The Penguins were eager to get Jason Zucker back in their lineup.
And sure enough, the forward who had missed 37 of the previous 38 games due to a core muscle injury contributed almost immediately during their 4-3 overtime road win against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. on Thursday.
But any ambitions of a triumphant comeback were dashed roughly midway through the contest.
At 9:49 of the second period, just as his teammates generated a goal, Zucker was injured on a gruesome tumble into the boards. Pursuing a puck on the right wall of his own zone, Zucker was shoved into the boards by Wild forward Kevin Fiala and nearly did a complete split against the wall.
Athletic trainer Chris Stewart attended to Zucker, who appeared to be holding the inside of his right thigh. Eventually, Zucker recovered to his skateboards but put little weight on his right leg and required assistance from forward Sidney Crosby and defenseman Mike Matheson as well as team staffers in order to leave the ice and retreat to the dressing room.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan did not provide an update on Zucker’s status following the game.
A goal at 3:57 of overtime by Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin – his 17th of the season – secured victory.
This latest setback for Zucker, who had been hobbled by injury since December, had a palpable effect on his teammates.
“He’s a big part of this team,” defenseman John Marino told media in St. Paul. “Especially off the ice. In the locker room, just having him back I think was a spark for us. You could see it in the first couple of periods too when he was playing with us. That was painful to watch.”
Zucker, who played his first game in Minnesota since the Wild traded him to the Penguins in February of 2020, helped the Penguins score on the contest’s first shot only 1:06 into regulation.
Gaining the offensive zone on the right wing, Zucker banked a pass off the half wall to the right point for Marino, who pumped a wrister towards the cage. Establishing position on the lip of the right circle near the crease, Penguins forward Rickard Rakell deflected the puck through goaltender Cam Talbot’s five hole for his 18th goal of the season (and second since joining the Penguins via trade on March 21). Marino and Zucker had assists.
A power-play goal at 10:51 of the first period tied the game, 1-1. From the Penguins’ right circle, Fiala chucked a wrister on the net that was rejected by goaltender Casey DeSmith’s blocker. As a mass of humanity crashed in on the crease, the rebound hopped to the right circle where Wild defenseman Matt Dumba directed it on net with his right skateboard.
After a desperate DeSmith kept the puck out again, Dumba followed up on the rebound by putting a forehand shot off the near post. Despite a stick check from defenseman Kris Letang, Dumba was able to make some contact on a second shot attempt and slightly pushed the puck over the goal line briefly before Letang lunged to sweep the puck out of the cage. Officials initially ruled on the goal, but a brief review resulted in Dumba’s seventh goal. There were no assists.
Penguins forward Jake Guentzel, who grew up in Woodbury, Minn., restored a lead for his team with a 1:54 power-play score into the second period.
After Crosby beat Wild forward Tyson Jost on a draw in Minnesota’s left circle, Letang settled the puck in the high slot, touching off a passing sequence to forward Bryan Rust (left point), then to Crosby (left corner), then to Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin (right corner) and finally Letang (right faceoff dot), who blasted a one-timer on net. Talbot made a save with his left leg but allowed a rebound to slide to the slot where Guentzel cleaned it up with a forehand shot for his 32nd goal. Letang and Malkin claims assists.
“Just a great faceoff play,” Guentzel said. “I just had my stick on the ice. It went right on my stick. Definitely one I’ll take.”
The Penguins took a 3-1 lead on the sequence Zucker was injured on. Claiming the puck at his own left point, Crosby deked past Dumba and generated a two-on-one rush with Rakell against Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin. As Brodin made a vain attempt to block the passing lane, Crosby was able to slip the puck from low in the Wild’s left circle to the far side of the crease where Rakell tapped in the puck. Crosby had the lone assist.
After a would-be goal by Wild forward Jordan Greenway at 17:31 of the second was wiped out by a coach’s challenge from the Penguins – the video review showed the sequence to be offside – the Wild pulled within one goal at 17:48 thanks to former Penguins forward Frederick Gaudreau scoring his 10th goal.
After a defensive zone turnover by Marino, Gaudreau corralled the puck at the right point and tapped it to the right half wall for Fiala. With Gaudreau maneuvering to the slot, Fiala fed it back to him and Gaudreau swiped a one-timer past DeSmith’s glove. Fiala and linemate Jordan Boldy had assists.
Things were even again a mere 1:02 into the third period. Controlling the puck behind the Penguins’ net, Wild forward Ryan Hartman banked a “pass” to himself off the back of the cage in order to get past a backchecking Malkin and from the right of the net, he fed a pass to the slot. From there, linemate Kirill Kaprizov stroked a one-timer past DeSmith’s left skate for his 38th goal. Assists went to Hartman and defenseman Jared Spurgeon.
For the remainder of the third period, the teams largely held serve.
“I thought we showed really good resilience,” DeSmith said. “Obviously a tied game in the third, I thought we did a great job bouncing back not letting the momentum getting away from us. I thought we carried it in overtime, which was great to see. The star players stepped up for us.”
That was evident in overtime when the Penguins outshot the Wild, 7-2, including the final three shots of the game by Malkin.
Pushing play into the offensive zone on the right wing boards, Marino shielded the puck from Hartman then slid a pass to the right point for Rust, who chipped the forehand front of the cage for Malkin. Initially dashing behind the cage, Malkin recoiled to the right of the net and jammed two forehand shots that Talbot’s left skate denied.
Malkin’s third attempt gained entry as Wild defenseman Dmitry Kulikov made an exhausted and futile attempt at a poke check. Rust and Marino logged assists.
“It was a complete effort, top to bottom,” Sullivan said. “It was a great hockey game on both sides. That’s a really good team. Our team played really hard tonight. We competed hard. … I just really liked our resilience throughout the course of the game. It was a game that had a lot of momentum swings in it, it seemed. Sometimes, you can get caught up in those. I thought we did a good job of just (staying) with it and keeping the game simple to try to get it back when we lost it.
“It was a terrific hockey game. It had a playoff feel to it in so many ways. It was physical. There were great plays made on both sides. I thought both goalies played well and made big saves. It was just a great hockey game.”
DeSmith made 28 saves on 31 shots as his record improved to 7-4-4 with a victory that was invigorating but somewhat Pyrrhic given Zucker’s latest malady.
“It was awful,” DeSmith said. “Obviously hate to see it. We see him working hard every day, rehabbing and trying to get back as fast as he can. Just to have that happen in the first game back was pretty heartbreaking.”
• On Thursday afternoon, Zucker was activated from long-term injured reserve. In a corresponding transaction, Penguins forward Brock McGinn was placed on long-term injured reserve due to a suspected right hand or arm injury that has sidelined him for the previous nine games.
• This was the first game decided in overtime between the Penguins and Wild. Previously, the Penguins lost twice to the Wild in shootouts.
• Malkin has three of the Penguins’ last four game-winning goals.
• After struggling with a career-worst six-game streak without a point, Malkin has cobbled together a six-game scoring streak.
• Letang recorded his 500th career assist on Guentzel’s goal.
• The Penguins are now 5 for 5 on coach’s challenges this season.
• Scoring streaks do not continue while a player is absent, but Zucker has scored in the last three games he has played dating to Dec. 19.
• The Penguins scratched forwards Anthony Angello, Radim Zohorna and defenseman Marcus Pettersson.
• The Wild did not escape this unscathed game. Forward Matt Boldy and defenseman Jon Merrill each left the game in the second period due to undisclosed injuries.
• The Wild remain one of three active NHL franchises the Penguins have never shut out. The others are the Seattle Kraken and Vegas Golden Knights, each of which are expansion franchises that have joined the NHL within the past four seasons.
• Kaprizov tied the Wild’s single-season record for points with 83 (37 goals, 45 assists) in only 65 games. The mark was initially established by former Wild forward Marian Gaborik who had 83 points (42 goals, 41 assists) in 77 games during the 2007-08 campaign.
• Dumba became the first Wild defenseman to score a power-play goal this season.
•The Wild scratched former Penguins Nick Bjugstad and Alex Goligoski as well as defenseman Jordie Benn.
Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .