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.
Also find Russo on Facebook.
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The Wild and St. Louis Blues practiced at opposite sites today. The Wild had an optional, one though where the majority of the team skated. The Blues had a full skate.
Coach Mike Yeo said all players are healthy from Thursday’s 4-2 Game 1 win over St. Louis and there will be no lineup changes.
“I don’t really see a reason to,” Yeo said.
Similarly, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said no lineup changes, although he reunited David Backes and T.J. Oshie with Dmitrij Jaskin and Patrik Berglund moved to the Jared Schwartz-Paul Stastny line.
“We’re not making any lineup changes,” Hitchcock said. “We need to play better. We need to play our way at a higher level and if we do that, we'll be in good shape. I think every aspect of our game needs to be amped up a little bit if we expect to beat this team here. They're a real good team and we're going to have to be on top of our game to beat them.”
The Wild expects the Blues to respond and Yeo is interested to see how the Wild handles being up in a series for the first time in his tenure. Remember, the Wild trailed the 2013 series against Chicago, never led last year’s Colorado series until winning Game 7 and never led the Chicago series in the second round.
“It shouldn’t be hard to stay hungry,” Yeo said. “If anything, it should fuel it a little bit more. I think we still recognize the tough challenge we have ahead of us. We got the first game. Rhat’s great. But we there’s an awful lot of work to be done still.
“I would fully expect them to come out and play a real physical brand of hockey, try to impose themselves on us. I expect them to try to throw everything at the net and try to crash the net real hard. I don’t think that’s a real big secret, but we’ve just got to make sure we’re not sitting around watching and waiting to see what they’re going to bring at us. We have our own gameplan that we’ve got to make sure we’re aggressive in how we approach ourselves.
“I think the idea is when you grab the lead, you want to push harder and try to extend it. I think for us to feel any kind of satisfaction or be overly pleased with ourselves, I don’t think you’re going to see that with our group. We know it’s going to be a tough test. All we can do right now is make sure we put our best game on the ice and go all-in with the way that we have to play and see what that gives us.”
Hitchcock said, “I thought they outchecked us. Their determination to defend was greater than ours was. Both offensively and defensively they had more minutes where they made it hard on us. If you look at the 60 minutes, there were ebbs and flows. We were really good in stages, they were just better in more stages. They were much better than we were in the second period and we mounted a pretty big comeback in the third, but I think their checking and compete on the puck was at a higher level throughout the lineup than ours was.
“I think they make you earn your stripes. So, it's our job to earn our stripes. They make you earn your ice whether it's in the D-zone or in the neutral zone, they make you earn your stripes. They check well. They're well-coached, they check well and I thought we had times where we let them off the hook when we didn't have to and that fed the engine that fed the odd-man rushes. We gave up too many odd-man rushes, but it was a lot of time when we had the puck and it was us having the puck in the offensive zone, getting checked off it, turning it over, forcing offense and then boom, they're gone and they got the foot-speed to go and we fed that engine a little bit too much.”
Zach Parise said, “From a mentality standpoint, the second one is so important for us and hopefully we can have the same type of game that we did.”
He said the pressure did not come off by winning Game 1: “That can be erased pretty quickly. We’d love to get out of here with a couple of wins. We did the first part of that last night and now we have to find areas to improve for the second game.”
Parise said, “Anytime you lose the first game in the series, you want to rebound and have a great second game. But at the same time, we can be better as well and we’re looking to put together a better second game.”
That was the theme in the Wild locker room today and clearly the message Yeo gave his team.
Nino Niederreiter: “[Saturday’s] a very important game for us. We know they’re going to come out even harder and that’s exactly what we’ve got to do too. We played some good hockey yesterday, but I think we can still crank it up another level.”
Charlie Coyle: They’re definitely not happy with their game. They obviously have more and we feel we have more too. You can never be complacent. We won. Put it behind us and stay levelheaded here. Bring that physicality back and it’s going to wear them down.”
Jordan Leopold: “We have a tough Game 2. Do we want it? Yeah. But it’s going to be a tough challenge. I’ve been in their room. I know they’re going to make some changes, look at video and do some things. I know what the mentality is and what the preparation’s going to be. It’s going to be right up there. They’re very focused. We need to be able to match it if not be better. They’re going to respond. We just need to stay with our gameplan.”
I talked to Chris Stewart and Niederreiter about Steve Ott, who was doing his best to get under the Wild’s skin last night. That’s Steve Ott. Just YouTube Steve Ott and Josh Harding to refresh your memory of his act.
But Stewart, Niederreiter and Jason Zucker (Ott grabbed hold of his collarbone real obviously) all ignored him, which could have the opposite effect, they said. Ignore him, smile and he and the Blues get more frustrated. Stewart said though don’t think for a second he won’t take an opportunity to return the favor at some point in this series after getting drilled by Ott yesterday.
More on that in Saturday’s paper.
Yeo on Jason Zucker today: “We needed speed to be a factor and I think we saw that last night. Speed for us is not about one guy and I think if you look at that one line, that line played fast all night too. That’s one thing, for sure he’s a guy that has the ability to break plays and push the D back and challenge them with his speed individually. But I think the thing that I was pleased with last night was the speed game that we played with and that’s not an individual thing, that’s how we play the game.”
I found this quote interesting on Zucker: “We’ve all know that he has the ability to finish, to create chances to score goals. His evolution has come and how he’s grown as a player and No. 1 how he plays without the puck. He finds himself in much better positions because of that, but his competitiveness is miles from where it was the first couple of years in here. He recognizes how he has to play the game, there is a conversation, I think we were in Long Island a couple of years ago (Russo note: this had to be last year) and just basically told him there is no reason you can’t play the game like Zach and that should be sort of a mentor for him in how he approaches the game, his tenacity, his work ethic his compete level and doing so, generate a lot more offense because of that.”
The Blues are 1-7-1 after long breaks. Yeo was asked about that: “We had the same break as them, so I wasn’t real concerned. We’ve got a lot of bodies right now. We had a period of time where we had a long break before we played the Rangers and we used that as a template of how not to use the week (chuckled). We kind of changed some things and I felt our guys would be ready to go. Plus, a long break in the dog days of a season are a different story than before you start the playoffs. Obviously you’re going to be pretty amped up and there was no shortage of intensity right from the start of the game. I was certainly pleased with how our timing looked right from the start.”
By the way, those changes he talked about? Basically that extra line of red jerseys were bystanders during a lot of line rushes.
Lastly, a cut and paste of Kevin Shattenkirk today. The always quotable Blues defenseman had a lot of good stuff to say, and you can sense the respect level he has for the Wild.
On the Blues being 1-7-1 when having three or more days off? It's a pretty weird stat. They had the same thing too. It's a matter of getting back into game form. Yesterday was a big game, there was a little bit of nerves there at the start. We just didn't get to our game right away, which ultimately hurt us, not being able to get on top of things early enough. We know what we did right yesterday and how we looked when we did and that's what we have to do tomorrow from the start.
Beating Minnesota? I think you just have to remember what the formula was. We were chipping pucks in, we were hard on our forecheck, the D men were getting shots to the net, that's important, they seemed to be playing passive in their zone, getting into shot lanes, not allowing anything to the inside, it's going to be hard ice to fight for, but when we did it, that's when we're successful. That's what we need to work on.
Hitchcock talks of keeping it simple? They can be a frustrating team at times because they're so patient in the neutral zone and their defensive zone. They're not really letting us into the middle and that can cause you to try to make plays that aren't there or force things. That's when we keep it simple, that's when we stick to our game of grinding things down physically and just trying to get pucks to the net and looking for those rebounds.
We know how to win at home. We still have the advantage on our side that we have a home game tomorrow. I think that's how we're approaching it. The first one slipped away from us, that's for sure, today we came with a fresh attitude. Tomorrow is important absolutely but we can't put too much pressure on ourselves.
Was the time off good for him? I felt good out there. I thought last night was the best I've felt since the injury. For me, that was the most promising thing out of yesterday, I felt more like myself than I pretty much have all year.
Back to the time off? That's part of it. They did it before too. They had three days off. I think when you're playing on the road it's easy not to force things and feel that pressure of having to get that game. I think we let that get to us a little early on. We settled in and that's the most important thing, that's what we have to remember and remember how we looked when we did.
Things you learned from seeing them in person, rather than on film or in previous games? I think just one thing that I've seemed to learn from them is you can't forget they played last year too and they had a pretty good playoff run. They showed a little more experience than maybe we knew they were going to have. They're a great team. They're deep like us, they play a very good team game, they have a goalie in net who's pretty confident and playing great hockey right now. We have to find a way to expose them and be able to pick on their weaknesses and open them up this series.
Puck possession a key to counteracting Minnesota's speed? That and not turning the puck over in those crucial areas, at their blue line, when we have possession in the neutral zone, making strong plays, that's what's key to really not feeding into that team speed they seem to have.
Wild faster than expected? It's the playoffs. They played to the best of their abilities and I think that's what every team does at this time of year. We knew they were fast, they showed it, they proved it, now we adjust to it, we know what it is, we know how to handle it.
I think the one thing we can work to do is with our size up front, we have the ability to get on those defensemen, younger guys, guys who aren't as big and physical as our guys, just really work and make them play hard. I think it's going to be tough for them to win battles against our big guys out front, that's why we have to get pucks to the net and work to find those rebounds because I think we can win those battles.
Getting more shots on Dubnyk? There was the opportunity to shoot pucks early and I was guilty of it early on, was having it on my stick too long and then trying to get it to the net. They were packing it in pretty tight, so when we get those pucks on the point we have to get it there quickly so they can't set their defense again. That goal was a good example of it.
Importance of scoring on Dubnyk? That's important for us. It's important mentally, to try to put it in his mind that we're coming and that's the way we're going to try to score goals. We did a great job last Saturday and we have to realize there's a way to do it. We need to stick with that game plan.
Talk to ya Saturday. I best write for the actual paper now. Plus, I’m going to the Cardinals-Reds game tonight.
The Wild held its final practice of the week this morning at Xcel Energy Center and is now headed to the airport for a flight to St. Louis.
Game 1, finally, is at 8:30 p.m. Thursday.
Our coverage today:
My big profile on Jason Zucker. Give it a read to learn a little more about the Wild speedster.
The Wild will be looking for Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter to step up again in the playoffs.
Rachel Blount on the importance of special teams and the need for the Wild's power play to get its head out of, uh, the sand.
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock named Jake Allen Game 1 starter today.
"I'm looking forward to it," Allen said. "It'll be a good challenge. I've been working for this moment all year. To be able to get the start, it's going to be huge. I know we're all ready and excited to go. It feels like a long four-day break here."
Allen gave up four goals in his last four starts and will contend with Michael Hutchinson as goalie on the NHL's All-Rookie team.
Allen went 22-7-4 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .913 save percentage.
'It's been quite the year for me, a little bit up and down, but I found myself, I found my game. It's something that I've been working for since I first turned pro. I finally get an opportunity and I'm looking forward to the challenge. We're ready for a big effort tomorrow night."
Left wing Matt Cooke practiced today and isn’t expected to play Thursday. Sean Bergenheim took the spot that was occupied by Ryan Carter on the left of Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine today.
Coach Mike Yeo said they’ll take the decision into tomorrow. Bergenheim has been a playoff performer before, scoring 12 goals and five assists in 23 playoff games for Tampa Bay and Florida.
“It’s something different with every player,” Yeo said. “It’s kind of luxury for us. We have different players with different identities and one player can kind of change the dimension of the whole line. All those players have their strengths. With Bergie, he’s had success when he’s been in the players in terms of how he goes to the net, how he gets in on the forecheck, he’s created some offense. Certainly an energy type player.”
Yeo said, “We are expecting a tough matchup for that line. We need guys that are, No. 1, be solid defensively because I’m expecting matchups that we have to be strong in our defensive part of our game, but you also don’t want to defend the whole time. If you are out there against offensive-type players, then certainly there are opportunities to create offense against those guys as well. I think that that’s a line that would have that capability if he were to be there.”
Bergenheim said, “If I’m playing, I’m playing. I’ll be happy about it and I’ll do my best…I want to play in the playoffs and help the team. If I’m not, then I’m just going to keep on working every day and wait for my opportunity.”
On his success in the playoffs, Bergenheim said, ““I think it’s been the most fun I’ve had playing ice hockey. It is the playoffs. I enjoy it, for sure. I think I’ve had success before and partly it is because of the style I play.”
With so many forwards here, Bergenheim said, “Obviously it’s been tough that way, not being in the lineup some of the nights. Now we’re in the playoffs, we’re a team, everybody, if you’re in the lineup or not, you’re going to do the best you can every day to help the team whatever the role is.”
Asked if he may consider Erik Haula or Jordan Schroeder for Game 3 (in other words, going with gritty guys on the road, speedy guys at home), Yeo said, “We’ll see what the first two games look like. I don’t have a plan beyond Game 1. We have a pretty good idea of where we want to go with that. Once we get into Game 1, it’s a matter of adjusting, seeing what’s working and what’s not working and identifying if it’s not working because you’re not doing it well enough or because you need to make a change.”
Cooke said he pushed hard Monday and it was nagging. Yeo said yesterday the discomfort wasn’t related to Cooke’s previous sports hernia, but Cooke said, “It’s all related. The first injury caused the second injury. I’m just dealing with it all right now. General soreness, tightness.
“I knew I was going to be in for this process. I pushed it pretty hard to get back and get on the ice a lot and skate a lot to make sure my conditioning was where it was supposed to be. It felt pretty good in the two games that I played. But it’s still going to be, I’m still in a situation that throughout the playoffs, I’m going to have to gauge how it recovers.”
Cooke said he’s available for Game 1, but it’s Yeo’s decision.
Yeo said, “I don’t think he’s ready for tomorrow. Certainly I don’t see why Game 2 would not be a real strong possibility.”
Goalie Darcy Kuemper missed practice today because he’s sick. The Wild sent him to the doctor to figure out what’s up and Yeo said the team will probably keep Kuemper away from the group. Niklas Backstrom is expected to back up Devan Dubnyk if Kuemper doesn’t meet the team in St. Louis.
Big game Thursday.
The Wild has lost seven consecutive Game 1’s and have fallen behind 2-0 in each of its last three series.
Of the eight series the Wild has been in all-time, it trailed 0-2 (’14, 1st round), 0-2 (’14, 2nd round), 0-2 (’13, 1st round), 0-3 (’07, 1st round) and 0-4 (‘03, 3rd round) in five of them.
Of the 10 times the Wild has played the first two games on the road, it is 2-8.
That's it for me. I have a flight to catch. Talk to you from St. Lous. Big Devan Dubnyk profile in Thursday's paper.
Afternoon from Xcel Energy Center, where the Wild held another practice today as it anxiously awaits opening the playoffs Thursday in St. Louis.
"Like a kid on Christmas, two more sleeps," Chris Stewart kidded. "That’s the only way to put it. It’s kind of like you’re waiting for judgment day. You just kind of wait around, but you do get some time to get ample rest and get ready for the next series."
Said Blues captain David Backes: "You want to get into it. Five days of prep and things that Hitch probably relishes and enjoys but we want to put our skates on and play for keeps and we finally get to do that on Thursday."
Here's our coverage from today's paper:
Zach Parise and Ryan Suter talk about how trying a year this was for them with the deaths of their fathers and how they supported each other.
Rachel Blount's story on how the Wild hopes to counter the Blues' physicality with speed.
Tomorrow's paper, I'll be writing a pretty cool personality profile on Jason Zucker, a feature on David Backes (I chatted with the Blues captain via phone yesterday) and a notebook. Rachel is writing about how important special teams will be in this series, particularly solving the Wild's poor power play.
This afternoon at 5 p.m., I'll be at the Local in Minneapolis with columnist Jim Souhan doing another podcast. Come on down or listen live or at a later date at souhanunfiltered.com or IHeart Radio or Itune or your Podcast app on your iPhone or spreaker or...
Some news from today's Wild practice:
Matt Cooke didn't practice today with some "discomfort" that coach Mike Yeo said is unrelated to the sports hernia surgery he had in February.
Yeo said, "I'd say he's definitely a possibility [for Thursday]. It'll just be a matter of us deciding if he's not a hundred percent, then we wouldn't put him in. We've got healthy guys but I don't think this is something that's going to linger."
Ryan Carter replaced him on the line with Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine today. Yeo said, "That's the way we went today. Lots of special teams work today. I'd say there's definitely a possibility for that but we've got other options, based on identity, based on roles. But that's the look we went with today."
My gut? In St. Louis, the Wild wants to go with a grittier lineup and Carter draws in if Cooke can't play. At home, when Yeo can dictate more of the matchups, I bet he goes with the speedier Erik Haula and maybe tries to get him out against Vladimir Tarasenko the way he did last year against Nathan MacKinnon in the Colorado series.
On Haula, Sean Bergenheim and Jordan Schroeder potentially be scratched for Game 1, Yeo said, "That’s part of the challenge, but guys that were here last year remember and guys that have been part of the playoffs (know) things change quickly. Haula went from barely being in the lineup to barely playing in the first couple games to having an elevated role and obviously having quite an impact as things went on. Things change quickly and we just have to make sure they stay positive, and they stay ready as far as what they’re doing on the ice."
Remember, Fontaine, too. And Brodziak. I was talking to Fontaine about that this morning. He didn't even play Games 1 and 2 in Denver last year. Now Yeo says he has played so well, he doesn't have to look over his shoulder.
Well, for now. If Fontaine doesn't make an impact in St. Louis, it wouldn't shock me if Schroeder draws in or Bergenheim, who has a history of producing in the postseason.
Lots of bodies right now.
The Wild will practice here in Minnesota on Wednesday, then fly to St. Louis for Thursday's Game 1.
In St. Louis today, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock again didn't name Brian Elliott or Jake Allen starter for Game 1.
Yeo joked, "I’m not ready to declare my starter yet."
Hitchcock indicated he would name his starter Wednesday.
Yeo said it makes no difference to the Wild, as in it won't change anything.
Dubnyk said, "We’ve been playing these games for months now, and we’ve done a real good job of really being able to focus on a single game at a time and regardless of winning or losing just forgetting about it and shifting our focus to the next game. And we’ve had to do that for months now. So I think we’ve grown as a team to know how to do that well and that should help us going forward here.”
On beating St. Louis twice since March 14, Dubnyk said, "You look at the two wins we had against St. Louis, those are both games you can look at. We go in and we hang around in a back to back in a tough building and score two big goals in the third period, and the game here at home we played how we do at home and we put a ton of pucks at the net and went hard at the net and scored six goals. Those are both games I think it’s important to have that winning feeling against a team going into a series, and we certainly have that. We’re certainly not worried about the last game of the year; that didn’t count much. But we’re going to latch onto those last two and really hold onto those feelings and try to use that.”
Afternoon. I’ll be on Rosen’s Sports Sunday tonight on Ch. 4 and on KFAN at 10:15 a.m. Monday (Vox in the Box with Paul Allen).
The Wild held an optional practice at Xcel Energy Center today in preparation for Monday’s big regular-season home finale against the Winnipeg Jets. Win in regulation, and the Wild clinches a playoff spot. Win in overtime, and the Wild would need the Los Angeles Kings to lose in regulation at Vancouver to clinch a playoff spot.
Sixteen skaters, including Jason Zucker and Matt Cooke and excluding captain Mikko Koivu (scratched cornea), and goalies Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom practiced.
The Wild still sounds as if it’s planning for a Cooke return Tuesday in Chicago. It sounds like the hope is Zucker can return Thursday in Nashville. Coach Mike Yeo said he honestly doesn’t have a plan, but Zucker hopes to get one or two games and Yeo said, “I don’t want to throw him into the playoffs in Game 1 having not played any game.”
The Wild isn’t practicing Wednesday in Nashville, but a Thursday return would give Zucker three consecutive morning skates to prep more and two games before the playoffs. I’m not sure you want Zucker’s first game coming against the rugged St. Louis Blues in Game 82.
For the first time Sunday, Zucker really ramped up the contact. Assistant coach Darby Hendrickson battled with him throughout practice, so Zucker said how he feels Monday will be a big indicator as how his week should go.
Yeo didn’t have an update on Koivu today. But the captain who missed last night’s game is expected to play Monday. If not, Yeo said the Wild will have a Plan B
Yeo did say regardless of Koivu playing, Erik Haula will be given a chance to respond from his poor game (a shootout loss) last night against the Detroit Red Wings. Yeo met with Haula this morning.
So if Koivu plays, I’d think Jordan Schroeder will be scratched because one would assume Ryan Carter needs to play against the big, physical Jets. If Koivu doesn’t play, Schroeder would likely play.
This is conjecture.
Yeo said, “I know that Haula can play better. I just want to get him to the level that he was playing at two weeks ago. I know it’s there. I know he’s capable of it and I know we can get him back there.”
Haula was such an important, impressive piece to the Wild’s postseason last year that Yeo badly wants Haula to get back to that level so he can play him this postseason. Right now, his game doesn’t warrant it.
“It would be easy to take him out of the lineup [Monday],” Yeo said. “But sometimes you have to make decisions based on the bigger picture. Sometimes those decisions you have to think a little bit deeper. We want to give him a chance to respond and see if he can get his game up to that level because we know what he’s capable of and we know how effective that can be in the playoffs.”
If I had a dime for every story I’ve written this year with Haula falling on the knife, I’d probably have … a dollar.
He did again today: “I know what it is and the things that I do well and when I don’t play well the things that I tend to do. Maybe as not as big of a guy and whatnot, I have to really focus on the compete part. It’ll be there next game for sure. I’ll make sure I bring that, the extra efforts.
“Everyone competes. But just those little things stick out. A good example was the penalty I took [Saturday], that was probably my worst shift of the game. I know it was a bad shift.”
Play against Winnipeg, and a player has no choice but to compete. So this will be a huge test for Haula to show Yeo something.
On wanting to be in the lineup in the playoffs, the former Gophers two-time leading scorer said, “Everyone brings something different. I just want to get back to that. I feel like I get that extra drive when the playoffs start. I’ve always been like that. Not to say that this year’s going to be like last year because last year was obviously top of the line, but I want to definitely be a big piece when we get there and be in the lineup.”
The Wild has the most points in the NHL since Jan. 15. It has won a franchise-record 10 in a row on the road. It had won five in a row overall, including big wins over St. Louis, Calgary and L.A. It took four days off and it has seemed to lost its mojo.
“If there’s anything we’ve done well over the past stretch, you put the previous result behind you and get ready for the next game,” Yeo said. “It’s tougher to do with losses than it does with wins.”
Yeo just wants the Wild to do all the things in Monday’s game that helps the Wild get to its game. You can’t just go on the ice and expect it to be there, he says.
“We know what’s at stake for them, we know what’s at stake for ourselves. We know it’s going to be an intense game. Our third period [against Detroit] was a much better indication of how we have to play the game, but it’s how we approach the game that’s going to be important,” Yeo said.
Yeo said all week he tried to guard against a lost desperation level that naturally may come with a cushion and the fact there’s no motivation anymore about being able to catch the second- or third-place teams in the Central.
“We’re stuck in between a little bit and that’s the way the last couple games have played out,” Yeo said. “We’ve got to invest in the game.”
I talked to Thomas Vanek a lot about his around the world shootout move this morning, and I’ll squeeze that into Monday’s newspaper.
On Monday, Vanek said, “We just need to get back to our game and controlling the game. After those four days off, I don’t know, I don’t think we lost anything, but we wanted to win so bad to clinch a spot that sometimes when you think too much it goes backwards.”
He said those days off will help the Wild in the long run, but now it has to get back to the mindset of just playing well. “We didn’t worry about [being so close to the playoffs] the last two months. We just knew we needed to win and play well. We have to get that mentality.”
See you on Rosen’s tonight and talk to you tomorrow.
Wild coach Mike Yeo dropped a big surprise after Friday's practice at the St. Thomas ice rink. Jason Zucker, who wasn't expected back until May, might return to the lineup as soon as next week.
Zucker's recovery from a broken collarbone has gone quickly and well. The winger didn't hold back in a high-energy practice, his first full-contact workout since the injury. Zucker was hurt Feb. 9 in a collision with Vancouver's Luca Sbisa and had surgery to repair the fracture on Feb. 12; since then, the Wild has expected him to adhere to the three-month recovery timetable that is typical for this kind of injury.
Yeo isn't writing anything into stone just yet. He said after Friday's practice that he is "kind of eying possibly the last couple of games'' for Zucker's return, but added he would "make sure'' that Zucker is completely ready. After finishing the current home stand against Detroit on Saturday and Winnipeg on Monday, the Wild will end the regular season next week with road games at Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis.
"I was actually impressed,'' Yeo said of Zucker's performance in Friday's practice. "You can tell he's been putting the work in conditioning-wise. He's a little further ahead than what I expected.''
Yeo's standard line for the past couple of weeks has been that Zucker "is still a ways away.'' Zucker thought so, too. He has been skating and shooting pucks on his own for the past four or five weeks, but he wasn't anticipating that he'd return sooner than early May.
He has been cleared for full practice with contact, though he hasn't yet been cleared for actual competition. He feels good, he said, and his strength and stamina are still there. As long as he continues to get back in the groove at practice and sharpen his execution, Zucker expects he will be ready to get back into the lineup next week.
"It felt great,'' he said of the high-tempo practice. "It's always good to be back out there with the guys, and after skating alone for so long, it's always nice to be with the team.
"Conditioning-wise, I feel great. Today was a good first step, but I didn’t take a lot of contact today. I'm excited to get back, and today was a lot of fun.''
In other Wild news Friday:
--Defenseman Ryan Suter and winger Sean Bergenheim did not practice. Yeo said Suter was taking a maintenance day, and Bergenheim was sick.
--Defenseman Nate Prosser also practiced and will rejoin the lineup Saturday after missing eight games because of a knee injury. He's expected to take Jordan Leopold's spot.
--Forward Erik Haula also will get back in, taking the place of Ryan Carter on the fourth line. Yeo thinks Haula's speed will be beneficial against the Red Wings. While he praised Carter, who recently returned after missing time because of a shoulder injury, Yeo said "it's going to take some time for (Carter) to get his game back to where it was completely.''
--Winger Matt Cooke remains on track for a return to the lineup on Tuesday.
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