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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Darcy Kuemper earns fourth consecutive start Saturday vs. Dallas

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: January 17, 2014 - 3:11 PM

Darcy Kuemper, who is 3-1 with a 1.23 goals-against average, .957 save percentage and one shutout in four starts since Jan. 7, will make his fourth consecutive start in the first of a home-and-home against the Dallas Stars on Saturday night.

The 8 p.m. game will cap Hockey Day Minnesota – a celebration of hockey in Minnesota that is highlighted by a full day’s worth of coverage on Fox Sports North. Elk River, hometown of Wild defenseman and Thursday night hero Nate Prosser, is the host city and for a directory of Saturday’s coverage, go back a couple blogs.

I’ll be on Fox Sports North around 12:55 p.m. Saturday.

The Wild practiced at St. Thomas Academy this morning. Kuemper didn’t practice. The team gave him what GM Chuck Fletcher termed a “rest day.” Same thing for defenseman Ryan Suter, who plays more minutes than any NHL skater.

By Kuemper not practicing, that allowed Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding to each get a cage for the entire practice.

“Those guys need that,” coach Mike Yeo said. “It’s always tough rotating three goalies in a practice.”

I thought both goalies looked great today. The key for Harding particularly because he has missed so much time is to get some more reps so he can get back to form, which shouldn't be an issue because he's so mechanically-sound.

Looks like Yeo will come back with the same lineup against the Stars. As much hoopla as the Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle lines have been getting the past week or so, Yeo is also real happy with the Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Justin Fontaine line lately.

The line has been pretty much a plus line every game of late, playing physically, shutting down opponents and getting loads of scoring chances. They scored a huge goal last night after Cooke nailed Nail Yakupov, and then casually found the puck and triggered a 3-on-2 that Fontaine finished with his 12th goal off a nice drive to the net by Brodziak.

Yeo also praised the job Cooke and Brodziak are doing on the penalty kill.

Except for the one goal against by Jordan Eberle, Yeo said he was happy with the Keith Ballard-Clayton Stoner pairing.

Eberle scored on a 2-on-1 after Ballard missed the net and the left-shot Stoner, playing the right side, made a bad pinch up the wall. But Yeo noted a big issue was the F3, Stephane Veilleux, was incorrectly positioned and then didn’t make a quick enough read when Stoner went up the wall.

But Yeo said Ballard and Stoner recovered well and “played a strong game from there. … Ultimately I thought they helped us move the puck, I thought they defended well.”

On Kuemper, Yeo said, “I’m just trying to stay even-keeled with that. It’s our job to make sure we’re doing everything we can to continue to help him feel confident, but at the same time, we have to make sure he stays grounded and stays focused on why he’s playing well.”

Yeo said it’s not unlike how the coaches try to help each of the Wild’s eight 23-and-under players “reset” their focus every game so they bring consistency. That’s always the big concern with kids, and we’ve seen it a lot lately. Sometimes they look awesome (vs. Nashville, Phoenix), sometimes they look like they’re just going with the flow (vs. Ottawa). The Wild is trying to help them find consistency so there’s not so much variance in performances night after night.

Big stretch of games coming up for the Wild as it has a home-and-home with Dallas (plays in Dallas on Tuesday), a home game with Chicago, who’s an OK team, Thursday, and then a big road trip to San Jose and Anaheim (Cali’s 3 teams are 52-8-8 for a .824 points percentage this season at home), Colorado and Calgary.

The South Stars have followed the Wild’s tough stretch in late December with a similarly hellacious stretch in January. They are 1-7 this month to slip to 10th in the West. They are eight points behind Minnesota with three games in hand.

“Things haven’t gone well for them, but I’ve watched their games, and they’re playing very hard, they’re playing well, so we have to be ready to go because I’m expecting a very motivated and hungry team,” Yeo said.

Zach Parise practiced again in a yellow no-contact jersey. He looks awesome.

Asked when Parise can start getting into contact and more game-like situations, Yeo said, “That’s up to everybody else to tell me. He is flying. Everything looks good, his skating looks good, his hands look good, and obviously [contact] is the next step. Just waiting for that.”

Erik Haula and Ballard are planning to go to the Hockey City Classic tonight.

Yeo isn’t because, he joked, his son didn’t invite him.

I’m looking forward to taking in that game, too. That’s it for me. Talk to you Saturday.

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