CHICAGO – The expected plan was for Jason Zucker to return Thursday in Nashville. But with the season on the line, the Wild couldn’t afford to wait any longer.
Zucker, once the Wild’s second-leading goal scorer, played Tuesday against the Blackhawks for the first time since breaking a clavicle Feb. 9, and there was no easing him in. He played on the top line with Mikko Koivu and Chris Stewart and made instant impact, scoring the winning goal in Wild’s 2-1, playoff-berth-clinching victory over Chicago.
He did so two shifts after getting crushed into the boards by Brent Seabrook.
“It’s one of the best feelings in the world,” said Zucker, who scored his 19th goal of the season. “Clinching a playoff spot, too, is awesome. I just wanted to help.”
Zucker, who has been skating and shooting since late February, hadn’t taken a ton of contact from teammates in full equipment since being cleared for contact. But let’s be honest, Zucker said Tuesday morning, “Full equipment isn’t really full equipment because teammates don’t want to crush you in practice. You don’t know how it really feels until it happens in a game.”
Zucker said the Seabrook hit “hurt,” but after scraping himself off the ice, he immediately let athletic therapist Don Fuller know he was OK.
His goal was pretty, speeding into the offensive zone, cutting to the outside and burying Stewart’s setup.
“With his speed, he has the ability to find his game through the course of a game in a tough place to make that happen,” coach Mike Yeo said. “That’s what he brings. His speed, his hockey smarts find him in those positions and he’s obviously got the finish.”
With teams nearly done with the regular season and primed for the playoffs, it’s not an easy time for a player to step into a lineup. But Zucker wasn’t worried.
“The process takes awhile, but once you get to this point and you’re almost playing again, it’s definitely fun,” Zucker said.
Blackhawks star Patrick Kane broke a collarbone 15 days after Zucker. He had surgery a day later and was given the same 12-week timetable as Zucker was for his return.
Zucker returned two days shorter than eight weeks from surgery, so the Blackhawks hope Kane can return at some point in the first round of the playoffs.
Kane hasn’t yet been cleared for contact.
“He’s progressing real well,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said.
Playoff tickets scarce
The Wild announced that ticket availability for all home games is expected to be extremely limited due to demand and priority given season-ticket holders.
The playoff schedule is expected to be announced Sunday night. If Wild single-game playoff tickets are available to the general public, they will be released the day before each scheduled home game.
Only a bruise
Left winger Nino Niederreiter escaped significant injury when struck with defenseman Matt Dumba’s shot late in Monday’s game against Winnipeg.
X-rays were negative and Niederreiter only suffered a bruise, Yeo said. The winger played against Chicago and was reunited on last month’s solid line with Charlie Coyle and Jordan Schroeder. Thomas Vanek played on a line with Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine.
• Left winger Matt Cooke’s return from a sports hernia didn’t occur. He missed his 30th consecutive game. Yeo called him, “close.”
• Defenseman Jordan Leopold, scratched the previous two games, played and Nate Prosser sat. With Zucker back, Erik Haula was scratched. Ryan Carter also was scratched with Schroeder back after being scratched Monday.
“We’ve got a lot of guys at our disposal. Everybody brings something different to the table,” Yeo said.
• Goalie Kaapo Kahkonen, a Wild fourth-round draft pick in 2014, scored his second goal in four games Tuesday. Ten days after scoring a goal in an SM-Liiga playoff game, Kahkonen scored in a friendly between Finland’s Under-20 national team and Finland’s Under-18 national team.