At age 36, Wild wing Mats Zuccarello appears to be in his prime

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Before the Wild’s game Tuesday night against the Flames in Calgary, Mats Zuccarello was discussing the sweet spot on his stick with equipment manager Tony DeCosta.

Zuccarello bent the stick between the blade and shaft to explain his desired level of pliability. DeCosta nodded. He’s been the Wild’s equipment manager since the inaugural season in 2001, and knows how to keep Wild players happy and productive.

None has been as productive this season as Zuccarello, who heads into Thursday night’s game here against the Canucks as the Wild’s points leader, 6-21–27 after his assist in Minnesota’s 5-2 victory at the Saddledome. The veteran wing seems to be getting better with age, on pace for a career-high 92.6 points in an 82-game season.

When the math was presented to him after Tuesday night’s game, Zuccarello said, “It’s a little early. It can go on a cold streak whenever. I’ve been on those before.”

The circumspection isn’t surprising from a veteran of 15 seasons who turned 36 on Sept. 1. He’s seen it all, and knows how quickly fortunes can turn in the NHL. Ask him about how he’s playing and he’ll tell you it doesn’t matter if the team is losing, which was the case for most of this season.

Minnesota Wild right wing Mats Zuccarello celebrates after scoring during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

Now that the Wild are winning, well, the answer is essentially the same.

“You know what? I’m too old to just worry about my game,” he said. “I think we’re all playing way better as a team. We’re helping each other more as a unit, and I think it’s really fun to play like that right now.”

The Wild will bring a four-game winning streak, their first since Feb. 29-March 4, into Rogers Arena, all earned in convincing fashion and under new head coach John Hynes, perfect so far as the replacement for Dean Evason, who was fired on the heels of a seven-game losing streak (0-5-2).

At all times, Zuccarello has been one of the Wild’s best two or three players this season. His assist on Tuesday against the Flames, on a goal by longtime linemate Kirill Kaprizov, was his 600th NHL point, and extended his current points streak to 10 games.

“It’s really impressive,” said Hynes, who coached a lot of games against Zuccarello’s New York Rangers as the New Jersey Devils’ head coach from 2015-20. “You always admire him as an opposing coach, but when you get a chance to coach a guy like this, it’s something different. He’s an ultra-competitor.

“The thing I really respect about him (is) he’s really smart. He’s good to bounce ideas off of as a coach, but he’s (also) just a tenacious competitor. He’s got great skill, great head for the game, and that’s why he continues to have success. I’m excited to be able to have the opportunity to work with him.”

Playing on the last season of a three-year, $18 million deal, Zuccarello signed a two-year, $6 million extension during training camp and hasn’t disappointed, on pace to eclipse his career-high 79 points earned over 70 games with Minnesota in 2021-22. He’s a big part of a productive top line with Kaprizov and rookie center Marco Rossi.

Kaprizov scored his eighth goal Tuesday and is second to Zuccarello with 23 points. Rossi, 22, leads all NHL rookies in plus/minus with a plus-6, and ranks second to Blackhawks phenom Connor Bedard in goals (8) and points (15).

Zuccarello’s assist total, he said, is mostly a reflection of how hard his linemates work without the puck.

“His vision is really good,” Rossi said. “Some players don’t see what he sees. It’s really nice to play with him. I just try to get open.”

In four games under Hynes, Zuccarello has a goal and five assists. In those games, Minnesota has outscored its opponents 9-1 in the first period and 18-5 overall. Last year at this time, the Wild were in the middle of a 15-5-0 streak that put them back into playoff contention. Currently under .500 (9-10-4) and 11th in the Western Conference, five points out of a playoff spot, they’ll need a similar streak this year.

As veteran Marcus Foligno said, “We still have a mountain to climb.”

For now, they look capable of turning this around, but the Canucks, fourth in the West with 33 points, will be their stiffest test since a 3-2 loss to second-place Colorado on Nov. 26.

“We had really good years with Dean, of course, but Hynes came in and did some tweaking on our game, and I feel like from early this season, it’s a completely different team,” Zuccarello said. “We play real good hockey. You never like to lose guys, but it’s been a real positive change here as of now. It’s been good.”

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