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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Jared Spurgeon likely returning, Darcy Kuemper starting against Tampa Bay; Other Wild updates

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: February 3, 2014 - 6:08 PM

Late blog, I know, but it’s been a long day at the arena with Wild and Tampa Bay Lightning practices and a couple articles that I needed to get written first.

I wrote C1 feature on Mikael Granlund’s strong play of late. He had a bit of a valley Saturday in Calgary, but it’s been mostly peaks of late for Granlund, who has played first-line center with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville pieces of the past three games.

Granlund is riding a five-game point streak, which is tied for his career-high.

The Wild had a good practice here at the arena today, and coach Mike Yeo said it was “nice to be back on home ice.” He cautioned that the Wild must get mentally focused to play a good Lightning team because of the old first-game-after-a-long-road-trip doldrums that often plague NHL teams.

The Lightning has been fantastic this year, and if I got a vote (broadcasters vote for Coach of the Year), Jon Cooper would be in my top-3 for the Jack Adams. It’s extraordinary how the Lightning has survived despite playing the past two months without superstar Steven Stamkos.

The scoring center was on the ice at the X today and said he felt the best he has since breaking his tibia horrifyingly in Boston. Cooper, always good for a decent line, said it was time to ramp up the physicality on Stamkos today and told his players that even though Stamkos was wearing a white jersey, “he’s not an egg.”

Stamkos won’t play against the Wild on Tuesday but is eyeing a Saturday return for Tampa Bay and hopes to still represent Canada in the Olympics. Cooper joked that maybe Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who doubles as Canada’s coach, will be so kind and instruct his Red Wings not to touch Stamkos on Saturday. To be clear though, Stamkos needs to be medically cleared and feel fully confident on his leg before he returns.

It’s not unlike Mikko Koivu. There’s little doubt he will get medically cleared at some point, maybe even in time to play in the Olympics. But for him to play in the Olympics, he has to be physically capable and be 100 percent confident on his ankle.

Yeo said that while it’s doubtful Koivu plays Thursday against Nashville (last game before the break), there’s a lot of things on Koivu’s mind because he so wants to play in the Olympics. He feels pressure from his country but also needs to have the best interest of the Wild in mind. Yeo and GM Chuck Fletcher have made clear they would prefer he not play IF he’s deemed still injured or not physically capable. If he’s cleared and opts to play, Yeo is taking the stance that it’s not a bad thing, that after missing so much time, the Olympics would give Koivu a chance to get practices and game action so he’s “on top of his game” once the Wild season resumes Feb. 27 in Edmonton.

Big Ben Bishop, whom I once watched play the Gophers in this arena with the University of Maine, will start for the Lightning vs. Darcy Kuemper.

Valtteri Filppula (lower body) is a gametime decision, Cooper said, although the coach indicated he expects the Finnish center to play.

I had a nice chat with Tyler Johnson today. He attended a few Wild development camps and prospect tournaments back in the day and chose to sign with Tampa Bay over Minnesota. It’s worked out bigtime. He’s second among NHL rookies with 17 goals and 35 points, should be a Calder contender and centering Tampa Bay’s top line with Marty St. Louis in Stamkos’ absence. I’ll have some Johnson quotes in Wednesday’s paper (in my game notebook).

Defenseman Jared Spurgeon is likely to return against the Lightning after missing 14 games with a foot injury. He felt and looked good today, although Yeo said he would “put off” deciding which defenseman comes out for Spurgeon until the morning.

Yeo said merit and which defensemen he feels are needed against the Lightning will come into play. The candidates are Keith Ballard, Clayton Stoner or, dare we say, Nate Prosser, who has played consistently well after finally being given the opportunity to play, uh, consistently.

Kuemper has given up eight goals in the past two starts and Yeo called this a “huge growing moment.” Kuemper has been a No. 1 at every level and has bounced back from par to sub-par performances before. But this is really his first time at this level and Yeo wants to give him that opportunity to rediscover the top-notch game he showed much of January.

A solid effort could mean Niklas Backstrom doesn’t get a start before the Olympic break.

Justin Fontaine missed practice today because he was sick, so he’s a question mark against Tampa Bay.

No update on Josh Harding as the Wild has said it’ll try to get a better sense as to whether he’ll be able to return this season during the Olympics.

Yeo said the Wild’s having a staff meeting Wednesday to determine its Olympic plans. I’ve reported Jason Zucker, who will get to play in front of his former DU coach George Gwozdecky (Lightning asst.) on Tuesday, and Erik Haula will almost certainly play in Iowa during the Olympics. Maybe Stephane Veilleux, too.

The big decision will be Kuemper. He’s young and could use the game to keep this momentum. The risk in my opinion though is with Harding’s uncertain status, what if Kuemper got hurt in Iowa? I’d think the team wouldn’t want to risk that, but that’s what they’ll decide.

All the youngsters that have been here all year won’t play in Iowa during the break.

Again, for all of you asking my Thomas Vanek thoughts, see the previous blog.

I will be on KFAN from 9:55-10:35 Tuesday. Also, the fourth of five Star Tribune Chalk Talks with myself and Wes Walz is Tuesday before the Wild-Lightning game. If you would like to attend the event and the game, go to www.wild.com/chalktalk.

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