ST. PAUL, Minn. — Jason Zucker bounced the puck off the boards past Detroit Red Wings forward Valtteri Filpulla and in the defensive zone, hauled in his own pass and then outraced longtime NHL veteran Mikael Samuelsson. In front of him, the Minnesota Wild’s rookie forward was surprised to see nothing but open ice between him and the goaltender.
Few players are catching the speedy, 21-year-old Zucker in a race and no one on Detroit was doing so Sunday. After a couple strides, Zucker was at full speed and he finished off a 2-on-1 break by sniping a shot past Red Wings goaltender Petr Mrazek for his first NHL goal, a day after being called up from the American Hockey League.
“I’ve seen him do that so many times this year,” said Minnesota rookie goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who has spent this season with Zucker on the Houston Aeros of the AHL. “He’s got world-class speed. Not many guys can catch him.”
Thankfully for the Wild, Zucker adds a shoot-first mentality with his blazing speed. Zucker’s goal tied Sunday’s game 2-2 and Torrey Mitchell scored 32 seconds later to lift Minnesota to a 3-2 win against Detroit Sunday, the Wild’s first win in regulation in nine games. Dany Heatley scored for the first time in 10 games and Kuemper made 29 saves for his first NHL win in his second start since being recalled from Houston last week.
Zucker has offered a breath of fresh air for Minnesota, which has struggled to score, with his end-to-end scoring rush. The Wild averaged 26.5 shots per game this season, the third-fewest in the NHL. Their 2.07 goals per game are second from the bottom of the league.
In his season debut, Zucker, who was leading the AHL in shots when he was recalled Saturday, wasn’t afraid to shoot.
“I’m not exactly a passer,” Zucker said with a smile. “For me, I skate fast and I try to get the puck on net. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Zucker, who made his NHL debut late last season after signing with Minnesota out of Denver University, had the option to pass on his scoring play, with veteran winger Devin Setoguchi right with him. But he chose to shoot, something coach Mike Yeo wants his team doing more of, and the rookie didn’t pass up his scoring chance.
“I would say a lot of guys come in and think I’ve got to defer to the older players and I’ve got to get them the puck,” Yeo said. “Anyone who is around him knows that he is full of confidence, and I mean that as a compliment. He knows that he’s a shooter and he’s here to be a shooter. He’s got confidence in his shot and it shows. I think it’s very mature on his part in that situation not to defer. When you have shooters, it ends up having a positive effect on the rest of the group…hopefully that keeps building.”
Even with his NHL experience, Zucker didn’t get the chance to compete for a spot on the Wild in training camp because of the lockout and the condensed camp. He waited his turn while prized rookie Mikael Granlund got the chance with Minnesota out of training camp. He waited when big forward Charlie Coyle, another top prospect, was called up.
Zucker just kept doing his thing, leading Houston in scoring with 41 points (19 goals, 22 assists), and biding his time. He played in the AHL all-star game, was third in in the league in power-play goals, 10th in goals and 14th in scoring. While he was passed over, Aeros general manager Jim Mill stayed in communication with him.
“This is the first time I had to battle this adversity,” Zucker said. “I didn’t know what it took to get called up or what it takes to get sent down. I had no idea. It’s my first year. I’m trying to learn the ropes, and I had a lot of guys down there helping me out, including my coaches. That was big for me.”
His arrival Sunday was big for Minnesota.
“I think that’s what we were kind of lacking, we were lacking that energy,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “I don’t know why, but seeing him go out there and skate from one end of the ice to the other and bury it for his first NHL goal, yeah, that’s definitely contagious.”
He showed what he could do with a few quick steps down the ice, the rarity of the situation made possible by Zucker’s speed.
“I think that’s sort of the trend of the entire league right now with the way defensmen are playing, there’s not a lot of open ice in front of you,” Yeo said. “Quite often you have to find a way to get a puck behind a defenseman who’s right in your face. But if you have speed, then those players are extremely difficult to deal with. That’s a perfect example of it. The defenseman is right down on him, he chips it by him and then it’s a 2-on-1 because of that. Speed is extremely difficult to defend and he finds a way to use it.”