NHL

Michael Del Zotto’s return the latest chapter in Rangers-Flyers rivalry

As usual, Michael Del Zotto was the first one on the ice.

He glided effortlessly around the Madison Square Garden ice surface Wednesday morning with a puck connected to a stick, like he had done so many times in the past.

It was all so familiar, save for one oddity: The orange and black sweater he was adorned in.

The first resumption of the Flyers-Rangers blood feud in the 2014-15 season marked Del Zotto’s first game against the National Hockey League franchise that gave him his start as a professional. And though the result wasn’t what he or the Flyers wanted–a 2-0 loss to the Rangers in which he was booed every time he touched the puck before leaving the game with a euphemistic lower body injury following a third period collision with Dan Girardi– the defenseman believes he is in a good place, both physically and mentally.

“[The Flyers are] an unbelievable organization,” Del Zotto told a throng of reporters inside the visiting dressing room following the Flyers’ morning skate. “Everyone welcomed me with open arms.”

And they, in turn, are pleased with the defenseman. Del Zotto entered Wednesday night’s nationally televised match with eight points in 16 games while averaging21:18of ice time.

“[He has] been a very consistent player for us, both on the offensive side and the defensive side,”Flyers coach CraigBerube said. “He’s played really good defense for us. Gaps, things like that. He’s closing on people really well, he’s physical, he’s joining the rush, he’s doing things offensively he’s capable of doing.”

Essentially, Del Zotto is providing the Flyers what the Rangers believed they were getting when they used the 20th pick of the 2008 draft on the Stouffville, Ontario, native.

What changed?

“Just playing solid defensively,” Del Zotto said. “Not trying to force too much offensively. When your opportunities arise take [advantage of] them. Maybe in the past, every shift trying to be able to make a play. It’s not going to happen in this league, guys are too good. You’re not always going to have that perfect play offensively, a chance every single shift. It’s a matter of taking what the game gives you and being consistent. That’s the biggest thing. My mindset this year was not getting too high, not getting too low. Just staying even keel knowing what’s at stake and just working hard each day trying to get better.”

While it is hyperbolic silliness to suggest Del Zotto is experiencing a Lazarus-like resurrection, his career appears to be generating positive on-ice traction following a 2013-14 season in which the Rangers and Nashville Predators gave up on him.

The irony is that both New York–with the hiring of attack minded Alain Vigneault to replace the ultraconservative John Tortorella–and Nashville were thought to be teams in which Del Zotto’s skill sets could flourish.

Instead, he recorded 16 points in 67 games.

The Rangers traded Del Zotto to Nashville on Jan. 22 for Kevin Klein. At the time of the trade, Del Zotto totaled 11 points in 42 games and was scratched nine times as the left-handed shot struggled playing on the right side with John Moore.

In Nashville, which possesses a strong defense corps with Shea Webber, Roman Josi and Seth Jones, he played in 25-of-30 games and recorded five points .

While disputing any notion of self-doubt, he Del Zotto admitted the 2013-14 season was one in which he thought more than he played.

“That was the toughest part,” Del Zotto said. “The mental aspect of the game. You don’t lose your skill, you don’t lose that side of it. It’s just thinking too much, being put in different positions, being put in another lineup, thinking ‘What do I have to do to stay in?’ That kind of thing. It takes a toll on you mentally and I think that was the toughest part.”

Once the season ended, the Predators decided to let Del Zotto to test the free agent market, and he did not sign with the Flyers until Aug. 5. Philadelphia and Del Zotto agreed toone year deal worth $1.3 million shorty after the team learned Kimmo Timonen was diagnosed with blood clots.

Simply, both the player and team needed the other.

“I was a free agent,” Del Zotto said. “I didn’t know where I was going to end up. I never thought it was the end of my career, being 24 years old. [It was] just one bad year. Things didn’t go as well as I would have liked.

“[I’m] just really thrilled to be a part of [the Flyers] organization.”

A marriage of convenience may turn out to be a long-term union, and Philadelphia’s coaching staff of Craig Berube and assistants Ian Laperriere, Joe Mullen and Gord Murphy could be key should Del Zotto and the Flyers agree to a longer-term deal.Del Zotto believes the Flyers coaches believe in him, unlike his coaches New York and Nashville

“Anytime that coaching staff has that confidence in you, it definitely helps you out mentally to play your game and not do too much. Each day I’m taking as a new day, trying to get better, trying to get more comfortable.”

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