MONTREAL – Perhaps a Hobbit can help save the sinking New York Rangers.
But diminutive winger Mats Zuccarello cautions not to expect any miracles.
The left-winger known as The Norwegian Hobbit returned to the Rangers this week after a stint with Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the KHL.
He was slated to start on a line with Brad Richards and Chris Kreider when the Rangers faced the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre on Saturday night.
“I just have to play my game and work hard and do what I can do,” said Zuccarello, who is listed at five-foot-seven said. “It’s not like we’re going to win the Stanley Cup because I’m coming back.
“I’m not Gretzky. But I can try to do my job and maybe create a spark. We’ll see how it goes.”
Zuccarello, who drew attention with his strong play for Norway at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, had eight goals and 18 assists in 52 games over the last two seasons with the Rangers. He turned down a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent and jumped to the KHL last summer.
With Metallurg, where he had Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar as teammates until the NHL lockout ended, Zuccarello had 11 goals and 28 points in 44 games.
When informed the Rangers were interested, he jumped at the chance to come back for at least the rest of this season at a pro-rated US$700,000. The 25-year-old will be a restricted free agent again at the end of the season.
“The KHL was a good experience,” he said. “I had a good time playing for Metallurg, but when I got this opportunity, it was an easy choice. I’m happy to be back.”
Rangers coach John Tortorella hopes Zuccarello can give a boost to a faltering New York attack that was shut out 3-0 in its last outing Thursday in Ottawa.
Despite having top talent like Richards, Marian Gaborik and Rick Nash in the lineup, the Rangers were last in the 30-team league with only 78 goals scored in 33 games heading into Saturday’s action.
“We want him to be instinctive,” said Tortorella. “We’re not going to give him much direction.”
Zuccarello may even see power play time.
“I’m not sure where I’m going to use him,” the coach added. “We’ll see how it goes.
“He sees the ice. He’s a creative player and that’s what we need, not only there, but in our five-on-five offence as well.”
Richards hopes Zuccarello can help find an answer to the team’s puzzling lack of punch on attack.
“We all know we’ve had trouble scoring and creating offence and that’s what he’s here to do,” the veteran centre said. “He’s not here to run people through the glass.”
The Rangers appear to be a downcast lot these days. And they seem to be at wits end about the cause of their inconsistent play.
The past week has been a case in point, as they started with an uplifting 5-2 win at Philadelphia, followed by the loss in Ottawa.
The team that many picked to be first overall in the Eastern Conference is now in a dogfight for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Even Tortorella is mystified. He raised eyebrows this week by demoting Gaborik, who had two goals in his last 20 games, to the fourth line.
“The thing that bothers me the most and that’s frustrating is that I thought we showed some personality against Philly,” he said. “We had conviction in our play.
“It was ‘We are going to win this game,’ instead of going in with the mindset of ‘I hope we win this game.’ That’s what we have to get straightened out. I believe you can control that—how you play. And we have not done a good job of that consistently.”
Asked why the effort is inconsistent, Tortorella added: “I don’t have an answer, but it’s something we have to answer. I think that’s collectively, as a team. Not just one guy like Marian Gaborik. We’re out of time.”
The Rangers can still make moves ahead of the NHL trade deadline on Wednesday, perhaps to add some grit up front.
For now, they’ve added Zuccarello, hoping his offensive instincts can help light a fire under a team that too often has looked lifeless.
“I don’t think that means I can go out and do whatever I want,” Zuccarello said. “I have to stick with the system and make plays if I see them, try not to force it.
“I’m not going to come back and think I’m going to score three goals and be the saviour.”