Jason Zucker has spent the past few days ramping up the contact with the hope of returning to the Wild’s lineup later this week.
In a track suit, Darby Hendrickson has done his best to bump and battle with the speedy winger along the wall and hinder his ability to make a play and get to the net. But the assistant coach said Monday the next step is for Zucker to take punishment from teammates in full equipment.
That might come from the scratched players Tuesday morning in Chicago with the aim of returning Thursday in Nashville. The Wild isn’t planning to practice Wednesday.
Zucker has missed 26 games since breaking a collarbone Feb. 9 against Vancouver.
“Even more so than physically, this is about mentally getting him back,” Hendrickson said. “A lot of the contact we’re doing is similar to the play where he got hurt — just taking a hit and knowing upstairs that he can. I’m happy to go full equipment, but we have enough guys to bump him [Tuesday].”
Zucker felt no ill effects Monday from the contact he took the day before from Hendrickson. Zucker said that was a great sign that he’s progressing. His hope is to get “one or two games” before the playoffs, and coach Mike Yeo also said, “I don’t want to throw him into the playoffs in Game 1 having not played any games.”
Nino Niederreiter did get injured late in Monday’s loss to Winnipeg. He took a Matt Dumba shot off the foot. If Niederreiter is unable to play against the Blackhawks, Yeo didn’t think Zucker would be ready.
Zucker had 18 goals at the time of the injury, but Yeo said nobody should expect him to “step in right at that level. He missed a significant amount of time. It might take some time, especially for a younger player.”
Yeo indicated that Zucker probably won’t step back instantly into his top-six role. He started the season on the fourth line, and starting him slowly in a fourth-line, penalty-killing role would “give him a chance to build his game and see where it evolves from there.”
Nevertheless, Zucker sees the light at the end of the tunnel. This is a guy who took nine screws and a plate to repair his collarbone. He spent the initial time after surgery sleeping 18 hours a day.
“It’s been a long road,” Zucker said.
Cooke shoots for Tuesday
Not that Matt Cooke is counting, but he knows exactly how many games he has missed this season because of a sports hernia and hip injury and hopes to play Tuesday.
“Not only has it been 29 games since I played, but I missed 22 before that,” Cooke said. “It’s been a short year for me game-wise, but it’s been a long year and more mentally tough than any other year of my career.
“You really get patience taught to you when you go through something like this. I definitely want to head out there and help, that’s for sure.”
Darcy Kuemper, who hasn’t started an NHL game since Jan. 6, hopes to start one of the final games despite inevitable rustiness.
“This last little bit hasn’t been easy, but I’m just doing my best to stay sharp in practice and be supportive of the team,” Kuemper said. “I know what I can do. I feel I’m a better goalie now than I was at the start of the year with all this practice. I feel my game is in a pretty good place right now.”
• Center Mikko Koivu returned Monday after missing Saturday’s game against Detroit because of a scratched cornea. Koivu said the injury occurred in a “little [off-ice] accident” but didn’t elaborate.
“I thought it was too dangerous to play,” Koivu said.
• Against the rugged Jets, Ryan Carter played and Jordan Schroeder was scratched.