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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Erik Haula to return to lineup Saturday as Wild opens home-and-home with Detroit; Nate Prosser off the hook

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: March 21, 2014 - 3:13 PM

All Wild players present and accounted for at today’s practice, except defenseman Keith Ballard, who will miss his third game in a row with a groin injury.

The Wild plays a home-and-home with the Detroit Red Wings this weekend starting with a 1 p.m. game at the X on Saturday. The Red Wings, absolutely destroyed by injuries, are fighting for their playoff lives and coming off an overtime win against Pittsburgh. The great Daniel Alfredsson literally scored a buzzer beater in OT.

The Red Wings have a lot of young talent, they work their butt off and, as I mentioned, they’re motivated to keep the organEYEzation’s 22-year playoff streak alive. In 9th-place, they’re a point behind the Blue Jackets and Rangers, who play tonight, so the Wild should expect a desperate opponent this weekend.

Darcy Kuemper will get back in the net for Minnesota. It’s his first start since Monday’s game in Boston. He allowed three goals in that one.

Rookie forward Erik Haula, scratched in the previous two games, will draw back into the Wild’s lineup against the Red Wings. Cody McCormick appears to be the scratch. Haula will play on a line with Charlie Coyle and Dany Heatley, and coach Mike Yeo said Haula will see some shifts at center. But he skated mostly as a wing this morning.

Nino Niederreiter moved to a line with Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak.

Coyle and Niederreiter have been very up and down lately. Their line with Heatley had a real tough game last night in New Jersey, so Yeo’s mindset is put Haula there and maybe rekindle some of that Jason Zucker-Coyle-Heatley chemistry from earlier this season. The common denominator between Haula and the injured Zucker is speed.

Yeo met with Coyle and Niederreiter before the Islanders game. Both aren’t scoring consistently and because they’re young, that’s eating them up. It’s clearly affecting the rest of their game. Yeo wants them to get it out of their mind and start doing the stuff that makes them successful, like using their size, being strong on pucks, reliable in other areas. That was a major issue last night.

The Wild badly, badly need Coyle and Niederreiter on top of their game consistently. One reason – and I stress just ONE reason (I realize there are other issues, like Heatley fitting in on that line, Mikko Koivu getting back up to speed, etc.) -- why the Wild’s having trouble finding consistent lines right now is their up and down play.

“That’s part of it, there’s no question. When those guys get on top of their game, they’re going to make their lines better. They can’t wait for who they’re playing with. They need to get on top of their game and I will say in fairness we have juggled them around, they have been in different spots, but at the same time these guys have a pretty firm idea of what their identity should be and how they have to play the game and we need to see that consistently. That’ll strengthen the line of whichever line they’re on.”

Yeo continued, “We want these guys to create, we want these guys to be a factor offensively, but that’s only going to happen when the game is consistently there. That’s the big thing they have to learn. As young kids, that’s usually the challenge. When a young kid is pressing or he’s thinking he has to score a goal, there’s other parts of their game that falter. My focus for them is to concentrate on having a good game and the results will come.”

I talked to Niederreiter and Coyle and you’ll hear from them in tomorrow’s paper.

On the Koivu-Moulson line, Yeo said, “We’re still hoping that Fonzy (Justin Fontaine), I didn’t think that that line had as much going on obviously as the game before, but that was kind of our whole team. We’d like to see if Fonzy, we’re going to give him another chance there and see if he can kind of recapture some of what they had in that Islander game. Maybe he’s the guy, I don’t know. Maybe this is an ongoing thing where it’s kind of whoever’s going, whoever’s on top of their game finds a way to get up there. For us to be a good team, we have guys who can be interchangeable in different positions. But in order to be a good team, they need to be on top of their game.”

What else?

Yeo on Zucker missing the rest of the season (click link), “It’s a tough one for sure. We all thought that he was going to be back after the Olympic break so it’s a tough setback that’s for sure. “It’s disappointing because like I said I thought that his game was going. I thought we were finding kind of the right mix with him and here we are. It’s difficult but he’ll have to bounce back from it for sure.”

Defenseman Nate Prosser is off the hook for his elbowing major and game misconduct on the Devils’ Tim Sestito from Thursday night. Prosser was playing the puck in the corner and Sestito came flying in to check him. Prosser instinctively raised his arm to protect himself. I think he got Sestito with the forearm.

The league says that just because this didn’t rise to the level of supplemental discipline, the correct call was made.

My only issue: If Prosser doesn’t protect himself, he could have been plastered against the wall or glass. Conceivably Sestito could have been penalized for a no-doubt charge, so I’m not sure what Prosser’s supposed to do there other than absorb a potentially-dangerous check or pretend he’s a bullfighter and somehow “Ole.”

Prosser said today, “I was trying to ask the ref on the skate out, ‘Can you talk to me a little bit to tell me what you saw just to give me some kind of perspective?’ In all honesty, I didn’t know what really happened until I saw the replay. I was pretty sure I didn’t get him with my elbow and it obviously wasn’t intentional. I’m just hoping he’s alright.”

On the major, Prosser said, “I was surprised they were bringing me to the box. I thought, ‘OK maybe two,’ but kicking me out of the game, I was shocked.”

Did he know Sestito was coming? “As soon as the puck got dumped in, I knew the line we were out against and I saw some guys barreling down. He probably took 10 strides before he got to me, so he’s at full speed. So I knew he was coming and that was a natural reaction to somewhat protect myself.”

Lastly, Zach Parise’s goal from last night has been changed to Ryan Suter. The puck deflected in off Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador. Jared Spurgeon and Jason Pominville got the helpers, meaning Pominville’s point streak is now at seven games.

OK, I need to begin writing from the paper and get out of this coffee shop. I can barely keep my eyes open right now. Back in the old days covering this league, I would routinely get up for an early flight after getting back to the hotel at 1 a.m., fly home, cover practice and then go party afterward.

I miss being young.

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