SUNRISE, FLA. – Ever since winger Jason Zucker broke into the NHL with the Wild almost seven years ago, his production has bobbed up and down like a seesaw.
He is currently in the midst of one of his upswings, recording his second career hat trick in Thursday’s 3-0 victory at Tampa Bay to boast six goals in his previous six games and reach the 20-goal mark for the fourth time in his career.
It also signaled just the 23rd time in NHL history that a player scored all his team’s goals (at least three) in a shutout victory. Zucker also accomplished the feat last season for the Wild when he converted his first career hat trick Nov. 9, 2017, vs. Montreal.
And while Zucker hasn’t been able to shake the streaky label, he is confident he can score consistently enough to eclipse the career-high 33 he posted last season.
“I think I have more,” he said. “I do, and that’s why the beginning of this year was so disappointing for me because I feel like I can score 40 in this league. I feel like I can put up 30 every year.”
Before his six-goal outbreak, Zucker was mired in a 10-game drought. He also had two seven-game slides earlier this season and had just 10 goals through his first 41 appearances.
Perspective helped him weather that adversity — “You’ve just got to realize it’s all a game. It’s hockey,” he said — and the 27-year-old’s remained steadfast in his belief he can be a regular goal scorer in the NHL.
“It’s about maintaining that and getting to that point and not being satisfied with it and just keep going,” Zucker said.
Winger Luke Kunin (upper-body injury) did not play Friday against the Panthers after getting leveled with an open-ice hit in the second period Thursday from Tampa Bay’s Cedric Paquette that knocked him out of the game.
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau hoped the issue wasn’t long-term. With Kunin unavailable, winger Matt Read slotted on the second line and rookie Jordan Greenway lined up at center.
Kunin had just played the puck up ice after Paquette connected, and he was slow to get to his feet before he struggled to the bench — at one point falling. It was a scary sequence just days after Kunin briefly left last Saturday’s game in Calgary when Flames winger Garnet Hathaway smacked Kunin’s head on the top of the boards in front of the Wild’s bench.
“You hate to see a player coming off the ice like that,” Boudreau said, referring to Thursday’s game. “But his character, he was going to make it. That’s Luke.”
‘Riding the wave’
Ryan Donato wasn’t with the Wild when it spiraled into a slump out of the All-Streak break, as the team’s surge coincided with his arrival from a trade with Boston.
And what the winger has noticed about vibe he walked into is players were simply tired of being in a funk.
“Guys are sick of losing,” Donato said. “And I think now we’re on kind of a winning streak and maybe a loss here and there, but I think the guys are — they call it, ‘Riding the wave.’ I think they’re staying high as possible, staying positive as possible, and I think that brings us a better mentality heading into the games.”
It’s also a comfortable environment to ease into as a newcomer, and Donato has seemed to fit wherever he’s played — most recently on the top line next to Zucker and center Eric Staal, as Donato set up two of Zucker’s deflections against the Lightning by heaving the puck on goal.
“He’s got great stick skills,” Boudreau said. “If you give him a chance, he’s one of those guys that can stickhandle in very tight corners and tight spaces and he loves to shoot the puck. Those guys that love to shoot the puck and love to score, they usually are around the net.”