After watching Jason Zucker skate through a full-throttle practice Friday, Mike Yeo was asked if the timetable for the Wild winger’s return had been accelerated. The coach said no, then added — although with lots of qualifiers — that the answer might be an unexpected yes.
“Kind of eyeing possibly the last couple of games [of the regular season],” Yeo said. “But we’ll make sure on that first.”
Translation: Zucker, who broke his collarbone on Feb. 9 and wasn’t expected to play for three months, might be back in the lineup next week. Though it was hardly definitive, Yeo’s pronouncement was so surprising that he was asked to clarify it, just to ensure he had been heard correctly. After saying for the past couple of weeks that Zucker was still “a ways away” from getting the green light to play again, Yeo now hopes to get him into the lineup during the three-game road trip that ends the regular season.
The popular winger was clearly overjoyed to hold his own during a demanding, fast-paced practice at St. Thomas Ice Arena. Yeo was almost as happy as Zucker was.
Despite playing only 48 games, Zucker’s 18 goals this season are the fourth most on the Wild roster, and his speed and skill will become even more valued commodities as the playoffs approach.
“It felt great,” said Zucker, who has 23 points and two game-winning goals this season. “After skating alone for so long, it’s always nice to be with the team.
“Hopefully, I keep getting better execution-wise in practice, and I’ll be able to get in a few games at the end [of the regular season]. Today was a good first step.”
Friday’s practice also was a step forward for two other players on their way back from injuries. Defenseman Nate Prosser, who has missed eight games because of a sprained knee, will rejoin the lineup Saturday against Detroit.
Winger Matt Cooke, out for the past 28 games following sports hernia surgery, remains on track for a possible return Tuesday at Chicago.
Zucker broke his collarbone when he collided with Vancouver’s Luca Sbisa and had surgery three days later. The typical timetable for recovery from that injury is three months, so even if Zucker healed quickly, the Wild did not expect to see him back before the end of the regular season.
Friday, he participated in his first full-contact practice since he was hurt. Zucker has been skating and shooting pucks by himself for the past four or five weeks, and he has been working out diligently, trying to ensure he will be as close to game-ready as possible when he is declared healthy enough to play.
After being cleared to take contact in practice — but not in games — Zucker looked swift and sharp Friday.
“I was actually impressed,” Yeo said. “You can tell he’s been putting the work in, conditioning-wise. He’s a little further ahead than what I expected.”
Zucker noted he didn’t face any heavy hits Friday and must get used to withstanding physical contact again. But he doesn’t expect he will be gun-shy.
In his first practice, he said he thought he might have a little anxiety in the back of his mind, but he felt secure and strong.
Part of the difficulty of recovering from an injury, Zucker said, is being isolated from teammates. After weeks of watching games from the press box and doing his workouts alone, he relished being back among his friends and colleagues.
“I’m excited to get back,” he said. “Today was a lot of fun.”
•Defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Sean Bergenheim did not practice Friday. Suter was taking a “maintenance day” to rest, Yeo said, and Bergenheim was ill.
•Forward Ryan Carter will be replaced on the fourth line Saturday by Erik Haula, who was a healthy scratch in Thursday’s loss to the New York Rangers. Yeo said he thinks Haula’s speed will be beneficial against Detroit and emphasized that he is not unhappy with Carter, who played the past two games after sitting out seven weeks because of a shoulder injury.