Good afternoon from the Cities, where it's suddenly springtime. I'd suggest reading all the way to the bottom of this blog because I'm seriously considering calling out a fan favorite, and one that's probably reading.

I just returned from practice. Wild coach Todd Richards worked his squad hard today, shouting orders, especially at the beginning when he felt his team wasn't prepared for the start of its workout. Hey, and you thought the Wild wasn't consistent. Give them a plus for slow starts folks. 

The team got the message and was crisp the rest of the hour. Richards would have loved to work on a million things today, but with a game against the Stars on Saturday, he had to weigh that and lighten the workload to just a few key areas. Special teams was one, not shockingly. So was crashing the net and getting pucks there, not shockingly.

Wild center Eric Belanger, who sustained an upper body injury last night, did not practice today. It doesn't sound overly major, but we've got no updates other than he came to Richards before practice and said he was not skating. If he can't play vs. the Stars, Benoit Pouliot will be back in the lineup and play center.

Whether Belanger plays or not, I've got a hunch Pouliot will be back in anyway. Richards said he's been out of the lineup more to do with "circumstance." He decided to pull Pouliot out against the Rangers to get Boogaard's physical element in the game. The Wild won, so he did the same thing in Pittsburgh. The Wild won, so Richards decided not to mess with a winning lineup and scratched Pouliot vs. the ... (I honestly cannot remember who they played last night, oh) Vancouver.

I swear to you, it just took me about 25 seconds to remember whom they played last night. I wasted my precious few brain cells thinking so hard. My head's feeling like Pierre-Marc Bouchard's -- cloudy.

Where was I?

Richards did say that he wants Pouliot to play harder, be more competitive, more physical, go to the net more, yada, yada, yada.

What's funny is those of us who have watched Pouliot "develop" for years here have actually been impressed with the hard work we've seen from him lately. But Richards still wants more. He said he doesn't want an average, mediocre Pouliot. In other words, there's still more there to give, in Richards' opinion.

Before I get to Sheppard, I wanted to let you know defenseman Kim Johnsson, who's missed the past six games with a shoulder injury, practiced today. He still sounds a little bit away though. He said there's certain things he can't do still. It sounded like he felt his shot was getting there, but being a defenseman, he's got to feel comfortable he can take a hit in the corner from an unimpeded forward, and he hasn't taken contact yet.

Ok, Sheppard. I've been meaning to say this for awhile. As much flak as this kid's taken for awhile now, the guy continues to impress me in one area.

If I were him and I saw me walking toward him on a daily basis, I'd run and hide (like a few of his teammates, I may add).

But this kid every single day sits in his stall like a MAN and answers question after question after question about his play. Every day. He did it again today and it can't be easy.

Between the media, the fans, the coach, the assistant GM who drafted him (if you read my Sunday column last week, here's the link), Sheppard is under siege right now for his lackluster play on the ice. Yet everyday, he sits in his stall and gives the media access to him.

That deserves props folks. Just like Brent Burns deserves criticism for his lack of accountability all season, and in general, after many games in my five seasons as the beat writer.

It is well-chronicled in the Star Tribune how much I think of Burns, both as a player and as a person. He's a good person and trust me, I appreciate the sensational access he's given me to his life when writing the numerous POSITIVE personality profiles I've written on him. 

But I've been covering this league since 1995 basically (1997 as a full-time beat writer), and I don't know if I can name another player who has as much difficulty facing up to the music after a game.

I hinted at it last night and was going to keep it to myself some more, but at the time, I didn't realize the 30-second back-and-forth between Burns and the media after the game was played on the radio. So there's no reason to hide it now.

That clip of Burns refusing to answer questions in full sentences and mumbling under his breath is what we get all the time after games -- when he's willing to come out and talk to us.

And I'm pretty sure Burns has been treated a little better in his tenure than James Sheppard has, yet Sheppard is constantly available, constantly willing to talk even though he knows what critical stories are being written on him.

The media exists not to be a nuisance. These are very well-paid professional athletes, and we are the liaison between the team and the fans. Part of a player's job is to be accountable to the fans who root them on, who pay their salaries!

Remember when Burns scored all those overtime winners? You, as fans, deserved to hear from him after those games, and he gladly spoke. Well, I'm sorry, if he has a bad game or the team doesn't play well, you, as fans, deserve to hear from him on that, too.

That's Brent Burns' job. But he clearly doesn't think of it that way.

And as I say often on my radio show, players have to take the good with the bad from an objective media. When things are going well, it's positive. When things aren't going well, it's sometimes negative.

I remember when I covered Marcus Nilson in Florida, he had a bad turnover late that led to a loss. The media walked in an empty locker room, and the only one sitting at his stall? Marcus Nilson.

Whenever anybody ever mentions the name, "Marcus Nilson," the first thing I think of is the amount of respect I gained for him that day. Marcus Nilson was an accountable hockey player.

James Sheppard, who has no points in 14 games, is willing to talk to us everyday for as long as we want him.

Brent Burns, who's a minus-12 on the worst team in the Western Conference, is not.

I'm sorry. This just had to be said. This might have just ruined my dealings with Brent Burns, but you know what, the next time he scores an overtime winner, you can bet that I'll be there to report on it happily.

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Vancouver Canucks 5, Wild 2; Belanger injured

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Belanger skating