On Sunday, Jason Zucker celebrated his 30th birthday. On Tuesday, he finally started to break out of a funk.
Zucker hadn’t scored a goal in his previous 12 games before coming back to the lineup last night and netting two goals against the Vegas Golden Knights. It was Zucker’s first game since December 19th, with the team pulling the plug on him playing through a nagging injury for much of December, which couldn’t have helped his effort to score goals.
Zucker’s Penguin career has been a really fascinating case study. This is the third season he has played in Pittsburgh since coming over in 2020 trade, but due to injury/league stoppages, his Pittsburgh career totals just 84 games, or barely more than one full season. Overall his statistics aren’t bad, in fact for a second line winger who doesn’t get prime power play minutes, they’re pretty good with 21 goals and 22 assists as a Penguin.
Overall, however, Zucker’s performance has felt lesser, or less satisfying at least. A lot of that has to do with the recency effect of really disastrous finishing (and puck luck) for Zucker, putting him towards the lead before he came back in a frustrating category.
Lowest Goals Scored Above Expected - January 15 pic.twitter.com/BSsOzbX2jc— JFresh (@JFreshHockey) January 15, 2022
In the first part of his season, Zucker only scored four goals in 30 games, taking 81 shots to get there. The above means he would have been expected to score 5.6 more goals than he actually did, given the context of where those shots were coming from. On one hand, it’s a favorable thing to be generating the chances to end up at a place where more goals should be coming. On the other hand, it makes for a tough season and naturally a hit in confidence for even a pro hockey player with five career 20+ goal seasons to not be able to score.
The nice thing about puck luck though, is that it can turn. Take Zucker’s second goal from last night, where he’s not even looking at the shot coming in from Kasperi Kapanen, which just so happens to hit Zucker’s stick and go into the net. That’s lucky, but also is luck that is well owed to Zucker for this season.
Jason Zucker deflects Kasperi Kapanen's shot off the draw to pick up his second of the night.— Danny Shirey (@DannyShireyPGH) January 18, 2022
Pens have stormed back from down 3-0. pic.twitter.com/8q7NtVJh9T
Now the challenge for Zucker will be carrying his performance forward, in addition to the two goals he also recorded a season-high seven shots on goal.
“We knew he was going to play with a lot of energy,” coach Mike Sullivan said after the game in Vegas. “He’s in his hometown. (Sunday) was his birthday. He was excited to get back in the lineup. We knew we were going to get a guy that was going to play an inspired game. He did that.”
Not a first game of the season for Zucker and Evgeni Malkin, who were in the lineup for the first time together all year. For as established as Sidney Crosby has been with Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, solidifying the Malkin line has always presented a rotating challenge for the Pens.
If Zucker can keep it going and equal out his luck and fill the net back up in a productive manner that his chances are saying he should, they just might have it figured out