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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The Wild have a three-day break between games this week, and Russo also is taking a rare bit of time off. Rachel Blount here, with an update on a workmanlike Wild practice Monday at Xcel.
The biggest news of the day: D Keith Ballard, still bothered by an upper-body injury, will miss about two weeks. Coach Mike Yeo reiterated that the unspecified injury isn't related to the concussion Ballard had earlier this season, but it's significant enough to keep him out of the lineup. Defenseman Clayton Stoner, who injured a leg last week at Washington, didn't skate Monday but is expected to skate on his own Tuesday.
"(Ballard) is feeling pretty sore right now,'' Yeo said. "We're going to keep him off the ice and let him rest. It's nothing related to the concussion symptoms he was feeling before, but he's in a little too much pain to get on the ice, so we're going to give him a chance to heal up.
"Stoner is day to day. We expect him to go on the ice tomorrow on his own. Depending on how that goes, he may join our group (for Wednesday's game against Toronto at Xcel).''
Yeo said he didn't anticipate calling up anyone. He likes the six healthy defensemen he has, and with the Wild at home for the next week--and the AHL affiliate now close by in Iowa--he noted that he could get someone in on short notice if necessary. But he said he's been very pleased with the play of Nate Prosser and Matt Dumba, and he's enjoyed seeing Marco Scandella's growth this season.
That's it for now--it was a very quiet day. All of the players will do charity appearances this afternoon, with several slated to visit with kids involved in Defending the Blue Line--the group that helps children of military families participate in hockey--and others visiting local hospitals.
I'll be honest, I am dragging today, so this won't be a particularly special blog.
4 a.m. wakeup call after getting back from last night's game at 12:30 a.m., and then just as I'm walking out of my hotel room at around 4:30 a.m., the airline calls to tell me my 6 a.m. flight is now leaving Washington at ....... 1 p.m!!!
Uh, no chance. A couple phone conversations later, and I was rerouted to Raleigh through Detroit.
So I'm tired, cranky, still have my Sunday Insider to write, my back hurts, my head hurts, Falness is still annoying, it's cold out, the gas in my rental car wasn't all the way full, my buddy who lives in Raleigh had the audacity to go on his honeymoon, they're playing Matchbox 20 on Pandora right now, the Panthers continue to be an absolute trainwreck and the hotel Internet is slow.
But other than that, everything's just great!!!
(Note: For those of you who are probably steaming right now thinking that Russo doesn't know how good he has it and 'I wish I could cover hockey and get paid for it, so stop your whining,' I am tired, but the rest of the above stuff, I swear to you, I am kidding around. Well, I am cranky. And Falness is ...).
On the Wild front, not much going on.
--First, the good news. Zach Parise looks good to go for Saturday's game against the Staaaaaaal Brothers and the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena (it will always be RBC Center in my heart). Parise was working on his sticks this morning and he says he's OK. Big sigh of relief throughout the organEYEzation and the state of MinnesOHta. When he took that shot off the wrist last night, you can bet Mike Yeo's heart began to triple time.
--Second, defenseman Clayton Stoner, who crashed hard into the boards last night on a trip by Aaron Volpatti and sustained some kind of leg injury, got treatment today and is questionable for the Canes game. Yeo said he is feeling better, but they'll have to see how he feels in the morning.
If Stoner can't play, unless Keith Ballard or an Iowa reinforcement is being helicoptered in, Matt Dumba would play his 10th game.
You know that would be a sigh of relief for the 19-year-old, who is as tired of answering questions from the ink-stained wretches about the benchmark as the stinkin' ink-stained wretches are asking him about it.
Remember, Ballard is back home, and he's a left-shot D (although he has been mostly playing the right side). Stoner is a left-shot D.
So if Stoner can't play, Yeo would have a choice: Does he separate left-shot D pair Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin OR does he play Nate Prosser or Dumba, both right-shot D, on the left side? That is not easy and remember one reason why Prosser was a continuous healthy scratch last season is because Yeo didn't have a lot of confidence putting Prosser on the left side.
But Yeo doesn't sound like a man that wanted to break up his top defense pair, especially against Eric Staaaaaaaaal.
Cue Yeozie on putting a right-shot D on the left side: "At the end of the year, I said we should have given [Prosser] more opportunity [even if it were on the left side]. We only gave him a few games there and sometimes it takes a little time to get used to it. We've never seen Dums play that, so I don't know. Sometimes you have to show the confidence in the players so they can show they can do it, so we'll see."
--Third, Yeo didn't reveal which goalie will start vs. Carolina, Josh Harding or Niklas Backstrom. Backstrom did get on the ice today, Harding played basketball. Harding continues to play well, but as I wrote the past few days, the Wild wants to get Backstrom in at some point. So we shall see.
-- Fourth, Yeo was still very pleased with the effort and game the Wild put forth in a shootout loss last night in D.C. He said you can argue that was one of the Wild's better games recently, saying, "Our forechecking pressure, that relentless pursuit, we were a very frustrating team to play against. I think we were really having an effect on them, but we need to find a way to close out that game."
Wild is 6-1-1 in the past eight.
-- Fifth, About 10 or 12 players skated at the Canes' practice rink.
The rest played hoops on the NC State's basketball court. Not exactly Cameron Indoor Stadium, but it'll have to do.
The Wolfpack (the guys from NC State, not the Hangover) play Appalachian State tonight, I believe, since the Wild tried to challenge a few of them to hoops.
On the court playing hoops today with Canes coach Kirk Muller scouting included off memory: ChAHlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Matt Cooke, basketball star Josh Harding, Mike Yeo, Kirk Olson, Rick Wilson, Torrey Mitchell, Ryan Suter.
I did my Wild Minute for Saturday with them in the background. A few of the guys were surprisingly good. It's clear Harding is just an athlete-and-a-half in pretty much everything he does.
Defenseman Keith Ballard did not accompany the Wild to our nation's capital this morning.
He will miss the two-game trip that starts Thursday against the Capitals and continues in Raleigh on Saturday with an upper-body injury. Coach Mike Yeo said it is in no way related to the concussion that kept him out of seven games recently and that the team has gotten Ballard checked out and it doesn't believe he'll be sidelined "long-term."
But he was in a lot of pain, Yeo said, so the team obviously left him back. Ballard was back for three games and had three assists before getting hurt again.
With the Wild in need of a right D against the Capitals, Nate Prosser will get the call. Prosser has two assists in five games and is plus-3.
He played well during a recent four-game stretch before being removed again because of the return of Ballard and Jonas Brodin on the same night against Montreal.
Coach Mike Yeo said Prosser's play warrants him getting back in and this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Matt Dumba's next game would be his 10th -- meaning his three-year contract kicks in.
Against an intimidating Caps lineup with a lights-out league best power play, Yeo said the Wild needs Prosser, who is a solid penalty killer.
Carson McMillan was reassigned.
The Wild has won six of seven. It's looking for its fourth consecutive win. It has won three in a row twice previously without winning that fourth straight, so there's one goal for Thursday.
The Wild is 1-5 all-time at Washington, being outscored 14-4 in the five losses. Its lone win was Nov. 21, 2002, by a 4-3 score.
The Caps have the best power play and best penalty kill in the NHL. It has given up one power-play goal in the past 10 games and scored four power-play goals in a 6-2 win over the Islanders on Tuesday.
So big challenge. The Wild has the second-best power play in the NHL.
"Our power play's been very good this year, too, so we should take it as a chanllenge that it’s us against them," Yeo said. "Likewise our penalty kill, it’s a good opportunity to go out there and prove we can continue to go in the right direction. It'll be a challenge. First and foremost, we have to be focused on staying out of the box."
Ryan Suter is coming off his best game in a long time. Two assists in 30-plus minutes and great defensively.
"Some of the plays he made, just watching it, you can't help but marvel," Yeo said.
I talked to Dany Heatley about being on the fourth line. That will be in Thursday's notebook in the paper, as well as a feature on the always fun Nate Schmidt, the former Gophers star D who has played 11 games and is on Washington's top defense pair with Mike Green.
Fun story to write. I also have a few interesting notes that'll be in Friday's game notebook.
Same forward lines against the Caps as Tuesday against Calgary. I didn't ask about the goalie, because we know Josh Harding's in net.
Be prepared, I think this Sunday column will be another blog Q&A mailbag. I will post a blog in the morning asking for questions.
I will be on KFAN at 4:15 p.m. CT and on Fox Sports North's pregame show and first intermission on Thursday. Remember, with the radio conflict with the Vikings, the Wild will be on 107.9 FM Thursday.
If you were watching the Wild's 4-3 victory over Montreal on Friday, you saw coach Mike Yeo eventually abandon those new line combinations that generated so much discussion last week. In the third period, the Wild put Charlie Coyle back on the wing, reunited Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, and shifted Kyle Brodziak back to center, among other changes.
The lines stayed that way at Saturday's practice and likely will remain the same Sunday against New Jersey. That means Parise-Koivu-Coyle on the top line; Nino Niederreiter-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville on the second; Matt Cooke-Brodziak-Justin Fontaine on the third; and Dany Heatley-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell on the fourth.
"Part of it was getting guys back into positions that suit their roles and making sure we have some identities to the lines,'' Yeo said. He added that he isn't sure whether he will move Heatley and Fontaine around as he did for much of Friday's game.
Heatley has one empty-net goal and two assists in 14 games. Of his possible move to the fourth line, he said "(Yeo's) the boss'' and added that he will try his best no matter where he is placed.
“It’s always tough mentally, but you’ve just got to keep going,’’ said Heatley, who has 361 career goals and was third on the Wild last season with 11. “History tells you that stretches like this end, and pucks start going into the net again. When you’re not scoring, you start doing things you don’t normally do. You’ve just got to come to the rink every day with a fresh attitude and try to get back to the good habits.’’
No further news on defenseman Matt Dumba, whose three-year contract kicks in when he plays his next game for the Wild. While Yeo acknowledged he doesn't want Dumba on the shelf too long, he feels this is the best place for Dumba's development right now (as opposed to returning him to Red Deer of the WHL).
Sunday will be a big day for Parise, who will play his former team for the first time since he signed with the Wild in the summer of 2012. He said it will be "pretty nerve-wracking.''
With a second consecutive day of practice before Friday's game against Montreal, the Wild spent Thursday morning getting used to the new line combinations coach Mike Yeo instituted Wednesday. No one was happier than Charlie Coyle, whom Yeo confirmed would rejoin the lineup Friday.
Coyle had missed 11 games because of a sprained knee. Thursday, he centered a line with one familiar face--left wing Zach Parise, a former Coyle linemate--and had Justin Fontaine and Dany Heatley taking turns on the right side. Coyle also worked with the first power-play unit, joining Parise and Mikko Koivu with Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville at the points.
Coyle said he could feel the knee getting better every day as he did workouts and physical therapy. Lots of time on the bike kept his conditioning from slipping, though he said his legs were not quite in game shape because he couldn't do a lot of "stride stuff'' on the ice. "That was the hardest part,'' Coyle said. "I'm on the right track.''
He also likes the new lines because "there's a little of everything on each line.'' That's just what Yeo was going for. The coach said Thursday that even though the new combinations don't feature a clearly defined checking line, strong defensive play throughout the lineup means that role can be played by any threesome. With everyone taking responsibility in that area, Yeo felt he could mix and match freely in an effort to spark more scoring.
"Part of the reason behind it is we feel we have anybody we can put out against anybody,'' Yeo said. "If (Mikael Granlund) was not playing as well defensively as he has ... He's proven he can be on the ice against anybody and defend against anybody. Likewise, there's no reason why (Coyle) shouldn’t be very effective at that, too. (He has) a big body, he's a smart hockey player, he moves well. He understands the structure we play with, so we expect him to be like that. And obviously Mikko, we have no concerns about him going against top guys. We should feel comfortable with any line going out against anybody.''
Much of Thursday's focused, fast-paced practice was dedicated to developing familiarity with the new groupings. In addition to the Coyle line, the others are: Matt Cooke-Granlund-Pominville, Nino Niederreiter-Koivu-Kyle Brodziak, and Fontaine/Heatley-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell.
One issue Yeo will have is transitioning between the power play and even strength. He's mixing things up there, too, using players from several different lines on both units. The second unit features defensemen Jared Spurgeon and Keith Ballard at the points, with Niederreiter, Granlund and Heatley.
"That’s tricky,'' Yeo said. "It's something we'll have to look at a little bit there and keep an eye on. It's something, certainly, we discussed. If you have a line out there for 40 seconds and they draw a power play, that’s going to be pretty tough. To have a tired player go out there, that doesn’t benefit anybody. We wanted to try that today, and we've got to figure some stuff out. We have to make sure we use this opportunity to try to figure out what are the best options for us.''
While Yeo sounded as if he is leaning against playing Jonas Brodin on Friday, he said Ballard is expected to play. Brodin continues to recover from a broken cheekbone; he said Thursday that he feels pretty good and is excited to get back in, but Yeo reiterated that he doesn't want to play him until he is certain he's ready for the long haul. Ballard missed seven games because of a concussion and appeared ready to go Thursday.
Yeo had special praise for what Ballard brings to the power play. "He's got the mobility to walk the blue line to be able to open up shooting lanes, and he's got a good shot through to the net,'' Yeo said. "He's got his head up. He's walking the line. He made some nice reads as far as when to move the puck, when to distribute the puck, and when there's a (shooting) lane, he's taking that shot. And I like that.''
Other notes from practice:
--Yeo said he isn't concerned about Coyle's conditioning, because he wasn't out long enough to develop any real rust.
--The players, Yeo said, have responded positively to the line changes. "The guys are excited and anxious to try it out,'' he said.
--Coyle, a native of the Boston area who played at Boston University, admitted he didn't follow the Red Sox closely this season but got on board for the World Series victory. "After everything that's happened,'' he said, in a reference to the Boston Marathon bombing, "it's nice to see (the Sox championship) happen.''
--If you go trick-or-treating at the Konopka residence tonight, you could see Hoppy the bunny wearing one of two costume choices: a pumpkin or a lion. "He loves it,'' Konopka said of his rabbit's penchant for dressing up in Wild sweaters and other outfits. "He won't shut up about Halloween.''
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