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Zucker's two goals lead Wild past Panthers

by Cristina Ledra

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Jason Zucker continues to flourish on the Minnesota Wild's second line

Zucker scored two goals Monday, leading the Wild to a win 4-1 against the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center.

Zucker spent last season bouncing between the minors and Minnesota. He started this season on the Wild's fourth line, but has played his way onto the second line with center Mikko Koivu and left wing Thomas Vanek.

Koivu set up both of Zucker's goals. Nino Niederreiter scored an unassisted goal in the first period and Zach Parise had an empty-net goal with 1:29 remaining. Goaltender Niklas Backstrom made 29 saves for the Wild (12-8-0).

Forward Shawn Thornton had his first goal of the season and goalie Roberto Luongo stopped 35  shots for Florida (7-6-6).

"I think the biggest thing is his work ethic is another step," Koivu said of Zucker. "He's playing his best hockey; not just points and goals, but overall. And if he keeps doing that, he's going to be a great player with a great future in front of him. But playing with him has helped me a lot with his speed and the way he works, and I try to support him as much as I can."

Wild coach Mike Yeo has seen Zucker negating icings and finishing checks and said those efforts have sparked not only his linemates, but all of his teammates.

"Any time you do any little thing for your teammates, that helps bring the group closer together," Yeo said. "...We're going to keep pushing him, but we've seen a real development in the player. It's not that he's skating faster or he's shooting better; it's all the little things that he needed to improve upon, all the little things added onto what he already did well, that's how he's improved and we'll make sure he keeps bringing it."

The win was a strong finish to Minnesota's three-game road trip in which the Wild beat the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 on Thursday and lost 2-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday.

Florida returned home after a four-game road trip, the last of which saw the Panthers scored two last-minute goals in a span of 12 seconds to force overtime against the Nashville Predators. The Panthers lost 3-2 in a shootout, but Luongo had 48 saves.

The Wild wanted to shoot often against Florida and establish a strong forecheck. They did both.

"Especially to start the game, with the forecheck, on the road, it's very important to try to get the momentum early on and, if possible, get the lead as well," Koivu said.

Zucker gave the Wild a 1-0 lead at 5:58 of the first period when he took a cross-ice pass from Koivu and slipped it through Luongo's five-hole for his seventh goal of the season.

Niederreiter doubled the Minnesota's lead at 17:43 with his 10th goal of the season. Panthers defenseman Willie Mitchell failed to control the puck in front of Florida's bench and Niederreiter came streaking between Mitchell and defense partner Colby Robak, grabbed the puck for a breakaway and roofed a shot over Luongo's blocker.

"Obviously not the start we wanted," Luongo said. "I thought I could have been better on the first two goals. They both went right through me; not the type of goal I would like to allow."

Thornton made it 2-1 with a goal that needed a video review. At 5:34 of the second period, Thornton deflected Dmitry Kulikov's shot and the puck dropped behind Backstrom's left shoulder. The play was originally ruled no goal due to a high stick. However, the officials determined after a group huddle that Thornton's stick was not above the height of the crossbar and a video review confirmed the decision to allow the goal.

Zucker and Koivu combined to make it 3-1 at 17:19. Zucker's check on Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson in the left corner allowed Koivu to get control of the puck. He fed Zucker, who took the pass in front of Luongo and fired a shot toward the top right corner. The puck bounced off the post and went behind Luongo for Zucker's eighth goal of the season.

Overall, the Panthers weren't happy with their performance to start a three-game homestand, especially after the way they fought for points against Nashville and in a shootout win against the San Jose Sharks.

"We just didn't generate a lot," Mitchell said. "It looked like there were some heavy legs out there, but good teams find a way when you have heavy legs. You have to manage the game differently."

The Panthers didn't have many scoring opportunities in the first two periods -- Florida was outshot 14-5 after one period and 30-14 after two. But they managed 16 shots on goal in the third period, only to have Backstrom stop them all.

"We weren't good as a group tonight," Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. "We had 20 guys who didn't compete hard enough. I think you saw a team over there that was hungry to compete tonight."

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