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 explains Rupp vs. Zucker decision; Spurgeon's return on hold; Koivu returns to Minnesota

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: February 1, 2014 - 2:10 PM

Afternoon from one of my favorite arenas, the Saddledome in Calgary, where tonight on Hockey Night in Canada, another classic Flames-Wild tilt will take place.

It’s my first time here since the arena was under water following the Bow River flooding last June.

Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, named an alternate captain for the U.S. Olympic team for the second time yesterday, will be Scott Oake’s guest on HNIC’s After Hours following the game. If you have questions you want Scott to ask, tweet him at @scottoake.

Since Jay Feaster was fired and President of Hockey Ops Brian Burke took over on an interim basis, the man has tried to add “truculence” to the Calgary lineup. The big addition was Kevin Westgarth, who decided to play center for a shift to open a game last month in Vancouver. All heck broke loose after the opening faceoff, John Tortorella tried to storm the Flames’ room to get at coach Bob Hartley between periods and Torts hasn’t coached since.

I jokingly warned Mike Yeo not to start his fourth line tonight.

But because of the heavies in Calgary’s lineup, Mike Rupp will play his fourth consecutive game.

Jason Zucker, scratched for Rupp the past three games, will return though and skate on a line with hometown “kid” Dany Heatley and Charlie Coyle. The trio had success a few games last month.

Zucker was the odd man after Zach Parise returned, and Yeo said it was about “fit.” I asked Yeo more specifically today why Zucker was scratched and he gave his most specific answer, which was an indictment of both the team and Zucker.

He said he gave Zucker the one game against Chicago on the fourth line and indicated Zucker needs to play in a top-6 role to be effective (he had one near costly turnover after a play on the wall in the second period). But then Yeo added, “We’ve seen a different game from our team and from him playing against some of these heavy teams on the road, so that’s we used the different lineup.”

So, to be clearer, Yeo has felt the Wild’s game and Zucker’s game changes against tough teams on the road, so that’s why he felt compelled to start playing Rupp at San Jose, at Anaheim, at Colorado and now at Calgary.

Zucker said he has to his best to play mistake-free hockey to keep from being an up-and-down player. Personally, I think that's a hard demand for any player to ask of himself. Zucker had some great games last month, especially in Nashville. He just has to do his best to relax, clear his head and play his game.

With Zucker back in and Rupp remaining in, Torrey Mitchell, whom I hear came close to being scratched in Colorado, will sit for the first time this season. Mitchell has one goal in 53 games.

Jared Spurgeon’s return is on hold. Yeo said Spurgeon told him yesterday that he’s just not ready, which is completely understandable. He has missed 13 games with a broken foot. Yesterday was his first real practice, so to me, that would have been the definition of rushing him back into the lineup.

I’d guess Tuesday against Tampa Bay is a likelihood.

“We would have had a tough decision tonight [as for who to take out] if he was coming into the lineup,” Yeo said. “Guys have elevated their game. Stony’s (Clayton Stoner) playing a physical game, Bally’s (Keith Ballard) taken his game to another level and Pross (Nate Prosser), we’ve seen what he’s come in and done.”

Yeo said all three probably sense the return of Spurgeon and have lifted their game knowing one of them will come out.

“That’s probably part of it,” Yeo said. “They go into every game making sure they’re ready to go and making sure they have that urgency.”

I did a big feature last month about Prosser, but I may write about him again for Monday. His play has been that good and he had some good stuff to say today about his head-to-head duels with Jamie McGinn the other night in Denver.

Captain Mikko Koivu returned to Minnesota after practicing in Denver the other day. The team felt there was no sense bringing him to Calgary since he wasn’t going to play.

He has not practiced with the team since having surgery on his ankle Jan. 6, so I don’t see how on earth he’ll be able to play one of the final two games before the Olympics. That, too, would be the definition of rushing him back.

“I don’t want to say anything yet,” Yeo said. “I would call Tuesday a longshot right now and I don’t want to speculate at all beyond that.”

That’s it for now. I’ll be on Sportsnet 590 the Fan in Toronto at 5:10 p.m. CT.

Also, the fourth of five Star Tribune Chalk Talks with myself and Wes Walz is Tuesday before the Wild-Lightning game. If you would like to go to the event and the game, go to www.wild.com/chalktalk.

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