When the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired forward Jason Zucker from the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 10, 2020, he was intended to be a mid-tier addition that would stabilize the bottom third of the Penguins’ lineup. He ultimately helped guide them to a first-place finish in the NHL’s COVID-19 realigned East Division and a playoff berth the following season. Although he’s had his personal struggles, he’s become a highly respected member and a de facto role model in the Penguins’ locker room.
Unfortunately, things haven’t exactly gone his way so far in 2021-22. He’s only suited up in 32 games this season due to various injuries, but it’s his attitude in returning from his setbacks that should serve as an example of the level of physical and mental toughness needed to win a Stanley Cup.
Zucker Attempted to Play Through Injury Before
The Penguins initially placed Zucker on injured reserve (IR) in Dec. 2021 with what was described as a lower-body injury. To that point, he had only played 31 games and registered 13 points. Shortly before the initial move to IR, he had only just returned from another injury that had sidelined him for a full week. In his first game back from that injury, he potted two goals and seemed to be on the mend in more ways than one.
However, the rapturous joy he displayed during his goal celebrations was not destined to remain, as he was shut down almost immediately afterwards. The injury that had previously nagged him ultimately re-surfaced and he underwent surgery to repair it on Jan. 25, 2022. Upon visiting with the same doctor Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby sought for his sports hernia, Zucker’s injury turned out to be the exact one that he had tried to practice and play through earlier in the season. This added to his struggles and was simply chalked up as yet another setback for the Penguins forward (from “Another Setback for Jason Zucker, who is out Indefinitely with a Core Muscle Injury” Matt Vensel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 25/01/2022).
Zucker Has Shown He’s Determined to Remain in the Lineup After Lengthy Absence
Zucker’s surgery ultimately kept him out of the lineup for almost three months, returning only last week in the Pens’ overtime win against the Minnesota Wild. In that game, he found himself in pain again, falling awkwardly into the boards after a collision with Wild forward Kevin Fiala. He was helped off the ice, his injury made worse by the fact that he had contributed an assist on Rickard Rakell’s first goal. This seemingly repeated the events of the previous times he went down with an injury.
Unlike his previous injury, however, Zucker has not missed a lot of time this go-round. At Wednesday’s practice, he sported a full-contact jersey and seemed set to return for the Penguins’ game against the New York Rangers on April 7. While it was not to be, his teammates quickly took note of his desire to be out on the ice again, with Jeff Carter saying, “It was great to have him back. He seems to have a high pain tolerance. We’re all lucky that it wasn’t as serious as we first thought. It’s great to have him back. He brings a lot to our lineup. Whenever he can get back in there, he’ll be a big boost to us” (from ‘Penguins forward Jason Zucker is close to a potential return (again)’ Seth Rorabaugh, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 06/04/2022).
Zucker’s determination to help his teammates was not only admirable, but it’s the exact attitude necessary for success. In the postseason, teams need to foster a collective attitude similar to his personal philosophy: be there for the guys in the locker room, no matter the cost. Each member is an important piece of the puzzle, and it’s the mutual support during difficult stretches that makes the difference in the end.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.