Wild's Ballard rankles opponents with his hip checks

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 23, 2013 - 12:23 AM

Keith Ballard got into two fights in the same game for the first time in his career Thursday in Pittsburgh and “it was probably the last.”

The Wild defenseman nailed Chuck Kobasew with an old-school hip check and had to fight him moments after. Later, he nailed James Neal with a similar hit, only this time in open ice, a hit the refs deemed clipping. Like Kobasew, Neal was furious and fought Ballard.

“It seems to be the general reaction right now,” Ballard said of having to fight somebody after a hard hit. “A lot of it is who you hit. You can’t hit a young guy. You can’t hit a skilled guy. There’s like about four guys on each team you can hit and nobody does anything.”

Still, Ballard respected Kobasew and Neal’s wanting to stand up for themselves. The hip check may be legal, but no player likes to be hit by one. The recipient feels the aggressor was trying to take out his knees, and even if he wasn’t, a mistimed hit or a check a few inches off could prove catastrophic.

“But I need to do certain things to help my game, and play physically is one of them,” Ballard said. “Obviously I’m not the biggest guy. I watched [the Kobasew hit] again. I hit him right in the thigh. I’m not running around elbowing guys in the head.”

On the low check on Neal, Ballard said: “That was a play where he was getting by me. I did the same thing to [Max] Talbot last week in Colorado. It’s either that or let the guy skate by me. It’s kind of a survival thing.”

Ballard, a left-shot defenseman, hasn’t used the hip check a lot this season because he finds it more difficult to execute playing on the right side, where he has spent most this season.

He began pulling it off when he got to training camp in Phoenix in 2005.

“I don’t remember in college [at Minnesota] if I was overly physical, but in Phoenix we had like nine defensemen,” Ballard said. “I tried to do anything to separate myself and stick out a little bit to make the team.

“I pick my spots a lot more now. Early on, I ran around and looked for that kind of stuff, and I had a few dangerous hits where you’re going at a guy and sometimes you catch a knee or something like that.”

Backstrom’s night

Niklas Backstrom sustained his ninth loss in 11 decisions (2-7-2) and gave up one of the worst goals of his career in Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Rangers.

But Backstrom swallowed pucks, controlled his rebounds and even stopped Mats Zuccarello on a breakaway. In the third period, though, he tried to poke-check a fanned shot by Chris Kreider, missed and the puck squeezed through his pads.

“I feel bad for him because that had nothing to do with the game,” coach Mike Yeo said. “Early, he looked as good as he has looked this year. It would be nice if we can give him more support.”

Backstrom has received eight goals of support in his past eight full games played and five goals in his past six.

Yeo confirmed third goalie Darcy Kuemper is “not 100 percent,” so Backstrom likely will start again Monday at Philadelphia rather than Johan Gustafsson making his first NHL start.

Etc.

• Defenseman Clayton Stoner was lost in the third period because of a lower-body injury. Defenseman Jared Spurgeon missed the last half of the second period after a head shot from Derek Dorsett, but he returned in the third.

• Veteran Mike Rupp, acquired from the Rangers in February, played for the first time after being scratched seven in a row. Zenon Konopka and Justin Fontaine were scratched.

• Wild first-round pick Matt Dumba might face a suspension to start the world junior championships. The defenseman was assessed a kneeing major in Canada’s exhibition game against Sweden on Sunday.

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