NEW YORK – Standing in the visitors locker room, not the one down the hall that was his home base for nearly nine years, Wild winger Mats Zuccarello found it difficult to enjoy what happened to him earlier in the evening when he made his return to Madison Square Garden.
But in the future, like maybe when the team is back home after this three-game road trip, Zuccarello will reflect and bask in the hearty reception he received Monday before the Wild crumbled 3-2 in overtime to the Rangers.
“Right now it's hard,” he said. “It's a tough feeling right now. I'll kind of see it from a little further a couple of days from now. It was emotional, for sure, in the beginning in the first period and leading up to the game. Maybe more than I realized. It was great. Like I said, it was really nice and a good moment for me.”
Before puck drop, fans lined up along the Wild’s end of the rink and welcomed Zuccarello to the ice by holding up signs and his jersey. Others banged on the glass when he skated near them.
After participating in a ceremonial puck drop for Hockey Fights Cancer, Zuccarello was again spotlighted during the first TV timeout.
The Rangers reflected on his time with the team during a video montage that included clips of his success on the ice and work in the community.
Forever our favorite Norwegian.— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) November 26, 2019
Thank you for the memories, Zucc! pic.twitter.com/0U20pEy8Rv
Once it was done playing, the crowd gave Zuccarello a standing ovation. He waved from the bench and tapped his chest before getting on the ice for a curtain call, skating as he continued to salute the fans.
A “Zucc-a-rello” chant broke out after that, one of many cheers throughout the evening for the former Ranger.
“I had a great relationship with everyone here for many years,” Zuccarello said. “It was unbelievable for me. I had to fight back some tears there. It was big. It was a really good moment for me and my family in the stands, too.”
The night would have been a happier one for Zuccarello had the Wild held on late in the third.
But like it did Saturday in Boston, the team couldn’t stave off an opponent fueled by a late power play and then was blitzed in overtime.
“We just don’t close,” winger Ryan Donato said. “You can’t put that on any individual guy, but internally we’ve got to figure something out to make sure we play a full entire game because we play great up until the very end and give away games. At the end of the day, if want to have a chance to make the playoffs, these are the points we’re going to need at this time of the year. They’re too easy to give away.”
Before the Rangers tied it on winger Chris Kreider’s goal, Donato’s tally 10 minutes into the third was looking like it would be the game-winner.
And it was one of the prettier goals scored by the Wild this season, as Donato cruised into the zone, dragged the puck around Brady Skjei and wired the puck into the net for his second goal of the season.
“Me and [assistant coach] Darby [Hendrickson] practice that one pretty much after every single practice, and it’s nice to see it finally pay off,” Donato said. “I think I’ve had a couple chances like that just barely miss or the goalie makes a nice save, so that one definitely felt good.”
Another individual who stood out Monday was goalie Alex Stalock.
He’ll get a rest Tuesday, with Kaapo Kahkonen on deck for his first NHL game against the Devils during the final leg of this trip, but Stalock gave the Wild the goaltending necessary to win. He was especially clutch in the second, making 10 of his 28 saves, when the ice was tilted in the Rangers’ favor and they kept the Wild hemmed in its zone for lengthy stretches of time.
Eventually, the Wild tied it in the second on a goal from winger Zach Parise.
“He kept us in, and I said that to the guys,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I said, ‘Yeah, we won the [second] period but we didn’t deserve it.’ They were beating us to all loose pucks, and we didn’t win any battles. In the third period, we came out and we won the loose pucks and we won the battles. So, for most of the time, it was going our way. But in the end, it didn’t.”