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

Heading into Calgary game, look for the Wild to break up top line, maybe recall a forward

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 17, 2015 - 4:46 PM

The Wild woke up this morning in Calgary, the sun was out, the sky didn’t fall, life moved on and they got right back on the horse to combine a bunch of bad clichés, sayings, analogies, whatever.

Afternoon from Calgary, where the Wild just got done with practice at the Saddledome prior to tonight's Western Hockey League clash between the Calgary Hitmen and the Medicine Hat Tigers.

As you know, the Wild, which was 8-0-2 in 10 games since Jan. 19, lost one game against Vancouver, then looked at the highlights and discovered the Flames rallied from three down to beat Boston on a fluke goal with 2.4 seconds left in OT and that the Winnipeg Jets rallied three times from a goal down to beat Edmonton in a shootout and that the L.A. Kings rallied to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning.

So the Wild enters tonight’s play in 10th, four back of the Canucks and Flames, three back of the 8th-place Sharks and one back of the Kings.

“It’s tough because you lose one game in three weeks in regulation and it feels like you’ve lost probably four or five in a row,” coach Mike Yeo said. “But that’s part of the challenge, that’s part of the journey of getting there. We’ve had some experience of going through things like this. I know we did last year, and we understand you have to be able to get right back on the horse.”

Last night’s bad outcomes magnify Wednesday’s game against the Flames, but goalie Devan Dubnyk said the Wild can’t go into these games thinking every one’s a must-win.

“We’ve done a really good job of just approaching each game as its own single challenge,” Dubnyk said. “Last night’s loss was very disappointing and yeah you look at the standings and think, ‘That’s a blow,’ but there’s a lot of points left to be had. The simple fact is if we keep winning games, we’re going to be in the playoffs.

“If we keep playing the way we have and keep winning hockey games, we’ll be where we need to be at the end of the year. We can’t look at the game last night and [Wednesday] and approach them like, ‘Oh my God, we can’t lose this game.’ That’s not a way to be successful.”

Zach Parise concurred, saying yesterday is “going to happen, but when it does, it’s a crummy feeling.”

But the Wild, he said, can’t now feel like all the good it has done the past three weeks went down the drain, saying, “we’re back in the mix when for awhile it was looking really thin.” He said every game is important the rest of the way, not just when it plays teams it’s chasing like Calgary, but when it goes to play Edmonton on Friday.

“They’re all really important for us,” Parise said.

Thomas Vanek missed today’s practice due to a lower-body thing he has been dealing with for some time. Yeo said he’s expecting Vanek to play, although the Wild may recall a forward if Vanek can’t play or if Yeo just wanted to change the lineup.

The fourth line of Stephane Veilleux-Erik Haula-Kyle Brodziak was on for the winning goal against the Canucks and Yeo said, “The idea behind a checking line is to make sure you don’t get scored on.” Yeo did say they have been doing good things though and have been good on the Wild’s 26 for 26 penalty kill since the All-Star break.

The Wild will likely break up the Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville line against the Flames because if the Wild doesn’t spread the wealth, with last change, Flames coach Bob Hartley can just continually throw out top-pair, Norris Trophy candidates Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie against that line.

“It’s something we’re thinking about. But nothing concrete yet,” Yeo said.

In practice, Parise and Mikael Granlund were on a line together with Jordan Schroeder on the right. My guess is Schroeder was just a placeholder for Vanek.

That line was together in the Wild’s win at Calgary a few weeks ago, although the always-honest Parise said, “We scored, but we didn’t get a lot of offensive-zone time and we were pretty careless with the puck if I remember right. We happened to score on a turnover and that’s pretty much all we did.”

But after last night’s lack of chances and the need to get the three best offensive players away from Giordano and Brodie, he understands why the coaches are considering breaking up the three vets.

Nino Niederreiter was back on a line with Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville like last Tuesday’s game in Winnipeg. As I think I mentioned on yesterday morning’s blog, it seems like every time Niederreiter is moved into a top-6 role, he’s not nearly as effective and changes his game.

Yeo said in Vancouver that Niederreiter is a lot more comfortable in his skin playing with guys like Charlie Coyle and Schroeder because he doesn’t always defer to the vets. Niederreiter actually said the same thing to me the first game after the break in Edmonton.

So Yeo plans to meet with Niederreiter in the morning and implore him not to change his game. Be strong on the puck, be good along the wall and go to the net like he did on his two goals in Vancouver.

The Parise-Koivu-Pominville line had a good amount of offensive-zone time in Vancouver but not a lot of scoring chances. He said it was tough playing against Vancouver because the Canucks do a good job collapsing down low or doing those swarms in the corner. He said playing against Vancouver without its two top D and only having 17 shots before that last-minute flurry, “That’s not very good and that’s part of why they’re line changing.”

The Flames are the best third-period team in the league. They have rallied 10 times in the third period for wins, a team record and two off the NHL record.

“They play a good game and they don’t break,” Yeo said. “They’re disciplined in their game. They’re a well-conditioned team. They’re a pressure team and quite often it leads to a lot of frustration for the opposition and the opposition may change their game a little bit. We saw it last game [against Boston], they can be down 3-nothing and they’re just going to keep on coming. They’re a young motivated group, so it will be a good test.”

Last month, the Wild held the Flames off in the third from rallying in large part to Dubnyk’s great goaltending.

As I said, I’d expect a callup. It may be somebody like Brett Sutter though (the Wild had seven hits yesterday and the fourth line was on for the winning goal) instead of rookie Tyler Graovac.

“These games are pretty rich right now,” Yeo said when I asked about maybe recalling Graovac. “That’s not to say he’s not an option, but to throw somebody in without a lot of experience playing this time of year can be a tough thing for somebody, too.” So Yeo said they’re talking about Graovac, somebody else or maybe going with the status quo. If there’s a change, I don’t see it being Stu Bickel though.

Wild wants a player who can play somewhat of a regular shift.

Surprise! Ballard returns for light practice

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: February 15, 2015 - 3:42 PM

It was so unexpected, it was almost a little hard to believe. The handful of spectators at Sunday morning's optional Wild practice kept staring at the guy with the 2 on the back of his helmet, making sure we really were seeing Keith Ballard on the ice at Xcel Energy Center.

The defenseman has been out since he was crushed into the boards Dec. 9 in a victory over the New York Islanders, sustaining a concussion and facial fractures. He wasn't planning to skate Sunday. But Ballard has been taking part in off-ice team activities and felt good when he came to the arena Sunday morning, as the Wild got ready for its road trip to Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. Knowing it would be a light practice, he asked athletic therapist Don Fuller if he could go on the ice.

Fuller cleared it with team doctors, and Ballard put on his hockey equipment for the first time in two months. It was a simple workout, just skating, doing non-contact drills and making and receiving passes. But it was a significant step for Ballard, even though he isn't sure where it will lead.

"It was fun to be out there,'' said Ballard, who has missed 29 games. "I'm not looking too far ahead or reading too far into it. It was one skate. For me, it was just fun to get out on the ice for a little bit.

"We'll see how I feel today and how I feel going forward. This past week has been encouraging, just being able to do something.''

Ballard has been doing light workouts for about a week. He wasn't sure how long he would last Sunday, but he stayed on the ice for most of the practice and skated for about 35 minutes.

Until last week, he had been largely inactive other than running errands and doing home and family chores. Ballard said he knew things were improving when he felt energetic last week; until that point, he typically grew tired and sluggish in the afternoons and wanted to sleep. After the practice--and for the next few days--he will be monitoring how he feels, watching for symptoms such as headaches and fatigue.

Ballard doesn't yet know whether he will return to hockey at all, let alone this season. Coach Mike Yeo said it was good to see a well-liked, well-respected player back on the ice, even if there were only 10 other players and two goalies going through a short and simple practice.

So now the Wild go west again, with a chance to finally move back into the top eight in the Western Conference standings. Yeo said goalie Devan Dubnyk will start at Vancouver, running his streak to 14 games.

A few other notes from Sunday:

--Yeo liked Justin Fontaine's game Saturday, when he got two assists in the Wild's 6-3 victory over Carolina. He thought Fontaine worked well with linemates Mikael Granlund and Thomas Vanek, playing to his personal strengths.

"I thought he had a strong game,'' Yeo said. "It's not an easy assignment when you get moved up and have an opportunity to play with guys like that. First off, you want to take advantage of the opportunity and stay in that kind of role, so you start thinking about points and you start thinking about making plays. And that’s good; you have to be aggressive.

"But at the same time, you have to make sure you're playing your own game. You can't just be trying to get the puck to (linemates) and force plays to them. I thought he did a good job of that. I thought he showed a lot of confidence and composure with those guys. He thinks the game at a high level, which is something very important.''

Yeo said when Jordan Schroeder was playing with Granlund and Vanek, he was forcing things. That affected his speed, negating one of his primary assets. When Schroeder was teamed with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter, Yeo said, he relaxed and began relying again on what he does well.

"He seems to have some comfort with those guys and some confidence that he can just go play his game,'' Yeo said of Schroeder. "I think we've seen that the last couple games that line has played together. Hopefully that can continue.''

--Yeo lauded the Wild's penalty kill, which has been a perfect 25-for-25 in its past nine games. The Wild has been highly disciplined lately, defending aggressively without taking careless or ill-advised penalties. When the penalty kill is called upon, it has been sharply focused, starting with Dubnyk and extending to a surrounding cast that takes pride in its work.

"They deserve a lot of credit,'' Yeo said. "(Dubnyk) deserves an awful lot of credit. We have the confidence we can be a little bit more aggressive up ice and he can help with our clears; also, we can be a little bit more aggressive in the zone and know that he's going to be back there to make the saves when there is a breakdown. So it's been a good joint effort.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

   

Wild recalls Kuemper on a low-key Sunday

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: February 8, 2015 - 3:13 PM

Only five players--Justin Fontaine, Jordan Schroeder, Matt Dumba, Christian Folin and Niklas Backstrom--took part in the Wild's optional practice Sunday morning at Xcel Energy Center. Coach Mike Yeo stayed off the ice, too.

With his team riding a five-game winning streak--and two critical games looming, against Vancouver and Winnipeg on Monday and Tuesday--Yeo gave his players only one directive. He reminded them not to look back at either the recent victories or the long slide that put them in such a deep hole in the Western Conference standings. The only way to emerge is to keep looking forward, Yeo said.

The coach plans to keep the current lineup intact when the Wild plays Vancouver on Monday at Xcel. That means Fontaine, who missed two games because of a groin injury before resuming practice Friday, will remain out of the lineup for the fourth game in a row. Folin has been a healthy scratch for the past four games.

Goaltender Darcy Kuemper was recalled Sunday and will be back in Minnesota on Monday. Devan Dubnyk will start against the Canucks, but Kuemper could get the call Tuesday at Winnipeg. Dubnyk has started all nine games since he was acquired on Jan. 14, and Yeo wants to be careful with him now that the schedule is ramping up with three games in four days, including a back-to-back.

"You want to ride the hot hand, and he's playing great,'' Yeo said of Dubnyk, who has four shutouts, a 1.31 goals-against average and .948 save percentage with the Wild. "That said, we want to make sure we're giving him a good chance to be successful and we're not burning him out. And on top of that, (Kuemper) has played well against Winnipeg.''

Kuemper went 2-3 in his five games in Iowa with a 3.22 goals-against average and .891 save percentage. He stopped 28 of 30 shots in a 3-2 home victory over Winnipeg on Dec. 29.

Yeo said he isn't frustrated that the Wild hasn't climbed much closer in the standings, despite a five-game win streak. After Saturday's games, the Wild was five points behind Calgary for the second wild-card playoff berth and six behind Winnipeg for the first wild-card spot.

"That’s just the reality when you're chasing as many teams as we were,'' Yeo said. "Somebody's going to be winning. We've been able to pass a few teams and make up a little bit of ground, and we also have some games in hand. We knew with where we were three weeks ago, when you're chasing that many teams, it wasn’t like we were just going to go win five games in a row and all of a sudden be where we need to be. We put ourselves in a pretty deep hole, and it takes a lot of time to get out of that.''

Yeo reiterated that the Wild cannot fall into the trap of feeling too pleased with itself, particularly with two more games this week against teams it is chasing. "Obviously, these games are huge,'' he said. "We're still taking that same approach before the road trip. We can't get caught up looking at the standings. We can't get caught up looking at three games from now. We certainly can't get caught up looking at what we've done in the past five games. The only thing that matters is tomorrow's game, and that will be a tough test.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

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

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