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 practices, getting closer to return with the Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news, Wild practice Updated: December 16, 2013 - 1:14 PM

UPDATED

Wild second-line center Mikael Granlund, who has missed the past nine games with a concussion and 11 of the past 12 (really 12 in a row because he was lost one shift into his return Nov. 27 against Phoenix, returned to practice this morning at Xcel Energy Center.

Granlund, who had been skating on his own since last week, skated with extra forwards Justin Fontaine and Mike Rupp, which also indicates that Mike Yeo will return with the same lineup as the Colorado win on Tuesday against the red-hot Vancouver Canucks, who have won seven in a row.

Granlund said he felt surprisingly good on the ice, and coach Mike Yeo said athletic therapist Don Fuller told him that Granlund wants to play vs. the Canucks. Yeo said that's very doubtful, but Yeo said he would come on the upcoming road trip to practice and he is close to returning.

My guess is he plays against the Rangers because that would give him practices Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, but I've been wrong before and maybe Thursday's Pittsburgh game is a possibility.

The Wild could use him.

Including the Phoenix game that Granlund skated 29 seconds in, the Wild is 5-6-1 without Granlund with 18 goals scored (1.5 goals per game).

I do think Granlund needs to be more cognizant on the ice. He is 21 years old with a history of concussions. The Wild doesn't want Granlund to become the next Pierre-Marc Bouchard six years before Bouchard ever became the concussed version of Bouchard.

The Nazem Kadri hit that clearly started this whole mess was a dirty hit -- plain and simple. But Granlund's got to expect stuff like that. The Connor Murphy incident against Phoenix was also something Granlund needs to expect. Granlund initiated the contact by trying to check Murphy as he passed the puck. Murphy reacted by getting his arms up to protect himself. Granlund's got to be aware that could happen.

I respect Granlund's willingness to go into the dirty areas and be physical despite being undersized -- so to speak, but if he's going to continue to do this, he's got to learn to protect himself and keep his head on a swivel. The great undersized players in this league, from Martin St. Louis to Patrick Kane, are slippery and rarely take big hits.

"There’s things you can learn," Yeo said. "There’s certain situations where you can learn to protect yourself in and there’s times where, especially in this league, that you can't get away with some of the things that you were getting away with in other leagues. You have to be careful, too. One of the things that makes him great is the way he competes, and I think he’s done a great job going to the middle of the ice and creating a lot more offense because of that. We have to make sure we’re helping him in many areas in many ways as far as how he can protect himself. At the same time, you have to make sure you bring that competitive edge, too."

Granlund agreed, "You need to be smart. I feel that’s part of my game to go to those little holes and try to make tough plays. I really don’t want to get away from that. But I need to be smart and that’s something I should learn more."

Couple other storylines:

-- Matt Cooke has been part of the Vancouver-Minnesota rivalry from the Canucks' point of view. This will be his first taste from the Wild's. These are no longer division rivals, but there's still that hatred between the two teams even though we're oddly 35 games into this season and they're facing each other for the first time.

Cue the Cookie Monster: "I now have thankfully earned the trust of the fans here in Minnesota – and media members as well, so it’s different." He expects a physical, tight game.

-- Defenseman Keith Ballard, who spent the past three years with the Canucks, took a lot of "cut the cord" shots from Wild teammates and staff this morning when he was in the hallway chatting with several former teammates like Ryan Kesler (the Canucks practice here at the X in a short bit).

Ballard had his struggles for former coach Alain Vigneault in Vancouver, but he's on a two-year deal with his hometown Wild and Yeo is happy with his game. He's sustained two injuries this year -- a concussion and broken ribs, both coming when he was playing well. Yeo said after the ribs, it took Ballard five games or so to rediscover his game, but he's happy with Ballard's game the past couple and loves the competitiveness that Ballard brings to a Wild D corps that's not the most physical (I'm saying the last part, not Yeo).

-- The Canucks are playing awesome right now. They are playing a true game under new coach John Tortorella, have the best PK in the league and have been good on the road. Kesler, who will center a line for the U.S. in Sochi, is playing on a tremendous line with Chris Higgins and Mike Santorelli. The line has 20 points during Vancouver's 7-game winning streak.

Kesler is playing in a shutdown role, and may be a Selke frontrunner. Guys like Eric Staal, David Legwand, Paul Stastny, Martin Hanzal, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron have gotten squat going head-to-head vs. Kesler recently.

He's got 15 goals and 11 on the road.

Tortorella typically doesn't give a darn about history, so one assumes Roberto Luongo will start. Luongo is typically lights-out against the Wild at home, but he's terrible at the X. At the X, he's 3-9-2 with a 3.56 goals-against average and .873 save percentage, and that includes a 0-0 tie in his first-ever start at the X with Florida in 2000. I was there in a different role. Luongo has been pulled in his past three starts here and has just had such struggles here that Vigneault didn't play him in Minnesota since Oct. 19, 2010.

That's it for me. Josh Harding is expected to start vs. the Canucks. Talk Tuesday.

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