NEW YORK – No one is calling him Michael Del Zaster anymore.
His real name is Michael Del Zotto. And after a disaster – “Del Zaster”, if you prefer – sophomore season last year, the 21-year-old has rebounded with a flourish. His two brilliant assists and steady play on defense led the Rangers (22-8-4) to first place in the Eastern Conference, and a 3-0 win over the rival Islanders (11-17-6).
“Every day I’m just getting more and more confident and feeling better about my game,” said Del Zotto. “When the coaching staff shows faith in me to throw me out there and reward me with ice time, it’s just something that allows me to play my game. I don’t have to over-think things and worry about everything else.”
After a scoreless first period, Del Zotto toe-dragged magnificently past Islanders defenseman Frans Nielsen, helping to set up Carl Hagelin’s tally at 5:14 of the second.
“That was incredible,” Hagelin said after scoring his fifth and sixth goals of his season. “Guy’s got a lot of confidence right now, he’s playing well. I don’t know how many goals he’s been on the ice for in the last five games, I feel like he’s plus-three every game.”
“I’m impressed the way he’s been playing this year,” said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who made 28 saves for his third shutout of the season. “It’s fun to see. He came back this summer; he was just ready to go. He plays physical and he’s very confident. He’s been outstanding, I think, in all areas right now.”
His second assist came in the third period, when he pinched behind the net and sent a beauty of a feed to Hagelin, who deposited from out in front. That’s all Lundqvist needed in another spectacular outing for the Rangers net-minder, who collected his 15th win of the season.
“He’s still young,” Lundqvist said of Del Zotto. “That’s the thing. For a defenseman, he’s so young. You forget that sometimes. He learned a lot last year, and even his first year, and he’s just taken it to another level. He makes really good decisions out there.”
After skating in 80 games for the Rangers in 2009-2010, Del Zotto’s second season was a major regression. He skated in only 40 games marked by inconsistent play on defense, and little desire to enter play on the offensive side of the ice.
“Getting more and more confident every day,” Del Zotto said of his game. “Just comes with the coaching staff having trust in me, allowing me to jump up in the rush and play my game, as long as I’m reliable in my own end. When they show trust and that confidence in me, it definitely allows me to just play my game and not over-think things.”
“He just keeps improving. As long as he handles himself off the ice the way he should, as far as staying within himself and still learning what it is to be a pro, he’ll keep growing,” said Tortorella. “I’m happy for him because it was a tough year [last year] for a very young kid in a very tough position. He’s learned from it, and he continues to grow.”
After being demoted for good in February, Del Zotto fractured his finger in Hartford, ending his “Delzasterous” second professional season early.
But after coming back into the lineup and applying himself, he’s steadily gotten more trust from Tortorella and assistant coach Mike Sullivan. Tonight, Del Zotto skated 21:25, took three shots, added two assists, blocked a shot, and continued to show why he’s becoming one of the Rangers top young defensemen.
“He has really applied himself in the things he needs to do to be a pro,” said Tortorella. “He’s been a very important part to our back end, especially with some of the things going on with it.”
“That’s one thing I worked on in the offseason – just being mentally ready and working on the mental side of the game,” said Del Zotto, who, after a minus-25 in his first two seasons, is a plus-25 this year, ranking second in the NHL. “I know what I can do on the ice and I know the type of player I am. It’s just a matter of believing in myself and making sure my confidence stays there every day.”
Hagelin’s six goals ranks him 10th among NHL rookies, despite only playing 16 games.
The Rangers eight regulation losses are the fewest in the league. They are second in the NHL with 48 points, behind only the Blackhawks (50 points).
Marian Gaborik added an empty-net goal with 2:28 left to score his league-leading 22nd goal of the season. Four players are tied for second with 20 goals.
POST-GAME AUDIO CLIPS: