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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Wild loses 3-1 to Columbus in preseason opener; Zucker tweaks groin

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage, Wild training camp Updated: September 17, 2013 - 10:38 PM

Not the prettiest of games tonight, but that was to be expected in the Wild’s exhibition opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets – and far from Columbus’ A squad.

But coach Mike Yeo said it was clear the Jackets had played a few exhibition games and the Wild was still in “scrimmage mode.” He said Columbus was at a different speed and battle level than the Wild and it took Minnesota “about 58 minutes to really get up to game mode.”

The big news of the night is left wing Jason Zucker tweaked his groin on what Yeo thought was the youngster’s first shift. He tried to battle through it, but he left the game at the 7:50 mark of the second.

Yeo hopes it isn’t serious and there’s lots of time and camp left, so they didn’t want him to hurt it more.

If it is something that lingers, that really opens the door for Nino Niederreiter, 21, who scored a goal tonight, had three shots and was a constant presence. What I like is he goes to the net and parks himself there. So many go there and then continue by.

Yeo said he’d argue that Niederreiter, who I feature in Wednesday’s Star Tribune, was “probably our best forward tonight. I liked that he was making plays and I like that he was going to the net, but some guys go to the net and then vacate quickly and he has a presence in front of the net.”

In the third, he was always there and just couldn’t smack the puck home.

But Yeo said, “We have to take our time with Nino for sure because there are some other parts of his game we have to coach him through.” Yeo said, “what he did with the puck, he was strong,” so Yeo is clearly indicating the areas are away from the puck and the structure inside the Wild’s system.

Yeo said Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund had moments of good and bad, but Coyle made plays and Yeo loved Granlund’s elevation of his game in the third. He pointed to his speed, assertiveness and “compete.”

Granlund definitely looked more comfortable than I’ve seen him and Coyle said, “he’s definitely gained a step.” With Zucker’s injury, Granlund and Coyle each skated wing and center and sometimes with Niederreiter.

The defensemen, there was good and bad. Yeo said you could just tell early there was slow decision making, slow decisions to move the puck, which is natural in a first game.

Matt Dumba had four shots but said he was jittery early. He and Keith Ballard were a pair, and there was good and bad, like the Mark Letestu breakaway goal. That was theme of the night for many – good and bad.

Marco Scandella, some good, some bad. Brian Connelly had a tough go at times.

Justin Fontaine and Jon Blum were minus-2s. Fontaine was robbed twice. Niklas Backstrom gave up three goals on 10 shots in half the game. As planned, Darcy Kuemper came in midway and stopped seven of seven shots.

“First exhibition game, and it was blatant that it was,” Yeo said. “We gave up more odd-man rushes tonight than I hope we give up in the first month of the season.”

Again, I wouldn’t make too much of this. I saw a lot of good from Coyle, Granlund, Niederreiter and Dumba, and those are the guys to really focus on in these six exhibition games. The Wild's heavy hitters weren't playing either.

I will be on XM Home Ice radio Wednesday morning at 9:45 a.m. CT. As part of the new CBA, there are mandatory days off in training camp. The first is Wednesday, so barring news, no blog as I get that daily 60-second video up and running.

The Wild plays in Winnipeg on Thursday. It’ll skate here in the morning and then fly there, so unless we get the lineup Wednesday, I’ll let you know after Thursday’s skate. I will be at the game in Winnipeg, so with no TV, follow along on Twitter.

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