As he skated toward the offensive zone in overtime on Sunday, Jason Zucker heard two voices in his head. The first, the one he’s learned to listen to since being demoted in April, urged him to play responsible hockey, to get off the ice at the end of a long shift, to play the subservient role of a frequently chided rookie.
The Wild forward had often heeded that voice in the past couple of weeks, sometimes hearing it as management threatening him with another demotion, sometimes hearing his coach’s lectures, sometimes hearing his linemate and mentor, Matt Cullen, pointing out his rookie mistakes.
The other voice, though, has been talking to him since he began playing roller hockey in Las Vegas at the age of 6. The other voice tells him to attack. “That’s kind of been my thing,” Zucker said. “Just go to the net.”
So Zucker skated toward the crease, and when Pierre Marc-Bouchard flipped the puck to Cullen, and Cullen, lying behind the net, somehow one-handed it parallel with the goal mouth, Zucker was there. He flicked a wrist shot over the shoulder of Chicago goalie Corey Crawford for his first overtime goal since he was a freshman at the University of Denver, giving the Wild a 3-2 victory in Game 3 of the Western Conference quarterfinals on Sunday at Xcel Energy Center.
Then he heard another internal command, this one telling him, “Jump into the glass!” and his teammates followed, turning the guy who gave the Wild its first Stanley Cup playoff victory in five years into a dark-green window sticker.
“This is, by far, the biggest goal I’ve ever scored,” he said.
Maybe Zucker shouldn’t have been by the side of the net in overtime, but then he wasn’t guaranteed to be playing at all in May. Known for speed and scoring, he hadn’t produced an NHL goal since March 10. The Wild demoted him after he played horribly against Calgary on April 21, and called him back up out of desperation, in time for the must-win season finale at Colorado.
Zucker entered the postseason on a 10-game scoreless streak in the NHL, but he’s become one of the Wild players most likely to threaten the Blackhawks defense. He ripped a shot off the crossbar in overtime of Game 1. Sunday, at the end of the second period, he flattened tough Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook, who had been roughing up Zucker all series.
“I thought early in the year, his play without the puck, and even with the puck sometimes, we call it ‘playing like a little kid,’ and I think he did that,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “He plays a much different game for me right now. Me having the confidence to put him on the ice against anyone on their team in any situation says a lot about his game.”
And the hit on Seabrook? “I like seeing that, too,” Yeo said with a smile.
Cullen has planted thoughts in Zucker’s head all year, trying to guide the rookie to a playing style that will highlight his speed and scoring touch without making Yeo price out flights to Houston. The Wild’s second line of Zucker, Cullen and Devin Setoguchi has produced two of the Wild’s six goals in the series.
“He’s been more than any of you guys even know,” Zucker said. “He’s been unbelievable all year. Through the highs and the lows, the best games and the worst games, he’s been there. I have to give him a ton of credit for my development.”
Zucker didn’t have much to show for his improved play until Cullen hooked that one-handed pass in overtime on Sunday to a kid who probably shouldn’t have been there.
“The passes that guy makes are ridiculous,” Zucker said.
“A lot of guys probably wouldn’t even have shot that,” Cullen said. “But he’s got that nose for the net.”
Zucker makes it sound more like goal-scoring GPS.