LAS VEGAS – Wild winger Jason Zucker was a Red Wings fan as a youngster, adopting his brother’s allegiance, and Pavel Datsyuk was his favorite player.
Back then, growing up in Las Vegas, he never thought it was possible for an NHL team to sprout up in the desert among the hotels and casinos that crowd the Strip.
But that’s exactly what ended up happening, giving Zucker the chance to return home for a meaningful matchup against the Golden Knights Friday.
“Even a couple years ago, I still doubted it,” he said. “When talks started about them coming, it’s very easy to — I don’t want to say overlook it, but have some skepticism. It was cool to see them finally be able to get it and be able to have a team here.”
Zucker, who was born in California but moved to Las Vegas when he was 2 months old, expected a group of about 30 to 40 family members and friends to pack inside T-Mobile Arena for the Wild’s inaugural trip to Sin City.
The Golden Knights’ debut as the most successful expansion team in league history has magnified the spotlight on the sport in the area, a credibility Zucker has helped stoke as the only Nevada-raised player to make it to the NHL.
And although he’s not suiting up for Vegas, Zucker still takes pride in the hockey’s progress in the area.
“I think the Knights have done a great job of growing youth hockey since they’ve been here,” he said. “For me, it’s close to home and without actually playing for the team, it does mean a lot to see how well they’re doing and the way they’re helping the community.”
Although the Golden Knights had struggled on home ice before playing host to the Wild, dropping three in a row at T-Mobile Arena, its prowess in Las Vegas has been a major catalyst in its overall success in Year No.1.
At 24-8-2 before playing the Wild, the Golden Knights are one of the most effective teams in the NHL at home, with more than half (50) of their points (95) churned out in Nevada.
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau attributed some of that effectiveness to the excitement of a new franchise, but he also identified the visitors and the local attractions as part of the equation.
“There’s more to do than in Buffalo,” he said. “ … There’s a lot of young players on every team, and a lot of those young players have never been here. Just the walking around, I think, and sightseeing sometimes takes your focus off the game a little bit.”
The Wild arrived in Las Vegas Thursday, practicing at T-Mobile Arena to help acclimate the group to a new rink, and Boudreau did dispense advice to the players on how to handle the situation.
“I think guys came in and got to enjoy it a little bit,” goalie Alex Stalock said. “At the same time, we had an 11 o’clock curfew and guys know where we’re at [in the standings]. So it was fine.”
Murphy, Mitchell back
After recalling defenseman Ryan Murphy and winger Zack Mitchell from the American Hockey League on Wednesday, the Wild ushered both into the lineup Friday.
Murphy logged nine games with the Wild in November and December after defenseman Jared Spurgeon suffered a groin injury, and the 24-year-old gets another opportunity with Spurgeon sidelined again — this time with a partially torn right hamstring that will keep him out at least a month.
As for Mitchell, he skated in 21 games as a solid option on the fourth line who chipped in three goals and two assists.
“I expect them to jump in and play with youthful exuberance and bring a little bit of life to our team,” Boudreau said.