First place in the Northwest Division is on the line Monday night when the Wild, winners of four of its past five, visit Rogers Arena and the Vancouver Canucks.
Good afternoon (early evening back in Minnesota) from Vancouver, where the Hockey God(s) provided me with a gorgeous final off-day in this magnificent city before realignment hits next season and limits me to one or two games here a season.
Mike Yeo’s got his team running on all cylinders right now. The Wild practiced this afternoon down at the building formerly known as GM Place. The only Wild player who didn’t practice was defenseman Tom Gilbert, whom Yeo expects to play Monday against the Canuckleheads.
Yeo indicated it was a maintenance day for the veteran defenseman, who was mugged by Colorado’s John Mitchell early in Saturday’s game and did take a shot off the leg before one of the Avalanche’s second-period goals.
Left wing Mike Rupp, who sustained a lower body injury in Saturday’s game, practiced today. Yeo indicated that he would play, meaning Jason Zucker, although he has been cleared to return, will have to continue to wait to get back in the lineup.
That means recently-signed defenseman Brett Clark would continue to wait as well. The Wild hasn’t had a lot of quality practice time lately, so Yeo said he wants to give him the best opportunity to be successful.
It’s also understandable that Yeo doesn’t want to fiddle with a winning lineup.
“The lineup that we had did a really good job last game, and the game previous to that, as well,” Yeo said.
With Pierre-Marc Bouchard deserving to stay in the lineup after two quality games, there’s just no spot for Zucker right now. Charlie Coyle continues to play well on the top line, Bouchard has retaken Zucker’s spot on the second, Yeo isn’t going to sit any of the veterans on the third line and the fourth line of Rupp, Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell has played real well together, brings a different and much-needed type of element (physicality, defense, energy) and played well in this building last month.
Asked if it’s tough not to throw Zucker back in, Yeo said, “Yeah. For sure. But it was hard taking Butch out, too. These are the tough choices that we have to make.”
The Wild has won two in a row for the seventh time this season. The six previous times it failed to extend that streak to three. Monday it’ll attempt to do so in an arena it has not taken a victory from in 11 visits (0-9-2, outscored 40-15). The Wild did play pretty well in last month’s 2-1 loss here though, and even though the Canucks are 2-1 against the Wild this year, the Wild has played them well.
The Canucks are up and down these days, getting trounced by Detroit last night at home. The Canucks are 0 for 30 on the power play in the past 11 games.
Niklas Backstrom, 10-3-1 in his past 14 starts, will get the nod. The Canucks didn’t practice Sunday, but the assumption by many is Cory Schneider will get the start despite Roberto Luongo holding Minnesota to one goal in his past four home starts.
Backstrom has been good the past month, but he has shown signs of cracking lately. He gave up seven goals in two wins against Colorado and was swimming all over the crease the first two periods before a strong third Saturday.
Yeo is aware of Backstrom’s workload and my guess is he would even consider giving him a game off Wednesday in Detroit. But Yeo said today: “We’ll make sure that we’re monitoring him. … It’s important to get wins. We’re going into a battle for first place [Monday], and I think it’s important that we go with our starting goalie. We want to give ourselves the best chance to win that game. We’ll make sure that we do that every night, but at the same, it’s important that we don’t burn him out. We’ll make sure that he gets enough rest, too.”
I wrote a big story on Ryan Suter for Monday’s paper. He has been sensational since a rocky start, and he talked to me about what helped turn it around. He is now a legit Norris Trophy contender, and that may have been strengthened if Kris Letang’s injury for Pittsburgh today was serious.
Suter is second among NHL defensemen with 21 assists and 23 points. He has done that in 27 games. He is one point from surpassing Jared Spurgeon’s defensemen lead in 70 games last year. He has got a point in nine of the past 10 games.
Devin Setoguchi has a goal in three straight games and nine in the past 17.
That’s it for me. I’ll be on KFAN at 10:20 CT Monday and on Fox Sports North Plus during Wild Live and first intermission Monday.
Oh yes, remember, the game is on Fox Sports North Plus. Go to their site to find out what channel that is on your provider.
Talk to you after Monday’s skate.
More from Star Tribune
More from Russo's Rants
The Wild signed one of its three 2014 sixth-round picks Tuesday
Assistant coach Darby Hendrickson and goalie coach Bob Mason will sign new contracts and return to the club in their same roles. Former interim coach John Torchetti has interviews lined up elsewhere.
The Wild coach, who threw out the first pitch at Thursday's Twins game, is in town for meetings with management and players.
Vay will compete with Steve Michalek and Brody Hoffman for a minor league job.
The Wild landed its top choice, a coach who led Anaheim and Washington to eight division titles.