Players rave about Zucker’s speed in debut


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Jason Zucker skates in the first period Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena. - GETTY

Jason Zucker was sitting at home on Monday night when he got a call from Wild general manager Bill Guerin letting him know he had been traded to Pittsburgh.

"It was obviously a bittersweet moment, with my whole family and roots being in Minnesota," Zucker said.

He then called his wife, Carly, who was hosting an early Valentine's Day party for the other wives and girlfriends of Wild players, to let her know he had been traded.

The way Carly describes it, Zucker told her, "I just want you to know from me, before you hear anything, that I got traded."

In shock, she hung up on him, before calling back to hear the news again.

Zucker and his wife have three children, including Zucker's stepdaughter from Carly's previous marriage. Because Carly doesn't want to separate her daughter from her daughter's biological father in Minnesota, Zucker's family isn't able to join him in the move to Pittsburgh.

Despite some tough circumstances, Zucker (and his family) are excited for the opportunity that lies ahead with the Penguins. He's heard much about the organization from Guerin, as well as his former teammate Matt Cullen.

"I was excited for the opportunity to be on a special team like this," Zucker said. "I'm really looking forward to this moving forward."

Zucker said it was "surreal" putting on a different uniform for the first time in his career, and it was "bizarre" looking at even his socks and seeing a different color than he's used to seeing.

Zucker made his Penguins debut on the top line in the team's 2-1 overtime loss to the Lightning on Tuesday night at PPG Paints Arena. He recorded 15:25 of ice time, and was tied for the team lead with five shots on goal. He was credited with one giveaway, one takeaway, and one hit.

"I don't think I played very well," Zucker said with a little laugh when assessing his performance in his debut. "I thought my hands were terrible, I mishandled pretty much every puck I touched. I just tried to skate and create some opportunities, I think I'll be better next game."

Mike Sullivan was a little more kind in his assessment.

"I thought he had a good first game," Sullivan said. "I'm sure he had a lot of emotions coming into the game tonight. But I thought he had a good first game. His speed is evident, his ability to shoot the puck. With more familiarity he'll only get better. But for that first game, I thought he played a solid game."

While there wasn't much to look at in the hands department in this one, we did see flashes of Zucker's great foot speed, something that both Jim Rutherford and Sullivan pointed to several times as a reason why they believe Zucker would be a fit with the Penguins' identity.

"If I use my speed and skate and try to create some chances offensively and create turnovers defensively, get some pressure on their defense, I think it'll be good," Zucker said.

As expected, Zucker got his start on Sidney Crosby's left wing. Patric Hornqvist started on the right side, but was later swapped out for Dominik Simon in the third period.

"The type of player (Crosby) is goes without saying, he's an unbelievable player," Zucker said. "He's an unbelievable humble guy on the bench just talking through some things."

Crosby's first impression of his new line's performance was a good one.

"I thought it was good," he said. "We had some chances. It's always a feeling-out process with a new team, new linemates. It's always an adjustment. We'll continue to talk and generate things, but we had some good looks tonight. We'll build off of that."

Crosby, too, pointed out that Zucker has "a ton of speed" several times.

Kris Letang's assessment of Zucker's play followed that same trend.

"He brings a lot of speed," Letang said. "He's going to create room for guys out there. As far as battle level, he's an intense guy."

Matt Murray, recalling the times he played against Zucker, pointed out the same trait. Speed.

"He's a heck of a player," Murray said. "He's a kind of guy that we're happy to have on our side. He has a lot of speed, a lot of hockey sense. He's been around, he's a veteran presence. You hear good things about his character, we're thrilled to have him."

And in case you needed a sixth opinion ...

"(Zucker) is definitely a guy that can help out this team a lot," said Bryan Rust. "Just the way he plays, how fast he is. How good he is at making plays at both ends of the rink, I think it exemplifies how he plays, I think he'll fit in nicely."

If the team identity is going to continue to lean heavily on playing a fast game, it sounds like Zucker's going to fit that mold just fine.



• Mike Eruzione and Craig Patrick dropped ceremonial first pucks to American players Jack Johnson and Pat Maroon. Feb. 22 is the 40-year anniversary of Miracle on Ice.

So, naturally, the only goals scored in regulation came from Russians -- Evgeni Malkin and Mikhail Sergachev.

Sullivan spoke earlier in the day about what that win in 1980 meant to him when he was just 12 years old.

"I think when you look at what that team accomplished at that time in it's historical context, both inside of sports and outside of sports, I think that team inspired a nation," Sullivan said. "In my own personal experience, they inspired a generation of hockey players. I was one of those kids. I was fortunate to grow up in a city where hockey was deeply rooted. I think Bobby Orr had a huge impact on the Boston area at that time as well. But I think what that Olympic team accomplished at that particular time inspired a generation of hockey players in the Boston area to want to play the game, excel, maybe play on an Olympic team someday and experience what we had just witnessed at 12 years old. That's a special group what those guys were able to accomplish, they certainly inspired me personally but I think they inspired a whole country."

• Say what you will about Simon on the top line, but it looked better after Hornqvist was taken off and Simon was promoted from the fourth line. Simon's hustle to force a turnover and create a partial breakaway ended up drawing a penalty late in the third.

The way the Penguins' power play looked, though, they might have actually had a better shot of getting a goal off of a Simon penalty shot. And that's saying a lot.

• I believe the Penguins hit iron three times in this game. That really should be an official stat that's kept.

• Sullivan said earlier in the day that the plan was to ease Zucker into any special teams plans. Zucker saw some time on the top power play unit toward the end of the first power play opportunity, replacing Bryan Rust, and worked with the second unit after that.


• Before the game, the players lost their soccer ball up in the ceiling outside of the locker room, but they weren't sure where exactly it was in the ceiling. Anthony AngelloTeddy Blueger, and Rust held a tall ladder still while Hornqvist would climb to the top and look around. Then he'd come down, and they'd move the ladder somewhere else and look. It was a total team effort, with Jared McCann, Simon, and a few others supervising the rescue mission.

• Jake Guentzel is still wearing the sling. Last practice, he was walking around the Lemieux complex without the sling.

• Zucker wore Guentzel's gloves in his debut. No time to get his own in the correct colors.

• Matt Murray was warming up before the game with full-on sprints through the lower level on the opposite side of the arena as the locker room. Not something I've seen him do before.

• Wheeling Nailers head coach Mike Bavis and assistant coach Gene Reilly were in the press box in the management booth, taking notes. Bavis seems to work very closely with the higher-ups here, especially Rutherford, be it during Pittsburgh's games when the Nailers are off or during training camp even after the prospects are gone.

Before coaching Wheeling, Bavis spent 15 years as an assistant coach and an associate coach with Jack Parker at Boston University, and Reilly has 30 years of experience at different levels, from college to juniors to Europe to the minor leagues. The Penguins' management clearly sees value in their input, something I definitely never saw with their predecessors behind the Wheeling bench.

• It's cool seeing European media occasionally visit just for one guy. A Latvian television crew has been here for a few days now just for Teddy Blueger. Earlier in the season a German outlet had people here just to see Dominik Kahun.


• This was the first time the Penguins were swept by Tampa Bay in a season series since 2015-16, when they went 0-2-1. This was only their third loss to the Lightning at home, and the first in overtime, since Nov. 2010.

• Sam Lafferty led the Penguins with five hits, despite playing only 5:08.

• Andrew Agozzino continues to be sheltered, playing just 3:19 tonight.

• The Penguins were outshot 17-8 in the first period, then outshot the Lightning 11-10 in the second, and 16-9 in the third. Shots were 2-1 Lightning in overtime, to bring the final shot count to 38-36 Lightning.

• McCann recored eight shot attempts at five-on-five, twice as many as any other Penguins player.

• Remember the "goals saved above expectation" stat from last week's Drive on Murray? He's bringing his number back up. His expected goals against this game based on the Lightning's quality and quantity of shots was 3.65, and he allowed just two.

• When Simon was on the ice for five-on-five, the Penguins recorded 12 unblocked shot attempts and allowed just five. The rate of unblocked shot attempts in the Penguins' favor vs. against was 30.16 percent better when Simon was on the ice vs. when he was not. No other player had a relative difference like that greater than 10 percent.


• Malkin (893) is 22 games away from tying Mario Lemieux (915) for second all-time in Penguins franchise history in games played.

• Malkin (1,059) is 20 points away from tying Jaromir Jagr (1,079) for third all-time in franchise history in scoring.

• Malkin (940) is 19 minutes away from tying Rod Buskas (959) for third all-time in franchise history in penalty minutes

• Crosby (314) is six even strength goals away from tying Jagr (320) for second all-time in franchise history.

• Murray (190) is six games away from tying Les Binkley (196) for fifth all-time in franchise history in games played by a goaltender.


• Sullivan after the power play went 1-for-4: "I thought they were really good early in the game. We weren't as good late in the game. For me, I think our power play is at it's best when we take what they give us and we don't force plays. I thought we forced some plays late in the game, and as a result we ended up chasing the puck when they got clears or whatever it may be."

• Sullivan on overtime: "We had a lot of the possession for most of that overtime and we end up on the wrong side of the result. I think the takeaway is we have to have a certain discipline to make sure we try to outchange our opponents as best we can. We're calculated with the shots we take and decisions we make when we bring pucks to the scoring area, to the net. Possession is so important. For the most part, most of this year, our team has been really good at it. This was one that just caught us."

• Crosby on responding to Tampa's start: "We didn't have a great start, but besides that we played a pretty solid game. I think we would have liked to have stayed out of the box, not given their power play as many looks as we did. We started to play a better game, especially in the second and third. Regardless of who you're playing, if they played the night before, that kind of thing, it's going to be tight hockey from here on in. They're a team that's playing well right now, not giving up a lot. We had our opportunities, that's how we look at it."

• Letang on the game getting faster: "The league is a fast league now. A lot of teams play the same way. I think every time you have  chance to increase that speed on your team, you want to do it."

• Murray on Tampa: "That's a good team. You know they're going to get their chances. We're also a good team, so we got our chances. That game could have gone either way. It's just unfortunate that we didn't get it done in overtime."


• The Lightning, already playing without Steven Stamkos, lost forwards Nikita Kucherov and Anthony Cirelli to lower-body injuries in the second period. Neither returned to the game.

• The win gives the Lightning 79 points on the season, moving them one point shy of the Bruins for first place in the league standings.

• The Lightning are now on a eight-game winning streak, the longest active streak in the NHL.

• Speaking of streaks, Kucherov extended his with his first-period assist:

• Yanni Gourde's overtime winner snapped a 35-game goalless streak: "The first 20 games, from 10 to 20, you think about it every single day. After that, you start focusing on different things. How to help this team win. I know I'm better than just scoring goals. I think I can be effective and relevant to this team even when I'm not scoring, so I was trying to take a lot of pride in every little detail of my game."

• Lightning head coach Jon Cooper on goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy: "There's the quarterback in football. There's the goaltender in hockey. It's a big part of the team. … There's no perfect defense, and you need somebody to bail you out when it's needed. He's been that. From right before the Christmas break until now, it's impressive to watch."


[caption id="attachment_958981" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Penguins vs. Lightning, Feb. 11, 2020, PPG Paints Arena. - GETTY[/caption]

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