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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Wild looking for a "fourth-line" identity from its fourth line

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: March 26, 2014 - 12:36 PM

Afternoon from the X, where the Wild and Canucks face off tonight at 6:30 p.m.

If you didn’t see today’s profile on defenseman Jon Blum, please give it a read here. It’s a pretty gripping story.

Darcy Kuemper vs. Eddie Lack.

Alex Burrows dives back into the lineup for Vancouver. No Henrik Sedin though.

For the Wild, Cody McCormick, scratched in the Detroit home-and-home, draws back in for the Wild and Justin Fontaine is scratched (more on that decision below).

The Canucks are six points back of eighth-place Phoenix with nine games left, so they’re likely going to head into tonight’s game like their season’s on the line. You know the Wild would love nothing more than to put the nail in the coffin of their former division rival.

Coach Mike Yeo said the Wild must make sure it’s ready to go.

“We better be ready to match that desperation,” Yeo said.

This is the first of four games in six nights, including the first three games of a road trip to St. Louis (tomorrow, Wild hasn’t won in regulation there since 2007 and has lost eight in a row to the Blues overall), Phoenix, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Huge trip to say the least, so it’s important the Wild gets two points tonight.

Phoenix is now three points back after a big win last night in Pittsburgh. The Wild has played one fewer game. Dallas lost at Chicago, so the Stars are still six points back of Minnesota.

Yeo isn’t happy with the so-called fourth line lately, which the past few games has been Dany Heatley-Erik Haula-Fontaine.

In three of the past four games, he has liked what the third line has brought with Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Nino Niederreiter.

He said they’ve been “very true to their identity -- strong defensively, playing physical, playing in the offensive zone. Our fourth line, it’s sometimes varied as far who the personnel has been, but we can’t defer or change from what we need those guys to bring -- that’s momentum, being solid defensively, being strong on the forecheck, that’s playing in the offensive zone.”

Yeo said Fontaine’s game isn’t “at the same level as we saw in the Islander game, there’s no question.”

Fontaine really had issues in the first Detroit game, and it started 14 seconds in when he visibly hit the brakes on the forecheck, didn’t check Nik Kronwall and the Red Wings got a free exit. Those are the type of things coaches see, and Yeo has felt that his wall play hasn’t been up to snuff in the New Jersey and two Detroit games.

Yeo called those games a “little bit more in your face” than the Islanders game and “similar to what we’re going to see tonight.”

That’s why he’s putting McCormick back in. To me, McCormick’s got to play better though. For somebody the Wild acquired to add toughness and size, I haven’t seen any big hits or fights and he has gotten bumped off pucks in the offensive zone.

But Yeo is looking for more of a typical fourth-line identity from that fourth line. The question is whether it’s possible to get that identity with Heatley, who’s not exactly a speedster or a physical menace, on that line. But as we’ve seen, Yeo has done everything to avoid pulling the veteran from the lineup. The question is whether Yeo can ever really find that identity he so wants if he’s unwilling to move Heatley somewhere else in the lineup or scratch him.

When you think Heatley-Haula-McCormick, it seems like those are three very different type of players Yeo is trying to force-feed together. Haula, again, is in this role because Yeo has explained he has trust in Brodziak playing the system to a T and he doesn’t feel Haula is yet ready to play 16, 17, 18 minutes a night yet against top lines. Yeo knows his system inside and out – better than fans and media -- so he has got a reason to feel this way whether we agree or not. It’s clear many don’t.

Again, Haula will get his time. Gustav Nyquist, a star in Detroit suddenly, spent four seasons in the minors with Grand Rapids. That’s how the Red Wings do things. The Wild has put Haula on the team half a year into his first year pro, so he’s not being mistreated like many of you believe he is. He’s actually been fast-tracked here, so be patient and he’ll get his time.

Back to Fontaine, Yeo said, “We’ve got to make sure we keep him ready to go. There’s going to be a time very soon where we call upon him and we hope he can step in the same way that he did before (goal, assist on Long Island). I just think that line as a whole, we have to make sure we’re building an identity there.”

On Fontaine’s wall play against the Devils and Red Wings, Yeo said, “That’s part of it. When he’s on, he’s stripping pucks. He doesn’t have to be a guy who’s running guys through the boards, but you have to be effective. For some guys it’s using their speed and their stick creating turnovers. So that’s part of it. Being effective on the forecheck because let’s face of it, he’s got to play a bit of a different game with that line, a little more chip, a little more chase.”

And if you’re going to chip and chase, Yeo said you’ve got to be able to recover the puck.

“I’m confident he’s not that far off,” Yeo said.

Talk to you tonight. I’ll also be on Fox Sports North during the 6 p.m. pregame show and first intermission.

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