The Pittsburgh Penguins won a wild Game 1 in their first round series against the New York Rangers, but it didn't come without a cost.
Both goaltender Casey DeSmith and forward Rickard Rakell were injured and don't seem to be looking at a quick return to the lineup. Fortunately, it seems as if Jason Zucker is on the verge of returning from a lower-body injury he sustained in the final week of the regular season against the Edmonton Oilers.
Zucker's return to the Penguins lineup helps lessen the blow of losing Rakell, while inserting a different challenge for the opposing Rangers. As Game 1 went on, the Penguins found their forechecking game, which stifled the talented puck moving defenseman on the Rangers. That ever-important forecheck becomes much more imposing with Zucker in the lineup.
Zucker is the most tenacious Penguins forechecker, often speeding into the offensive zone to pressure opposing defenseman to create turnovers. Pair that with the injury uncertainty of two of the Rangers better puck moving blue liners in Ryan Lindgren and Ke'Andre Miller, and you have a recipe for success for the 30-year-old winger.
Zucker also seems primed to become a major scoring threat for the Penguins in this matchup. Three of the Penguins four goals in Game 1 came from within five feet of Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin, a place where Zucker can take advantage of New York's inability to clear the net front and become a pain in the side of the expected Vezina Trophy winner.
Zucker is a five-time 20-goal-scorer in the NHL, and has the finishing ability to put home rebound and deflection goals if he can disrupt Shesterkin's comfortability in the crease. This also creates time and space for his line mates, presumably Malkin and Heinen, to pick their spots and find open lanes to try and beat the Rangers net minder.
The Penguins were physically outmatched early on in Game 1, and while that's probably not going to change a whole lot, Zucker brings a bit more of a response when it comes to that area. He is by no means a bottom six grinder like Ryan Reaves or Barclay Goodrow, but Zucker plays with a certain edge that will keep the Rangers honest more so than they were without him on the ice.
The pure energy and speed that he plays with could change the face of this series, similar to how Brandon Tanev was able to will the Penguins to a Game 3 win last postseason against the New York Islanders.
Apart from his on ice positives, Zucker gives Mike Sullivan his favorite thing in a lineup - flexibility. Having played extensive minutes with both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Zucker can move throughout the lineup, and could possibly be a backup plan in case Kasperi Kapanen's impressive showing in Game 1 doesn't persist.
The latest on Zucker is that he will be a "game-time decision" for tonight's Game 2, and his return could be just what the doctor ordered for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
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