lost 8-0 to the hosts in Vancouver, and with 13 Norwegians and 11 Canadians from those 2010 squads returning for this rematch, the likelihood of another thrashing seems high.
But the cynics didn’t watch Norwegian coach Roy Johansen briskly putting his troops through their paces at the Bolshoy Ice Dome’s practice rink on Tuesday afternoon. Zuccarello was easy to spot with his curly brown hair jutting out behind his helmet and his lightning moves, making the 171-cm, 74-kg magician Norway’s answer to Canada’s Martin St. Louis.
High-tempo drills continued for Norway’s entire allotted hour and 15 minutes, and Zuccarello and his teammates only exited the ice when the Zamboni came out to chase them away.
They weren’t greeted with a huge media crush. There was Finnish TV, a couple of Norwegian reporters, a guy from NBC Sports, and, of course, IIHF.com. But Zuccarello doesn’t mind flying under the radar with his nation, currently ninth in the IIHF World Ranking. The 26-year-old Oslo native was in a good mood even though he woke up at five o’clock in the morning due to jet lag.
“We’ll have to be sharp in every aspect of the game,” said Zuccarello, entering his second Olympics. “We have to play a team game and compete together. We’re in the Olympics with everyone else. We’re here to do our best and we’ll see what happens after that.”
Now in his fourth NHL season with the New York Rangers, Zuccarello has been doing his best as the club’s leading scorer with 15 goals and 28 assists in a career-high 58 regular season games. Under new head coach Alain Vigneault, who swapped places with now-Vancouver bench boss John Tortorella, the nifty left wing is averaging over 17 minutes per game. That can’t hurt heading into this tournament.
“I play a lot,” Zuccarello said. “That’s probably the biggest key. You play and you get confidence. You kind of have the feeling from before that you could play in this league, but maybe didn’t play as much as you wanted to play. The first couple of years in the league are tough like that. You just have to stick with it. This year’s been really nice. It’s confidence, and confidence is how you play important minutes and play a bigger role.”
He stole the spotlight on January 26 with two goals, including the winner, in a 7-3 romp over the New Jersey Devils at an outdoor game at Yankee Stadium in front of 50,105 fans. Now he has a chance to transfer that clutch ability to the world’s biggest stage, and maybe, just maybe, get some bragging rights over Rangers teammate and three-time Canadian Olympian Rick Nash.
“We have to try to play our game,” Zuccarello said. “I think we can play our max and Canada, with their skill set and the players they have, it’s going to be tough for us. But you never know. All we can do is go out and give 100 percent and try to play a perfect game, and hopefully Canada’s a little jet-lagged.”
Not all of the offensive expectations fall upon his shoulders. The three-time World Championship participant will need help from some fellow veteran forwards. Patrick Thoresen, who serves as an assistant captain with SKA St. Petersburg, has 27 points in 33 KHL games this season. Mathis Olimb has 34 points in 46 game with the SHL’s Frolunda Gothenburg, and Per-Age Skroder of MODO Ornskoldsvik has 19 points in 43 games.
Zuccarello is a former MODO man himself, winning the Swedish league’s scoring title in 2010. Getting to play there with the legendary Peter Forsberg, his childhood hero, was an enormous thrill.
“He taught me about professionalism on the ice, in the locker room, and in preparing yourself every day,” he said. “I kind of just admired watching him on the ice. It was a big thing.”
Zuccarello also had a productive stint on Russian ice last season. Before signing with the Rangers as a free agent on March 28, he had 28 points in 44 games with Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
He had a goal and two assists in four Olympic outings in Vancouver, and clearly has more to give.
Everybody knows Zuccarello’s name. But does Norway have a secret weapon here in Sochi?
“That’s the team spirit,” Zuccarello said with a smile.
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