ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Preparing for another Stanley Cup Playoff series is something Jason Zucker couldn't have imagined two months ago.
Instead, the Minnesota Wild forward will be a critical player when they play the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference First Round. Game 1 is at Scottrade Center on Thursday (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA, SN360, FS-N, FS-WI, FS-MW).
After fracturing his clavicle in a game against the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 9, and a surgical procedure to repair the damage a few days later, the prognosis for a return was 12 weeks. Even in the best-case scenario, Zucker might have returned in time for the second round of the playoffs.
"I didn't know if I was going to be playing at all this year," Zucker said. "At first I was thinking about summer plans, what I was going to do for training and rehab and stuff like that, but the training staff did a great job getting me back and healthy as quick as they could."
But as the end of the season came closer, Zucker and the Wild seemed to get good news at every medical checkup. After seven weeks, Zucker was cleared to receive contact in practice. A few days later, he was back in the lineup and scored the game-winning goal against the Chicago Blackhawks in a 2-1 win on April 7 that clinched a playoff berth, eight weeks and one day after sustaining the injury.
"We heard a couple of different things, but the first thing we heard is that he would not be back," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "The idea that he could come back when he would was extremely exciting."
The timing couldn't have been better for Zucker's return. If the original time frame was accurate, Zucker would have been out until perhaps the end of the second round or into the Western Conference Final if the Wild could get there. But would Yeo have inserted someone who hadn't played in three months into a playoff series, or into a lineup that had won two playoff series?
It's a question he's glad he won't have to answer.
"The fact that he could get a couple of games back in before the playoffs started was the most important part," Yeo said. "For him to get his timing back and to get up to game speed, but more importantly, for us to see he's at that level, that gives us a chance to insert him into the lineup where he is."
That spot is on the left side of Minnesota's second line with center Mikko Koivu and right wing Chris Stewart. Koivu and Zucker had good chemistry prior to Zucker's injury, so Yeo decided to reunite them immediately. It paid immediate dividends when Zucker scored in Chicago, then twice against the Nashville Predators two nights later.
Despite that instant success, Zucker said there is plenty of room for improvement.
"Honestly I don't think I played that great," Zucker said. "I think my speed was there, but I don't think overall it was that great of games for me. So I can still play better and help this team a little bit more. But with that said, it was a good start."
Zucker's addition to Minnesota's lineup could present St. Louis with some matchup problems. His speed is a game-changer and his presence on the second line makes the Wild more potent. Playing in 51 games, Zucker finished tied for third on the Wild with 21 goals, about a 35-goal pace had he played in 82 games.
In his first full season in the NHL, Zucker, 23, has gone from young player with goal-scoring potential to being someone who has realized that potential.
Left Wing - MIN
GOALS: 21 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 26
SOG: 124 | +/-: -9
"Confidence, I think the way he's not only scoring the goals, but playing the game the right way," Koivu said. "That's the biggest improvement with his game. Usually when that happens, that's when it leads to scoring goals, scoring points and that helps you get to that next level."
A frequent traveler on Interstate 35 between St. Paul, Minn., and the Wild's American Hockey League affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa, last season (the highway was dubbed the "Zucker Expressway" by some and "I-35Z" by others), Zucker learned he would have to put an emphasis on the defensive part of his game and become a better two-way player if he wanted to stick with the Wild.
This season, Zucker has been so good defensively, Yeo hasn't hesitated to use him in all situations, including as one of the Wild's top penalty-killers.
"We're not trying to hide him and we're not trying to keep him away from certain matchups. We have confidence putting him out there against any player on any team," Yeo said. "His detail and his play without the puck, first and foremost it gives him more of an opportunity to get on the ice.
"You look at how he's first on pucks but how he's able to go into a corner and come out with the puck now, that's a big difference from his first couple of years."
After missing the playoffs last year with a torn quadriceps tendon, Zucker is thrilled to get back in time for a run this season.
"It was tough. It was definitely very tough. But that's the way it goes," Zucker said. "This is the best time of year to be playing."