It didn’t take long for Jason Zucker to make a name for himself in Minnesota.
Last season, the speedy left wing from Las Vegas capped off his rookie year by scoring the winning goal in overtime in the Wild’s only playoff victory over eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
This season, Zucker has had a highway named after him. Sort of.
The former Bonanza High student has bounced back and forth between Minneapolis and Des Moines, Iowa — home of Minnesota’s American Hockey League affiliate — so many times that Wild fans have dubbed the 244-mile trek the “Zucker Expressway.”
The first player from Nevada to play in the NHL, Zucker has been recalled five times by Minnesota this season and is anxious to turn the road from Des Moines to Minneapolis into a one-way street.
“Sometimes it can be tough and frustrating and make you hate hockey,” Zucker said of the NHL-to-AHL shuttle. “You have to be mentally strong and battle through it and make sure your game’s on point every time you get the chance.”
Zucker has made the most of his latest opportunity, scoring four goals in 11 games since getting recalled Jan. 1 in his most extended stint of the season with the Wild.
After seven scoreless appearances in 2013, Zucker scored his first goal of the season in his first game back with Minnesota in a Jan. 2 win over the Buffalo Sabres. He followed that up by netting the decisive goal in a Jan. 4 win over the Washington Capitals.
“Once you get that first one, you don’t hold the stick quite as tight and play with more confidence,” he said.
Zucker celebrated his 22nd birthday Jan. 16 by setting a team record for fastest home goal to start a period when he scored 8 seconds into the third period of the Wild’s win over the Edmonton Oilers.
“The biggest difference in his latest recall was that the couple of opportunities he was able to generate pretty much in every game he plays, he was able to capitalize on, and that’s going to be an important part for him to be able to stay here,” said Wild coach Mike Yeo, who made Zucker a healthy scratch in Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks.
Minnesota (28-20-6, 62 points) plays at the Anaheim Ducks today at 7 p.m. on Prime (Cox Cable Channel 50).
Zucker has earned each of his goals, Iowa coach Kurt Kleinendorst said.
“Sometimes it’s just dumb luck, but if you look at the goals Jason’s putting in the net, they’re greasy goals,” Kleinendorst said. “He’s being aggressive, going to the net and banging in a rebound or taking a pass and putting them in the net. We call them honest goals.
“That’s the way he needs to play the game — intelligently hard — by going to the greasy areas in front of the net and being strong on the puck in the corner. He’s doing that and he’s getting rewarded for it.”
Last season, Zucker led the Houston Aeros — who have since moved to Iowa — in goals (24) and was second in points (50) en route to earning AHL All-Star and all-rookie honors.
He had four goals and an assist in 20 games for Minnesota.
“I set goals every year and I hit every goal I put together last year,” said Zucker, who declined to discuss his objectives for this season. “I usually don’t discuss my goals. I just want to make sure I’m getting better every day.”
To achieve his ultimate goal of becoming a full-time NHL player, Zucker needs to improve his defense and has made strides in that area.
“Right from the start of the year, he’s shown an improvement in his defensive game,” Yeo said. “He’s starting to understand where to be on the ice when he doesn’t have the puck and he’s taking a little bit more pride in that part of his game.”
Kleinendorst has been impressed with how Zucker has handled this season’s roller-coaster ride.
“The fact that he’s been up and down almost like a yo-yo, people may not appreciate how difficult that can be, especially for a young player, emotionally,” he said.
Yeo said it’s natural for Zucker to be upset about being demoted.
“You want them to be ticked off,” he said. “You want them to be motivated to get back up and handle it the right way and he’s done a great job of that.
“When you’re dealing with young players, certainly some guys come and they stay, but the majority of them go up and down a few times, and it’s all part of the development process.”
Zucker said he’s focused on becoming a better all-around player.
“I just need to play a complete game,” he said. “I need to be good in all three zones.”
Sometime soon, Kleinendorst expects Zucker to take his last trip on the Zucker Expressway.
“He may come back down, but it will be more short term than long term,” he said. “He’s a guy the organization feels real good about.
“There’s going to be a moment at some point when he’ll put Iowa in his rear-view mirror and he won’t be back.”
NOTE — Zucker was featured recently on the TV series, “Becoming Wild.” The day-in-a-life episode, which was shot in the offseason in Las Vegas, is available at Wild.com.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter: @tdewey33.