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Zucker on Pens debut: "Tonight was a bit of a whirlwind"

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

As Jason Zucker sat in his stall between Bryan Rust and Evgeni Malkin in the Penguins locker room, putting on his new black and gold gear for the first time ahead of his debut against Tampa Bay on Tuesday at PPG Paints Arena, he was feeling a little weird.

"I was looking down at my socks and everything getting dressed and it was very bizarre, but it was awesome," he said. "This is such an amazing franchise. I've heard nothing but amazing things prior to being here about the entire organization. It's surreal being a part of it and I'm just excited to be here."

Just under 24 hours earlier, Zucker had gotten a call from Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin informing him that he had been sent to Pittsburgh in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk, Calen Addison and a conditional 2020 first-round pick. 

Until that point, Zucker had spent his entire eight-plus year NHL career with the Wild, who drafted him in the second round (59th overall) back in 2010. So while there were some mixed emotions, excitement was the prominent one.

"It was obviously a bittersweet moment with my whole family and roots being in Minnesota," Zucker said. "But I was very excited for this opportunity to be on a special team like this. I'm really looking forward to this opportunity moving forward."

The 28-year-old forward made it to Pittsburgh in time for Tuesday's 2-1 overtime loss to the Lightning, thanks in large part to his wife Carly.

"It was pretty hectic, but that's kind of the fun in it," Zucker said. "My wife was a big help in making sure that the kids were taken care of back home. I was able just to worry about packing up. Had to run to the rink and grab my gear and all that fun stuff. 

"But you know what, I'm grateful for this opportunity and I think that's just part of the process. Anybody that's been traded knows that's how it goes."

This morning, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said Zucker - a top-six forward with 14 goals this season who brings a speed game, an offensive dimension and a defensive conscience - was going to start on a line with Sidney Crosby. He stayed on the captain's left wing for the entirety of the game while Patric Hornqvist and Dominik Simon rotated on the right wing.

"It was great," Zucker said of playing with Crosby. "The type of player he is goes without saying. He's an unbelievable player and he's an unbelievable, humble guy on the bench just talking through some things and trying to play the game. 

"Tonight was a bit of a whirlwind, so I was just trying to play the game and just trying to help out any way I could. I think it will be better next game."

Zucker finished tied for the team high with five shots in 15:26 minutes of ice time, with exactly one minute of that coming on the power play. And while Zucker was jokingly self-deprecating about his game - saying "I thought my hands were terrible, I mishandled pretty much every puck I touched" - the chemistry with Crosby was obvious.

"We had some chances," Crosby said. "I think it's always a feeling-out process with a new team, new system, new linemates. It's always an adjustment. We'll continue to talk and try to generate things, but we had some good looks tonight and we'll build off that."

Overall, Zucker feels that his style of play is a perfect fit for the Penguins' system. He listed that speed and shot as his biggest assets, and those were evident tonight. With more time - not only this season, but with three more years on his current contract - Zucker is looking forward to making an impact moving forward.

"I just want to prove myself as a player to these guys, to this coaching staff, the general managers, all the way up to the ownership and fans and everybody," Zucker said. "So for me, it's just about playing my game and showing what I can do. Ultimately, it's about winning, and I'm just going to try to help this team anyway that I can."

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