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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Wild begins life for a bit without Zach Parise; Why the Wild called up Stephane Veilleux

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: December 27, 2013 - 6:35 PM

Wild and Winnipeg Jets tonight in the frozen tundra of Manitoba. I did my almost-midseason analysis in today’s newspaper. That can be found at this link.

The Wild got on an 8:30 a.m. flight and headed north without Zach Parise. Coach Mike Yeo called Parise day-to-day.

I think day-to-day could potentially be a few weeks without its first-line left wing. Parise has clearly been hampered on the ice and in pain off of it, and my guess is he probably did further damage to the foot. Last time, it was recommended he miss two to three weeks. He missed one game.

So it doesn’t linger, my guess is he’ll be kept off the ice for a little bit here so he can heal up, and that part Yeo did admit to this morning.

“If he’s not a game player, I want to keep him off the ice completely and give him a good chance to heal,” Yeo said.

More on this below.

Josh Harding is on the trip, but he will not dress tonight. Niklas Backstrom will make his fourth straight start. He gave up 12 goals on the previous road trip and 19 in his past five starts, although it’s hard to blame him for any of the three goals in Philly and the first three in New York and he’s gotten zero goal support.

His last win was last month in Winnipeg when the Wild was completely outplayed and he stole them a shootout win. That was his first skate back from a concussion, but Harding got hurt in warmups.

Yeo didn’t know how long Harding will need on the ice before he can return. I’m getting New Year’s Eve vs. St. Louis. I can’t see Sunday’s Islanders game after only one practice. Yeo felt Harding looked good this morning. Harding was not made available to the media by the team.

Defenseman Clayton Stoner will miss at least a few days, Yeo said, with a lower-body injury. Nate Prosser will skate his second straight game next to Keith Ballard, who has struggled the past two games. Although, so has Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon.

The lines:

Nino Niederreiter-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle

Dany Heatley-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville

Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Justin Fontaine

Stephane Veilleux-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell

Mike Rupp is the lone scratch. Johan Gustafsson will back up Backstrom.

This was the Wild and Jets’ first skate in the past three days. Pominville said players were rusty and it may take a few shifts to get the timing back.

“We threw a couple extra drills in there to try to get rid of some of the sloppiness,” Yeo said. “You could see early, we weren’t passing a lot of flat pucks. But as practice wore on, we started to work out some of the kinks.”

Players like Pominville and Heatley said others must step up now without Parise. I’ll have those quotes in the gameday notebook in Saturday’s paper.

“When we’re at our strongest, when we’re playing at our best as a team, we’re playing our team game, we’re able to overcome these individual injuries,” Yeo said. “We’ve had some tough ones as far as injuries go, but we’ve battled through it for the most part.”

Yeo is referring to Coyle’s sprained knee, Jonas Brodin’s broken cheekbone, Granlund’s concussion, Parise playing through a bum foot for a month, three issues with Backstrom (knee, concussion, illness) and Harding’s MS-related absence and two leg issues this season.

“It’s a tough challenge when you lose a guy like Zach,” Yeo said. “For a team that hasn’t been scoring a lot of goals, we’re losing a guy that’s a threat every time he’s on the ice. Somebody’s going to have to pick up the slack, but more importantly, we have to do it as a group.”

My concern is during the 1-0-2 portion of the first three games of this seven of eight away from St. Paul, we still saw glimpses of the Wild’s game and quality play. The last three before the break, we saw a disjointed, convoluted, terribly-playing hockey team. I mean, just look at some of the D like Scandella and Spurgeon who have been so good this season on that last road trip.

How do you get that back?

“You’re focused on not scoring goals and you start losing focus on some of the things that you need to be doing,” Yeo said, adding again that the break came at a good time. “Let’s reset here, let’s use this break, let’s clear our minds and get back to who we are.

“Foundation is key for us. Our foundation has never really been about goal scoring. When we were winning a lot of games, we weren’t winning a lot of 6-5 games. I don’t think our players have forgotten how to score goals. We’re not doing it right now. Along the way, we’re so focused on that, we’re losing focus on some of the things that we need to be doing. We’re giving up way too many goals. That’s not us. That’s not who we are, that’s not how we play the game. We have to get back to our foundation.”

I asked Yeo why the Wild replaced a first-line left winger with a fourth-line plumber like Veilleux rather than a more offensive-minded Iowa player like Jason Zucker, Erik Haula or Brett Bulmer (even though I already knew the answer).

Yeo: “We need to get guys into roles. It’s about getting back to our game. That’s what we need right now. We’ve had skilled guys playing on the fourth line and checkers playing on the first line. Let’s get back to having roles, identities and everybody being on the same page and getting us going in the right direction. Our first, foremost thought has to be, ‘let’s start rebuilding our game, let’s get back to who we are.’”

As we’ve seen with the Minnesota-Iowa yo-yo though, that’s what Yeo says today. We’ll see if that continues or a more skilled player ends up back here in a few days. GM Chuck Fletcher said the other day regarding Zucker that he feels badly every time he calls him up because he’s not playing overly well down there, and until he plays a string of good games down there, he really needs to stay there because otherwise he’s got no shot to play well up here.

We’ll see if that changes if the Wild gets more desperate. Same thing with Haula and Bulmer. I think the Wild wants to stop the yo-yo and keep those guys consistently in Iowa so they can develop rather than being mostly unproductive in the NHL. We will see again if the Wild’s need changes that desire in the coming days.

Yeo is loading up the first unit tonight with Granlund-Koivu-Coyle, Pominville and Ryan Suter and has a second unit of … Heatley-Brodziak-Fontaine, Ballard-Spurgeon. On the fly (non-faceoff), it appears Niederreiter takes Brodziak’s spot.

“The mentality of the second group should be to get as many pucks to the net as we can,” said Yeo, who added he’s going with Granlund on the top unit because he’s playing at such a high level right now.

The NHL holiday roster freeze expires at midnight. We'll see if Fletcher is able to do anything to get the attention of this slumping team.

Talk tonight. I’ll be on TSN 1290 in Winnipeg at 5:30 p.m.

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