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Updated: February 17th, 2013 10:21pm
Myers: Youngster Jason Zucker brings 'shoot first' mentality to Wild

Myers: Youngster Jason Zucker brings 'shoot first' mentality to Wild

by Jess Myers
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. - During his mostly successful run as the long-time hockey coach at Minnesota Duluth, Mike Sertich used to try to simplify the game to his players, and to the media.

"A shot on goal," he would opine, "is never a bad play."

It's a mantra that at least one of the many new faces suddenly populating the Minnesota Wild locker room has adopted. And if Sunday's 3-2 come-from-behind win over the once-mightier Detroit Red Wings is any indication, it's a strategy that may yet save this uneven season.

"I skate fast and I try to get the puck on the net, that's what I'm trying to do," said Wild rookie forward Jason Zucker, who scored his first NHL goal on Sunday, bringing the crowd to its feet, and tying the game with a lightning-fast end-to-end rush, finished off with a wrist shot that beat the Wings goalie. Zucker, the speedster from Las Vegas by way of the University of Denver, signed with the Wild late last season and played in eight games with the club after his sophomore year of college was done. In the post-game scrum, Zucker said that he brings a "shoot first" mentality to a Wild team that has struggled to score at times this season.

"I'm not exactly a passer," he said. "I'm trying to get the puck on net and limit my passing."

He had been shooting plenty of pucks with the Wild's top minor league team in Houston, and plenty of them had been going in the net. But until Saturday, they hadn't led to a promotion. He admits it was frustrating.

"I think that's all part of it. It was the first time I'd had to battle this adversity," he said. "I didn't know what it took to get called up or what it takes to get sent down. I had no idea. It's my first year and I'm trying to learn the ropes."

On Sunday, after Zucker completed his first successful rush to the net and the goal horn was blaring, the end result was an unlikely win, and a potential new spark for a team that has been downright dull offensively for a good chunk of the season.

Unlikely because rallying from two goals down was unexpected for a team that was scoring one goal, and only one goal, a game as recently as last week. Unlikely also because Zucker and fourth-line forward Torrey Mitchell supplied the tying and winning goals, respectively, and neither had ever before scored for the Wild.

More unlikely still because backstopping things in goal was another rookie, Darcy Kuemper, who was the surprise starter in goal. And few people were more surprised than Kuemper himself.

Just minutes before the game, top goalie Niklas Backstrom determined that Sunday's start was a no-go due to the flu, and Kuemper was pressed into emergency duty for his second NHL start, and his first in Minnesota. After falling behind early, Kuemper settled in, finishing with 29 saves for the win, and shutting down a talented and desperate Red Wings team during a four-minute power play and during the frantic final minute as Detroit pressed to try and knot the game.

"We threw (Kuemper) into a pretty difficult situation, and the way he responded was terrific," said Wild coach Mike Yeo. "That was pretty impressive. I thought he got better as the game went on."

Yeo admitted he was impressed by all of the young guys - Swedish forward Johan Larsson made his NHL debut on Sunday as well - and other members of the Wild said the youthful boost on this team, now with five regulars in the lineup who are 22 or younger, may be the final piece of the puzzle for a group that expects much more from itself than has been shown so far.

Another road trip to Western Canada looms, and despite getting three of a possible four points on their most recent homestand, the Wild are not anywhere near where they, or their fans, had hoped they'd be. But they'll take a spark anywhere they can find it.

"We were kind of lacking that energy. I don't know why," said defenseman Ryan Suter. "But seeing (Zucker) go out there and skate from one end of the ice to the other and bury it for his first NHL goal, it definitely is contagious."

On the white board in the team locker room, where they normally post flight departure times or upcoming practice details, was a note imploring any players with flu symptoms to see the team doctors immediately. In other words, they want to make sure that youthful energy is the only contagious thing on the team.

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com. He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
Email Jess | @JessRMyers
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