ST. PAUL, Minn. — Matt Cullen was just trying to keep the puck in the Minnesota Wild’s possession while lying on his stomach behind the Chicago Blackhawks net in overtime on Sunday.
Cullen, one of Minnesota’s few playoff-savvy veterans, poked the puck out to forward Jason Zucker, the high-energy, speedy forward playing in just his third NHL postseason game. Zucker, who has brought his shoot-first mentality to the Wild in his young career, thought only one thing: put the puck on net.
Cullen, watching from his stomach, didn’t expect a shot. But Zucker, 21, has been anything but timid in his first NHL playoff series.
The 2010 second-round draft pick shot from an improbable angle on the
side of the net and squeezed the puck behind Blackhawks’ goaltender
Corey Crawford to give the Wild a 3-2 win and a new outlook on the
series, trailing two games to one.
“That play there, a lot of guys probably wouldn’t have even shot that,” Cullen said. “But he’s got that nose for the net. He easily could have won that first game, he hit the bar in overtime and it could be an awfully different series. He’s a goal scorer and it’s nice to have that.”
Zucker had a prime chance in overtime in the series’ first game in Chicago, ringing a shot off the crossbar. Chicago later won the game and brought a 2-0 series lead into Sunday, Minnesota’s first home playoff game since 2008. Given another chance in overtime, Zucker didn’t miss Sunday.
The goal didn’t go past Crawford, it simply went behind him and hit the far side of the net.
“Cully fell down and just tried throwing the puck out to the middle, and like I’ve said all year, the passes that guy makes are just ridiculous,” Zucker said. “I don’t know how he makes half of them. But he ended up on his back making that pass out to me, and I just tried to put it on net.”
And Minnesota couldn’t be happier for the shoot-first, ask questions-later Zucker to be rewarded.
The Wild’s energy and physicality Sunday made the matchup between the Western Conference’s top-seeded Blackhawks and the No. 8 seed Minnesota look much different from Game 2, when Chicago won 5-2 and possessed the puck much of the game. Newcomer Stephane Veilleux, recalled earlier in the day from the American Hockey League, set a tone for the physical play which carried over to the likes of Devin Setoguchi, who was second on the team with seven hits behind Cal Clutterbuck’s eight.
Together, Zucker, Cullen and Setoguchi had numerous scoring chances. Zucker and Setoguchi led the team with five shots a piece. After being outshot 48-28 in Game 2, the Wild outshot the Blackhawks 37-27 on Sunday. Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Zach Parise added goals for Minnesota, which came back from a 1-0 deficit and also recovered from giving up the lead with 2:15 left in the third period.
“It was nice to see the response that we had,” Cullen said, calling it “absolutely” a must-win game.
Cullen added: “I liked our game a lot and the battle level was where it needs to be if we’re going to have a chance at winning this series. We like 2-1 a lot better than the alternative. We’re back in the series here and hopefully we can take care of business.”
The Wild are back in the series thanks to their energy, physical play and timeliness from Zucker.
Zucker, who had four goals in 20 games during the regular season likes to shoot. He had a team-high 24 goals with the Houston Aeros in the AHL this season, and was tied for the league-lead with eight game-winning goals. Game-winning goals don’t get much bigger than his score Sunday. But he’ll shoot, even when he doesn’t see the hole.
“I couldn’t even tell you,” Zucker said when asked how much of the net he had to shoot at. “I don’t know if I even saw the net. I probably didn’t even look at the net. I just tried shooting it, and it happened to go in for me.”
Zucker, too, was willing to play the physical game. Known more for his speed, Zucker had a big hit on Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook as the second period expired, one of 34 hits in the game for Minnesota to the Blackhawks’ 13 hits.
Playing physical, with energy, was the Wild’s way to get back in the series and handle the skill and depth of the Blackhawks.
“We were trying to push,” Setoguchi said. “This was a big game. It was a pretty pivotal game and we needed a win. So, we needed to push. We needed the energy the best we could and they pushed and made it a great game. I expect a really good one in a couple of nights.”