Jason Zucker grew up playing hockey in Vegas.
On Friday night at the T-Mobile Arena, Zucker got his first chance to play professional hockey in his hometown. He made it count.
Zucker potted a goal and added an assist to push the visiting Minnesota Wild over the Golden Knights, 4-2. Wild fans, including Zucker’s friends and family, were out in force. Green Minnesota jerseys dotted the crowd.
For the Golden Knights, James Neal returned after an eight-game absence. His addition wasn’t nearly enough to spark the Vegas offensive, which is hurting without Reilly Smith.
The Wild, on the first game of a back-to-back, went with Alex Stalock in net, likely saving Devan Dubnyk for the Coyotes on Saturday night.
The early minutes seemed to favor Vegas. Zach Parise interfered with Neal on the faceoff less than five minutes in, giving the Golden Knights an early power play opportunity. Vegas was buzzing throughout the two minutes but couldn’t put a goal on the board.
The 26-year-old Zucker got the Wild on the board first, ricocheting a shot off Marc Andre Fleury’s mask and into the net after a turnover by Vegas deep in their zone.
Zucker had more chances later in the period, skating alone down the right wing and releasing a wrister that Fleury couldn’t control before picking up his own rebound.
Tomas Tatar took a tripping penalty in the offensive zone to give Minneosta its first powerplay. The Wild took a 0-for-9, three-game power play skid into the game. Though Minnesota extended its scoreless streak on the power play in this one, the Wild’s five-on-five play would decide the game.
The second period was all Minnesota. The Wild doubled up the Golden Knights in shots on goal. Charlie Coyle and Matt Dumba added tallies to put the Wild up 3-0. Coyle’s goal came after Fleury failed to control a rebound following a shot from his former teammate, Matt Cullen.
On the latter goal, the Wild broke out of their zone and found themselves on a three-on-one. Although Fleury withstood the initial rush, Zucker managed to pass from behind the net back to Dumba’s stick in the slot.
The early third was more of the same. The Golden Knights looked sluggish and Minnesota continued to control the flow of the game. However, as the period wore on, Vegas started getting some better looks.
A little puck luck played into Vegas’s first goal of the game. Neal drew an interference penalty from Zack Mitchell to send the Golden Knights on the man advantage. The Vegas powerplay looked solid, generating several shots, but as the seconds ticked away, David Perron struggled a little maintaining control of the puck on the left side boards.
As the penalty expired, the puck floated to center ice. Colin Miller collected it and dragged it back across the blue line, taking it into the slot before dropping it back to Perron. Perron hit a wide-open Haula, who finished off a beauty of a goal.
Moments later, Haula nearly added a second, shoving the puck through the blue paint in front of Stalock and just barely missing the far post.
With under four minutes to go, the sellout crowd at T-Mobile Arena was feeling it. A chorus of “Go Knight go” thundered through the venue. Taking a bit of a gamble, Gallant pulled Fleury in favor of the extra attacker with over three minutes left in the period.
Ryan Carpenter finally cut the Wild’s lead to one with just under a minute remaining. It looked like Vegas might find a way to send the game to overtime, but time was ticking away.
Unfortunately for the home crowd, as the Golden Knights broke into the offensive zone looking for the equalizer, Parise came up with the puck and shuffled it down the ice into the empty net. With that, Minnesota became the only team to sweep its season series against Vegas this year.
All in all, not a bad game for Fleury, who made 20 saves on 23 shots. The Golden Knights are back in action Saturday, March 17, for the second game of the back-to-back with the Calgary Flames coming to town.