Much like another Jay-Z, Jason Zucker came from the bottom of the bottom, to the top of the pots.
Two years ago to the day, Zucker was at perhaps the low point of his career. He had difficulties impressing Mike Yeo earlier in the season, and things weren’t getting better with Yeo’s replacement, John Torchetti.
Zucker found himself as a healthy scratch on March 24th, 2016. “Two-way game” was the oft-repeated refrain of Torchetti when pressed for an explanation.
Hell, fans probably would’ve settled for a one-way game for Zucker, who was coming off a 50-game stretch that saw him register just 8 goals and 2 assists.
Fast forward two years from that miserable season, and that player is far in the rearview mirror.
The 2016-17 season saw him in a break-out year, one where he emerged as more than a one-dimensional shooter en route to a 22-goal, 47 point season. Both were career-highs.
This year, Zucker’s been even better. He’s one of- perhaps the most- dynamic forwards on the team, using his shot, speed, and surprisingly good passing ability to deal damage to opponents on a nightly basis.
And today, exactly two years after that healthy scratch, Zucker put an exclamation point on his season. He scored his 30th goal, while adding an assist on the game-winning goal, as Minnesota dispatched the Nashville Predators in a crucial game in a playoff race.
For a Wild team that’s been desperately seeking a star to carry them come springtime, Zucker is looking the part.
But let’s talk about this game, eh?
The Wild came into today in the third spot in the Central Division, but with the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues right behind them, Minnesota was going to need to get 2 points out of this game to have any sort of breathing room at all. And with the outcome still in doubt today, both Colorado and St. Louis had recorded victories in their respective games. A loss for Minnesota meant being tied with Colorado, and just one small point ahead of the Blues.
But the Wild shook off a mediocre start and handled the Predators, giving them at least one more day of firmly being in their playoff position.
Nashville really controlled the flow of the game in the first period and were rewarded by getting to strike the first blow in the game. PK Subban found Ryan Johansen to the right of Devan Dubnyk. Johansen fired, but the puck was turned away by Dubnyk, who fell while making the save. However, the puck rebounded right back to Johansen, who got a second chance with Dubnyk trying to recover. Dubnyk couldn’t, and Johansen buried the opening tally.
After 20 minutes, though, the Wild took over. Minnesota’s defense has been elite all season long, and they showed it in the second period by shutting down the dynamite Predators offense, allowing just 3 Nashville shots to their 13.
Of course, defense doesn’t do you much good if you can’t convert your own chances. And the Wild struck twice in the second period. The first was 3 minutes into the second, when Marcus Foligno and Daniel Winnik started crashing the net and rebounding pucks off Pekka Rinne. One of those rebounds found Joel Eriksson Ek, and the oft-snakebitten rookie cashed in his 5th goal of the season.
The other goal came just after a Wild power play had expired. Nino Niederreiter tried re-directing a Ryan Murphy shot, and a battle for a loose puck ensued. Zucker found the puck at the top of the crease, and made a spin move to get the shot off. Rinne saved that one, but Niederreiter was there to hammer the rebound home to give the Wild the lead.
The Wild wouldn’t relinquish the lead, even if Dubnyk did have to work a bit harder in the third period. Zucker made sure of it. Eric Staal and Charlie Coyle won a board battle against Subban and Filip Forsberg. The battle resulted in a loose puck, which found its way to Zucker, who was waiting at the goal line. Zucker scooped up the loose puck, took a quick shot, then buried his own rebound to score his 30th of the year.
Zucker’s 30 goals made him just the 6th 30-goal scorer in Wild franchise history. The other 5 were Marian Gaborik, Brian Rolston, Eric Staal, Jason Pominville, and of course, Zach Parise, whom Zucker resembled while scoring his 30th.
The Predators would get a last chance to score when Devan Dubnyk lifted the puck over the glass, but the Wild’s penalty kill held strong. From there, frustrations started to boil over, with the teams engaged in a scrum with 5 minutes remaining. Penalties were assessed to both teams, and when Predators coach Peter Laviolette disagreed with the calls, he was ejected from the game. It is almost baseball season, after all.
Parise would clinch the win with an empty net goal. Mikael Granlund blocked a shot, then flipped the puck out of his zone. Parise won the race to the loose puck, and quickly back-handed the puck into the net to essentially end the game.
If Minnesota goes on any sort of run in the postseason, one has to assume they’ll face the West-leading Predators at some point. And if they do, this game represents The Blueprint for how the Wild would stand a chance against a Nashville juggernaut. Frustrate the Preds with blocked shots, make life hell for Rinne, and hope Dubnyk has one of his good days. If they can do that, they’ll have a chance.
But the work isn’t over for the Wild yet. Colorado, St. Louis, and the Anaheim Ducks are nipping at Minnesota’s heels in the standings, and they all have winning records in their last 10 games. If the Wild can’t keep up their great play, they could find themselves out of the playoff bubble in a hurry.
Minnesota will get another chance to lock down another two standings points tomorrow, when they take on the Boston Bruins at 6:30. Boston has their playoff spot clinched, but are still in the running to win the President’s Trophy. The Wild should expect nothing less than a hard-fought game from a great Bruins team, and at this point in the season, being tired because of a back-to-back won’t cut it as an excuse.
We’ll be back with coverage tomorrow at Hockey Wilderness. Until then, be safe, and have fun celebrating this win!