The Wild's 3-2 victory over the Red Wings was in some part due to the still-unexplained urge of Adam and Evan Zucker to drag their little brother to roller hockey games while growing up in Las Vegas. If not for them, the pivotal roster spot in Sunday's game might have been filled by some Canadian kid who likes to pass, and then where would the Wild be?
"I have to give all the credit to my brothers," Jason Zucker said. "I don't know what got them into it or why they got me into it, but they did."
Zucker played mini-hockey in the house and roller hockey whenever he could. By "6 or 7" he had begun playing hockey on ice in a city where the substance is used mostly in free drinks. Sunday, Zucker became the first Vegas product to score a goal in the NHL.
Called up from the Houston Aeros to face Detroit, Zucker joined the second line. In the second period, after Dany Heatley's goal had cut the Red Wings' lead to 2-1, Zucker displayed the kind of speed Wild fans haven't seen up close since Marian Gaborik's last groin injury.
Zucker battled for a puck deep in his own zone. He sped around one Wing, then deked past Valtteri Filppula. Zucker burst past Mikael Samuelsson, creating a 2-on-1 with teammate Devon Setoguchi.
Decision time. Most young players defer to veterans. Zucker describes himself as "a shooter first. I'm not exactly a passer. I just put the puck on net."
The Wild took Zucker in the second round of the 2010 draft, 59th overall, hoping he would develop into a depth player. Zucker had other ideas. He pushes himself through strenuous summer workouts involving MMA training and insisted on thinking of himself as a scorer.
He didn't have to hire anyone to help him with his confidence. That appears to be a natural gift.
"I would say a lot of guys do come in and think, 'OK, I've got to defer to the older players, I've got to get them the puck,'" Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "Anyone who's around him knows he's full of confidence."
Yeo laughed out loud at his understatement. "I mean that as a compliment," Yeo said, still smiling. "He knows that he's a shooter, and he's here to be a shooter, and 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. I think when you have shooters, it ends up having a positive effect on the rest of the group."
So does speed. Zucker's sprint down the side boards was more remindful of Adrian Peterson than any Wild players of recent vintage. He left three Wings in his ice shavings and faced a fourth as he approached the net.
"It was, 'I gotta pass it, I gotta pass it, I gotta pass it,'" Zucker said.
Then the defenseman leaned toward Setoguchi. Or maybe just thought about Setoguchi.
"That opened up the shot," Zucker said. "I have a shot-first mentality and that's just what I tried to do."
His wrister tied the score and sent Zucker's father home with the puck from the first NHL goal scored by a kid who grew up on roller skates in Nevada.
Zucker was part of the 2010 draft class that gave the Wild, via pick or trade, Johan Larsson, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund. Include Jonas Brodin, and the Wild could soon have a bunch of talented youngsters filling the roster. Zucker wants them to know that they should feel free to decoy the defense while he shoots.
"Roller hockey is more of a finesse game, but I'm not exactly a finesse player," Zucker said. "I try to battle. I go to the net hard, and I shoot the puck. You can't score if you don't shoot. It's the old Gretzky saying."
Wayne Gretzky holds the NHL record for goals scored. He also holds the record for assists, but don't tell Zucker. He's on a roll.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org
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