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.

Also find Russo on Facebook.

Email Michael to talk about hockey.

Four losses in a row, and Wild's searching for somebody (or someones) to step up

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: November 11, 2014 - 10:22 PM

On Nov. 1, the Wild jumped to the top of the Central Division. That lasted 24 hours. Thanks to four losses in a row since – the latest coming Tuesday, 3-1, at New Jersey, the Wild’s now fifth in the Central – eight points behind Nashville.

“It’s big,” Thomas Vanek said. “It’s November, but you lose the points now, it’s tough to gain them later.”

The Wild has lost its way since the injuries to Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon, and luckily, they could be coming to the rescue Thursday against Buffalo.

But coach Mike Yeo made clear after tonight’s loss that this slump goes beyond the absence of Parise, Spurgeon and Matt Cooke. He said the Wild has almost forgotten how tough it is to win in this league and it’s getting a good reminder now.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence, but the three young teams who have been hyped and are considered up-and-comers in the division – Minnesota, Colorado and Dallas – are all struggling right now. It’s almost like players think it’ll come easy and forgot how much commitment it takes every game to win in this difficult league.

The Wild certainly has. The Wild’s M.O. at the start of the year was work ethic. Maybe they followed the leader (Parise), which is possible, but whatever the reason, the Wild played pretty complete, hard-working games the first 10 games of the season (OK, forget the third against the Rangers). But that 7-3 start is now officially history as the Wild returns to wintry Minnesota with a very disappointing 7-7 record.

The Wild lauds its depth, yet nobody has stepped up and taken the reins without Parise, Spurgeon and Cooke.

Mikko Koivu: One assist this season. Thomas Vanek: 1 goal. The kids are struggling and have completely dried up. Jason Zucker, who still leads the Wild with five goals, scored them all shorthanded or on the fourth line. He has no goals in seven games since moving to the second line. Charlie Coyle was minus-6 on the road trip, didn’t hit anybody in the first two periods and couldn’t seem to stop pucks on his stick. Mikael Granlund, no assists in six games and passing up shots.

The one great shot he did take tonight hit the post, then almost rolled over the line after it hit Cory Schneider. Almost. That unbelievably bad puck luck was exemplified moments later when Jaromir Jagr skated around Vanek and set up Mike Cammalleri for the eventual winner – a 2-0 lead.

The Wild hasn’t held a lead in 240 minutes. The second period, which was the Wild’s best the first 10 games, has been a disaster the past four. All three games on the road trip were scoreless after the first period only to be unraveled in the second.

The Wild’s power play is still a disaster. 0 for 4 tonight, including one in the third with a chance to tie tonight. And that was to the 30th-ranked overall penalty kill and 30th-ranked home penalty kill, one that had only NOT given up a power-play goal in two previous games this season.

The Wild’s power play is now 2 for 44 this season and 0 for 29 in eight road games.

This Koivu situation is a major problem. One assist for the all-time leading scorer in franchise history. One. In 14 games. This Vanek situation is a major problem. One goal and not scoring goals in moments where the Wild most need him.

He fell on the knife tonight, saying he was awful in the first two periods. But he beat himself up for missing out on that chance late in the second when the puck rolled off his stick. He was happy with the team’s play in the third and how he also brushed off his personal bad two periods behind him to play a better third. But he said by then it was too late, that you’re not going to win in the NHL when you show up for 20 minutes in a 60-minute game.

Yeo didn’t want to single out players when asked about Koivu and Vanek.

Coyle is in a bigtime slump. Not just not scoring (no goals since Oct. 23). He’s just showing little bite right now. Yeo did say he felt it was a lack of confidence just like the team.

“I don’t see a lot of confidence,” Yeo said. “Similar to our entire group. Wins haven’t come. Goals haven’t come. Not scoring has been a huge factor here. You can do a lot of things right and then you’re not scoring goals and then you’re not feeling too good about your game. We got some Grade A chances tonight (Chief among them, Vanek to Haula on a 2-on-0 with 5 ½ left, and Haula was robbed) that don’t go in the net. That gets in your head. We’re going to have to fight through this and earn our confidence.”

Coyle said, “Everyone goes through slumps like this. I had a little lapse like this last year. Same thing I wasn’t scoring, wasn’t putting up points. I just have to get back to playing my physical game. I can’t focus on goals. That’s when you’ll continue to struggle. I’ve got to focus on the process and play to your strengths. Play physical and get my nose dirty.”

Before the first goal tonight by New Jersey, the Zucker-Koivu-Coyle line buzzed and buzzed. Again, no goals though and the Devils come right down and score when Seth Helgeson, who made his NHL debut, took a shot that Tuomo Ruutu deflected for the former Gophers defenseman’s first career assist.

“Same thing pretty much,” Coyle said of his line. “Zone time, chances, but we’ve got to be better burying them. It’s as simple as that.”

Coyle said it’s frustrating the way the team is playing, but the players have to stay positive, stay on an even keel and get back to basics. But he did say astutely tonight was a totally missed opportunity, that playing a team that played on the road the night before, if the Wild showed up in the first two periods and forechecked the heck out of them, they probably could have capitalized more in the third.

“We’ve got to get back to outworking teams, outshooting teams and creating chances and burying puck,” Coyle said.

Big game vs. Buffalo to try to get back on track Thursday before it heads to Dallas, where the Wild has won once since I have been the beat writer.

“We’ve lost four in a row. If we’re looking past anything right now, that would be kind of foolish,” Yeo said. “We have to dig deep here. It’s as simple as that. I know that sounds awfully cliché. We’re the only ones that are going to get ourselves out of this. We’re not going to get out of it by trying to make a fancy play or trying to outskill teams. We have skill in the lineup that can be effective if we’re playing a certain way. We have to remember, it’s hard to score in this league. Teams defend well. They all play a system. We have to get some dirty goals, we have to get some pucks to the net, we have to find a way to create more.”

That’s it for now. Early flight for me, so I need to jet out of the rink and get some shut-eye. Rachel Blount has Wild practice Wednesday, so stay tuned to her Twitter account (@blountstrib) to see if Parise and Spurgeon returns may be on the horizon.

Parise, Spurgeon out tonight; Dumba, Folin scratched; more on Kleinendorst

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: November 11, 2014 - 3:57 PM

Update: Cory Schneider starts for the Devils, Martin Havlat plays for the first time in 10 games after a lower-body injury and ... former Gophers defenseman Seth Helgeson makes his NHL debut in place of injured Bryce Salvador.

Good afternoon from the Prudential Center, where the Wild tries to snap a three-game losing streak tonight against the New Jersey Devils.

There’s a chance fellow Long Islander Kevin (sorry) Keith Kinkaid may make his first NHL start. The 25-year-old undrafted former Union goalie from Farmingdale, N.Y., is 0-1 in two appearances with a 2.22 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. Devils coach Pete DeBoer plans to divulge later on whether Kinkaid or Cory Schneider starts. He gave up four goals in a loss last night in Boston.

As coach Mike Yeo said after Monday’s practice in Minneapolis, Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon won’t play tonight. They are both on the trip just so they could skate with the team this morning with the hope of accelerating their return. Also, they spent a lot of time on the ice well after their teammates left the rink shooting pucks at Josh Harding, who got a good workload in. The Wild will have a better sense in the next few days how close Harding is to coming off suspension and a return. He’ll almost 100 percent require a conditioning stint with Iowa after not playing a game since Dec. 31.

Yeo said there’s a chance Parise and Spurgeon return Thursday at home against Matt Moulson, Cody McCormick, Torrey Mitchell and the Buffalo Sabres, but that will largely depend on how they feel after today’s hard skate and a practice Wednesday.

Rookie defensemen Matt Dumba and Christian Folin, who each made mistakes that led to the first and second goals by Montreal on Saturday night, won’t play tonight. Nate Prosser will go back to the second pair with Marco Scandella and Jon Blum will make his season debut on the third pair with Keith Ballard. Blum hasn’t played in a few weeks, so he’ll have to carve off some rust. He had been scratched in four straight since his Oct. 31 callup from Iowa.

On scratching Dumba and Folin, Yeo said cryptically: “I’m not going to say it’s only one game, but I definitely wanted to give them this game to kind of sit back. Different messages to each individual. I don’t think I need to get into it right now, but just as far as in terms of getting their game back to the level that we need it.”

My gut?

Dumba’s days at least are numbered barring an injury maybe tonight. As I wrote on the blog after the Canadiens game, most 20-year-old defensemen should be in the minors developing, not developing on the fly in the NHL and costing the team goals in a league where you can’t afford thrown away points in the standings.

My gut, again? The Wild knows this, but it also didn’t want him developing in a losing environment in Iowa and also didn’t want to send him down the past couple days knowing it was about to make a coaching change. Back coaching its minor-league team is John Torchetti, whom the Wild trusts wholeheartedly, a person the Wild considers a teacher. My guess is now that “Torch” is back, we’re going to see Dumba down in Iowa sooner rather than later (maybe fairly imminently) getting some games so he can regain some confidence, play a big role with No. 1 PP time, etc.

I asked Yeo if that could be on the horizon: “I would probably not talk about those decisions right now. Our focus remains the same as it was at the start of the year, and that’s No. 1 we’ve got to try to put the best product on the ice and no. 2 not only do we want to be good right now, we want to be good down the road, so we want to make sure that these guys are developing.”

Obviously, you know by now Kurt Kleinendorst has been let go by the Wild. General Manager Chuck Fletcher is not on the road with the team and has not made himself available yet on the decision, so he has not commented.

My biggest question for Fletcher will be on these kids down there. If you read Kleinendorst’s comments, it speaks volumes when most the guys he felt bought in and played their butts off for him were depth players and veterans like Stephane Veilleux, Justin Falk and Brett Sutter.

Good for them. It says everything about their character, but in a way, it says a whole lot about the other guys, too, and guys the Wild and Wild fans should care about. It certainly sounds like Torchetti will have quite the chore on his hands.

The reason Iowa exists is to develop the Brett Bulmers and Zack Phillips of the world, and guys like Tyler Graovac, Kurtis Gabriel, Raphael Bussieres, Johan Gustafsson. Bulmer and Phillips have been colossal disappointments since they turned pro, and the others haven’t been good this year.

So that has to be a concern for Fletcher.

I talked with Iowa GM Jim Mill, the Wild’s director of minor-league operations, and he said the Wild “absolutely” still believes in these prospects. “We have good prospects, we have really good leadership and depth there and we should be a much better team, but you can only say that so many times. Now we’re going to find out. We’re going to find out a lot about a lot of people.”

Like Kleinendorst said to me last night, Mill said when he met with KK after Sunday’s game to make the change, “Believe me, we agreed it was time for a change and it wasn’t working for whatever reason that I don’t have the answers to and he obviously didn’t have the answers to. It was time to get a different voice. This was not working.”

On Torchetti’s return, Mill said, “He was our coach for two years and he was going to be our coach going forward in Des Moines, but he was offered an opportunity financially that he couldn’t turn down [in Russia] and we were completely understanding what he had to try.

“He’s got a great track record of developing and winning. We believed in it at the time we hired him originally and still do and he’s done this transition thing before, which is a difficult thing.”

I typically take player quotes when a coach is fired with a grain of salt. You don’t often get the truth, but Iowa Wild captain Stephane Veilleux, up with the Big Wild right now, felt genuinely upset for Kleinendorst about the firing.

“It’s everybody together,” Veilleux said. “It’s not one individual, it’s not one coach. Sometimes it’s a team thing. You don’t want to put the blame necessarily on one aspect of the game. It’s the whole game in general. There’s some missing answers down there and sometimes there needs to be a change. He’s a great man. He won in the past. He got a Calder Cup. He did something right, you know? Sometimes for whatever reasons things don’t work out. You always feel bad for a guy like that. He’s the type of coach who was in his office from 6 in the morning ‘til 5 p.m. You hate to see a guy like him go.”

Lastly, from today’s skate:

Yeo on Parise not playing his old Devils: “I know for a fact that he would have loved to have been in the lineup to no. 1 to help us get things going in the right direction and no. 2  he’s had so many great memories here and this was such a big part of his career. It was difficult for him not to be in the lineup, but we just have to follow due process here with him and make sure when we get him back, we keep him in the lineup for good.”

On what he wants to see from Blum: “Composure. That’s what I’m expecting to see and that’s what we’re counting on him to bring. Execution coming out of our own zone hasn’t been good enough. It’s a big factor why we’re not scoring goals.”

Yeo said Matt Cooke’s injury is not coming along as quickly as everybody hoped and he’s not close to a return.

Ryan Carter’s excited for his return to New Jersey tonight.

Talk tonight.

A conversation with fired Iowa Wild coach Kurt Kleinendorst

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild coaching, Wild news Updated: November 11, 2014 - 6:25 AM

Late last night, I had a conversation with Kurt Kleinendorst, who lost his job Sunday night as head coach of the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate in Des Moines. See this blog for that news.

Following a loss to Chicago that put Iowa’s record at 2-10, Kleinendorst met with Wild director of minor-league operations Jim Mill and was informed of the team’s decision that he was being dismissed as coach. It left a sour end to Kleinendort’s 29th wedding anniversary to wife, Deon.

After finishing last in the AHL’s Western Conference last year, this was Kleinendorst’s 25th year as a hockey coach and it was by far his toughest.

Kleinendorst said he’s disappointed, embarrassed, frustrated and relieved that it’s over. He says the Wild had little choice but to let him go. Whatever he tried the past two years didn’t work with a group that wasn’t responding to him in Iowa, so now it’s his friend John Torchetti’s chance to retake the reins of a struggling team that lacks confidence right now.

Here is a Q and A with the 53-year-old who now will enjoy eight months of paid vacation:

On getting fired: “It’s interesting. I’ve never been through it. You watch your peers go through it and you feel for them because it’s not fun obviously. These are high-profile positions. At the end of the day I do appreciate that [GM Chuck Fletcher] gave me an opportunity in the first place.”

Were you surprised? “Oh no, Jim and I, we go back, and anybody that knows me, would agree that I can self-evaluate. He and I have actually been having dialogue for some time because it’s been such a struggle. Since Day One, it’s been a struggle. You can’t let something like this go on too long. I understand that. The last thing any organization wants is for their young kids to be developing in a losing environment because it’s not healthy. We tried and tried and tried. We tried pretty much everything. At the end of the day, what options are left? This is what’s left, so I get it. I totally get it. I understand.  I’m disappointed, but I understand why they felt they needed to do what they needed to do. I’m completely on board with it. It’s just disappointing because generally at some point you’d expect you’d get your players to kick a little bit, and it just didn't happen and that bothers me."

Why not? Looking at your career, this hasn’t happened to you at any level? Are the kids not the right kids? “I’ve been with these guys every day. I’ve got a good idea of why, but I’m going to keep that to myself. I will say this though: This needed to be done. Now Chuck is going to know it was either the guy behind the bench or it was the players out on the ice. What is it? So at the end of the day, Jimmy, Chuck, they’re in a good situation because they will be able to determine if it was the guy behind the bench or just maybe we’re not as good in Iowa as we think we are. It’s got to be one or the other. I totally understand that. I think the time was right-you just could not let this continue to fester.”

Can Torch jumpstart this team? “Torch and I go way back. I was in Raleigh when he was that taxicab driver (see previous blog for context). I love Torch. He’s a friend. I think he’s the right guy to come in and do what Chuck and Jim need him to do, plus he’s got a relationship with some of these players already from Houston, so I think that will be helpful. He’s a no-nonsense guy most of the time. I’m a no-nonsense guy most of the time with less bite and I think this group needs that extra bite. I think they need a guy that is going to be a miserable jerk, and I think Torch can be that guy – and trust me, that’s no disrespect to Torch.  He's a solid person. You have to be who you are. The year that we won the [Calder] Cup [in Binghamton], I had a group of guys that connected with me. They wanted to play for me. They appreciated to be coached the way I coach. My Calder Cup year we did have a group that responded to my approach. That's how you win. Not every team is the right fit for every coach and vice versa. This group, I think they need 90 percent jerk. Maybe that's what they deserve and that’s what he’s going to give them. I will always be true to myself and stick to what I believe in. 

They just didn’t connect to you? “It bothers me. It’s not often that I have a group that isn't willing to push for me. It does come down to the willingness to do what you’re being challenged to do. We challenged and we challenged and we challenged, and most every player will tell you, we put our time in, we did everything we thought would help this group click, and it just didn’t happen. It just didn’t happen. You get to a point where you have a big cloud over the locker room, and the only way you’re going to get rid of that cloud is by winning, by making a trade or by getting rid of a coach. And in this league and at this time of the year, it’s not the easiest thing to trade players. And you don’t want to be trading assets for the sake of the American League anyway, you really don’t.”

How tough was it with the Wild’s top-end prospects being in the NHL most of your tenure and guys shuttling back and forth because of injuries? “The NHL, we all know, is the best league in the world, but the hardest league to coach is the AHL in my opinion. No. 1 you’ve got a bunch of guys that don’t want to be here and a bunch of them who don’t think they should be here. That's an interesting dynamic in itself. You’ve got guys at all different developmental levels. You’ve got your veteran guys that get it, you’ve got your middle of the road guys that some get it and some don't but think they do, and you’ve got your young, developing guys that are just happy to be in the locker room. I mean, it’s a tough, tough league to coach, and that’s what makes it such a great challenge. But there are some good pieces here for sure. Justin Falk, Brett Sutter, Stephane Veilleux played their hearts out for me and are the veteran depth guys that every NHL team needs: Mark Hagel, Zack Mitchell are all in. Listen, when you’re winning, you’re not going to find out anything about anybody-not when things are going well. Anybody can be a good boy and a positive person and be uplifting when things are going your way. It’s when things aren’t going your way when we’re really going to find out about ourselves. Justin Falk is an unbelievable character. Brett Sutter is an unbelievable character. Stephane Veilleux is an unbelievable character. These are guys, that fought for me and their teammates every day, and as a coach, I respect that and appreciate that.

“You’ve got a third of your group, your core leaders, you've got your middle third and then you've got your bottom third. Your bottom third is generally your young kids, the middle third are the group of guys that could go either way. What we weren’t able to get to was, we had a really strong upper group, but we just couldn’t get the middle group to come up and join them, and because of that, you can’t get the bottom third to get pulled to the middle. But Falky, Sutter, Steph, I can’t express enough how much I appreciate them for what they did. Justin has come far. He's the one guy that I will walk away feeling the best about. In some very difficult circumstances, he's a guy that stepped up, did everything I asked of him. He wanted to be part of the solution and was a guy who was pulling for me, trying to make it work, and his game grew the most. Isn’t that how it is supposed to work? Listen, put in the time, work hard and grow. Crazy how that works.  He’s taken a big step in getting back to the NHL. And Sutsy, you wouldn’t expect anything less from him.”

Can Torch turn this around though? “They’re bringing in the right guy. Don’t expect him to flip it in a day. The guys are just not in a good place right now. It’s more than likely going to take a little time.”

What’s next for you? “I’m going to do what I want to do when I want to do it. I feel bad that this didn’t work out. If there could have been a comedy of errors in a bad way, it would have been the start to this season- nothing went our way. It was almost like it was never meant to be-if you believe in such things. I have a daughter who is a grad assistant coach in Vermont at Castleton College so I’m going to go out and spend some time with her. We’ve got a place out in Park City I will get out there.


“When I left on Sunday, I was disappointed and embarrassed.  I always feel that your teams are a reflection of you, and this team was by no means a reflection of me. It was difficult to get this group to buy in to what I needed them to do and I own that. I won't pass that off on anyone. I was disappointed, and in the end embarrassed for the way we were playing, but I was also relieved that it was over. It was like we had tried everything and it wasn’t happening-it happens. Time to move on from a bad experience. Plenty of good coaches have been let go and come back to have success. [Devils GM Lou Lamoriello] taught me to be a good self-evaluator and I believe I do. I know everything that needed to be done and what I could control was done.  


“I’m going to take some time. I won't come back to coaching until my belly’s burning and I'm excited to get behind the bench again. My belly’s not burning right now. Hockey is a great game and coaching’s such a great profession. I’ve got something to offer. We'll just have to wait and see where that will be.”

Wild fires Iowa coach Kurt Kleinendorst, re-hires John Torchetti as replacement

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild coaching, Wild news Updated: November 10, 2014 - 10:50 PM

With the Iowa Wild off to an American Hockey League-worst 2-10 start after finishing last in the Western Conference a year ago, Kurt Kleinendorst is out as head coach of the Wild’s minor-league affiliate, sources say.

The Wild has tabbed John Torchetti as Kleinendorst’s replacement, according to sources, and he will be on the ice to coach the Baby Wild during Tuesday’s practice. Torchetti, 50, who won a Stanley Cup as a Chicago Blackhawks assistant in 2010, returns to the Wild after coaching the Houston Aeros to back-to-back postseason berths. He was supposed to relocate with the team to Des Moines, but he exercised an out clause to take a job in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League last year.

Kleinendorst, 53, was informed of the Wild’s decision by director of minor-league operations Jim Mill after Sunday’s loss to the Chicago Wolves. An announcement is expected Tuesday morning.

The Iowa Wild, despite such prospects as Tyler Graovac, Kurtis Gabriel, Zack Phillips and Brett Bulmer and skilled players like Jordan Schroeder, Michael Keranen and Zack Mitchell, averages only 2.25 goals per game, has allowed 3.8 goals per game and has won once at home.

Johan Gustafsson is off to a 2-6 start with a 3.70 goals-against average and .884 save percentage.

It’s been more and more clear the past few weeks that General Manager Chuck Fletcher was growing increasingly displeased with Iowa’s play and was worried about the development of some of its prospects would stall.

After the latest loss Sunday, Kleinendorst was quoted on Tom Witosky’s Twitter account (@toskyAHLWild) regarding the season’s tough start, “Trust me I know. It hurts. It is not pretty. Obviously, it is a huge, huge reflection on me.”

Assistant coach Steve Poapst and the rest of Iowa’s staff was retained.

Kleinendorst, a Grand Rapids, Minn., native, came to the Wild after coaching the University of Alabama-Huntsville for one year. The longtime New Jersey Devils assistant coach was a finalist for the Aeros’ head-coaching position in 2010. It went to now-Wild coach Mike Yeo instead, and Kleinendorst was hired by the Ottawa Senators to coach their AHL affiliate in Binghamton. Coincidentally, Kleinendorst’s Baby Sens rallied from a 2-1 series deficit to beat Yeo’s Aeros before Yeo came to Minnesota.

Torchetti, 50, coached CSKA Moscow last year after having an out clause in his Wild contract with the Aeros. At the time, Fletcher said Torchetti couldn’t pass up a “huge deal,” but he apparently left after one year because of the unrest politically in Russia last year. Torchetti went 32-20-2 in Moscow.

Torchetti's Houston Aeros went 75-51-26 in two seasons. He has been an interim head coach with the Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings (so he has been through transitions before) and has been an assistant with Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Chicago.

He has got almost 20 years of pro coaching experience, spending time in the ECHL, CHL (Coach of the Year in 1995 in San Antonio), IHL (Coach of the Year in 1998 in Fort Wayne), AHL and NHL, and was also a minor-league general manager.

From my Torchetti hired blog a few years back:

He’s a former minor-league goal scorer who got his career started playing for Rick Dudley for the old Atlantic Coast League’s Carolina Thunderbirds in the mid-80s. Dudley used to drive the buses and Torchetti would sit in the front seat and stay up every night ‘til 3 or 4 in the morning talking hockey and life with Dudley. They’ve been tight ever since.

When Wild assistant GM Brent Flahr ran the San Antonio minor-league franchise for Florida, Torchetti was the head coach and they became good friends.

Torchetti is a guy who worked for free in his first coaching job in Greensboro. On the side, he drove a taxi to earn a living. He hails from Northeast and has the thickest Boston accent you’ve ever heard, so get ready for that.

Wild practice: Many happy returns

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild practice Updated: November 10, 2014 - 4:19 PM

With a little sliver of time at home before resuming their road trip, the Wild practiced Monday morning at Ridder Arena--and nearly the full roster was on the ice. Winger Matt Cooke (lower body) was still out, but upper-body injury victims Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon both skated. The biggest surprise was seeing goalie Josh Harding, who broke his foot in September and practiced for the first time this season.

Parise, Spurgeon and Harding all will travel with the Wild to New Jersey for Tuesday's game, the last of a string of three on the road. Coach Mike Yeo said none of them will play, but he wanted all three to continue skating with the team as they move forward with their recoveries.

All were wearing red sweaters during practice, but none took it easy. The threesome participated in all drills, and each looked like they were well on the road to a return.

"I was happy to get the news they would be joining us for practice, and they looked good,'' Yeo said. "The bottom line is that we had to get through today. This was a big step. They looked good in practice.

"We'll talk some more with them, but we plan on bringing them on the road--not with the expectation they’ll play, but to give them a chance to hopefully get back sooner. So we'll let them skate with the group, and this is a good first step.''

The Wild did not allow the media to speak with Parise. Spurgeon said he resumed skating three days after his injury--which happened when the defenseman slid awkwardly into the boards during the Wild's shootout victory over San Jose on Oct. 30--and hasn't lost much conditioning. "I'm just waiting for everything to strengthen back up, and we'll go from there,'' he said.

Harding found out Sunday that he was cleared to practice. He said he felt good and has been working on his rehabilitation since shortly after breaking his foot.

"It was great seeing all the guys again and getting that competition back,'' Harding said. "Just challenging yourself to stop every shot, just going out there and doing your job. This was another step. Whatever I can do to help this team out, that's the next step.''

Yeo said he anticipates the near-return of Parise and Spurgeon will serve dual purposes. It will give the team an emotional lift, and it will be "a motivator'' to players who realize their roles could change when those two stars re-enter the lineup.

The biggest change Yeo wants to see in his team is more mental fortitude when things don't work in its favor. "We're not really that far off,'' he said. "There are stretches where we’re thought out very, very good. But the ability to stay with it for 60 minutes, we've got to be a little bit stronger between the ears. We've got to be a little bit tougher mentally.

"Things are not always going to go your way. The puck might not go in when you get chances, or the other team might get a bounce, might get a break and then score. That’s why you play a 60-minute hockey game.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT