FROM THE CREASE with Bruce Berlet

Bruce HeadshotBy Bruce Berlet

The Connecticut Whale might have seen the last of crafty wing Mats Zuccarello.

The 5-foot-7, 170-pound “Norwegian Hobbit” had his second consecutive strong game and recorded his first NHL point Monday night in a 7-2 romp over the New York Islanders at snow-bound Madison Square Garden.

And Zuccarello got his first NHL memento after driving three hours through the Blizzard of 2010 with his mother and stepfather, who were visiting from Europe. They had driven from New York to Bridgeport in a rental car to watch Zuccarello and the Whale beat the Sound Tigers 4-0 on Sunday, so when the diminutive Norwegian learned of his second recall, he jumped in the car instead of the team bus and headed for New York instead of Hartford.

“Their plane got canceled, so they came to Bridgeport in the rental,” Zuccarello told reporters after the Islanders game. “I had no clothes, we just drove right (to New York) and stayed in a hotel. It (the weather) is not that bad in Norway.”

And Zuccarello is now feeling good around the Rangers.

“The nerves are out of the body,” he said, “you know the drill around the locker room, you know the players a little more. (The point) is not that important, it’s more important that we win.”

Despite only two points in his first 12 games in North America while trying to get adjusted to the more physical play and smaller rinks, Zuccarello was fourth in the balanced Whale attack with 13 goals and 12 assists when he first headed to Broadway on Thursday, had a solid game and scored in a shootout in a 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Though not as noticeable Monday night while playing 16:48, Zuccarello still performed admirably at left wing while skating on the top line with rookie center Derek Stepan and No. 1 sniper Marian Gaborik, whose absence from the Tampa Bay game because of a strained groin gave Zuccarello his first shot at the NHL. Gaborik and Stepan scored on the power play, and Zuccarello got his first NHL point when he assisted on Stepan’s goal, which extended his goal-scoring streak to four games.

Zuccarello played on left wing after debuting on right wing with Stepan and former Wolf Pack forward Brandon Dubinsky. Zuccarello’s versatility caused MSG Network announcer Sam Rosen, who didn’t arrive at the arena until late in the second period because of travel problems, to relate a story of how Zuccarello said he likes to ask a new teammate which wing he prefers and then goes to the opposite side.

“It’s unbelievable. It’s great,” Zuccarello told reporters after the game Monday about playing with Gaborik. “He’s one of the greatest players in the world, so I was happy to get the opportunity to play with him. “He and Step are such smart players the way they hold the puck and the way they can do give-and-go’s.

“After two games, I feel I have to improve in the defensive zone and that maybe I can be more patient with the puck as I got more confidence.”

Stepan lauded his linemate the last two games.

“Zuke, he’s just a little pit bull, isn’t he?” Stepan said. “He just goes around and gets pucks, and makes a lot of good plays. Gabby is, you know, a guy that’s gonna make offensive plays no matter what game it is. For me, I just felt like, distribute the puck as much as I can and get to the cage. Those two guys will find me. I was happy with it.”

Though Whale coach Ken Gernander could be losing a good player for the remainder of the season, he’s happy that he and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller helped Zuccarello reach his goal.

“What you hope for is for players to come here, play well, get opportunities and bring their best game,” Gernander said. “It did look like it took some time for him to get adjusted to things here both away from the rink and on the rink. But it wasn’t a long time. I think he adapted pretty quickly and thought he got better and better with each passing week. He was a pretty important piece for us.”

The same can be said for defenseman Matt Gilroy, who had four assists in five games with the Hartford Wolf Pack last season while trying to rediscover his game in his rookie season. He was a healthy scratch in 15 of the Rangers’ first 35 games but excelled in the last two games while subbing for Michael Del Zotto, causing coach John Tortorella to say the 26-year-old is now “one of our six (top defensemen).”

Gilroy is almost certain to be in the lineup again Wednesday night when the Rangers visit the struggling New Jersey Devils, holders of the worst record in the NHL. He scored twice in a 7-2 victory over the New York Islanders on Monday night after not having a goal for 62 games. He also was plus-3, tying his career high, playing at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., the Islanders’ home located about two miles from where he grew up.

The revival of Gilroy made Del Zotto a healthy scratch for the second time this season, but that only adds to the Rangers’ depth. Not only did Gilroy have his first career, two-goal game, but he also had a game-high four blocked shots and is now plus-10 in his last 13 games.

“I lost a little confidence,” Gilroy said of his early-season play. “But I think I’m gaining a little, and they’re showing some confidence in me, and that helps.”

As for his first two-goal game as a pro after scoring only four goals in his 80 previous NHL games, Gilroy said, “I got some lucky bounces, but I’ll take it.”

Gilroy’s first goal only 44 seconds into the game was a 50-foot shot that deflected off the stick of Islanders forward Rob Schrempf and past Dwayne Roloson, who would face a blizzard of 52 shots, including 18 in each of the last two periods. His second goal also hit a stick and knuckled past the beleaguered Islanders goalie.

Whether Del Zotto continues to sit remains to be seen, but for now it’s a positive for Gilroy, who remained upbeat during his many healthy scratches early in the second and got a big cheer from his teammates when he walked into the dressing room after a postgame interview on MSG Network.

“I don’t really have a backup plan,” said Gilroy, named the game’s No. 1 star. “I come out and play, and hopefully they like what they see. You just build off it, and hopefully get another chance to play.”

Goalie Henrik Lundqvist doesn’t think there’s any doubt Gilroy will be in the lineup against the Devils.

“When he plays with confidence, you can tell – the way he moves the puck, the way he skates,” Lundqvist said. “It’s been ups and downs, but that’s part of learning. He earns his minutes right now.”

While Gilroy likely will continue to have a spot in the Rangers’ lineup, Zuccarello’s spot in the Whale lineup could be taken by veteran center Jason Williams, who signed a professional tryout contract Monday and practiced with the Whale for the first time Tuesday after spending the last five seasons in the NHL. The 30-year-old Williams has 91 goals and 129 assists in 420 NHL games, mostly with the Detroit Red Wings, who signed him as a free agent on Sept. 18, 2000. He also has 70 goals and 94 assists in 173 AHL games with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks and Grand Rapids Griffins.

But Williams is coming off “a year I’d like to forget” in which he sustained a broken leg in November that sidelined him 12 weeks and then had groin and abdominal surgery on Aug. 11, his 30th birthday, and Oct. 6, delaying being able to land a free-agent contract.

Williams, who had been skating with the London Knights junior team in the Ontario Hockey League, isn’t likely to play Wednesday night when the Whale hosts Portland. But the resident of London, Ontario, should be ready by the weekend, when the Whale visits the Pirates on Friday night and hosts Providence and Manchester on Saturday at 5 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m.

“He’s obviously been working and training and conditioning on his own,” Gernander said, “but it’s not the same as with the group here and certainly not the same as game conditioning. So we’ll just evaluate him day-by-day and see where we are. It’s doubtful he’ll play tomorrow since he hadn’t skated since before Christmas.”

Williams could be joined by NHL veteran Todd White who was put on waivers for the fourth time by the Rangers. According to the Rangers beat reporters, it’s believed that Zuccarello will stay in New York while White will be sent to Hartford to join the Whale. White would give Connecticut the maximum number of veterans on their roster with five who have more than 260 games of professional experience. How these two moves will affect Oren Eizenman is still undetermined.

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