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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Mikael Granlund being kept off ice; Working the power play; Yeo on Fontaine

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: December 4, 2013 - 3:07 PM

After taking Tuesday off, the Wild got back on the ice today with back-to-back home/road games coming up Thursday and Friday against Chicago and at Columbus.

The plan for now is to start Josh Harding against Chicago and most likely Niklas Backstrom at Columbus. Obviously, that's subject to change.

Judging by today's practice, Justin Fontaine, scratched in two of the past three games, will get back into the lineup. He skated mostly on the fourth line today with Mike Rupp/Erik Haula and Zenon Konopka and also saw action on the second power-play unit.

Good afternoon from the X. I will be filling in for Paul Allen on Thursday from 9-noon on KFAN (100.3-FM). Guests as of now: The always-entertaining Konopka will be joining at the top of the show to talk about the game against the Blackhawks, actor/comedian Erik Stolhanske during the entire second hour, most likely new Twins pitcher Ricky Nolasco, who coincidentally I happen to know, and former NHLer Ben Clymer.

Rachel Blount will be covering the Blackhawks game and I'll be picking up the team Friday in Columbus.

Also, Sunday's 5 p.m. game, former Wild center Wes Walz and I will be doing another Star Tribune Chalk Talk. Tickets start at $46 and you also get a ticket to that night's game against the San Jose Sharks and can attend the hour chalk talk, which starts at 3:30. For tickets, go to this link.

The big news of the day is center Mikael Granlund, who has missed five of the past six games and three in a row with a concussion, will remain on injured reserve and has essentially been shut down. It sounds like he must have had symptoms working out or after he got on the ice on his own Monday.

"We’re going to keep him off right now," coach Mike Yeo said. "He skated the other day and we’re at the point now where lets just take some time off here and make sure we get this right. ... I just know that we’re not making progress, and so what we’re doing right now, we have to take a different approach."

The Wild worked a bunch on the power play today. It hasn't scored in six games, but in that stretch, it's only 0 for 11. So one issue is because the Wild hasn't drawn a lot of power plays, it's having trouble getting into any kind of rhythm. Today are about moving the puck quicker and having more movement -- basically to stop being so slow and deliberate and predictable.

Earlier in the season, Dany Heatley was taken off the first unit because the Wild didn't want four lefties out there, especially in Heatley's net front/slot position. Heatley was back on the unit today with Charlie Coyle moving to second unit with forwards Fontaine and Nino Niederreiter.

Earlier in the season, the Wild had two good unit and spent a lot of season at or near the top on the power play. It's always tough being on the second unit because unless you're the unit that starts a power play, you're usually only getting 30 or 40 seconds a power play and almost always hopping the board when the puck's been cleared and the team is regrouping. Against Philadelphia the other night, the second unit couldn't even get set up in the zone.

The Wild must do a better job getting pucks through from the point. They're in the bottom half of the league in shot attempts from the blue line, Yeo said, both on the power play and at even-strength.

The Wild has only scored six goals from defensemen this season. Jonas Brodin has four and Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba one each. Other than Brodin, the Wild doesn't have a goal from a blue liner since Dumba scored Oct. 12 against Dallas.

The Wild's defensemen has registered 49 points. To put this in comparison, Chicago defensemen have scored 13 goals and 82 points. Chicago defensemen has 291 shots on goal, Wild defensemen 200.

Obviously, the Wild needs to draw more penalties too. In the past 10 games, the Wild has drawn 22 power plays (2.2 per game) and three or fewer in each. Now, I know the Wild's game has slipped recently and you have to skate and play in the offensive zone to typically draw power plays, but I truly feel the standard of officiating has slipped, too.

We see this all the time in the middle of 82-game seasons. Every game I watch I see clear obstruction and interference penalties go uncalled. Typically in a month or two, we'll see the standard pick back up when GM's and teams complain.

Against Colorado and Philadelphia, the Wild should have drawn more than two combined power plays with the amount of time it spent in the offensive zone.

Lastly, here is Mike Yeo today on Harding being named Third Star for November yesterday:

"He’s been such a huge part of us being able to win games, being able to find our game within games, being able to hang onto leads and doing it in such a confident manner that it breeds confidence to the rest of the group. When you see an empty net and you’ve got a two-goal lead and he dives across the net and makes that save last game, that’s a huge boost of confidence for the rest of the group that you’re going to seal the deal and win that game and that’s the way he’s been. I also think it’s also a compliment to the guys and the way they’ve been playing in front of them. The guys have recognized his efforts and they’ve rewarded him by playing well in front of him."

The last few sentences is a reference to the Wild allowing 23 shots per game in Harding's 14 wins.

Is Harding the Wild's No. 1 goalie, Yeo was asked: "I don’t get into that stuff, but he’s playing like he deserves it, let’s put it this way. We know we also have another No. 1 goalie in Backy. Couple the games he’s playing most recently, if we can get him healthy, he’s basically stolen two games for us, so he’s close to returning to form. We feel that’s a strength of ours that we have two guys that can go out there and give us a great chance to win a hockey game."

Here is Yeo on Fontaine:

"It’s just the way it goes. He’s a first-year guy and he’s still trying to carve his way into the lineup and become a regular. But for a first-year guy, I feel like he’s handled it really well. He’s had different roles, he’s been on the top line, he’s been on the fourth line, he’s been out of the lineup. The bottom line is for him, his game shouldn’t change. Where we put him, we have confidence in him and he should have confidence in himself that he can go out and he can perform the way he needs to and there’s no reason why he can’t. He’s got a good idea of who he is. He’s a smart player, when he’s playing well he’s very strong on the puck and he’s making plays and that’s what we want to see from him."

Do you feel his game slipped? "I think that a couple games before the scratch, yes I would say that. And some of that is that’s it’s not always easy for a younger player like that. Things aren’t going well for the team and all the sudden you find yourself on the fourth line. And certainly it doesn’t take long for the confidence to go a little bit and even just to kind of step up and make a play in those situations. So for him to have the chance to take a step back and watch the game from above and get refocused on his game and what he needs to bring is quite often a good thing."

Join me on the radio Thursday and talk to you again on the blog Friday.

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