ST. PAUL -- With their playoff hopes dashed, it's nights like tonight Wild fans have been waiting for for weeks, as Minnesota faces off with the Florida Panthers at Xcel Energy Center.
Rookie left wing Jason Zucker, a Wild second-round pick in 2010, will make his NHL debut in front of the home crowd this evening, in a building he is very familiar with.
Just six days ago, Zucker played in his final collegiate hockey game in the NCAA Tournament as a member of the University of Denver. Two weeks ago to the day, Zucker scored the game-winning goal, in this building, as the Pioneers defeated Michigan Tech University in the WCHA Final Five.
Asked that day if he had planned on turning pro after the season, Zucker said he wasn't sure. Little did he know he'd be making his big-league debut in the same arena just 14 days later.
"I actually slept better than I thought," Zucker said.
Wild coach Mike Yeo said he doesn't have any expectations from Zucker, either high or low. He will play tonight next to playmaking center Erik Christensen and fellow rookie Nick Johnson, whose speed should play well with Zucker's.
"This is an incredible experience for him," Yeo said of Minnesota's final six games. "It will be what he makes of it, that's for sure."
The Wild will go with Niklas Backstrom, who is finally recovered from a litany of dings, most recently a groin. He has backed up Josh Harding some recently, including Tuesday night's loss to the Rangers. Backstrom hasn't played since Mar. 1 in Montreal, when he left after just 2:52 with an injury.
Minnesota will also get back defenseman Justin Falk back from a leg injury. He hasn't played since March 4 against Colorado. His return will push Kurtis Foster out of the lineup.