Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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Posts about Wild practice

Matt Cooke undergoes surgery for sports hernia; Dubnyk discusses his laid-back manner

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 6, 2015 - 1:16 PM

Afternoon. The Wild, winners of four straight with points in seven of its past eight, practiced this morning at Ridder Arena and coach Mike Yeo said he plans to go with the same lineup Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche.

That means Justin Fontaine, who practiced today for the first time since sustaining a groin injury Jan. 29 in Calgary, won’t play, nor will Christian Folin, who will be scratched for a fourth straight game because the top-4 is healthy and Nate Prosser and Matt Dumba keep playing well.

Yeo said he doesn’t feel like anybody deserves to come out and he’s happy with what Jordan Schroeder brought in Tuesday’s 3-0 win over Chicago (four shots).

If you didn’t hear my interview with Yeo on KFAN on Thursday morning, I asked him about Folin and he explained his rationale. So check that out or read Sunday’s game notebook because I plan to toss it in there.

I’ll be on KFAN today at 4:30 p.m. I’ll also be doing my weekly podcast with columnist Jim Souhan at 5 p.m. live at O’Gara’s in St. Paul, so come on down or listen on souhanunfiltered.com.

I’ll also be on Fox Sports North during Saturday’s Wild Live and first intermission and Rosen’s Sports Sunday on Ch. 4 Sunday night.

Relatively good news for Wild vet Matt Cooke.

The timetable that was expected to be the rest of the regular season is now five to six weeks, according to Yeo, after Cooke underwent successful surgery for a sports hernia this morning in St. Louis. This means if all goes well with Cooke’s recovery, the physical left-winger could be back by mid-March.

Cooke, 36, missed 22 games from Oct. 30-Dec. 17 with a hip injury. He was injured the second game of the season at Colorado and played with the injury the next six games in agony. As it turns out, Cooke had three torn muscles, including the Psoas Major, which attaches to the femur, and two other supporting hip flexor muscles.

Yeo said Tuesday that the injury Cooke experienced really never went away and he was battling through it and the latest injury could have been a result of compensating.

I have gotten a lot of questions asking if the Wild would make a trade for a physical forward. Many are clamoring for Chris Neil because he’s a physical pest that will drop the gloves, but I’m not even convinced Ottawa GM Bryan Murray plans to trade him and plus he has another year left on his contract (as does Cooke).

The trade deadline is March 2. As of now, General Manager Chuck Fletcher said he plans to go with what he has got.

“We’ll see how it goes,” Fletcher said. “We’ve got plenty of good players, we’ve got guys down in Iowa that can come up and play and that have come up and played before (Brett Sutter, Stephane Veilleux, Tyler Graovac). We’ll go with what we have for now. It’s no different than any time, I’m always talking to teams. If something makes sense, we’ll do it. But we have plenty of players who can fill the void here right now.”

With Cooke out, Yeo said it makes Ryan Carter’s acquisition on the eve of the season even more important.

“I’ve been real pleased with his game and his commitment to his role,” Yeo said. “He’s been a real physical player for us, a real strong penalty killer, a guy who’s strong on the boards finishing checks and we’re going to need more of that. And quite honestly, we’re going to need some other guys to pick up some slack in the physical element of the game.”

Cooke, who has another year left on his contract at $2.5 million, led the Wild in hits last season and had 10 goals and 28 points in 82 games. This season, he has four goals and four assists in 27 games. He hasn’t been as physical and his skating has looked labored likely due to the injuries he has been playing with.

Yeo said the Wild will also miss his vocal leadership.

“I love our leadership,” he said. “We have the best kind of leadership and that’s the kind that will go out and lead by example, but it is nice to have some vocals guys and some guys that will stand up in the locker room and get on the group if that’s what needed. He is part of that.”

Darcy Kuemper’s rehab stint is close to ending. He’ll start tonight in Hamilton and then a decision will be made if he can play Saturday afternoon in Toronto. He’ll be back by Monday and is coming off a 28-save shutout Wednesday in Adirondack.

Devan Dubnyk will make his ninth straight start since his Jan. 14 acquisition against the Avs.

He did have his back seize up on him at one point in today’s practice when he was stretching to his right and got bumped, but after a couple scary moments where he sat frozen on the ice, he got up and finished practice and said he wasn’t even feeling it after practice.

He’ll debut his new giraffe-inspired helmet Saturday (if you don’t know why, see this story). He has used it the past two days in practice.

He said about changing his helmet in the midst of giving up three goals in the past four games, “I’m not superstitious. There’s more important things for me to be thinking about on the ice. I’ll forget I’ll even have it on.”

He said that’s why he tested it in practice the past few days. It’s the same type of helmet, so he was just breaking in the strapping, etc.

His new pads seem to have been hung up in Kay Whitmore’s office at NHL headquarters in Toronto. The manufacturing companies have to send all gear to the NHL to be measured. Once they’re deemed legal, they’re overnighted to the teams.

Dubnyk said the delay is fine because, “I’m pretty bad at breaking pads in anyway. Even when they do show up, you’ll probably see them a lot in practice before they make a game appearance.”

His new helmet still has the sketch of his son, Nathaniel, on the back and a breast cancer ribbon in honor of his mom. He has been on five teams in the past year, so he said he has had so many masks, “I pretty much documented my newborn to a year and a half years old on a whole bunch of helmets the last year. Hopefully it’ll just be year to year from now on. One each year is plenty (laughing).”

As you can tell, Dubnyk is one chill dude. Unlike many goalies in the NHL, he even talks to the media on game days.

“Honestly, being in Edmonton, I never really thought of it,” he said. “I didn’t talk too much when I first got there because I wasn’t playing very much. And then I chatted with the media and got to know them a little bit and you development a relationship with them. I try to be pretty laid back when it comes to game time. I try not to be too uptight.”

He joked that Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper may start to hate him because of the precedent he’s setting. Actually, Kuemper would have no problem talking to us on game days and sometimes sneaks a conversation, but the team implemented a no-goalie-talk policy (that’s technically against league media policy rules) so they can focus on game days.

So we’ll see if that changes.

Backstrom used to talk to the media on game mornings, but he decided to stop probably four or five years ago. In the old Northwest Division, when you go up to Canada, you can bombarded by the press on game mornings, so if I remember, he changed so he could focus more on game days.

Non-game days, Backstrom is affable and always an awesome talker.

Pretty good story cooking for Saturday’s paper. I had a pretty good chat today with Zach Parise and Ryan Suter regarding their personal play and the team. You’ll want to see what they have to say.

I better get writing because I want to try to get all my stories and my Sunday Insider (I chatted with Daniel Negreanu about NHL in Vegas while filling in on KFAN yesterday) before my KFAN interview and O'Gara's Podcast. Maybe I'll see you down at O'Gara's tonight or at the Gophers game tonight (yes, I plan to check them out for the first time this season).

Fontaine back Friday, Kuemper by Monday, Cooke uncertain

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: February 5, 2015 - 1:29 PM

After a day off Wednesday, the Wild returned to practice at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday and put in a busy and businesslike one-hour session. Coach Mike Yeo noted that it's important for the team to maintain energy and focus throughout a three-day break between games. Colorado will be prepared for Saturday's game at Xcel, he said, and if the Wild allows itself to exhale, it could lose the momentum it has gathered through a four-game winning streak.

The team fine-tuned its systems Thursday and worked at a swift pace throughout. Yeo was looking for intensity, speed and unwavering concentration from a group tied for 10th place in the Western Conference.

"Quite often, without you even realizing it, the urgency level can drop,'' he said. "Habits can drop. The next thing you know, you're scrambling to get back to the level you were at. For us, we want to make sure we're not only staying at that level, but pushing to get to an even higher level.''

Matt Cooke (lower-body injury) and Justin Fontaine (groin) did not practice Thursday. Yeo said Cooke has been placed on injured reserve and that he will have further news Friday. Russo has reported that Cooke has a sports hernia that will require surgery and sideline him for the rest of the season.

Fontaine, Yeo said, has skated on his own the past two days and is feeling better. He plans to practice Friday.

Goaltender Darcy Kuemper is expected to be recalled sometime in the next few days after playing three games in Iowa on a rehab assignment. Kuemper shut out Adirondack 4-0 on Wednesday night, stopping 28 shots. He has a goals-against average of 2.64 and save percentage of .918 in the three games.

Yeo said he doesn't have a plan for how to move forward with three goalies and will take things on a day-to-day basis with Devan Dubnyk, Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom.

"I'm really pleased to hear he had a great game (Wednesday),'' Yeo said of Kuemper. "That was the goal here. I actually liked his game in Detroit, when he came in in relief (a 5-4 shootout loss in which Kuemper played 37 minutes, 35 seconds and stopped all 14 shots he faced in regulation and overtime).

"But he has played very little hockey lately. So we just wanted to give him a chance to get a good base underneath him again, play some games, get confident in himself, play in a situation where the pressure and all the focus is not on you. I think we've seen his game progress in the three games he's been (in Iowa), and so we won't rush anything. When the time comes, when he comes up here, we'll make sure he's getting what he needs.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

Wild looking to make home improvements

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: February 2, 2015 - 1:57 PM

The Wild held a very optional practice Monday morning at Xcel, the day after completing a road sweep in western Canada that elevated its spirits and its hopes for a playoff spot. Only goalie Niklas Backstrom and five skaters--Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Dumba, Christian Folin and the indefatigable Zach Parise--participated. Afterward, coach Mike Yeo talked about the importance of forging ahead at home, where the Wild has not had much of an advantage lately.

A team that takes great pride in how it plays at Xcel has gone 2-4-4 there since Dec. 17. Since starting the season 7-1 on home ice, the Wild has won four of 15 games at home. If the Wild is to reach the playoffs, it must end that swoon pronto, starting with a string of three games against Western Conference foes Chicago, Colorado and Vancouver.

"We have to get better at home, that's for sure,'' Yeo said. "We've always prided ourselves on being a good home team and playing well in front of our fans, and recently, we haven’t been as good as we need to be. The road trip was great. But coming back home, we have an opportunity to continue to push forward here.

"What we have to make sure we do is take a similar approach to what we had on the road. As cliché as it is, it's one game at a time. (Tuesday's opponent) Chicago, we recognize what a great challenge that is, and we have to make sure we're ready to go.''

Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk was named the NHL's third star of the week Monday for his performance in the road sweep. Dubnyk allowed three goals on 91 shots in the three victories and recorded his second shutout with the Wild in a 1-0 victory over Calgary.

Yeo said Dubnyk's play has given the Wild's confidence "a huge boost'' and enabled the team to stop worrying about goaltending and focus on its individual roles. He was particularly pleased at Dubnyk's ability to shut down opponents early in games, giving the Wild a chance to score first and break out of the come-from-behind rut that contributed so heavily to its losing streak.

"I think we've done a decent job a lot of times this year battling back,'' Yeo said. "But it does get difficult when you do it over and over again. Him giving us the opportunity to get the first goal in those games, especially on the road, was very important for us.

"(Dubnyk) deserves an awful lot of credit for how he's played. But we have a much better focus in front of him right now. Guys are much more focused on their own task, their own jobs, their own roles. That’s all over the ice. When things aren’t going well and you try to start doing somebody else's job, your job isn’t done quite as well. That’s something I think we're seeing much more right now; guys are just concentrating on their own responsibilities, and with that, a lot of aspects of our game have gotten better.''

Parise stated it more simply. "When you can get bailed out of mistakes you make, it keeps you in the game,'' he said. "It makes a huge difference.''

Dubnyk--a very low-key, modest and friendly guy--has been quick to spread the love around. He credited the Wild defense for playing well in front of him, something he said he expected after watching it from the opposing side.

"The structure is so good,'' he said. "The guys work so hard in all three zones. I knew that was a staple of the Wild before I came here.

"These guys work so hard and have played so well every game. My job is to just go be solid and make the saves I'm supposed to make. If I do that and make a couple I'm not supposed to make, that’s great. They've played so well and so solid in front of me, for me to approach it and say, 'Go be solid, go be confident back there for them,' it makes it easier for me.''

Yeo noted that Dubnyk can handle a heavy workload now, because he played in only 19 games this season before the Wild acquired him. Combined with the All-Star break and a schedule that currently isn't too taxing, Yeo expects him to remain plenty fresh through the coming weeks.

After Monday's practice, Yeo said he had not received a medical update on winger Justin Fontaine (groin injury), but he called Fontaine "doubtful'' for Tuesday's game. The coach said defenseman Ryan Suter--a surprise starter in Sunday's victory at Vancouver--came out of that game in good order. The team had considered sitting Suter out because of a lower-body injury.

RACHEL BLOUNT

Ryan Suter may miss Sunday's game against the Vancouver Canucks

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: January 31, 2015 - 5:14 PM

Get used to the Vancouver Canucks, the Wild's old Northwest Division rival. The Wild, after not seeing Vancouver yet this season, plays the Canucks in three of its next eight games.

The Wild visits for a noon matinee (2 p.m. CT) Sunday and may be without its No. 1 defenseman.

Ryan Suter, who got banged up Tuesday in Edmonton, missed his second practice this week Saturday and coach Mike Yeo indicated that he's questionable to play against the Canucks. Suter, who has been visibly limping ever since the Oilers game and didn't take part in the Wild's off-ice workout at its hotel Friday, may not be the one to decide if he plays.

Yeo said if the Wild feels this is an injury that is going to nag him for three weeks, the team will be careful with him and hold him out against the Canucks. It would be a big loss as he's been one of the team's best defensemen the past three games.

If Suter doesn't play (would be his first non-mumps, non-suspension related Wild absence), Christian Folin will draw back into the lineup and be paired with Jonas Brodin.

Also, Justin Fontaine is sidelined with a groin injury, and with groins, it's unknown right now if it'll be a short-term thing or this may linger for awhile. Erik Haula, scratched the past two, will center Matt Cooke with Kyle Brodziak moving to right wing. The other three lines remain the same.

The big thing the Wild wants better from Haula is board play and puck protection. He has been working on that after practices all week with assistant coach Darby Hendrickson.

If you didn't see, this is my story today on the potential of Devan Dubnyk returning to the Wild next season and how that affects Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom.

This is the 12th time in franchise history the Wild has played Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver on the same road trip. After winning at Edmonton and Calgary, this will be the Wild’s second chance to sweep. It accomplished that only once – March 13-17, 2007. In fact, this is only the third time in 12 three-game western Canadiens trips that the Wild has won two games on the three-game swing.

The Wild has won two in a row in Vancouver after a stretch in which it went 0-9-2 there. The Canucks have lost two of their past three and are 4-5 in their past nine. Minnesota has allowed one goal total in its past two victories.

The Wild will miss Sunday's Super Bowl. It'll be in the air for most the game. The team tried to get a charter with satellite TV, but Delta doesn't have any available.

That's it for now. Assistant coach Darryl Sydor will get to watch the junior team he partially owns, WHL Kamloops (Devan Dubnyk's old team), play the Vancouver Giants tonight. Kamloops, who is coached by former NHL and Giants coach and North Stars draft pick Don Hay, is owned by Sydor, Jarome Iginla, Shane Doan, Mark Recchi and Stars owner Tom Gaglardi.

Talk Sunday.

Granlund back at practice, and the nets get crowded

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: January 18, 2015 - 4:37 PM

Wild center Mikael Granlund sounded relieved to be back on the ice with his teammates Sunday, even if he was wearing a yellow no-contact jersey. Granlund practiced for the first time since he broke his wrist on Dec. 29 and smiled throughout the nearly hour-long workout. Coach Mike Yeo said Granlund won't play Monday against Columbus at Xcel Energy Center, but he might rejoin the lineup for Tuesday's game at Detroit.

Yeo said Granlund must be cleared by doctors for contact before he can play. He doesn't think Granlund has lost much conditioning, since he resumed skating shortly after having surgery to repair the wrist. Granlund confirmed that he has been doing lots of skating and agreed that his fitness won't be a problem.

"It felt good out there,'' said Granlund, who has four goals and 11 assists. "I was real excited to get back out there. We'll see where we go from here.''

While new goalie Devan Dubnyk stayed in one net for all of Sunday's practice drills, Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom shared time in the other. Yeo said Kuemper is "cleared and ready to go,'' healed completely from a lower-body injury that kept him sidelined for six games. As for how he will juggle three goaltenders, Yeo acknowledged that it won't be easy. He went through it last year with Backstrom, Kuemper and Josh Harding and said the team's handling of the situation is going to be critical.

It's possible, Yeo said, that Kuemper will go to Iowa for a conditioning stint in the AHL. That is being considered, but nothing has been finalized. "It's up to us to figure out when he's had enough work to get into full-time action,'' Yeo said.

In the meantime, Yeo, goalie coach Bob Mason and the rest of the staff must figure out how to get everyone the repetitions they need while also handling their psyches with care.

"I think we were able to manage it fairly well (last year),'' Yeo said. "It is a little bit tricky in that you have to make sure the person who's starting is getting the workload and preparation they need. And in a lot of ways, how you deal with the other two guys is going to be equally as important as far as their emotional state, making sure they're ready in case they need to be called upon and also making sure they're getting the proper amount of work.''

Backstrom was testy Sunday when asked about his recent difficulties in net. He acknowledged that the competition created by Dubnyk's arrival will be good for everyone, and he also agreed with Yeo that it will be challenging for all three to get the work they need. But the bottom line, Backstrom said, is that all three have to find a way to do whatever they need to do to make sure they are at their best.

"It's always easy to judge the goalies,'' said Backstrom, who has a goals-against average of 3.04 and save percentage of .887. "It's easy to blame the goalies.

"For a goalie, the biggest thing is you have to know you can make mistakes, because everyone makes mistakes. You have to be able to know you can do it. You can't go out there and think you can't make a mistake, because that’s not going to help you. You just have to find a way to be at your best for the guys in this locker room. That’s what they deserve.''

Mr. Russo (or as Sid might call him, Mr. Multimedia) asked that I remind you that he will appear on Rosen's Sports Sunday tonight and on KFAN on Monday morning at 10:15 a.m.

RACHEL BLOUNT

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