Norwegian ice hockey player Mats ‘Zucca’ Zuccarello Aasen made history on Thursday night, when his team the New York Rangers defeated the Montreal Canadiens 1-0 to progress to the National Hockey League (NHL) Stanley Cup final. It will be the Rangers’ first tilt at the trophy in 20 years, while Zucca will become the first Norwegian to play in an NHL final.
“This was something I dreamed about since I was little,” Zucca told reporters after the game. “So it is clear that it’s huge. For me, this is greater than the Olympics and the World Championships.” The significance of being the first Norwegian player to contest the Stanley Cup was not lost on him. “It is huge, and something to appreciate.”
Zucca had scoring opportunities during the match, but teammate Dominic Moore was the only player to find the back of the net at the end of the second period, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). Zucca spent just over 18 minutes on the ice, making him one of the Rangers’ most-used players in the important match, just as he had been throughout the finals campaign.
US channel NBC’s hockey expert Keith Jones was in no doubt Zucca had played an important role. “Zuccarello was the one who made things happen in the first period,” Jones said. “He has done a wonderful job from one zone to the other. I think he was fabulous.”
The crowd favourite was the Rangers’ keeper, Swede Henrik Lundqvist, who was the hero of the day after several acrobatic saves. Lundqvist has been named the Rangers’ most valuable player seven years in a row.
“The whole team lifted today,” Zucca told newspaper Aftenposten. “We deserved this victory, it was a perfect match. The dream has not been achieved yet. We still have the final left.” While he told reporters no champagne corks would be popping yet, he’d celebrate in his own way. “So, now I’ll relax today and tomorrow. Maybe I will stay up a little later than I am usually allowed to.”
The NHL semi-finals format involves seven matches, where the first team to take four wins progresses. The 4-2 overall tally against the Canadiens meant the Rangers made the final for the first time since 1994. The Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks were still battling it out in their semi-finals round, but Zucca would not say who he’d rather meet in the final.
“There are two strong teams,” he said. “So it will be tough regardless. But we can win if we continue to play the Rangers way.”