LAKE PLACID, N.Y.
-- The penalty wasn't good, but it was the response to it that helped Jason Zucker
and the U.S. take a 4-1 win against Finland on Thursday here at the national junior evaluation camp.
With the U.S. already playing shorthanded, Zucker was sent off for high-sticking, giving Finland, already up 1-0, a two-man advantage for 1:29.
The U.S. killed the first penalty, and when Zucker's time in the box ended, he exploded out like a turbo-charged racecar.
Just 22 seconds after he stepped out of the box, his strong forechecking earned him a loose puck behind the Finland net. He found Nick Bjugstad
open at the edge of the left circle, and Bjugstad scored to tie the game.
"For being a leader on this team it isn't a good penalty to take," Zucker told NHL.com. "I had to come out and show the guys that I'm here to be serious and I shouldn't have taken the penalty."
It was the kind of response a leader gives, and that's how this U.S. team views Zucker.
"He's going to be one of the captains," said coach Dean Blais. "I think he's a leader on the ice. In the locker room I don't know if he's very vocal or not. I think he tries to lead by example. He's always one of the first guys on the ice and does the drills the way you ask him. He's always trying to be better, he's always trying to get better. Even though he's good he's always trying to work on his game."
That game already is pretty good. As a freshman at the University of Denver last season, the 2010 second-round pick of the Minnesota Wild
(No. 59) tied for the team lead with 23 goals and was second with 45 points.
"He's got the ability to make plays out of nothing," said Blais. "He's got a great shot, gets it off quick. … He had a great year for Denver, and every time we played them last year (Blais coached against him at the University of Nebraska-Omaha) he was noticeable. He was one of those players that when he touched the puck, he made something happen."
As much as Zucker is being counted on for offense, it's his experience that will be key to Team USA's efforts at the 2012 World Junior Championship.
Most fans are quick to remember goalie Jack Campbell
's gold medal-winning effort for the U.S. at the 2010 WJC in Saskatoon, but some forget that Campbell isn't the only player looking for a third-straight WJC medal.
Zucker was a fourth-line forward who made the 2010 team through sheer force of will. He wasn't invited to the summer evaluation camp; rather, he made the team through a strong first half of the 2009-10 season with the U.S. National Team Development Program, and never gave Blais a reason to send him home from that team. He had 2 goals in seven games with that team, and was a physical force.
"In Saskatoon he was kind of a player who was feeling everything out, was young," said Blais. "But we saw him during his year during the whole year, and he's a fierce competitor. We felt he'd be a player that as the tournament went along he'd get better and he did. Not to the point where he was a (Jerry) D'Amigo or (Chris) Kreider, a top-six guy. But when he had to sit out or was a fourth-line guy or wasn't on the power play or penalty kill, there was no bad attitude. He did whatever we asked of him."
Last year in Buffalo, he had more responsibility and finished with 1 goal in four games as the U.S. won the bronze. This year, his place on the team will be even greater -- and he relishes the opportunity.
"I definitely think I can (be top-six forward)," said Zucker. "Coach Blais has a lot of faith in me right now and I'm hoping to carry that through to the tournament and be one of the top guys on the team."
He'll be expected to produce offensively, but he'll also be counted on to lead. That's another role he relishes. He won't campaign to be team captain, but if nominated, he most certainly would serve.
"It's a role that I really want to take up," he said of the captaincy. "No matter who it is, I think they'll do a good job of leading. It's something I think I'm very capable of doing and definitely want to do."
"He's a great leader," Bjugstad told NHL.com. "He's vocal in the locker room, also. A great guy, and a great team guy.
"He's won a bronze and a gold -- that definitely speaks for itself. We're going to look upon him for the next game and hopefully at World Juniors."
Zucker already has his place in USA Hockey history -- the gold in Saskatoon was only the second in WJC history, and prior to the last two tournaments, no U.S. team ever had won medals at consecutive WJCs. He knows his legacy already is stamped, but he's not ready to close his trophy case. He said he's thought about what it would mean to win a third medal -- especially another gold.
"It would mean a lot," he said. "I take a lot of pride in that (Team USA) jersey and playing in this tournament. For me to be able to come away with three medals would be fantastic."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK