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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Granlund returns to practice, Stoner to return vs. Nashville; Mike Rupp talks about T.J. Oshie hit

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: April 12, 2014 - 3:21 PM

Afternoon from Starbucks, where I’m writing and caffeinating after an up-tempo Wild practice as coach Mike Yeo and staff prep the team for its exhibitio…, I mean regular-season finale against Nashville.

It’ll be interesting to see how the game goes. Yeo plans to go with his potential playoff lineup, but the players could also be in severe don’t-get-hurt mode like veterans often are in exhibition finales.

Couple news items:

--Mikael Granlund (head) returned to practice today for the first time since being injured at Los Angeles on March 31. A lot more on this below.

--Kyle Brodziak left practice early in “discomfort,” but Yeo says he expects him to play against Nashville. If Brodziak doesn’t, it’ll be his first missed game since Feb. 25, 2011, when he missed two games with the flu. He has played in 231 straight games, not missing any last season or the season before. In Brodziak’s six 82-game seasons, he has played 79 or more in all six and then played all 48 in last year’s lockout-shortened season. The Wild needs Brodziak healthy and playing well in the playoffs because just like that Penguins game recently, Yeo needs Matt Cooke, Brodziak and I think eventually Nino Niederreiter to be a shutdown line in the playoffs to lessen the burden on the top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle. I personally feel that one reason why Parise and Koivu were so ineffective (one combined point) in last year’s playoff series to Chicago is because the Blackhawks were so deep, Yeo used them to really go head-to-head vs. Jonathan Toews’ line. Toews also didn’t do anything offensively until Game 5, but it’d be nice with the Brodziak line is somebody Yeo can continually put out there against the top line of whatever team the Wild faces.

-- Clayton Stoner, who has missed 10 games since spraining his MCL March 22 against Detroit when he was nudged and his skate his a rut, will return against Nashville. He’ll be paired with Nate Prosser (Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin were paired together in today’s practice) and Jon Blum will be taken out of the lineup. More on this below.

Couple of items:

-- I keep getting questions about the playoff schedule. That will come out Sunday night after every NHL game is complete. If the Wild opens in St. Louis or Colorado, it will likely start Thursday because St. Louis’ and Colorado’s arenas have conflicts Wednesday. Unless NBC Sports Network would pick up Game 1 Wednesday if the Wild faces Anaheim, I think that series begins Thursday, too, because Fox Sports North has the Wolves and Twins on Wednesday. We shall see. If the Ducks series started Thursday, there couldn’t be a game there Saturday, so it would probably have to go Thursday-Friday or Thursday-Sunday. All conjecture.

After tonight’s Ducks-Kings game, I’ll update this blog with playoff scenarios heading into Sunday’s last day. IF the Ducks get a point tonight, they clinch the West and the Wild can no longer play them.

Basically, the one scenario I’ll tell you now, IF the Ducks get a point tonight, AND the Blues lose to Detroit in regulation (11:30 a.m. game Sunday), we’ll know the Wild’s playing Colorado before the Wild plays Nashville and before the Avs visit Anaheim.

But, … as complicated as trying to figure out all this stuff has been, that scenario would be waaaaay too easy to actually occur.

Again, as of now, the Wild would play Colorado.

As I mentioned north on this blog, Granlund practiced today, skating in the middle of the so-called fifth line with suspended Mike Rupp and Dany Heatley, who continues to be as professional as you can be with the fact he’s an extra going into the playoffs. Even just shooting the breeze with him today about playoff scenarios, you’d never even know that he’s an extra.

Yeo on Granlund: “He looked pretty good, didn’t he? We knew that he was progressing well. Kinda talked about how he was feeling and getting through the workouts and getting cleared to have the first step of getting on the ice. Obviously he’s trying to accelerate things in a hurry [to be ready for Game 1]. He wants to get back in the lineup and he looks good. But obviously we’ll be smart about this, too.”

Granlund won’t play against the Predators, but Yeo said, “This was a good first step. The next step will be a matter of him getting into some contact drills and the battle part of our practices,” which could happen in practice next week.

If Granlund returns, he will like take back his No. 2 center spot with Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville.

My guess, and this is a total shot in the dark, is Cooke-Brodziak would be a tandem with Niederreiter moving from Line 4 to Line 3.

Haula would take back his spot on the fourth line (Brodziak is the guy who will be the shutdown checking-line center to open the playoffs), and that may be between Stephane Veilleux and Cody McCormick. I think that has the makings of a good line – Haula’s speed, Veilleux’s speed, energy and physicality (the Wild’s record with Veilleux this season is 21-11-1). If one assumes Yeo will want McCormick’s straight-line physicality on the forecheck and considering how well he has played lately, I’m guessing the odd guy out will be Justin Fontaine.

However, there is one tricky thing here that may come into play. Fontaine will play his 66th game of the season tomorrow. He needs 69 games to be a restricted free agent this summer vs. a Group 6 unrestricted free agent. If Fontaine doesn’t get three playoff games, the Wild will no longer own his rights when his contract expires after the season. Fontaine has proven to be a valuable, very good player, so I don’t think the Wild would want to potentially lose the guy for nothing via free agency.

As for Stoner, he’s ahead of schedule here. We were told week to week. He was told 4 to 6 weeks, but he feels good and the Wild wants to give him a game to see where he’s at before Game 1.

Remember, he got a concussion in Game 1 last year and the Wild really felt it missed his physicality vs. the Hawks.

“The playoffs, it’s tough hockey, there’s no question,” Yeo said. “A lot of stuff going on around the front of our net, in front of our goalie, so if you can have a guy who’s a physical presence along the boards and in front of our net, then that’s a nice element to have.”

If Stoner plays, the only way Blum starts the playoffs in the lineup is if Nate Prosser comes out (Suter, Scandella, Brodin and Spurgeon, in no particular order, are in). I don’t think Prosser’s taken out for Game 1.

Yeo said, “It doesn’t mean necessarily that he won’t even be playing. I don’t want to make that decision. I’m comfortable that he’s been able to come in, come out of our lineup. His game’s looked the same. We know and we’re happy with what he brings. His execution level has been real strong. That St. Louis game was maybe the best game that he’s played, and I feel that he’s gotten better since he’s been with us. Part of that is probably getting comfortable with the team and how we play. Some of it I think is his confidence and showing what he could do.”

Again though, if Stoner plays, do the math: It’s either Blum or Prosser coming out.

You’ll hear from Stoner in tomorrow’s paper. Same with Granlund.

If Granlund returns, the trickle-down effect means three lines could be altered. If Stoner returns, the trickle-down effect is two pairs are altered.

When this happened after the trade deadline, it took awhile for the Wild to rediscover its game.

I asked Yeo if he’s concerned: “If you have the opportunity to get a player like Granny back, this would do an awful lot for our group and I don’t think it’ll be a huge adjustment for us. You look what it would do for our power play, whether it’s the first PP or the second PP, either way we’re going to get stronger. Lineup-wise, if he’s able to come in and step right into that second-line role, we’re getting stronger there and we’re also getting stronger the rest of the lineup, too. I’m not too concerned about it. Until we get the green light that he’s ready to go, we’re comfortable with the guys we have.”

If Granlund returns, he’ll likely be on the No. 2 unit because in my opinion, Charlie Coyle’s got to be on the first. His right-handed shot in the middle gives that unit a bigtime threat like we saw in Winnipeg on his goal. And no, Granlund is not taking Koivu’s spot on the No. 1 unit.

Rupp was suspended four games for his hit on T.J. Oshie. We talked to him this morning.

Rupp: “I was glad to hear that Oshie is doing well. For me, that’s truly the main concern that the player is not seriously injured. Hopefully he’ll get back on the ice soon. He’s a great player for the Blues and the league, so I’m happy to hear that.”

“It was a situation where I got stuck out there for a long shift. We were starting out there against their fourth line and we got stuck out there and they were trying to get the mismatch that they’d want. I was just in a time where it’s my first game back and trying to be structurally sound was my main objective coming into the game. I have, in that situation, a player come up the boards and my job there is not to let the player or the puck come to the middle of the ice. There was a late attacker and there was a sixth attacker probably in the middle of the ice. So my intent there is to finish my hit there and not allow the puck to go in the middle or the player. There’s zero intent on the outcome. I feel awful for that. I know coming around the circle he looked up and I felt like he saw me and his D-man right there. I don’t want to say we made eye contact – don’t think there was eye contact  --but he looked up to kind of see what player was around him. Then he looked down at the puck and cut to the middle. I know that what I felt on the ice was I hit chest and his shoulder. I didn’t feel his head. I’m not naïve enough to know when I watch the video there was some head contact there. But I can tell you that definitely the first point of contact was shoulder and chest, so I think it’s a matter of me being 6-5 and a hit that got away from me. I’ll take responsibility for that.

No suspensions, no fines?

It’s been something – there have been things in my career that I’ve said in my career that you want to be remembered for when you leave the game and one thing is the respect of your teammates. That far outweighs any goals or anything else you accomplish on the ice. There’s that and then you want to be known as a guy who plays the game the right way. Even on our call in talking to the league, they made note of saying that a guy who’s been in the league as long as I have in the role that I have, it’s unheard of that nothing’s been of question for me in my career. So I don’t like that there’s questions of marking a player or head-hunting. That’s never been the case for me. I’ve been a guy who’s gone out and stirred things up emotionally in games, but I’ve never taken a shot at a player and I would never start to do that now. It’s just one, like I said, that hit got away from me and I’ll take responsibility for that.

That's it for now. I'll be on Fox Sports North during Sunday's pregame show and first intermission.

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