Having sat out just one of the Wild's preseason games so far, winger Jason Zucker has played more than most of his teammates in the lead-up to Thursday's opener.
But Zucker isn't in line for a break during the team's final dress rehearsal Sunday afternoon at Xcel Energy Center against the Jets.
Instead, he's penciled in for his fifth appearance and he's excited for it.
While exhibition play isn't the most polished brand of hockey, it's useful for shaking off the rust, and it's that process Zucker feels he's capitalized on to transition to the regular season in a groove.
"I feel pretty good," he said. "I think the more I've played, the better I've felt and the better I've looked. So I'm looking forward to playing."
Zucker's busy schedule wasn't a fluke; it was by design.
Coach Bruce Boudreau told Zucker he's remained in the lineup because of the improvement he's shown each game.
He was at his best, in Boudreau's eyes, Thursday in a 2-1 win over the Stars. Zucker converted the eventual game-winning goal when he put back a pass off the goalie pads from winger Ryan Hartman for his second goal and third point of the preseason.
"His legs were moving," Boudreau said. "You didn't see a sluggishness in him. So hopefully that continues on to the next game and further on."
That goal and his other tally Sept. 21 against the Avalanche came as a result of Zucker crashing the net, an encouraging sign for the 27-year-old as the Wild looks for him to be a steady contributor this season.
"I think that's kind of my mentality a lot of the time," said Zucker, whose goal production in 2018-19 dropped to 21 from 33. "You look throughout a lot of the years, I've scored a lot of goals around the net. Yeah, I do think that I have a lot of breakaways and those things that end up being goals as well. But for most people in the league, most goals happen right around the net.
"So I'm trying to make sure you get rid of the summer habits of swinging away and trying to make the pretty plays and just get to the net and good things happen."
Spotlight on youth
At the outset of camp, Boudreau anticipated youngsters Jordan Greenway, Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin would vie for more minutes.
And through five preseason games, that's exactly what's happened.
Kunin led all forwards in ice time Thursday, logging 20 minutes, 37 seconds. Greenway (14:06) and Eriksson Ek (14:51) were also among the leaders up front, with the two combining for the Wild's first goal — a finish by Greenway just 26 seconds into the second period.
Winger Marcus Foligno was also involved in the play, his first look next to Greenway and Eriksson Ek in exhibition action after the Wild moved Kunin to center between Zach Parise and Mats Zuccarello.
"Maybe with all three of them playing together it wasn't working out quite as much," Boudreau said. "They needed a little bit of a veteran presence on the line so we moved a couple things around, and I thought Marcus fit right in there. And they may be no good come tomorrow. But when we've got everybody that's 6-3, 215 [pounds] or bigger and they play that big game down low, it's tough to get the puck away from them when they're playing with the energy that they played with [Thursday] night."
Expect a veteran-heavy lineup for the Wild's preseason finale, with Boudreau projecting 17 regulars getting the nod.
Defenseman Brad Hunt is poised to play after being limited earlier in the week with back spasms, while Louie Belpedio and Carson Soucy are set to make their final pitches for a roster spot on the blue line.
Greg Pateryn (lower-body injury) remained absent from practice Saturday, and unless he's able to skate at full speed Tuesday, it seems likely the Wild will keep either Belpedio or Soucy to start the season with seven available defensemen.