ST. PAUL, Minn. — Jason Zucker showed a knack for creating offense in just his second NHL game. Linemate Erik Christiansen has done the same thing for more than two weeks.
Add in Nick Johnson and the Minnesota Wild’s third line might be developing some chemistry in the season’s final games. Together, the trio helped Minnesota beat another playoff contender at home Saturday in a 4-3 shootout win against the Los Angeles Kings.
Zucker, the 2010 second-round pick who signed last week, had two assists for his first NHL points. Nick Johnson scored just his second in the last 30 games. And Christensen scored in regulation for his sixth goal in the past 10 games. He then added a score in the shootout to give the Wild their third win in the last four home games.
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“I wouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves and say its some dynamic duo,” Christensen said of pairing with Zucker. “It’s not. He’s a young guy with a lot of enthusiasm. We’re just going to try and keep it simple. I think that’s what we’ve had success with. That goal was basically just put the puck on net and having people crash the net.”
Mikko Koivu also scored in the shootout and goaltender Niklas Backstrom stopped each of the shootout attempts as Minnesota won its second straight game. Backstrom finished with 26 saves in regulation and overtime. Darroll Powe scored his sixth goal of the season for the Wild and Justin Falk added two assists.
Minnesota beat playoff-bound Florida on Thursday and put a hurt on Los Angeles’ playoff chances on Saturday. During their previous homestand, the Wild beat Northwest Division-leading Vancouver and playoff hopeful Calgary. Minnesota now goes on the road against playoff-bound Chicago (tomorrow) and Nashville, before returning home for two games to end the season against Chicago and playoff-hopeful Phoenix.
“Before the game we talked about our identity, and where it kind of keeps creeping up and one that we want to continue to build, is persistent,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “And we were persistent in the game and you see the effort that the guys are putting in right now and we’re being persistent with our season.”
Yeo might have found a third line to stick with. After Thursday’s win, Yeo was pleased with Zucker’s debut and knew the rookie was going to get better as he gets more comfortable. But Yeo wasn’t as complimentary about the rest of the line, saying, “I don’t know that the line as a whole was really good tonight. So, we’ll try to work on that.”
All three players were active Saturday.
“You’re lines not going to be very good unless you have all three guys going,” Yeo said.
“Tonight they were ready right from the start. They got rewarded with two goals, but there was a couple other shifts where they had some great momentum for us and had some great offensive zone time. And they were solid too. They defended the right way and they were responsible, but when they had an opening and had an opportunity to attack, they did it.”
In the first period, Zucker broke hard to the net, using his speed to leverage himself around a defender, but the initial shot was stopped and Johnson crashed the net for his eighth goal of the season. Johnson has two goals and two assists in his past eight games.
“That was actually quite a lucky play that it bounced right to Johnson,” Zucker said. “When your lines working hard like all of us are, things go your way sometimes.”
Zucker made the game-tying goal happen as well, sending a puck in on net, which deflected off Christensen’s skate into the goal. It was Christensen’s sixth goal with the Wild and seventh of the season.
“He played great,” Christiansen said of Zucker. “We were kind of reading off each other really well tonight. It was kind of fun.”
Christiansen was scoreless in his first 15 games in a Wild sweater, but now has four goals in the third period for Minnesota and three have been game-tying goals. He’s ninth on the team in goals, despite playing just 25 games with Minnesota. Christensen is also 5 for 9 in the shootout this season and 28 for 52 in his career, with 13 game-deciding shootout scores.
Zucker almost helped win the game in overtime. He collected a loose puck in the offensive zone and flipped it high in the air to Devin Setoguchi at center ice. Setoguchi was taken down on a breakaway and was given a penalty shot, which rang off the post.
“I got the jitters out last game and was able to come in tonight and play more of my game,” Zucker said. “Johnson and Erik Christiansen have been helping me out a lot with that, and I’m able to get some chemistry going with them. It’s been great.”
Yeo liked what he saw.
“His game went to another level today, for sure,’ Yeo said of Zucker. “We expected that. Last game was his first professional hockey league game and he gets a chance to do it in the best league in the world. One game under his belt and I think it’s important we just keep things in perspective with him.
“He did a great job tonight, for sure. And now we’ll give him the chance to come back and do the same thing tomorrow night. But tonight he showed an awful lot.”
Kampfer and Peters leave: Defenseman Steven Kampfer and center Warren Peters each left Saturday’s game with undisclosed injuries. Yeo said Kampfer won’t be making the upcoming road trip and wasn’t sure of Peters’ status.