The loneliest part of being an NHL rookie is actually when you leave the arena.
Inside the sanctuary of the locker room, you have your teammates, and Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Jonas Brodin are fortunate to have personal mentors.
Zucker has the Wild’s eldest statesman, Matt Cullen, always in his ear. Coyle has linemates, Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, leading the way. And Brodin has the perfect role model in defense partner Ryan Suter always an earshot away.
But when veterans punch out for the day, they go home to their lives. Rookies head home to their humble abodes.
“That’s why we’re lucky to have each other,” Coyle said.
When the Wild’s three rookies leave Xcel Energy Center, they usually don’t leave each other’s sides.
They have neighboring apartments. They carpool everywhere together, go to dinner together, see movies together, make Target runs together and even recently chipped in on a pingpong table.
“It’s just nice to have guys on the team your own age,” Coyle said. “I think it would be hard to be the only guy. We can do this together, experience this together, lean on each other.”
As the Wild looks to even the Western Conference quarterfinals at two victories apiece Tuesday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, Zucker, Coyle and Brodin continue their indoctrination in their first postseason together.
So far, so good. They haven’t played like wide-eyed, intimidated rookies.
Zucker, an overtime master who scored three in college at University of Denver and tied for the American Hockey League lead this past season with three, delivered the Wild a Game 3 victory with an OT winner. Coyle has two assists, including winning a race and a battle to set up Parise’s third-period goal Sunday. And Brodin, still a teenager who can only dream of growing a playoff beard, ranks fifth in the NHL at 28 minutes, 54 seconds a game.
No matter how far the Wild goes this postseason, this valuable taste of NHL postseason should prove beneficial to Zucker, Coyle and Brodin in the future and thus the Wild as well.
“They’re such huge parts of our team,” Cullen said. “We need them to learn fast and I think that they have. I’ve been very impressed with the way that the young guys have handled the pressures of playing in the playoffs, especially going to a place like Chicago, a team that’s as good as Chicago, and the season they’ve had.”
It’s scary to say, but Cullen, 37, has become, well, “that old guy. You can say it. It happens so fast. I still remember being a rookie in Anaheim with [Paul] Kariya and [Teemu] Selanne. It goes so fast.”
Zucker has credited Cullen all season long with helping with his development. When he returns to the bench, Cullen is always in his ear, giving him tips about puck placement and positioning and the little things that can help make Zucker and the line, which includes Devin Setoguchi, more successful.
The maturation of all three this year has been impressive. Even Coyle himself sees it.
“Look at Brods,” Coyle said of the 19-year-old. “I was looking at some of those old ‘Becoming Wild’ videos and you see his English back then, and he’s grown so much, it’s awesome. He’s so much more comfortable around here. He used to be shy and quiet. Now we can’t shut him up.”
The big thing all the youngsters are learning during these playoffs is not to dwell on the past. That not only includes losses. It includes victories, even when you score the biggest goal of your life.
“Doesn’t matter,” Zucker said. “We move on. … A lot of teams respond well after losses. [Game 3 was] obviously a tough loss for them. They’ll be ready to go.”
As Cullen reminded: “[The Blackhawks] are ahead. They’re up 2-1. So we haven’t done much. We won one game.”
The Wild knows the Blackhawks will ratchet it up for Game 4.
“Every game is a big test,” coach Mike Yeo said. “And we face a big one [Tuesday]. … Part of the challenge for us next game will be to brace against their pushback. We know that they’re going to come hard and I’m anxious to see how we respond.”