By Larry Brooks, New York Post
Henrik Lundqvist was searching for the correct words with which to describe Mats Zuccarello, the teammate with whom the goaltender has been closest through his 14-year tenure on Broadway, when instead he told a story that explained it all.
“To me, he’s a good friend but he also likes to be in your face,” Lundqvist told The Post beforeThursday’s 4-1 Garden defeat to the Wild in which No. 36 played 19:41 as management decided to spit into the wind. “Here … here’s an example of what I mean …
“He comes over to our place for dinner and first thing, goes to see our two kids,” said Lundqvist, husband of Therese and father of 6-year-old Charlise and 3-year-old Juli. “He says to them, ‘Have you had your candy today? Do you know that we’re going to have candy for dinner?’
“Well, thanks a lot! Just what we need as parents! There’s no candy! But that’s him … always wanting to stir things up, always having a fun and unique way with people. He’s one of a kind and he’s become a close friend.”
Lundqvist, who was laughing loudly as he told the story on himself and Zuccarello, understands that his friend all but certainly will cease being his teammate by the time Monday’s 3 p.m. trade deadline has come and gone. But the netminder said he hasn’t invested time or emotion in attempting to define his feelings about a second consecutive late February reset.
“I can picture it, but not fully,” said the King. “There’s no point in going through all of the emotions and feelings until everything happens.”
Lundqvist and Zuccarello first hooked up in the weeks leading up to the Blueshirts’ 2010 training camp. The goalie was on the verge of entering his sixth season while the winger was preparing for his first NHL camp after signing as an undrafted free agent following an impressive performance for Norway in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
“The Olympics were the first time I’d seen him on the ice,” Lundqvist said. “A short kid with a long stick. Very skilled. He’d played for a couple of years in the Swedish Elite League so I knew of him, but I’d never been on the ice with him until we trained together.
“We hit it off right away. We spoke the same language — he speaks Swedish. It’s almost like I think he is Swedish until he’s around people from Norway. We’re the same in a lot of ways, have the same feelings and view of a lot of things, but there are also differences in the way we think and see things. I’ll keep those to myself.
“But as a teammate, on the ice as a player, his intensity and compete level are very similar to me.”
Zuccarello, who will turn 32 on Sept. 1, has won the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award in 2013-14, 2015-16 and 2016-17, thus joining Adam Graves (five) and Ryan Callahan (four) as the only Rangers to win the fan vote that many times.
That is a testament to the 5-foot-8 (cough) blue-collar winger’s work ethic and popularity among the blue-collar fans, who fill the joint with cries of “ZOOOOOK” whenever No. 36 carries the puck or makes a play. And it is that work ethic that Zuccarello took with him to Magnitogorsk of the KHL for the 2012-13 season while the NHL was locked out. The Rangers maintained his rights and re-signed the winger for the stretch drive after the KHL season had ended.
“The time he spent in Russia, that shows how much work he was willing to do to improve as a player,” Lundqvist said. “I remember it was great having him back.”
Zuccarello, citizen of the world, was in New York to stay. He survived the horrifying brain injury and fractured skull he sustained in Game 5 of the first round of the 2015 playoffs. When he returned the following season, he showed no fear. He was a linchpin; the personification of what being a Ranger should be.
Now though, as a pending free agent, Zuccarello will be used as barter to accelerate the rebuild, probably with the return of a second-round draft selection and a reasonable prospect. There will be pain when the time comes that he walks out of the Rangers room for the last time, and management knows it. Yes, there is a chance the winger could return as a free agent on July 1, but probably a remote one.
“The times we’ve spent together, the talks we’ve had, I’ll miss that [if there is a trade] and I’ll miss him,” Lundqvist said. “I’ve had friends leave before. It’s hard. But when you play for one team for 14 years, it’s going to happen.”