NHL playoffs: Jason Zucker's winner keeps Wild very much alive

USA TODAY Sports

When it was needed most, the Wild's youth stepped up. As a result, Minnesota is still very much alive against the NHL's best team

After a Game 2 loss in Chicago Friday night, Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo credited the Blackhawks, in a way.

"There was clearly another level to their game tonight," Yeo said after Chicago's 5-2 win, "and I’d say that there’s at least another level to ours that was unfortunately in the wrong direction."

Yeo's thoughts? Chicago got better, and his team got worse. The on-ice production Friday certainly looked to be a confirmation of Yeo's comments.

Heading into Sunday's highly-crucial Game 3 in St. Paul, Yeo told reporters in a pregame meeting he wanted his team to crank up the physicality.

"We have a lot of guys that they’re getting their first taste of playoff hockey and some guys that haven’t been a part of it for awhile. There’s no question that I really believe that to be successful, there has to be a level of hatred for the team that you’re playing against. It shouldn’t be hard for us. They’re trying to take away something from us."

Early on in Sunday's game, it didn't appear to be working that well. The Blackhawks owned the puck for the most part, and Johnny Oduya got the game's first goal off a feed from Jonathan Toews.

Something happened later in the first. It looked to be keyed by a great shift from the line of Kyle Brodziak, Cal Clutterbuck, and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. They buzzed the Chicago net, forechecked, and established some semblance of aggressiveness for the home team. Bouchard's goal late in the first leveled matters, and then everyone got going.

It was clear in the series opener that Chicago had issues handling the speed of Wild rookie Jason Zucker. He had a couple strong scoring chances, and hit a crossbar in overtime. And Zucker's speed and aggressiveness showed themselves again Sunday.

Another point that became clear Sunday was this: While Zach Parise and Ryan Suter make a ton of money, get more of the attention, and are considered the Wild's stars going forward, guys like Zucker and Charlie Coyle are a huge part of what this franchise is going to do in the next few years.

Zucker was a second round pick by the Wild in 2010. He played two years of college hockey at the University of Denver, then turned pro and had the proverbial cup of coffee with Minnesota late last season. Zucker was up and down this year, getting sent down after a hot start with the Wild after an injury and an uptick in Bouchard's play relegated him to fourth line duty. He was called up a second time, but sent back down in the final ten days of the regular season after his play slipped.

Called up for the Wild's must-win regular season finale against Colorado April 27, Zucker has made the most of it.

He was fantastic in Game 1 against Chicago, nearly scoring the overtime winner. He might have been better Sunday. Zucker provided the Wild with a great spark at the end of a strong second period effort with a punishing (clean) hit on Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook.

Then after a superb effort from Matt Cullen, Zucker's short-side shot found a way past Corey Crawford to get the Wild on the board in the series.

"Cully made a falling pass to me, it just happened to land on my stick," Zucker said. "Just tried putting it on net."

Coyle was part of the Brent Burns trade with San Jose in 2011, announced while the Wild were hosting the NHL Draft that June. Playing at Boston University at the time, Coyle left school during the 2011-12 season and played for the Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL). After a short stop in Houston, Coyle got the call and quickly joined the Wild's top line with Parise and Mikko Koivu.

While Devin Setoguchi was said to be the key part of that deal, the Wild really liked Coyle and felt it was significant he be dealt in the Burns swap. He didn't start great on Sunday, appearing to have a bit of panic with the puck on his stick. But Coyle is strong as an ox on the wall, and his work on the boards led to Parise's goal, as Coyle won a battle and flipped a great backhand pass to Parise out front.

"I just kind of threw it, and luckily (Parise) made a nice play," Coyle said. Asked if he knew Parise was where he was, Coyle said "you know you can find him there (in front of the net)."

Some would argue Minnesota's playoff push has the franchise slightly ahead of schedule, even after owner Craig Leipold authorized nearly $200 million in contracts for Parise and Suter last summer. They provide the star power, but it's up to general manager Chuck Fletcher and his scouting staff to provide depth around them. Coyle and Zucker are young, but they are exactly what the Wild need to contend. They are high-end players who have a lot of improvement to come, but can still help the team win now.

Game 4 is Tuesday, and you'd be crazy to expect the Blackhawks to get outhit 34-13 again. The West's top seed will be better, and it's up to the Wild to be better, too. For that to happen, Yeo needs more out of everyone. That doesn't just include veterans like Koivu, Parise, Suter, Cullen, and Setoguchi. It also means Coyle and Zucker -- along with Calder Trophy candidate Jonas Brodin, Suter's defensive partner and a star in his own light -- have to keep doing what they've been doing.

The future is bright for the Wild, but they'd like to think they're not done in the present.

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