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Zuccarello feeling good, playing good, as his season gets going

Veteran forward scored a goal, assisted on another in Saturday's win in Anaheim

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe / Wild.com

Mats Zuccarello's first season as a member of the Wild was, admittedly, not up to his own standards. 

The 37 points he scored in 65 games last season equaled the amount he had in just 46 games with the New York Rangers only a year prior, and were his fewest in anything resembling a full season in his 11 year NHL career.

But there was a valid reason for the off year.

Zuccarello's aching right arm, one that was injured in his first game as a member of the Dallas Stars after a trade from New York at the 2019 Trade Deadline, bothered him the entire season. 

He's never admitted it publicly, he's even attempted to downplay it in media sessions this season, but offseason surgery Zuccarello had back in November to clean things up has him feeling as healthy as he has in a Wild uniform. 

The fact that he did nothing but skate on his own for several weeks before joining the team for practice has also allowed him to jump right into the lineup with really fresh legs.

Video: Dean Evason postgame at Anaheim

"His legs are moving," said Wild coach Dean Evason. "When he plays with pace, you see things open up for him. Because when you push teams back, and then you pull up or as he does, cut back, things open up. The distance and the separation happens, and he has the ability to pick and choose who he'd like to make the pass to."

Now, three games into his second season with Minnesota, he looks like the kind of playmaker the Wild signed to a five-year contract in the summer of 2019, and one that could be a difference maker for the team as it tries to ascend the West Division standings over the next several months. 

"Sometimes, some games, the puck sits on your stick and you feel good, some games, you struggle," Zuccarello said. "I think the first three games, I've had the puck a little bit and felt good. Playing with good players, that helps and like today, Rasky and Kirill are holding onto the puck, that makes it easier. Obviously, I worked out a really long time, and I feel like I'm in really good shape."

Video: MIN@ANA: Zuccarello picks the corner for 1-0 lead

In case you're in need of proof of just how good Zuccarello is feeling, check out his goal on Saturday night in Anaheim, one where he accepted a pass from Kirill Kaprizov near the left-wing circle then sniped the far upper corner over John Gibson.

The goal got the Wild off and running in an eventual 3-1 win over the Ducks, a victory that capped a two-game sweep of Anaheim over the past four days and moved Minnesota ahead of its temporary division rival in the standings, despite the four games in hand the Wild also has. 

In one smooth sweeping motion, Zuccarello looked like the Zuccarello fans got accustomed to seeing for a decade in New York, one where he used his speed and playmaking ability to create offense. 

It took Zuccarello eight games to score a goal last season.

"When you're a pass-first guy, yet you can shoot and score like he did on his goal, that again adds a different element," Evason said. "Teams pre-scout, obviously, and they know him because he's been in the league and had success for so many years, and teams know he's a pass first guy, he's always looking to make that pass.

"But when you can snap it like he did and have that threat as well, that gives him another dimension and gives our team another dimension as well."

The goal comes on the heels of Thursday night's game where he tallied an assist and was ever-present in the offensive end, creating quality chances. 

It took him five games to get his first point last season. 

He'd assist on Victor Rask's third-period goal as well, giving him a two-point night, something he didn't accomplish until 11 games in a year ago.

Video: MIN@ANA: Rask scores in 3rd period

Sure, it's just a three-game sample size so far, but Minnesota desperately needs playmakers to play next to Kaprizov, who had two assists on Saturday and now has 11 points of the season, tying him for the NHL rookie lead, and Kevin Fiala, who himself tallied two goals on Saturday and now has six tallies in his past seven games. 

"He's a great player, he's been in the league a long time and he knows how to play hockey," Fiala said. "It's no secret that he's a great hockey player."

Zuccarello just never looked comfortable in that role last season, but that couldn't be further from the truth so far. Now the key will be trying to keep the momentum going.


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