The old adage in sports is big players make big plays in big games.
Jason Zucker is proving to be one of those players. The American Hockey League co-leader in game-winning goals with eight, Zucker knows how to get the job done.
And now he’s set his sights on another target -- the Calder Cup.
The first major honor for the Houston Aeros forward was his selection to play in the AHL All-Star Classic in Providence in January.
Then earlier this week, Zucker was named to the AHL All-Rookie Team, further distinguishing himself as an asset in the Minnesota Wild organization. The annual All-Rookie Team has been filled with some impressive names in recent seasons, including a long line of future NHL stars like Zdeno Chara, Danny Briere, Dan Boyle, Jason Spezza, Cam Ward, Thomas Vanek, Jimmy Howard, Ryan Callahan, Bobby Ryan, P.K. Subban and Logan Couture.
"It's awesome to be in that category," Zucker said. "But obviously my main goal isn't to be named to the All-Rookie team, it's to be playing for a Calder Cup and winning championships."
As the Aeros, the Wild's AHL affiliate, prepare for the postseason, Zucker is looking to add a championship to what is an already impressive rookie season.
With 24 goals and 26 assists in 55 AHL games this season (not to mention four goals and an assist in 15 NHL games), Zucker has come a long way from his childhood in Las Vegas.
"I moved to Vegas when I was 2 months old, so I've been there pretty much my whole life," he said. "My two older brothers got me started playing roller hockey when I was young and I didn't switch to ice until I was a bit older. Roller hockey was my roots and that's just what you did on the West Coast."
Though wheels were the beginning, it was on blades that Zucker found his stride. He eventually earned a spot on the United States National Team Development Program and played for the United States in two World Junior Championships, winning gold in 2010 and bronze in 2011. After playing two seasons at the University of Denver, Zucker made the jump to the NHL in 2012, appearing in six games for Minnesota at the end of last season.
"The overall game is so much different," he said of his adjustment from NCAA to NHL hockey. "Obviously in pro, it's your job. It's no longer a hobby where you're just having fun playing. It's your job now."
Now with the Aeros, and under the tutelage of veteran coach John Torchetti, Zucker is thankful for the opportunity he's getting to perfect his game.
SOG: 20 | +/-: 5
"It's helped my game a ton and it's gotten me to the point where I can be an NHL player, and I give the AHL a ton of credit for that. I owe that all to my coaches and my teammates here."
With only four games left in the regular season, Zucker and the Aeros, currently fifth in the Western Conference, are doing what they can to ensure their spot in the playoffs.
Now every play is a big play and every game is a big game.
"I think it's just about being consistent and making sure you're getting these much-needed points," Zucker said. "Obviously you want to go into the playoffs full steam ahead. You want to be playing your best hockey at this time of year and that's just what we're focusing on right now."