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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Mikko Koivu practices with the Wild, talks about ankle, Team Finland

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: February 19, 2014 - 5:12 PM

The Olympic break is officially over for 16 Wild non-Olympians and a couple other injured players. The team gathered this afternoon in Edina to resume practice in preparation for its first post-break game at Edmonton a week from Thursday (Feb. 27).

Captain Mikko Koivu, out since breaking his right ankle Jan. 4 – an injury that led to a couple screws being inserted during an operation two days later, returned to practice. He’ll continue to ramp it up as long as his ankle feels good.

Today’s practice was about feeling the puck again for the team. A lot of skill work. The Wild coaching staff will up the ante Thursday with more competitive drills and begin to work again on system work.

Sixteen skaters and two goalies took part in today’s practice. Jason Zucker had a minor procedure on one of his legs and had a doctor’s appointment today, so coach Mike Yeo said he’ll have a better update on Zucker on Thursday. Perhaps we even see Zucker take the ice. Yeo also hopes defenseman Marco Scandella, who sprained his MCL in the second-to-last game before the break, rejoins the team soon.

Yeo expects that Nino Niederreiter will return to the country from the Olympics on Thursday. The team plans to give him a few days off. It’ll be interesting to see how it works with Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Mikael Granlund. The two Americans and one Finn play in the semifinals against Canada and Sweden, respectively, on Friday, so they likely won’t be back to the country until Monday regardless if they win or lose.

If that’s the case, one can assume they won’t practice Monday or Tuesday, meaning their first practices with the team could come Wednesday in Edmonton the day before the game vs. the Oilers.

Josh Harding didn’t practice and there’s no change to his status. He hasn’t started since Dec. 31 and twice since Dec. 17 after having an adjustment to his treatment for multiple sclerosis.

The longer this goes, the less likely it is that Harding will be able to rejoin the team this season, but the Wild is holding out hope.

“We feel for him right now,” Yeo said. “We’re behind him and we just want to see him get better and get ready to get back with us. … We want to be here for him, so when he feels better and when he’s ready to rejoin us, we’ll be more than ready to welcome him back.”

Niklas Backstrom saw abdominal specialist William Meyers in Philadelphia over the break. He’s the doctor who performed his sports hernia surgery after last season. Backstrom said they know now what’s been ailing him, but he wouldn’t divulge it. Backstrom has said before he believes his season-long soreness is related to last year’s ailment. Backstrom said they have some new treatment plans and he hopes it solves the issue.

Yeo said the break should have helped Backstrom more than anybody else on the roster.

Erik Haula will play three games this week for Iowa and then the team will decide whether or not to flip him with Jake Dowell and bring him back. The team though has some roster decisions to make if Koivu is able to come back next week in Edmonton and/or Vancouver, and maybe that affects Haula. Obviously, Haula was playing great before the break, but the roster isn’t unlimited.

Jon Blum, a defenseman, is up now with Suter in Russia and Scandella hurt.

As for Koivu, he felt good today. The Wild’s not going to put pressure on him by announcing a target date. Obviously, the hope is that Koivu can return in Edmonton, but Koivu said today, “I think it’s the worst feeling watching the games and not being part of the team. As soon as I can, I will play. But I thought I would be ready right now in the Olympics, so I don’t really want to put a timetable on when I’m going to play. We’re going to go day by day. As long as it’s getting better each and every day, I’m happy.”

Koivu said his ankle felt “a lot better” than before the break, but he admits there’s still discomfort and as good as he looked today, even Yeo said you could tell he was laboring late in practice.

Koivu said, “I think it’s stronger, but it’s still a ways to go, too. For sure, it’s going to get better each and every day. Just trying to make the right calls now with treatment and get it still stronger and hopefully each and every day it’s going to get easier and easier.”

Koivu, who was supposed to captain the Finns in the Olympics, has been forced to watch from across the ocean. Teemu Selanne has captained Finland into a semifinal Friday against border rival Sweden. Mikael Granlund leads the Finns with three goals, five points and 19 shots.

“Obviously you’re very proud of them, the way they play,” Koivu said. “I have lots and lots of good friends on that team. For our country, it means a lot. No one expected us to get even this far again and we proved people wrong again. It’s a great feeling to see that, but at the same time, it really, really hurts not being out there and playing with them. I guess that’s sports. You can’t always be healthy. You ask why the timing and everything about that, but it is what it is. I’m just very happy for them. They’re playing great hockey right now and it’s great to watch.”

On why Finland is always able to play so well in international tournaments – world championships, world juniors, medaling in the last two Olympics (this is a team minus Koivu, Filppula and Barkov right now), Koivu said, “They have good players. That’s the first. Without good individuals, you’re not going to get that far in a tournament like that. We’re well-coached out there right now. They play for their system, good goaltending, great defense by the whole group. I think it’s just the whole team. That’s the word. It’s teamwork and team effort each and every night.”

On Granlund, Koivu said, “I knew he could be good. Especially against Russia today. He was great.”

On whether he’s looking for flights to Sochi, Koivu joked, “I don’t think they want me there anymore the way they’re playing.”

Yeo has been impressed with Granlund. He brought up how against Canada, to start overtime, he went head-to-head against Sidney Crosby.

“It can’t be anything but good for him, the fact that he’s performing at the level that he is, the fact that he’s doing it against the world’s best players, I think it’s been a tremendous experience for him. … As far as we’re concerned, he’s set the bar pretty high. We know what he’s capable of now, so we’re going to hold him to that.”

Yeo said the latter somewhat tongue in cheek.

The Wild will have a couple tough practices, take Saturday off, have a Sunday outdoor practice at 11 a.m. (open to the public) and Roseville’s John Rose MN OVAL and then really start to ramp it up next week.

I'll be on KFAN in a couple minutes.

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