Mats Zuccarello, reunited with center Derick Brassard after a five-game absence, had his first career hat trick as the Rangers came out of a four-day break with a 3-1 victory over the Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden Friday night.
Alain Vigneault's memory must be sharp. In the three games against the Maple Leafs last season, when the Blueshirts were 1-2-0, Zuccarello had three goals, Brassard had four points, and linemate Rick Nash had five points.
The Rangers coach reunited that line Friday night, and it didn't take long to have an impact, producing nine points. Brassard and Nash had the first and second assists on all three goals.
"All the goals, thanks to Brass and Nasher, seemed to be open nets," said Zuccarello. "I can't miss every open net I get . . . It's not every day we're going to connect like this, but it's really nice when it happens."
The trio connected at 9:41 of the first period, starting with Nash's rush down the left side, a pass to Brassard in the slot, and his quick setup to Zuccarello in the lower right circle. Zuccarello whipped the puck past Jonathan Bernier for his fifth of the season and a 1-0 lead. The line also had three other chances: Bernier stopped Zuccarello's low shot early and Nash missed wide twice and Brassard once.
After the Rangers (7-2-2) failed three times to extend the lead on consecutive power plays in the second period, the Leafs, who have lost five straight, almost tied the score just 12 seconds into the third.
A shot deflected off defenseman Dan Boyle and trickled past Lundqvist (24 saves), who immediately complained. The call on the ice was no goal, based on goaltender interference by Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul, whose right skate appeared to contact Lundqvist's skate and spin him around. The Leafs challenged the call, but after a review, the league supported the referee's decision. So the score remained 1-0.
Then at 5:34, Brassard and Nash connected with Zuccarello again. On a 2 on 1 rush, Brassard's backhander was tapped in by Zuccarello for a valuable insurance goal. At that point, the Leafs had outshot the Blueshirts in the third 5-1.
Bernier was pulled with just over two minutes to play, and Lupul brought the Leafs to within one with a deflection with 1:51 left. But Zuccarello finished his hat trick with an empty-netter with 48.6 to go, giving him seven goals on the season.
"[The chemistry] is a lot off last year [when the trio put up 76 goals and 168 points]," said Nash. "It takes some time to get back; early on in the season, we struggled a bit. When we hold onto pucks and make plays, you can see there's definitely some chemistry. I thought I could've had two or three [goals] tonight."