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Jason Zucker, a 5-11, 180-pound freshman, is having an amazing season for Denver.
He is the second-leading scorer in all games for the Pioneers who play the Gophers this weekend. In 20 conference games, he had a league-leading 17 goals and is second in points with 26 in WCHA games.
The Wild took Zucker, of Las Vegas, Nevada, in the second round of the 2010 NHL draft. He was the 59th overall pick. He had played for the U.S. national development team in Ann Arbor, Mich., the past two seasons.
And this season he has made quite a splash in college hockey.
"He leads the WCHA in goal scoring which is quite an accomplishment for a freshman," coach Don Lucia said on Wednesday during the Gophers' weekly media day.
"It is harder and harder to score goals, but he is somebody that right from the beginning of the season has been able to score. And not just on the specialty teams. You look at his goal scoring, it’s five-on-five, which makes it even more impressive.
"I know he’s got really good speed. He can get around the rink. And he and Shores [brother Drew and Nick] play really well together."
Of Zucker's 17 goals, two are on the power play, one is short-handed, and 14 are in five-on-five situations. He has three game-winners, a plus-15 rating and a team-high 107 shots on net.
"Usually the guys at the end of the year that lead the league or their teams in goals lead in shots, too," Lucia said. "He is accurate, he is hiting the net. But he is making sure, probably with his speed, that he can get those shots off, too."
Zucker is a really good player, Lucia said, but it is not just him the Gophers need to worry about. "They have about half a dozen guys who can put the puck into the net," Lucia said. "You have to be aware of who you are out against."
After a strong start, Gophers freshman center Erik Haula is in a scoring slump.
Haula, a seventh round pick of the Wild in the 2009 draft, has one assist in the past 10 games. That covers four games before he left for the World Junior Championships during the holidays and six since he returned.
Haula, the Gophers' first line center, had seven shots on goal Saturday in Minnesota's 6-4 loss at Minnesota Duluth.
"The big message I had for him," Lucia said, "and we talked on the ice after practice, is to relax. Because [players] are aware, they get frustrated, they are trying.
"Erik has a great work ethic. He is getting shots now and having some opportunities and it is not going in. Like I told him, '[Alex] Ovechkin can go 10 games without scoring a goal, too. And he is the best goal scorer in the world.'
"So you can’t get caught up in that. Just keep concentrating on getting chances. If you get enough chances, sooner or later they will go in."
Haula has three goals and 13 assists for 16 points, which ranks fourth on the team. He is a plus-6 with 80 shots on net, third on the team.
Lucia said he plans on splitting Haula and right wing Jay Barriball up for the first time this season if Barriball [lower body injury] is healthy enough to play this weekend against DU.
"[Haula] thought that was good -- refreshing to get to play with some different guys," Lucia said.
At this time of the season, Lucia said, it is important for the Gophers to continue to play well.
"And we are playing well," he said. "We played well last weekend [the Gophers tied UMD 2-2 in the first game]. Obviously, we need to win more games. The guys understand that. The big thing we are trying to do is make sure they are positive. We don’t want them to get frustrated. We don’t want them to get down.
"Erik Haula, who has one assist in 10 games, we are trying to build him up, not rip him down."
"Find other ways to help the team win," Lucia said the coaches tell him, "which I think he has done."
THE DON SAYS
* On Denver: "[The Pioneers are] an outstanding team, they are sitting first in the league [tied with UMD]. They have some real high-end talent. They have a very veteran defensive corps. That is one of the strengths of their team."
* On whether Gophers have a checking line to play against DU's top lines: "We don’t have per se that checking line. I don’t think a kid at 19 or 20 necessarily wants to get into that role at that stage of his career. You are trying to let the guys play in all situations.
"So sometimes, depending on who you are playing, whether you are at home or on the road, you get concerned about matchups. But more often than not, you are more worried about which defensemen are on the ice against their forwards versus which line" is out there.
* On his team's scoring woes: "When we can score a few goals it obviously makes us a better team. You get five one night and zero the next [that's what happened in the Alaska Anchorage series], it's a problem at home even more than on the road. ... That is something we are obviously trying to fix."
* On team's defense in 6-4 loss Saturday at UMD: "For the most part we did a pretty good job on Saturday. When we reviewed the film, we had a couple guys, some of our defensemen who have played very well, even some younger guys, maybe ran around a little bit and got themselves out of position, which is going to happen. We had made great progress in how we had played defense in front of [Kent Patterson. And] if there was a breakdown, Kent was able to make a big save for us [in other games] and Saturday night he wasn’t."
* On freshman center Nick Bjugstad's play: "Nick has really come a long way in the last few weeks. He has five assists since coming back after the World Juniors. He looks like a little different player than he did six, eight weeks ago which you expect from a kid who is 18."
* On team's chances for home ice for first round of WCHA playoffs: "We are one point out of home ice and the goal is to make sure we get there. I think we can. There are eight games left, which is 30 percent of the season. We are in a very difficult stretch with the games we are playing right now. We’ve got to win some games and hopefully we can do that this weekend."
* On Jay Barriball's health: "Jay is day to day [with a lower body injury]. He skated a little bit [Tuesday]. Did not get through the whole practice. He is not going to skate [Wednesday]. We will see where he is [Thursday]. If he can practice, then he will play on Firday.
"He has been evaluated, It doesn’t look like there is anything serious involved in it. If he can’t play this weeked, he should be able to play next weekend.
"It hurts us no matter who [the opponent is], that is your leading goal scorer. The good news was we didn’t have him the last two periods in Duluth and we scored four [goals on Saturday]. So other people have to step up. That is what a team is all about."
* On Nico Sacchetti, a fourth line right wing missing practice on Wednesday: "Nico is sick right now. He came down with the flu [Wednesday]. Hopefully, it will be short term and he will be available on Friday. You just keep your fingers crossed that it doesn’t go through more guys."