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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Ballard out, Dumba in; Backstrom returns in backup role tonight at Tampa Bay

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: October 17, 2013 - 3:18 PM

As Josh Harding’s backup, goaltender Niklas Backstrom is expected to return to the nets tonight against the Tampa Bay Lightning after missing the past four games with a knee injury. Darcy Kuemper will likely be reassigned to Iowa either today or tomorrow, joining the Baby Wild in Charlotte for Saturday’s game.

Defenseman Keith Ballard will miss his second consecutive game. As I mentioned on yesterday’s blog, I saw him before and after the Toronto game and he looked Zombie-like. He practiced yesterday, but he didn’t take the ice this morning and coach Mike Yeo said Ballard isn’t “feeling well.” So that’s obviously not good after taking a puck to the face Monday in Buffalo.

“More than anything else, this is preventative,” Yeo said. “If he’s not feeling well, we’ve got eight healthy defensemen.”

Matt Dumba returns to the lineup tonight. Nate Prosser is scratched. Yeo said he played very well in Toronto, but it’s time to get Dumba back in. For Tampa Bay, giant goalie Ben Bishop in goal and Martin St. Louis, who is typically an iron man, is a gametime decision after blocking Drew Doughty’s shot the other night. Coach Jon Cooper says it’s a pain tolerance thing.

On the Wild, Cooper said, “I look at the score – the 4-1 loss to Toronto – and I’m sitting there thinking in my head, ‘Toronto’s rolling and Minnesota must have ran into a buzz saw.’ And then I watched the game and I can’t believe the score wasn’t reversed at worst. … They’re extremely structured, they battled hard all through their lines and I think they have some guy on defense there that plays 75 minutes in a 60-minute game (Ryan Suter). He’s just a horse back there. It’s pretty impressive to watch. Pretty impressed with their team. There’s a lot of structure and they play really hard, so this is going to be a tough one for us tonight.”

Cooper, what a great, affable interview. Fascinating guy. Was an attorney that coached hockey on the ice. He’s just moved up and up and up, has won everywhere and now is an NHL coach. He actually turned down a law partnership to coach in the USHL. He also played lacrosse at Hofstra, which is a stone’s throw from where I was kid running around on Long Island.

As of now, the Wild lines will start the same tonight for Minnesota, with Nino Niederreiter staying on the top line and Jason Pominville skating on the second line with Mikael Granlund and Dany Heatley.

I thought Yeo may return Pominville with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu because all three of his goals have come on the power play with them on the ice, but Yeo said that he’s still getting a lot of even-strength chances and he’s seen a step in Granlund’s game. Yeo says it seems like Pominville and Granlund complement each other very well.

Now, it’s a matter of getting the third guy to complement the other two – Heatley. Yeo and Heatley weren’t on the ice during the morning skate, and the presumption is they were watching video.

What’s Yeo expect from Heatley (no goals, one assist, 12 shots in seven games) tonight?

“Just play a good game. That’s the message right now. It’s easy to get caught up in scoring goals and stats and numbers, and when you do that, you get into quicksand a little bit where you dig yourself into a little bit of a deeper hole where you’re preventing yourself from doing the types of things you need in order to get that result that you want. So, just get the focus on pursuing pucks, winning battles, obviously making plays, but just a real strong focus on a two-way game and when you get a chance, get to the net.”

Cooper said on video the Wild and Lightning have very similar power plays. The Wild does lack one thing though: Steven Stamkos! So the Wild must stay out of the box tonight, and if it doesn’t, it must get that penalty kill in order. The Wild has surrendered eight goals in seven games.

Matt Cooke has been on for four (two 3-on-5’s), Clayton Stoner, Ballard and Jared Spurgeon three each, Jason Pominville, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Kyle Brodziak and Torrey Mitchell two each and Mikko Koivu, Charlie Coyle, Marco Scandella, Mikael Granlund and Zenon Konopka one each.

Backstrom’s been in for four and Kuemper and Harding two each.

Yeo says there have just been little errors that must be rectified, and “we have to approach each penalty kill with confidence.”

Local legend Darryl Sydor, the Wild assistant, was surrounded by press today. He won a Cup here with Tampa Bay in 2004 and this is his first game as a coach.

Talk tonight

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