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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Yeo sticking with his second line against San Jose; Coyle works on faceoffs

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: December 7, 2013 - 2:45 PM

Afternoon on this beautiful Saturday here in the Twin Cities. Not a cloud in the minus-8 degree sky.

The Wild practiced down at St. Thomas Academy today since it took the day off Friday in Columbus. The goal today was to reset after its 4-0 beating against the Blue Jackets.

“It looked like we were ready to put it past us,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We had a good, crisp practice out there. Guys were sharp executing. There’s no point dwelling on it, but you certainly do want to use it too at the same time.”

The Sharks took the day off after back-to-back road losses at Pittsburgh and Carolina, and both the Wild and Sharks should expect motivated opponents during Sunday’s 5 p.m. game. I just watched coach Todd McLellan’s postgame news conference here from Raleigh.

He was not a happy camper, saying the team is lacking energy, jump, has been sloppy, not making defensive reads that it should be doing in its sleep. He says it’s either laziness or fatigue and they have to figure out which.

Tough talk from one of the best teams in the NHL, so the Wild may want to buckle up and do the engaging Sunday rather than the reacting because the Sharks will likely come out hard. The Wild plays the Sharks in two of the next three games as it opens a three-game road trip Wednesday in Anaheim. It then plays in San Jose on Thursday.

Josh Harding vs. Antti Niemi Sunday. Zenon Konopka, scratched in the past two games, will center the Wild’s fourth line. In practice Saturday, Yeo rotated in and out Mike Rupp, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine, so one of them will be scratched because Yeo’s plan is to go with the same top three lines of recent games.

That means despite a poor game by the Nino Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Dany Heatley line last night, the three won’t be broken up to start Sunday’s game.

“If we’re going to ask our players to throw that game in the garbage and get refocused and reset, we have to be willing to, too,” Yeo said. He noted the Wild scored four times Thursday against Chicago, so he doesn’t think it’s time to start scrambling his lines based on one clunker.

He said he met with the three forwards today and say they must recognize how they’ve been successful and that’s playing deep in the offensive zone.

“They got away from that bigtime in that game last night,” Yeo said.

Heatley especially was turning pucks over and Yeo said he met with him specifically about that.

“He’s a goal scorer at heart and that’s part of what’s made him successful, but at the same time, when you’re focused on that, you can lose sight on some of the things you need to do to be effective. Even talking to him this morning, I told him the strength of his game lately was playing in the offensive zone, below the top of the circles and around the net and ‘you’re just hurting yourself. The more turnovers, the more time you’re in the defensive zone.’”

Yeo said Coyle, who has three goals in 19 games, is just not playing with the same “confidence level” as last year, but “this was the best he’s looked in practice in a lot time. I talked to him this morning and I think he’s just playing with his head right now too much. He’s got to go out there and remember what makes him successful, and that’s winning battles, being strong on the puck, aggressive on the forecheck and being hard around the net. He’s got to focus on those things.”

Coyle has won 34 percent of his faceoffs this season. In the past seven games, he has won 23 percent and lost eight of nine last night. After practice today, Konopka and assistant coach Darby Hendrickson, a former center, worked with Coyle on faceoffs. Konopka has the NHL’s top faceoff winning percentage since he has been in the NHL (65 percent).

“I just told him he has the resources to take a lot of draws in practice against me and Brodzy (Kyle Brodziak). Repetition is, I think, the best thing for him. The more he can take against us, the better he’s going to get. You see it all the time with young players in this league, it takes awhile to adapt to the faceoff circle. You see it throughout the league.”

The best example is Sidney Crosby. His first two years in the NHL, he was at around 45 percent and 49 percent. He has worked hard on draws since, has been above 50 percent every year since and routinely takes the most draws in the NHL.

“I told Charlie if things don’t go well in the circle, don’t reinvent the wheel,” Konopka said. “Just understand what works and what’s your highest percentage to winning that draw.”

Konopka said he talks with Brodziak and Mikko Koivu all the time about faceoffs and “we have to get Charlie more involved with those discussions He’ll be fine.”

And, you know he will.

Coyle said, “Faceoffs are a big part of the game and if I’m not winning them and the team’s not winning, it’s less possession for us, so it’s a huge thing. Definitely something I have work on. I haven’t been the best at it. I just have to get back to being confident in the circle.”

Coyle also said of his line that they’re a bunch of big bodies and they just have to get back to getting down on the forecheck, working the puck down low and on cycles and play in the offensive zone.

“We didn’t do a lot of that last night,” Coyle said.

That’s it for me. No morning skate with the 5 p.m. puck drop Sunday. Remember, if you want to come to the Chalk Talk with Wes Walz and I and attend the Sharks game, go to www.wild.com/chalktalk.


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