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Sunday, October 4, 2015

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Zucker pots OT goal, capping memorable NHL season

Tags: Sports
Jason Zucker [Minnesota Wild photo]

Jason Zucker admits there’s a bit of a culture shock playing hockey in Minnesota after growing up in Las Vegas. For him, 85 to 90 F is nice hockey weather. Not so much the -20 or -30 F it gets on those December, January or February mornings in Minneapolis.

Still, if you want to play in the NHL, you’ve got to go where the teams are, and so far there isn’t one in Vegas.

Zucker, who was born in Newport Beach, Calif., but grew up in Las Vegas, was selected by the Wild in the second round of the 2010 entry draft from University of Denver, so it’s not as if he has no previous exposure to hockey weather.

And truth be told, weather takes a distant back seat to the joys of playing professional hockey. Only 21, Zucker has had plenty of career highlights on the international and college stage, but as a pro, the high point came late in the year in a first-round playoff matchup against the heavily favoured Chicago Blackhawks.

With Minny trailing the best-of-seven series 2-0, the third game, on home ice, was tied 2-2 at the end of regulation time. Only 2:15 into the first overtime period, Zucker popped the winner to narrow the series. The Blackhawks went on to win the series, four games to one.

“It was absolutely the highlight of the season,” Zucker said on the line from Las Vegas. With the puck deep in the Hawks’ zone, centre Matt Cullen was tripped behind the net, but as he lay on the ice he managed to sweep it to Zucker, who in one motion, from near the goal line, swept it past Corey Crawford.

The Minneapolis crowd went nuts, and Zucker celebrated the winner by skating over to the boards and flinging himself shoulder first into the glass. He was quickly mobbed by teammates. No wonder he remembers it so well.

Of course, there’s a popular YouTube video of the goal, and for Zucker, it’s much better to relive that experience online than the season lowlight, which is also featured on YouTube.

That one took place in mid-March in a game against Anaheim. Skating near the right side boards in the Ducks’ zone, Zucker played the puck back to the point. About a second later, he absorbed a hit to the head by Ducks forward Corey Perry. Zucker lay on the ice for quite a while; Perry got five and a game, plus supplemental discipline from the NHL – a four-game suspension.

Zucker was off the ice for nearly four days, missing two games with what he still calls, enigmatically, “an upper body injury.”

As for the hit, Zucker shrugs it off. “That’s just part of the game,” he said.

Sounds like a good Canadian kid.

At five-foot-11, 174 pounds, Zucker is a little man in a big-man’s sport. Like others of his size, he plays the game hard, with energy and fearlessness.

A few years ago, the Hockey’s Future website evaluated Zucker’s prospects as a potential draftee like this: “Zucker is very versatile, can play on a scoring or a checking line. Much better shooter than puckhandler. His speed lets him get to a lot of pucks.”

The Hockey News had this to say about him: “Plays with a great combination of skill and energy. Skates very well and never quits on a play. Is also responsible in his own zone. Boasts plenty of scoring upside.

“Career Potential: Skilled, speedy scoring winger with upside.”

Zucker lined up primarily with Cullen and winger Devin Setoguchi. Cullen is the setup guy for both wingers.

In 20 regular season games, Zucker scored four goals and added one assist. In five playoff games, he had one goal and one assist.

Zucker spent most of the past season with the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League (AHL). In 55 games, he scored 24 goals and added 26 assists.

At the University of Denver, he scored at better than a point-per-game rate, and in 2010-11 he was named WCHA Rookie of the Year, as well as a member of the WCHA All-Rookie team.

From an early age, he was pegged to play for the United States on the international stage.

As part of the U.S. National Team Development Program, he played 60 games, scoring 53 points, tying for the team lead in goals with 29. He holds the distinction of being one of only two American players to win three gold medals in one calendar year. He won gold at the 2009 and 2010 under-18 championships, as well as a gold medal at the 2010 World Junior Championships.

That’s a record any guy from Saskatoon would be proud of.

Remarkably, Zucker got his start in hockey playing the inline variety – roller hockey. He was three at the time and his brothers were already involved with the sport.

It wasn’t until much later that he took his skills to the ice, but he said there wasn’t much difficulty making the transition.

The Wild selected him in the second round of the 2010 entry draft, 59th overall. After playing only six games with the Wild in the 2011-12 season, he started the 2012-13 campaign in the AHL. “Being in the AHL during the lockout was a blessing for me,” he said. “I learned a lot… There are so many little things to the game that refine your play.”

After a good part of the past season with the Wild, Zucker is nothing if not confident he can stay in the NHL.

“I believe I can score at this level,” he said, adding, “It’s not easy.”

So to get ready for next season, he’s back in Vegas, working out in an [air-conditioned] gym and waiting to get back on the ice with a handful of local college and junior players.

Their rink of choice? The SoBe Ice Arena in the Fiesta Rancho Casino Hotel. Where else? After all, it is Las Vegas.

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