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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Spurgeon returns tonight for the Wild; Lineup updates, more on Koivu

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: February 4, 2014 - 3:40 PM

Wild and Tampa Bay Lightning tonight at the X.

Good afternoon from the arena’s press room. Reminder, the fourth of five Star Tribune Chalk Talks with former Lightning assistant coach Wes Walz and I will take place before tonight’s game. If you want to attend the event and game, please go to wild.com/chalktalk.

If you didn't see my Mikael Granlund piece today, here is a link.

Darcy Kuemper vs. Ben Bishop tonight.

Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon will play for the first time in 15 games and be reunited with old defense partner Marco Scandella. Nate Prosser remains in the lineup and will be paired with veteran Keith Ballard, and Clayton Stoner will be scratched.

Two changes to the fourth line: Stephane Veilleux, scratched the previous five games, will replace Mike Rupp and Torrey Mitchell, scratched for the first time this season Saturday in Calgary, will slide into the right-wing spot as Justin Fontaine sits.

Fontaine missed practice Monday with a stomach bug, and since there was no practice Sunday, coach Mike Yeo felt Fontaine wouldn’t be 100 percent. So the team will give him a practice Wednesday and maybe Fontaine will return in Thursday’s game against Nashville – the final break before the 20-day Olympic break.

Remember, the Wild will not practice from Feb. 7-18. NHL practices can resume at 2 p.m. CT Feb. 19 and the Wild will resume practicing at its new practice facility whenever there’s an Xcel Energy Center conflict – Braemar Arena in Edina.

Also, Feb. 23, the Wild will hold a free, open-to-the-public outdoors practice at 11:15 a.m. at Roseville’s John Rose OVAL.

Spurgeon is excited to get back into the lineup tonight. When the Wild returned to Minnesota yesterday, those custom-molded shot blockers were sitting waiting for players. Spurgeon tried his the past few days and will give it a try tonight. He wore others during last year’s playoffs and found he would slip anytime he made a turn. These are molded and the strap comes higher, so they don’t hit the ice during crossovers.

I haven’t noticed if any other players will try them yet, but often times, players get into such a routine, more than likely if players wear them in games, they’ll want to get a string of practices with them on. So that could come during the Olympic break skates.

Spurgeon broke his foot during the Jan. 2 game against Buffalo. He lasted until the end of the game, skating 27 minutes and being plus-3.

“It didn’t really bother me until I took my skate off,” Spurgeon said. “It hurt when it happened and I left it on to make sure it didn’t swell up. After the game, we checked it out. Unfortunately it was worse than we thought. The next couple days I could barely walk on it, but I think the adrenaline of the game and how well we were playing that game, that kept me in it.”

Yeo said, “We’re anxious to see where his game’s at. If he can step in and be close to the level that he was at before he got hurt, we’re a lot stronger for it.”

Yeo talked to Stoner this morning to let him know “we’re not unhappy with him, we’re not disappointed in his game. Bally’s really been playing well, Pross has really been playing well. With Marco, Brods and Suts, we had to make a decision, so that’s where we’re at.”

Yeo said Prosser has taken advantage of his opportunity. From Nov. 27-Dec. 22, Prosser was scratched 13 consecutive games. He has now played 19 consecutive games, and in 14 games assuming Spurgeon’s role, he is plus-7 with two game-winning goals and two assists.

But Yeo made clear this is the lineup for tonight and there’s no guarantees he doesn’t switch it up Thursday, so Prosser must keep his foot on the gas.

On the fourth line change, Yeo said at home, he has the last change, and he likes the makeup of a Veilleux-Erik Haula-Mitchell line because Tampa Bay’s a tight-checking, fast team and this should be a “skating game.”

By the way, Tampa Bay’s top line right now is Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Martin St. Louis. Palat edged Johnson and Kuemper for Rookie of the Month today.

Palat had 16 points in January, Johnson had 14. Kuemper led all rookies with six wins and had a 2.15 goals-against average and .932 save percentage.

Tonight, the Wild must be better with the puck. In Calgary, the Wild constantly threw pucks away, especially some of the kids. Jason Zucker throwing a puck up the gut led to the first goal. In Colorado, Matt Cooke’s turnover led to the Avs’ first goal.

Yeo said the Wild watched a lot of video on that yesterday.

“You can’t control the game if you can’t control the puck and I thought we were very poor with the puck,” Yeo said. “It led to too many chances against, it led to the first goal against, not only in Calgary, but also in Colorado. We have to be better with the puck, hanging onto it, being strong on it. We talk about how we want to be a puck possession team. Well, if you get the puck and just throw it away to the other team, then obviously that’s not going to work out for you.”

Captain Mikko Koivu again skated and shot pucks on his own before today’s skate. He is wrestling with the decision as to whether to captain Finland in the Olympics.

If he’s medically cleared, it’ll be up to Koivu as to whether he feels he can play at a high enough level in Sochi to participate.

“If he’s medically cleared and there’s no risk of injuring it further, to me, I would want him to go,” Yeo said. “Given the time he’s been off, it would almost be like a little training camp coming back for when we get out of the break. You can’t replicate the games. The level he’d be playing at over there, if he could get in and get those games, I think he should be much stronger coming out of break.”

I couldn’t agree more. Somebody tweeted me yesterday he should have his captaincy strip if he doesn’t play this week and ends up playing in the Olympics.

That’s absurd. If he is medically cleared and is able to play, it would be huge for the Wild if during the break Koivu is practicing and playing. If he doesn’t play during the break, when the Wild opens up Feb. 27 in Edmonton with the first of back-to-back games, Koivu could be playing his first game in almost two months. There’d be rust and fatigue for awhile because, as Wes Walz always says, it is not easy for big guys to come back and play at a top level initially after a long layoff.

So, it’ll be interesting to see what happens here. Again, Finland doesn’t need to turn into a roster until 24 hours before its first game. It opens against Austria on Feb. 13.

Talk to you later.

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