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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Posts about Wild pregame skate

Fletcher, Yeo on Wild's roster cuts, Dumba, Folin, Bickel, Graovac, team toughness and more

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 29, 2014 - 1:32 PM

The Wild’s roster is becoming a bit clearer after today’s roster moves to assign defensemen Jon Blum, Justin Falk and Guillaume Gelinas and forwards Joel Rechlicz, Tyler Graovac and Brett Bulmer to AHL Iowa. This blog is a tad long with a lot of, uh, words, but try to read them at your leisure because it provides a good template right now for what GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Mike Yeo are thinking.

Blum, Falk and Rechlicz will officially be assigned Tuesday as long as they clear waivers at 11 a.m. Don’t be surprised if we see a couple of these guys (maybe Rechlicz and Blum) recalled to play in Thursday’s exhibition game at St. Louis.

The Wild’s roster is now 33. However, Gustav Olofsson is day-to-day with an upper-body injury. He will be reassigned once he’s healthy. So that puts the roster at 32. Josh Harding will start as a non-roster injured player, so it’s really at 31. And actually the Wild is still deciding what it plans to do with former Blackhawks draft pick Brandon Whitney (it may sign the goalie), but since he won’t be on the team, the roster’s kinda sorta at 30.

Twenty-three (23) players can make the opening night roster Oct. 9 against Colorado.

(Speaking of the Avs, the Denver Post’s Adrian Dater and I have started our own Podcast called, “Inside Hockey with Dater and Russo.” You can soon subscribe to it for free on iTunes (I’ll let you know when we get that up and running), but if you want to listen to the first one, click this link).

So, the roster looks like this (by jersey number):

Forwards (19): Charlie Coyle, Mikko Koivu, Jordan Schroeder, Zach Parise, Cody Almond, Justin Fontaine, Jason Zucker, Stephane Veilleux, Kyle Brodziak, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Cooke, Thomas Vanek, Brett Sutter, Jason Pominville, Michael Keranen, Curt Gogol, Erik Haula, Zack Phillips, Mikael Granlund.

Defensemen (9): Keith Ballard, Stu Bickel, Christian Folin, Marco Scandella, Ryan Suter, Gustav Olofsson, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba.

Goalies (5): Ilya Bryzgalov (tryout), Niklas Backstrom, Darcy Kuemper, Josh Harding, Brandon Whitney (invitee).

Tonight’s lineup vs. the Penguins (game will be replayed on NHL Network at 11 p.m.):

Forwards

Parise-Granlund-Pominville

Vanek-Koivu-Coyle

Cooke-Brodziak-Schroeder

Veilleux-Almond-Phillips

Defensemen

Suter-Brodin

Scandella-Folin

Bickel-Dumba

Goalies

Kuemper (scheduled for full 60)

Bryzgalov

Sidney Crosby won’t play tonight because of the death of his grandmother.

-------With Blum, Falk and Olofsson likely starting the season in Iowa, the blue line is getting very clear.

With Suter, Brodin, Scandella, Spurgeon and Ballard roster locks, there are two spots (maybe three) left (if the Wild keeps eight D).

Dumba, Folin and Bickel remain.

As I have mentioned all camp, the organization feels Bickel is valuable because he’s kind of a rover. He can play the blue line or wing and can be an extra depth guy. If Dumba and Folin are to stick, Fletcher and Yeo made very clear today that they both have to play. So for them to both stick, there either needs to be an injury (Ballard is banged up) or one of the roster locks would have to be a scratch. The only roster lock in that category would be Ballard.

Asked if Folin and Dumba could both make the team, Fletcher told me, “As long as guys are playing and developing, I’m fine with that. They’ve got to be playing. I don’t need to state the obvious, but things change quickly with injuries and situational play. Bickel, too, has had a very strong camp and those players have earned the right to be here. I said it to you last year, to me, the opening-day roster isn’t that big a deal. I think a lot more is made of it because two or three days into it, you’re already making changes. I think there’s going to be a constant battle for ice time all season long and players like Blum and Falk will factor into it again. They need to pick up their play, they need to get their game going, but we fully expect that they’ll factor into the equation at some point, too. Whether you’re here for the opening game or not, things will change. To me the bigger story is so far, both Folin and Dumba have been able to play at a pretty high level in camp, and that’s a good sign for our organization.”

Folin, Dumba and Bickel are all right-shot defensemen. Bickel will get a look tonight on the left side. Folin apparently has experience playing that side in the past, but Fletcher said, “You want to give younger players a chance to be comfortable so they can be successful,” so the Wild doesn’t want Folin or Dumba making the team on the right side.

Sooooo, that makes things clearer too. If Folin and Dumba both make it, the Wild would prefer them to play the right side. Sooooo, that means left-shot defenseman Jonas Brodin, who is so smooth he has played his off side since he got to Minnesota as a 19-year-old, would have to move to his left side if both Folin and Dumba makes the team. That would likely mean Spurgeon becomes Suter’s defense partner again, which could be why the Wild’s getting a look at Folin with Scandella tonight.

However, Yeo said we may see the defense pairs mixed and matched tonight, so maybe we see Dumba in that situation, too.

But Fletcher again made clear that he’s most concerned with the long-term development of Folin and Dumba, so if they’re both not going to play regularly to start the season, “I wouldn’t hesitate to put either one of them down [in Iowa] if they need to get more minutes. But they’ve played well and as of today deserve to be here.”

A big reason for today’s roster moves was the Wild’s coaching staff wants to get to a more manageable one group in practice. This is also a good chance to sneak Falk, Blum and Rechlicz through waivers. Again, even if any of those players is recalled for Thursday’s game (assuming they clear Tuesday), that player would not have to be placed on waivers again to get back to Iowa.

Yeo again made clear that both Dumba and Folin cannot make the team unless they’re both inside the Wild’s top-6. Dumba and Folin won’t be the seventh or eighth defenseman.

“You’ve heard me say enough times that young players have to play,” Yeo said. “I don’t want these guys coming into the game analyzing and overthinking things. That’s part of the competition for them to being able to deal with that. We haven’t made any of those decisions yet, but if you want to read between the lines or just research from my previous my quotes, I’ve said that enough times, I don’t want anybody sitting in the press box that’s a young player. They need to play games, they need to develop.”

-------It was very clear today that the Wild felt Blum had a second consecutive sub-par camp. Yeo said, “This is not a final decision. But with that said, there are some other players who have done more that deserve to be here right now. This is a guy, I know he can play games for us. He’s got to get his game sharp, he’s got to make sure he’s ready because he’s done some good things for us, but it’s just not there right now.”

-------The Wild is thrilled with Graovac.

Cue Fletcher: “I would say [Carson] Soucy and [Dylan] Labbe are the most improved kids for the non-pro players, but I’d have to say Graovac is the most improved player in our organization. Nobody’s come further than he did. I just told him, he was never in competition for our fourth-line center spot. There was no way we were going to keep him and let him play limited minutes on the fourth line. We think he has a chance to be a good hockey player and the important thing now is for him to just go and be a big-minute player and have a big role in Iowa and to develop his game. He had a very good camp, but right now, he just has to play. He played well at the end of last season. If you look at his junior career, it started with very modest point totals early and then he really developed quickly as he got into his second and third seasons, so we’re anticipating the same thing in pro hockey. He has a chance to be a very good player for us. He understood. I had a great meeting with him. We want him to be the old clichéd big fish in a small pond instead of fighting for a few minutes here. He’ll get his chance. If he continues to develop over the season, maybe he puts himself in contention to be a callup guy. But for me, it’s much more about long-term with him.”

Added Yeo, “He’s got the right attitude just as far as his determination to get better as a player. You can always tell there are certain players that kind of look at you and you almost have the feeling that they feel that you don’t know what you’re talking about. But then there’s other players that take in everything that you say, and those are the ones that gets better. This is what he’s shown from the time that he’s become a pro.”

------Fletcher on Bulmer: “He’s a young guy. Bomber (Director of Player Development Brad Bombardir) said he’s had five separate injuries over the last three seasons. When you’re into your third pro season, it’s just a huge year. Third year pros are expected to be good players in the American League. The key for him is being healthy and getting a good role on that team and just building his confidence and building his game. He was a real longshot to make our team out of camp. But with his size and versatility, I think he’ll be a real important factor for us over the course of the season. For us, it’s just about getting him going and having him play. He’s just got to get his game to a high level, and if he does, I’m sure he’ll be a player that will factor in here at some point.”

-------Yeo said he didn’t yet know what his goalie situation will look like Thursday and Saturday at St. Louis and home vs. St. Louis – the last two preseason games. I assume the Wild will give Niklas Backstrom and Kuemper one more game each, but Yeo said not necessarily and he has liked Bryzgalov’s camp.

“The challenge for us is trying to identify who’s going to be starting with us, who’s going to be our starting goalie for Game 1 and make sure whoever that is that they have to right amount of games to be properly prepared.”

-------Yeo on the importance of Bickel and Rechlicz and team toughness: “Your players play a little bit bigger. There’s a part of the game that exists that is very real, your top players and the comfort level they have, the ability for them to go out and play their game when a guy like that is around. If you want to use the word protection or whatever it is, there’s just a different comfort level. That said, we do have a team that is tough. We showed last year there were a lot of times we didn’t go in with the toughest lineup, but we’ve got a bunch of guys who are going to compete hard and play a tough game in a different sense. No matter who’s in the lineup, we have to make sure we’re ready to play that way.”

-- Thursday’s game in St. Louis will be gigantic for many players (JASON ZUCKER, for one!) because Saturday’s finale will largely be the Wild’s final roster playing. Said Fletcher: “[Thursday] is going to be a critical, critical game for many players. It’s a great opportunity for us to evaluate players when you go into St. Louis because it’s a tough building, a tough team, a great team.”

The Wrecker to debut vs. the Jets; Kuemper part of marriage proposal

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 27, 2014 - 12:32 PM

Greetings from Xcel Energy Center's press room.

Wild and Winnipeg Jets tonight in Minnesota's home preseason opener. The game can be seen on the NHL Network, can be heard on KFAN and viewed through the @russostrib Twitter Network.

Tonight will be the fans' first chance to see the snazzy new video board.

In Sunday's Star Tribune, I wrote a pretty gripping story on Zach and J.P. Parise. Please give it a read.

Tonight's anticipated Wild lines:

Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Charlie Coyle

Nino Niederreiter-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville

Matt Cooke-Erik Haula-Justin Fontaine

Michael Keranen-Kyle Brodziak (preseason debut)-Joel Rechlicz

D: Ryan Suter's preseason debut, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Gustav Olofsson, Matt Dumba.

Niklas Backstrom is expected to play the full 60. Darcy Kuemper is backing him up.

Power-play units: Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville-Ryan Suter; Nino Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Michael Keranen-Matt Dumba-Jared Spurgeon

Thomas Vanek (upper body) and Keith Ballard (mid body) both skated on their own this morning. Both say they're feeling better.

Coach Mike Yeo wants to see the Wild start to display its game better and he wants to see his players, the majority of who are playing their second games, take another step.

"I wouldn't read too much into [the line combinations]," Yeo said. "We talked at the start that we would do a lot of mixing and matching and with Thomas not playing tonight, that's going to throw a bit of a wrench into things here. So what you see in the first shift might differ from what you see in the second period. I'm looking more right now into how we're playing as a group, as far as our system and structure."

I'm planning to write about Brodziak for Monday's paper. I had a pretty good interview with him this morning and he's excited for this season and tonight's debut.

He hurt his back training this past summer and it flared up the first day of camp.

His linemates are interesting tonight.

Keranen, the Finnish star who was in the Army with Granlund, will get work on the No. 2 power play. As I wrote after the game in Winnipeg on Monday, he is very skilled, especially working the half wall on the PP. He made a great touch pass for a Niederreiter goal in today's skate.

He looks like he needs to get stronger and is still adjusting to the smaller NHL-sized rink, but Yeo likes his vision and creativity and if he has a chance to make the team, Yeo wants to give him a good chance to strut his stuff on the PP.

Rechlicz, 27, a Milwaukee native, is a bruiser. They called him the "Wrecker" or "Wrecking Ball." He has played 26 NHL games for the Islanders and Capitals and in 2011-12 had 267 penalty minutes for AHL Hershey.

"I play a physical role," he said. "I’ll bring lots of energy tonight. Play phsyical, get in hard on the forecheck and just keep my game simple. Chip pucks in, chip pucks out. I'm not going to try to toe-drag anybody out there. Defensively sound. Can't be a minus player. Coach has to trust me."

At age 16, Rechlicz lived in White Bear Lake and played Junior B hockey in the Minnesota Junior Hockey League for the St. Paul Lakers, so "it was cool signing with Minnesota. But I'm a Cheesehead. Sorry."

Yeo said, "I want to see him play the game and show that he’s capable of playing. We’re in exhibition, we’ve got a veteran lineup, you’ve got a lot of guys that are excited on the other side (Jets) and we want to make sure that they're not trying to make a statement by going out and taking liberties on any of our top guys, we’re making sure that we’re protected from that sense. But I want to see if he’s capable of playing our system and keeping up with the play."

Pretty cool scene on the ice after today's morning skate.

Kuemper was part of a proposal.

As the skate ended, goalie coach Bob Mason slipped an engagement ring into Kuemper's glove.

As he was leaving the ice, a man named Jack Baker -- a family friend of Mason -- asked for Kuemper's autograph. Kuemper said he actually had something for Baker's girlfriend, Alaina Olson. Kuemper handed over the ring and Baker popped the question.

"She was shocked," Kuemper said, laughing. "It was pretty cool to be a part of it."

Bickel, Zucker to play right wing tonight at Pittsburgh

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 25, 2014 - 12:07 PM

Afternoon from Pittsburgh, where the Wild plays the Penguins tonight at 6 CT in an exhibition extravaganza at the sparkling building across the street from the now-parking lot that used to be the Igloo. crying

THERE IS NO TV TONIGHT, so stop asking. You can listen on KFAN or the @russostrib Twitter Network.

Follow here.

If you missed today's big story, it's Zach Parise talking about the need for teams to try to dump the dump-and-chase. Great quotes in here.

In tomorrow's paper, I'll be writing about the separation of Parise and Mikko Koivu in training camp and how it's proof of just how much deeper the Wild is getting. Prior to Mikael Granlund's breakout last season when Koivu was injured, there was never a thought in coach Mike Yeo's head to split Parise and Koivu.

Tonight's Wild lines:

Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville

Thomas Vanek-Mikko Koivu-Justin Fontaine

Matt Cooke-Erik Haula-Jason Zucker

Brett Sutter-Cody Almond-Stu Bickel

D pairs: Uhhhhhh, I've got to be honest. I didn't grab em because I was in the Pens room getting coach Mike Johnston on his former player, Matt Dumba. That video will be tomorrow's award-winning Wild Minute video on startribune.com/wild. But the D's in the lineup tonight are Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Dumba, Christian Folin and Keith Ballard.

Forwards Michael Keranen and Joel Rechlicz are on the trip but expected to be scratched.

The power-play units in today's morning skate:

Parise-Granlund-Pominville with Scandella and Brodin; Vanek-Koivu-Fontaine with Dumba and Spurgeon.

I assumed Yeo planned to scratch one forward and one defenseman on yesterday's blog, but reporters should never assume anything, so my bad.

Yeo is actually going to give Bickel, a defenseman, a look at right wing tonight. I think I mentioned this when I wrote about Bickel in that ex-Gophers feature over the weekend, but what may give him an inside track toward making the team is the Wild can keep him as a seventh defenseman but it would also give Yeo an extra physical option at forward.

He's versatile. He played defense as a kid, played forward throughout high school, moved back to D in junior and played what he guesstimated was 20 to 25 games at wing with the Rangers over a span of two years.

Also tonight, Zucker will skate as a right wing. The left-shot speedster said he loves playing right wing entering the zone because he's on his forehand and thus can shoot and make plays easier. Where it's a big adjustment, Zucker said, is leaving the zone and that's what he worked on a lot in the morning skate.

What else?

Brandon vs. Brett Sutter tonight or Brent's kid (Pittsburgh's) vs. Darryl's kid (Minnesota's). Brett Sutter said all the Sutter cousins are very close and in fact he said Brody Sutter (Duane's boy and property of Carolina) got his first exhibition game the other night. Further proof of how old I'm getting because I remember a young Brody Sutter running around the Panthers locker room when Duane coached them.

In fact, I covered a 21-year-old Adam Lowry play for Winnipeg the other night -- Dave Lowry's boy.

Other former Panthers' kids from their Cup Finals-run team playing today? Tom Fitzgerald and Gord Murphy. And of course, I remember Dave Gagner's kid, Sam, running around there, too.

There's your first 10 #flareference's of the season.

I have no point to any of that.

What does Yeo want to see tonight?

"It's just getting started," he said. "Obviously, you want to win these games. I want to win these games. And you want that intensity out of your team, but it's early here. You're still evaluating players. Even from our top guys, I'm evaluating their conditioning level. I'm evaluating where their game's at, but also, you're looking at your team game. You want to see that start to come together. You've seen us. We're doing a lot more scrimmage, a lot more five-on-five stuff, and the big part of that for me is I feel we're pretty strong in a lot of system areas, but early in the season, it's that next play. It's what you do after that, and that's more of what I'm looking for. Can we string two, three, four good things in a row together as opposed to just one good thing, one bad thing? That's when you know your game's getting close."

That's it for now.

I'll be on the Marek and Wyshynski Podcast over on Yahoo at 1:40 p.m. CT.

Mike Yeo on Game 6: Wild's survival instincts stronger than its killer instinct

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: May 13, 2014 - 1:14 PM

The Wild and Chicago Blackhawks play Game 6 tonight at Xcel Energy Center (8 p.m., CNBC).

A Wild win, and Game 7 at 7 p.m. Thursday in Chicago. A Blackhawks win, and they advance to play the winner of Anaheim-Los Angeles (Ducks are up 3-2). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Wild's looking to become the first NHL team to force consecutive Game 7s in one postseason without series lead since the 1987 Isles.

I’ll be on Fox Sports North tonight at 7:20.

The Wild has rallied from 0-2 deficits in each of the past two series only to lose Game 5. Last round, it forced a Game 7 and eventually eliminated Colorado.

“Our survival instincts have been much stronger than our killer instincts,” coach Mike Yeo said this morning. “Certainly it will be tested again tonight.”

Nobody can question Chicago’s killer instincts. The Blackhawks never want to take their chances in Game 7.

According to the Chicago Sun Times’ Mark Potash, they are 7-0 in Game 6 clinchers, including a 5-0 mark on the road.

In Game 6 against Colorado, Zach Parise had two goals and two assists.

“Just knowing that we’ve been here,” Parise said. “I think there’s a lot of similarities between the two series. The games that we’ve lost we feel like we may not have played great, but we’ve had a chance to win. I’m sure they’re saying the same things about the games here. We’ve played pretty well throughout and that was the same as last series. I think we feel good about it because we’re still pretty confident in here.”

The Wild is 5-0 at home this postseason, outscoring Chicago and Colorado 16-5, including 4-0 and 4-2 against the Blackhawks.

In the seven Game 6 clinchers according to Potash, Kane has seven goals, 12 points and is plus-6. Toews has five goals, 11 points and is plus-5.

Don't expect a big motivational speeck from Joel Quenneville tonight: "I'm not a very frilly guy with the motivational speeches. I might have tried one of those motivational speeches, and I probably blew it."

Two lineup changes for the Wild tonight:

Keith Ballard will replace Nate Prosser after missing Game 5 following the Brandon Bollig hit from behind. Darcy Kuemper will back up Ilya Bryzgalov instead of John Curry.

As for the Hawks:

Ryan Suter missed the morning skate because he had a dentist appointment, according to Yeo.

“Scheduled cleaning,” Yeo said, smiling. “So that’s why he was not there.”

Frankly, I don’t think he was kidding.

On Kuemper backing up, Yeo said, “It’s been kind of coming about for the last couple days. It’s tough between Hards and Johnny Curry and Kuemps, obviously we make sure that Bryz gets what he needs every morning, and we don’t have a ton of quality practice time right now, so when you have three guys pretty much sharing one net, it’s kind of difficult for any of those guys to get the workload that he needs. But he had a real good practice yesterday, he felt really good, so this has been coming for a couple days and happy to have him back.

Matt Moulson skated during today’s skate but won’t play. He has a lower-body injury, but like I said yesterday, who do you put him in for?

“He's close,” Yeo said. “I think it was important for him to have a good skate today and hopefully we can take care of business and make a decision based on the next game. Obviously we've got to take care of tonight, first.”

On tonight’s must-win, Yeo said, “I'm excited. I would say that there's pressure on both teams, and if you don't embrace that, then there's something wrong. You don't coach or you don't play to play an exhibition game or Game 23 of the regular season. You do all that stuff to get yourself to this point. These are the games you dream of and, with that, we all have got to find a way to be at our best tonight and embrace that challenge. It's going to be a great one. They're going to play really well and, with that, we should make sure that we go all-in with our game. We can't play with any fear. We have to make sure that we're not afraid of anything, that we might lose. The only thing that should be entering our thought process is what's a possibility of being gained.”

Ballard is excited to be back.

I feel fine. I felt fine for a couple days. I think we were being fairly cautious that night. By the time I got done seeing the doctors, it was in the third period. We were trying to be pretty smart about it. There was no chance that I would play if I had symptoms. I'd been through that before, been down that road a couple times, and the more you kind of learn about these things and the more information that's coming out, the long-term effects, they're not worth it to put yourself in that situation.”

On the awareness of concussions, Ballard said, “They've become more strict over the years and more aware of the effects of playing after without seeing a doctor and making sure there's no symptoms. They're doing their job.

“I think sometimes, you don't know how you're feeling unless you've been through it a couple times and understand the symptoms. You think, ‘ah, I don't have a headache, but I don't feel right. I'm a little bit out of it. I'm more irritable’ or whatever. There's so many different symptoms, and I've had over the years a couple concussions. I've become more aware of how I'm feeling and understanding what goes along with it.

“It's not an injury that you necessarily are in a lot of pain or anything. You get some headaches here and there. They can all vary, too. It's just more of when you know the long-term effects. I've got little kids at home. I don't want to be putting myself in a position where in 10 years I can't remember their names and can't get through a day functioning normally, so that's the scary part of these things.”

On Bollig’s two-game suspension, I don't really care that much about it. I don't think it was a good hit, but I also understand the circumstances. It's a big game, and he's trying to generate some energy. I don't think it was a smart hit, but I don't think it was some of the worst things we see out there sometimes. I think sometimes the energy of the game, the emotion and the type of player -- everybody has those players -- they're out there and trying to generate some momentum and be physical, and it was just maybe a little bit over the line.

Asked if he heard from Bollig, Ballard said, “No. Too much gets made of the whole 'did he text you? … I honestly don't care. That's what happens, right? I've hit guys, and they've been injured. I don't think it was an overly malicious kind of hit. It was probably a dumb play, but that stuff doesn't really matter to me.”

The Portland Winterhawks blew a 2-0 series lead and lost in Game 7 to Edmonton last night, meaning no Memorial Cup for Matt Dumba.

He led the WHL in plus-minus with a plus-18 and led WHL defensemen with eight goals and was tied for second among defensemen with 18 points.

Today’s the three-year anniversary of Derek Boogaard’s death in his downtown Minneapolis apartment. Keep the big guy’s family in your thoughts.

Wild looks to end home-away disparity tonight in Game 5 at Chicago

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: May 11, 2014 - 12:59 PM

Afternoon from the United Center press room.

Game 5 of the Wild-Blackhawks series is tonight at 8 on CNBC. Series is tied 2-2.

Just like Game 7 against Colorado on the road, the Wild’s locker-room configuration was completely different than Games 1 and 2 in Chicago. To try to change the vibe, every player was in a different stall.

“Switched it up,” laughed Zach Parise. “All of us went to our old stalls that we thought we were in, but they changed it up again. Try to reverse the luck again.”

Huge game tonight. If the Wild can go up 3-2, it’ll have the chance to close out the series at home in front of its raucous crowd. The Wild is 5-0 at home, having outscored opponents 16-5. On the road, the Wild is 1-5 and has been outscored 26-17.

By the way, in the second round, the team that has scored first is 18-0. First goal is big and the Wild would love to take the Blackhawks barn out of tonight’s game early.

“This is a great test and a great opportunity for us to prove that we’re ready to take another step,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “I don’t want to sit here and just say, ‘It’s great, we got ourselves back in this series,’ and then take another step back tonight. This is a real challenge this game. I said this yesterday, we’re not just here because we want to make a series of it. We believe we can win this series and obviously this game would give us a better chance of making that happen.”

At home, the Wild has averaged 3.2 goals per game, has allowed 1 goal a game, has allowed 19.2 shots per game, has a .211 power-play percentage and a .937 penalty-kill percentage. On the road, it has scored 2.83 goals per game, allowed 4.33 goals per game, allowed 26.8 shots per game, has a .067 power-play percentage and .789 penalty-kill percentage.

Two different teams home and away. That must change tonight.

On his team’s confidence, Yeo said, “We were confident coming into this series and we’re confident right now. At the same time, we’re cautious. We still know who we’re playing against and what they’re capable of, and I think we all recognize the importance of this hockey game. We know that we have to win a game in this building and we prefer to try to do it tonight.”

No lineup changes for the Wild tonight other than Nate Prosser sliding back in for injured Keith Ballard. Prosser had a solid Round 1 but had a couple tough moments in Games 1 and 2 before being scratched in Games 3 and 4.

“You don’t go through a playoff like we have without anybody having a couple tough moments, so we’re expecting [Prosser] to come in and do what he’s done over and over for us; just be a real strong steady presence on the back end,” Yeo said.

The Blackhawks have altered two lines from the start of Game 4:

The lines at least to start the game:

Bryan Bickell-Jonathan Toews-Kris Versteeg

Patrick Sharp-Michael Handzus-Marian Hossa (8 points in 4 games this series and 14 in 9 playoff games against the Wild in 2 years)

Brandon Saad-Marcus Kruger-Patrick Kane

Joakim Nordstrom-Peter Regin-Ben Smith

Regin is making his playoff season debut because Brandon Bollig is suspended two games for hit from behind on Ballard. He’s big and fast and can be a threat.

“I’m going to try to just be myself and play the way I know I can,” Regin said. “I think I can bring some speed to the game. That’s kind of my thing, that I can skate. So I’m going to try to skate as much as I can and try to be in the right positions and hopefully good things will happen.” 

Versteeg comes back after being a healthy scratch and gets on the top line as opposed to the fourth.

On Versteeg, coach Q said, “We’re looking for more directness in his game, more pace. We were ready to start him at the beginning of the series and he was sick. We want to get him up to speed where he’s contributing with the puck, without the puck, influencing both ways, and have more speed in his game.”

“I bring skill and maybe tenaciousness on the puck,” Versteeg said. “That’s just the way I’ve always played, is an offensive style and try to be good in my own zone. I don’t know. Just try to bring an all-around game that I’ve always been able to do.”

It did look from the skate that Michal Rozsival, a nightmare in Game 4, will be scratched for Sheldon Brookbank, but Joel Quenneville wasn’t committal on that.

On the Wild, Quenneville was asked if the Wild was better than even he thought: “Thought down the stretch, arguably the top team in the league, and how they beat Colorado was comparable to the way they played. They’re hard to play against; they check well, have some team speed and they’ve got more skill in their lineup than we saw last year. It’s a better team. I’m going to say par to what we thought they’d be; not an easy game, not an easy opponent.”

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