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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Afternoon from Columbus, where the Wild and Jackets face off at 6 p.m. CT.
Happy New Year everybody!
Kuemps vs. BOB tonight at Nationwide. The Wild is 3-2-1 in its past six in Columbus, but it has lost 16 of 23 here all-time and played terrible here last year, losing 4-zip.
The Jax is/are 9-1-1 in its/their past 11 and love(s) to play hard, in-your-face hockey, so the Wild better be ready to compete tonight.
When the Wild goes through some of these extreme lows, you almost forget what it’s like to be around the players when they win.
The Wild hopes to win two in a row for the first time since Nov. 16 and 20 – the end of that four-game win streak.
It’s been kind of refreshing to be around the team the past few days. The locker room hasn’t been as tense, guys are joking around (they had a gum throwing competition in the locker room’s fans yesterday), relaxed, genuinely happy again, so we’ll see if that continues.
Last night, captain Mikko Koivu, like he does a few times each season, got the entire team together (players, trainers, support staff) and picked up dinner at a local steakhouse, so their bellies are full, too.
Koivu never wants to talk about why he does this (“it’s about the team”), but a few players mentioned this morning how enjoyable it was to get together as a team last night.
Niklas Backstrom rejoined the team in Columbus this morning and John Curry was reassigned. Backstrom will back up Darcy Kuemper tonight even though he’s only been on the ice a few times in the past few weeks because of the stomach plague going through the team, one that still has Jason Zucker beaten up.
But as coach Mike Yeo said yesterday, the Wild wanted to get Backstrom to Columbus and the ice (he was for a LONG time today) because the quicker he’s back with the team, the quicker he can play. With important back-to-back games Friday and Saturday, my guess is the team would love him to start one of those against Toronto or in Dallas.
Speaking of Toronto, Yeo said Jonas Brodin may play against the Leafs if all goes well in Thursday’s practice.
“He’s pretty much ready to play, but we just didn’t want him rush him into something [tonight],” Yeo said of Brodin.
Same lineup tonight that played in the Winnipeg win, meaning Erik Haula will be scratched for a second straight game and third time in four games.
Yeo said, “For him to get a little extra work, a little extra conditioning after practice, I think will help him.” But mostly, Yeo felt none of the forwards that played in Winnipeg deserved to come out tonight.
In other words, Brett Sutter and Kyle Brodziak were great with two assists each. Ryan Carter and Justin Fontaine scored goals to get the Wild back from 2-0 down. And Yeo wants to get another look at Tyler Graovac.
By the way, Carter had a couple interesting games against Winnipeg, taking a very weird penalty against the Jets in Game 1 and then getting into a standoff with Paul Postma in Game 2 on a puck Carter hit with a high stick. Postma riskily tried to chip the puck out of the zone, it was turned over and Carter scored a huge goal for the game’s turning point. I talked to Carter about the weirdness and I’ll put a note in tomorrow’s paper.
Stu Bickel draws in again. It’s been surprising to see how Bickel’s been willing to jump into the play like he’s Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella and how many chances he’s created with stretch passes.
Yeo loves that Bickel hasn’t tried to “blend in,” that he wants to make a difference offensively and physically. Not easy when most practices this season when he has been up, Bickel has practiced as a forward.
Yeo is comfortable playing him, especially with management wanting to leave Matt Dumba in Iowa, where he can play a big role consistently. Dumba has had some great games for Iowa and some pretty ghastly ones, but he’s been mostly playing well and developing and GM Chuck Fletcher doesn’t want to turn him into a yo-yo by messing with his head and bringing him up and down right now.
There may come a point where the Wild has no choice and must bring Dumba up, but right now Fletcher says he wants to keep him there. And since Brodin’s injury isn’t major, the Wild’s willing to bide its time with Bickel and Nate Prosser.
I talked to assistant GM Brent Flahr by phone today. He is scouting the world juniors up in Toronto, and today Connor McDavid and Canada squares off with Jack Eichel and the U.S. Those will be the 1-2 players in June’s draft in Sunrise, Fla.
Wild 2014 first-round pick Alex Tuch is having a good tourney playing on a line with Eichel and I’ll quote Flahr on that in tomorrow’s paper or later this week. Tuch, at a minimum by the way, is expected to stay at Boston College for two years.
You can watch today’s game at 3 p.m. CT on NHL Network.
Also, I have gotten a lot of questions about Gustav Olofsson’s rehab from shoulder surgery. He isn’t expected back for Iowa until late February, but Flahr said he has begun skating just to keep up his lower-body fitness, etc.
Lastly, it’s amazing, but today’s is the 19th anniversary of the way premature death of Edina’s Bill Nyrop, the former Montreal Canadiens’ three-time Cup champ (Guy Lapointe’s partner mostly) and North Star, at age 43.
Back in 2008, I did a column on Nyrop’s influence on my career in Florida. Just a coincidence that Minnesota is where he was from and where I ended up. Here’s that column again. Here's also Scotty Bowman talking to me about Nyrop at the end of a column I wrote on Lapointe last month.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Michael Hutchinson tonight when the Wild faces off with the Winnipeg Jets.
Wild is 5-6-4 in its past 15. Jets are 9-1-4 in their past 14. I’ll be on Fox Sports North tonight during the pregame show and first intermission.
Where to start?
1. Mikael Granlund is week to week with what looked like a left wrist injury. It is not a concussion. He landed funny when Dustin Byfuglien slammed him into the glass the other night like a pillow.
According to sources, Granlund will undergo surgery, and that could be happening today. I’d expect an update after tonight’s game or tomorrow from Columbus, but I am told this could have been much worse and it’ll be as little as three or four weeks to as much as a couple months.
Granlund underwent successful surgery today on a broken left wrist and will miss approximately four weeks, the Wild announced.
Coach Mike Yeo said this morning, “A very tough void for us to fill.”
On Granlund and Jonas Brodin being hurt while being tossed around like rag dolls, I asked Yeo if the Wild is big enough: “We’ve got big bodies too and for the most part we played a pretty hard game, a pretty physical game in that one. And we’re going to need to do more of the same tonight. We know what their gameplan is and we’re going to be ready for that.”
Basically, this is why Stu Bickel and Brett Sutter are in tonight and why 6-foot-5 Tyler Graovac was recalled to make his NHL debut.
2. Yeo said Brodin is feeling much better and there’s a chance he’ll meet the team in Columbus, although my guess is the Wild will be careful and will only send him to Columbus if he’s 100 percent. As of yesterday, Jason Zucker and Niklas Backstrom were still sick and since they really haven’t done much of anything on the ice since before Christmas (Backstrom did skate Saturday morning before leaving the ice and rink early), I’d guess Columbus is a no-go.
Zach Parise said he has never seen anything like what the Wild has gone through illness wise in his career. The Wild has just been a sick, unenergetic team for awhile now, although it played well Saturday and like usual just found a way to lose.
3. Matt Hackett, a Wild draft pick that the Wild sent to Buffalo in the Jason Pominville package is on waivers. The Wild has talked internally about whether it’s worth claiming him, sources say. However, he hasn’t played hockey for a long time because of reconstructive surgery to repair a torn ACL. So if you could get him to Iowa, it would be a no-brainer to claim him. But since the only way to get him there would be to in turn put him on waivers (other than a 2-week conditioning stint, which likely isn’t close to how long he’ll need to be able to play and get back to form), claiming Hackett may make little sense even though he’d immediately become the Wild’s best goalie prospect if taken.
We’ll see what happens at 11 a.m. Tuesday (I’ll be on a plane fyi with no Internet, so you’ll find out elsewhere). Regardless, the Wild needs better goaltending – plain and simple. Just can’t win in the NHL with average goaltending,
and the Wild’s goals against and save percentage has skyrocketed the past 15 games despite not giving up any more shots against than it did prior. I’ll toss up some specific numbers later to illustrate this.
In the first eight games, Kuemper was 6-2 with a 1.62 goals-against average, .930 save percentage and three shutouts. In the past 15, he is 5-8 with a 3.35 goals-against average and .885 save percentage.
In the past 18 games, the Wild's goaltending has taken a turn for the worse.
In the past nine games, the Wild has allowed 29 shots per game, in the nine before that 29.1. So almost exact.
However, in the past nine games, the Wild's goals against is 4.11 and save percentage is .858 for a 2-4-3 record. In the nine games before that, the Wild's goals against was 2.22 with a .923 save percentage and 6-2-1 record.
Kuemper is feeling better though. He thinks he ate some bad chicken and lost eight pounds.
Dany Heatley’s on waivers, too! Wild had no interest in Nashville’s Derek Roy. It has had ample opportunity to get him before and never bit. He’s got skill but no foot speed.
4. Graovac will make his NHL debut tonight at MTS Centre, an arena in which he scored in during the preseason.
The 6-foot-5, 206-pound center leads Iowa with 12 goals, six power play tallies and 86 shots and ranks tied for first on the team with 24 points in 31 games this season. He will center Matt Cooke and Justin Fontaine on the third line tonight.
Mikko Koivu will take Granlund’s spot on the top line between Parise and Jason Pominville, yo-yo Charlie Coyle will move from right wing to second-line center with struggling Nino Niederreiter and elevated Thomas Vanek and Kyle Brodziak will center Sutter and Ryan Carter on the fourth line.
Erik Haula is scratched. More on that in a sec.
Ryan Suter will be paired with Jared Spurgeon. Marco Scandella will be paired with Christian Folin and Nate Prosser, scratched the past two, will play on the left with Stu Bickel, who had his first Wild assist and first Wild fight on Saturday.
Graovac and Sutter bussed eight hours from Grand Rapids to Des Moines yesterday and arrived around 6 a.m. They both woke up to phone calls from director of minor-league operations Jim Mill around 11.
Mill to Graovac: “Grao, call me ASAP, which was a little nerve-racking,” Graovac said.
It was too late to fly to Winnipeg from Iowa, so they took a car to MSP and got on a 9:45 p.m. flight to Manitoba. So long travel day: “We’ll be running on adrenaline,” Sutter said.
Sutter was thrilled for his Iowa teammate, Graovac: “He was like a kid on Christmas morning yesterday. It was a fun day with him.”
Graovac said, “Lots of emotion. When I hit the ice, I felt normal and felt comfortable out there. Very exciting for sure.”
What can he bring? “Bring a little size, I bring speed. If they need me top-six or bottom-six, I can bring both. Honestly. I have a lot of confidence in my game right now. I have had a good start in Iowa and I’ll do what they need me to do and I’ll do the best I can at it.”
The kid’s got a swagger about him and if you read my stuff during those Octagon pre-training camp skates, he was sensational. GM Chuck Fletcher called him the most improved player in the organization when he sent him to the minors Sept. 30 so he could play a top role there as opposed to limited minutes there.
“He had a really good training camp for us,” Yeo said. “He’s earned the opportunity to come up and show us what he can do. With the Granlund injury, there’s a void to be filled there. Big body, I think a guy who could skate and I’m excited to see how he comes in and performs tonight.”
Funny stuff, but last year, Graovac’s first pro fight was with yesterday’s travel partner, Sutter, then the captain of the Charlotte Checkers.
Sutter hit Zach Miskovic from behind and Graovac jumped to his defenseman’s defense.
“Bad penalty by Grao,” Sutter quipped. “They were going on the power play.”
Graovac said he won the fight “obviously,” although, “I can’t feel these three teeth because of it,” Graovac said, pointing me toward three upper chiclets. “I did hit him with one uppercut. He couldn’t take my reach. He couldn’t go over, so he got me through with one under right in the cheek. I can’t feel my teeth still.”
5. Bigtime message being sent to Haula tonight. Haula was scratched in the Tuesday game before the holiday break against Philadelphia, then returned Saturday against Winnipeg, didn’t play well and will be scratched tonight.
To be benched in a game where the Wild is without its No. 1 center, this is a wakeup call if there ever was one. The Wild isn’t happy with him offensively (three goals, one assist, minus-5 in 30 games), but it’s his defense and lack of skating that Yeo says is the root of the problem.
Yeo said the two had a long talk today and watched video with the coaches.
“It’s kind of an odd time to scratch him with the fact that we’re losing Granny, but what it comes down to, we need the player that we know that he can be and we need him more than ever,” Yeo said. “There’s been a lot of conversations and a lot of things that we’ve tried to do to get him to play at the level that we know he’s capable of.
“We made it very clear as far as some of the things that he needs to bring and the way that he needs to play in order to be effective and we’ve got to get him back that way.”
Yeo basically admitted that he messed up playing him in Montreal last month. That game put him over the waiver threshold. And since there is no chance Haula gets through waivers, the Wild is stuck having him find his game here rather than go to Iowa.
“It’s not a confidence thing,” Yeo said. “It’s an understanding of how he has to play the game and a willingness to do it. He’s a young kid that had an awful lot of success and a lot of attention put on him last year, so sometimes you need a bit of a reminder and unfortunately sometimes those reminders are a little bit cruel.”
6. Chatted with former Gopher Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd, etc., about the Jets today and may write about how good they’ve been and why in next Sunday’s column.
Wheeler was ready to fight Koivu on Saturday.
“He took a good whack at my stick. If he wanted to [fight], I was ready for him,” Wheeler said, smiling.
Koivu wasn’t willing though.
On playing the Wild, Wheeler said, “That building has brought out the best of me in my career. I love going back there, I love competing against that team. They’ve been tough to play against. It’s always been a good challenge for our group and good challenge for me individually to see how we stack up against those guys.”
Wheeler said the Jets would love to separate themselves further from Minnesota, which is nine back of them. “It’s never too early to start thinking like that.”
Ladd took eight stitches from a high-stick from Cooke Saturday on the right side of the nose and under the eye. He said he felt it was unintentional.
Evander Kane is out until February with lower-body injury, Jets coach Paul Maurice said. Kane blocked a shot in that game, so that’s probably it.
Seeya on tube and on Twitter tonight and the paper tomorrow.
UPDATE: John Curry was recalled from Iowa and will start tonight. Niklas Backstrom was placed on IR (retroactive) with the stomach plague. He did skate this morning. Darcy Kuemper is sick, too, and will back up Curry.
Wild and Winnipeg Jets tonight at Xcel Energy Center as the Wild opens a critical home-and-home (completed Monday at the PEG). Morning from the arena’s press room. I’ll be on KFAN at 11:30 a.m. and I’m doing a Podcast today with columnist Jim Souhan at 3 p.m. on souhanunfiltered.com.
If you didn't read my state-of-the-team article with GM Chuck Fletcher today, here is the link (also see last blog for full transcript).
Wild’s eight back of Winnipeg for the top wildcard spot with three games in hand. Win both games in regulation somehow, and it’ll be four back with three games in hand. Lose both in regulation, and it’ll be 12 back with three games in hand.
The Jets, who have overcome a devastated top-4 all year long, are 8-1-4 in their past 13 overall, 4-0-3 in their past seven on the road and are 10-4-4 on the road this season. They did lose in overtime at Minnesota on Nov. 16.
The Wild is 5-6-3 in its past 14 overall and 2-3-3 in its past eight at home. The Wild is 11-4-3 all-time vs. the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers and 5-2-1 since Atlanta’s move to Winnipeg. The Wild is 3-0-1 at home against the Jets.
Coach Mike Yeo met with the team prior to this morning’s skate. Nino Niederreiter said the message was simple: “We have to start a new chapter. It’s not the end of the story. That’s the main thing. It was a chapter. We passed it. We just have to look forward. We have 50 games left. We just have to make sure we leave it all out there to make sure we get a playoff spot.”
The norovirus (not kidding) that’s been hammering Wild players the past three weeks. It’s now hit Jason Zucker. “It’s his turn,” Yeo said with defeated sarcasm.
Darcy Kuemper will start in goal. The first game after the break is usually hairy, and as we know, the Wild and Kuemper haven’t played well for awhile. Remember, both teams haven’t been allowed to practice or play the past three games (the Jets flew here this morning).
Last year in the first game after the break, the Jets had a 4-3 lead after one period against the Wild en route to a 6-4 win. Sloppy game, to say the least, particularly by the goalies.
Asked if Kuemper may have taken shots during the break, Yeo said he didn’t ask and hoped not.
“I actually hope that he turned his brain completely off, to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “That’s what our entire group needed. Sometimes mentally, just to step away, that’s the best thing that can happen.”
Kuemper has an .860 save percentage and 4.23 goals-against average in his past seven appearances (23 goals against).
As for the team, “First game back, the biggest challenge is finding your execution level, finding your timing, conditioning. I find that the guys are a little bit heavy, a little bit more winded as the game goes on. But I think more than anything else, it’s the details, the challenges of finding the details in the game.”
On the Wild’s struggles and lack of confidence recently, Yeo said, “We can’t just snap our fingers and make it reappear. I think that’s the main thing that we have to understand. There’s going to be some work involved. Every game is big for us because it’s another opportunity to move closer to the way that our game should look, and once we get our game looking the way it should look, then results will follow that. there’s no better time to start than right now. You look at this game tonight, this is a team that occupies a spot that we want to get. This is a team that we want them to know that we’re coming for them.”
He said the past 14 games are irrelevant as far as he’s concerned.
“What matters is what’s in front of us,” Yeo said. “At the end of the year, there will be a story. The story has not been written yet. There’s been a couple chapters in the story, but we get to decide how it plays out still.”
Yeo is scratching Nate Prosser and Christian Folin tonight for … Justin Falk and Stu Bickel. It’ll be Bickel’s sixth game and second on the blue line (he played there at Arizona when Jared Spurgeon got the norovirus).
Why Falk and Bickel? “That’s what we thought we needed for tonight,” Yeo said. “Big, physical pair against a physical team.”
I asked Yeo if the Wild needs to trade for a defenseman immediately with a string of games where clearly there’s not a lot of confidence in the third pair when they’re playing six, seven, eight minutes a night.
“I’m not going to sit here and say they’re only going to play six, seven minutes tonight. We’ll see what they bring tonight,” Yeo said. “I’m definitely not going to say that we need anything right now. We’re very confident and comfortable with our group. There’s no question that we need to find a little bit more consistency, and some of that will lend itself to having a little bit more of a consistent lineup, but we are very confident with the group that we have.”
Happy Festivus everybody. If you’re not a Seinfeld fan, google it. Wild fans are celebrating by pelting me on Twitter with their grievances.
I’ll be on Fox Sports North++++++++++++++ during tonight’s pregame show around 5:45 p.m. and the first intermission around 6:35 p.m. I’ll also be live in studio on KFAN with Paul Allen at 9 a.m. Wednesday and I am filling in for Dan Barreiro from 3-6:30 p.m. on KFAN on Friday.
Lots of guests, including maybe Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, Fox Sports North’s Anthony LaPanta and Fox 9’s Dawn Mitchell to talk all things sports. In fact, I’m also doing Dawn’s show, Fox 9 Sports Now, later that night at 10:15 p.m.
I also may be doing a Podcast with Jim Souhan on Friday, so I’ll hit the multi-media foursome – newspaper, Podcast, radio and TV. #overexposed.
Wild vs. Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Nick Schultz (Wild’s all-time games played leader who has resurrected his career this season as by all accounts Philly’s most consistent defenseman) Philadelphia Flyers tonight as the Wild hopes to avoid sputtering (well, more than it has already) into the Christmas break. The Wild is 5-5-3 in its past 13 and 2-2-3 in its past seven at home. The Flyers have won the first two games (11 goals) in an eight-game road trip (like many Flyers trips, they return home a couple times during the roadie).
Niklas Backstrom vs. Ray Emery tonight. I thought coach Mike Yeo may come back with Darcy Kuemper only because Kuemper stole a win in Philly with 37 saves last month and because Backstrom is 1-4 all-time vs. the Flyers with a 3.58 goals-against average and .872 save percentage.
But Kuemper has been yanked in four of his past five home starts (I did a story on the poor play of the goalies today. Here is that link), so Yeo wants Kuemper to reset during the Christmas break “shut the brain off for a couple days, not think about hockey, get away from the rink and get recharged and excited to come back).
In fact, Yeo is also scratching center Erik Haula (3 goals, 1 assist this season, 1 goal in the past 15 games and minus-5), Justin Fontaine (1 goal in the past 13 games) and Nate Prosser (team-worst minus-9 averaging 13:26 a game; no plus games in the past 15) for basically the same reason.
“It’s not like we’re quitting on these guys,” Yeo said. “It’s not like we don’t believe in them. It’s just a means to try to get them in the right mind frame and come back and be really good.
“For the guys that aren’t in, a lot of guys are trying to do the right thing, a lot of guys hearts are in the right place, but focus-wise and mindset-wise, this is where I think the break can come in great use as far as just hitting the reset button and allowing ourselves to take a bit of a deep breath here and remember those little things that make us successful.”
Mikael Granlund, who missed last game with a stomach bug, looks like he’ll return and slide back into that top line with Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek. Surprises me a little. Charlie Coyle has been better the past four games (especially last game between Parise and Vanek) and Granlund, who looked sluggish this morning, has a disappointing two multi-point games out of 31 as the Wild’s No. 1 center this year. TWO, playing mostly with Parise. Not good enough.
Stu Bickel will also draw in, which surprises me, too, because the Flyers are hardly a hard-nosed team anymore (9.1 penalty minutes per game compared to the Wild’s 9.7) and Zac Rinaldo isn’t playing.
Asked why he’s in, Yeo told me kiddingly, “Why not? Has anything else we’ve been doing worked lately?”
In seriousness, Yeo said, “I will say this: It’s been pretty comfortable for other teams to come into our building and if you’ve played the game, then you understand that’s part of the game. When there’s a thought or presence of you might get hit or it might be a tough, physical game, it’s a little bit more difficult to execute, you’re not quite as quick to go back and retrieve a puck, you’re not quite as willing to go to the hard areas.
“Quite often when you have a player like that in the lineup, it’s not just about him. It’s about what it does to the other group. We’ve seen that. We’ve won games when he’s been in the lineup (the Wild’s 4-0 with Bickel) and I think a big part of that is we have other guys who end up playing bigger because of that.”
Yeo had a long talk with Haula on the ice today. Fans were freaking on Twitter about Bickel playing for Haula, which, hey, I get, but sometimes kids need to take a step back and see the game from upstairs and not be entitled to just keep playing when they're struggling. And Haula has been struggling. Tonight is Haula's first turn this season to sit out a game.
“Of course it’s about offense, but it’s about winning,” Yeo said. “Offense comes by doing the right things and by taking care of the details. He contributed offensively for us last year, but he wasn’t our leading scorer. I think that expectations-wise, we have to be realistic. He’s not playing power play right now. He has the ability to create offense. We’ve seen his speed be a factor. We have to find a way to make it more of a factor again this year. But the way he earned his way into the lineup and how he was successful last year was the defensive part of his game. When you look at probably the best hockey he’s played in the Colorado series, he had one singular focus and that was to shut a very important line for the opposition down (Nathan MacKinnon). That was when he played his best hockey. He brings something different to the table than a lot of the other guys that we have and he’s a very valuable part to our group when he’s on top of that part of his game. So again this is just a good opportunity for us to hit the reset button. He’s a very big part of things going forward and a very big part of the second half of our season. Hopefully we’ll help him get ready for that.”
Haula said the Christmas break will allow him to “clear it all up here in the next couple days and just come back with a great attitude and put everything on the line and keep working hard and keep taking those little strides and not expect too much.”
Haula said the first couple months of the season was a “little bit of a disappointment in some ways. I think individually, there’s areas I can do better at. I definitely have more to offer the team. Also I think there are some areas I think I have done a pretty good job in (like penalty kill). I’ve got to let it go here and enjoy the couple days we have off and come back with a great attitude and let that first half go and finish strong.
“My game is to move my feet, play good defensively and win my battles and I want to focus on those areas a little more.”
Haula said Yeo told him at the start of the year that the second year is always harder than the first, especially “if you do have some kind of success, you expect more and set high expectations. I’ve tried my best to not think about stuff like that. At the start of the year it was going really well where I maybe wasn’t necessarily getting the results on the scoreboard, but I thought I was playing really well. The little things haven’t been what I really wanted it to be. I don’t think I’m a minus player. Defensively I think I can play against any one and that’s one area where I have to clean up.”
Fontaine needs to pick up his play, too. Just hasn't impressed in many games this year and certainly hasn't been anything close to the scoring threat he was last year.
I talked to Jared Spurgeon a little this morning. His game has taken a turn for the worse. He is minus-7 his past 11 games and he said, “I need to be better.”
UPDATE: Mikael Granlund is sick and will not play tonight vs Nashville. Justin Fontaine will take his place in the lineup. Charlie Coyle will play with Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek on the top line with Granlund as a late scratch.
It's official: Matt Cooke will rejoin the Wild lineup for tonight's game against Nashville at Xcel Energy Center, after missing 22 games because of a hip flexor injury. Ryan Carter will be back, too, healed from the shoulder injury that cost him three games. Darcy Kuemper, who missed his last start because of a stomach bug, will get the start in goal tonight.
The return of Cooke and Carter means the Wild has a completely healthy forward corps for the first time in weeks. Justin Fontaine, who hasn't registered a point in his past five games, will be scratched. Stu Bickel and defenseman Justin Falk also will sit out.
Cooke last played Oct. 28 at Boston. He said he's looking forward to everything, including the pregame meal. Coach Mike Yeo is excited to have Cooke and Carter back, too, with the Wild looking to play with more physicality and pressure against a Central Division foe that is 8-3 over its past 11 games.
"They bring something different to the table, something I think we've missed a little bit,'' Yeo said. "Just the board work, the presence on the forecheck, the finishing checks and making us a team that’s not fun to play against. These are things that will be valuable to us.''
Yeo did note that Cooke and Carter will have to be diligent early in the game as they shake off the rust. And with their return, other forwards will have to adapt to some shifting of roles. But he thinks Cooke's leadership and experience can help "refocus'' the Wild and settle it down when necessary, a quality Yeo said the team has particularly missed over the past month.
Nashville will be without winger James Neal, who is sick and didn't make the trip. (No, it's not the mumps.) That's a significant loss. Neal is second on the team in goals (11) and third in points (19), and he had two goals and three assists in his past six games. He's also among the league's most prolific shooters, with 106 shots on goal.
Yeo has been touting the importance of this game for two days. The Wild has not won consecutive games for a month, and after the players admitted their frustration at failing to gain any ground, they need a home victory against a strong Central Division rival to get their minds right. A loss would give them a three-game winless streak and prolong that funk.
"We recognize this is a big game,'' he said. "We don't need guys going out there trying to be heroes. We need guys going out there doing their jobs. When we have 20 guys doing that, then we like where we're at.''
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