Zucker gives Wild speed to kill

ST. LOUIS — Jason Zucker was three feet behind the goal line when he gave the Minnesota Wild a lead less than three minutes into their 4-2, Game 1 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night at Scottrade Center.

ST. LOUIS — Jason Zucker was three feet behind the goal line when he gave the Minnesota Wild a lead less than three minutes into their 4-2, Game 1 victory over the St. Louis Blues on Thursday night at Scottrade Center.

In a play that embodied the Wild's speed advantage in the best-of-seven series, Zucker crossed the red line along the left boards, defenseman Zbynek Michalek in front of him.

Most players would have just dumped the puck deep, and Zucker said he thought about it.

Instead, he skated around Michalek as if he were a traffic cone and drew goaltender Jake Allen to the corner with a quick wrister on goal. Allen stopped the puck but couldn't control it, and before the goaltender could even think about getting back in position, Zucker had corralled his rebound, skated behind the net and deposited the puck in the far corner.

"We needed speed to be a factor," coach Mike Yeo said.


Speed vs. strength

In a matchup between the skating Wild and physical Blues, there are few players as important to their team as Zucker, who was far and away the fastest player on skates in Game 1.

The son of a figure skater and a student of his craft, being the fastest skater on the ice is nothing new for Zucker. But it is relatively new for the Wild, who played most of the final two months of the regular season without Zucker, who was sidelined following surgery to place a plate and nine screws into his severely damaged clavicle.

Zucker has been back in the lineup for four games and has four goals -- not entirely unexpected after he scored 21 goals in 51 games in 2013-14.


"For sure, he's a guy that has the ability to break plays and push the 'D' back and challenge them with his speed individually," Yeo said. "But I think the thing that I was pleased with (in Game 1) was the speed game that we (all) played with, and that's not an individual thing — that's how we play the game."

With Zucker back, a team already among the NHL's fastest is that much faster. The plan remains the same for Game 2 this afternoon.

"That's when I'm playing my best, when I'm playing that type of game," Zucker said. "Against a team like this, it's tough sometimes because they take away speed very well. But you have to find a way to use your speed and have it be a factor."


Zucker returned April 7 in Chicago and made headlines by scoring the game-winner as the Wild clinched a third straight playoff berth.

A scary hit

But a hit in that game, more than the goal he scored, gave him the confidence that he'd be fine in the playoffs, especially in a matchup like this one against a physical St. Louis team.

Skating full speed, he tried to use the post to stop. Instead, he caught an edge and was catapulted into the end boards — the one thing doctors told him not to do.

On the bench, his roommate and friend Charlie Coyle shook his head.

"I was like, 'Oh my. Not again,' " Coyle said.

Slowly, though, Zucker rose to his feet. He scored the game-winner a few minutes later.

"And that's what I think he needed, because then he knew, 'OK this is solid. I can play,' " Coyle said.


Zucker skates with such an effortless stride, it's difficult to appreciate just how fast he is, Coyle said. But to get to this point -- to become a game-changer for the Wild -- Zucker first had to embrace the defensive side of the game.

He and Yeo have had several conversations about Zucker learning the pro game and improving in his own zone.

"When I came out of college, I don't want to say I was soft because I played a hard game, and I finished checks and stuff like that," Zucker said. "But there were a lot of areas that I did have a bit of a softer game, and I needed to change that."

That finally happened, on a full-time basis, this season. When Zucker bought into that defense-first philosophy, he earned a spot on the penalty-kill unit and ultimately rose up the depth chart.

Now Zucker skates on the top line with Mikko Koivu and Chris Stewart, the biggest scoring threat among a trio vital to Minnesota's playoff success.

"We all know that he has the ability to finish, to create chances to score goals," Yeo said. "His evolution has come in how he has grown as a player, and how he plays without the puck. He finds himself in much better positions because of that, but his competitiveness is miles from where it was the first couple of years here."

What To Read Next
Get Local