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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Ballard returns tonight, plus Wild tweaking some lines; Live chat at 3 p.m.

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: May 6, 2014 - 1:36 PM

Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals. Tonight, Blackhawks and Wild, at 8. The game can be heard on KFAN and seen nationally on CNBC with Dave Strader and Brian Engblom wearing the mics.

Good afternoon from the X, where I’ll be for the rest of the day.

I’ll be hosting a live chat today at 3 p.m. on www.startribune.com/wild. Be there, pretty please. No questions on Thomas Vanek, Mikko Koivu’s captaincy, Jason Zucker, Mike Yeo’s coaching future or outdoor games (I did report today the Wild may host a stadium series game next season at Target Field; Wild wants Chicago to be the opponent; the NHL is pushing Dallas).

Just kidding on the above. You can ask anything. (I just might not answer it!!!)

I’ll be on KFAN at some point after 5:30 p.m. today and on Fox Sports North at 7:20 p.m.

First, the news:

1. Two revamped Wild lines tonight: Nino Niederreiter-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle and Matt Moulson-Erik Haula-Justin Fontaine. Niederreiter, excited to be at home for the first time since his Game 7 OT winner last round (give him a hand), called his line the “Big Man’s Line.” Moulson has had some chemistry with Fontaine in Long Island in March, but let’s be honest, the Wild is trying to find this guy a fit. He has had a poor postseason, has one goal and has slowed down his lines. More on that below.

2. Nate Prosser, who turned the puck over on the first goal in Game 2 and lost Patrick Kane on the fourth goal in Game 1, is scratched. Keith Ballard is getting in for the first time since straining his groin March 17. Why Ballard over Jon Blum? More on that below.

3. Darcy Kuemper took the ice with black aces Jake Dowell and Carson McMillan before the Wild’s morning skate. It was his first time on the ice since his Game 7 head injury. He’s been exercising the past few days, so this was the next step to hopefully taking the ice with his teammates again. Ilya Bryzgalov starts tonight with John Curry as the backup. Josh Harding continues to take part in the morning skates.

4. No Andrew Shaw tonight. He didn’t make the trip for Chicago after getting hurt in Game 1 on a check from Clayton Stoner. Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson will play tonight, but he cannot talk, coach Joel Quenneville said, since blocked Jonas Brodin’s shot in the throat in Game 2.

The Wild lost Games 1 and 2. Tonight’s not a must-win, … but it’s a must-win and everybody knows it. Win tonight, and just like the first round, the Wild’s right back in the series. Lose tonight, and the inevitable is almost certainly around the corner.

The Wild has lost to Chicago in six of seven playoff games the past two years. The Wild’s big guns haven’t produced and have been on the ice for a ton of goals against in those seven games.

Coach Mike Yeo pulled out of his holster something today that a few ink-stained wretches couldn’t get him to admit yesterday:

“For us, it's the mental hurdle,” Yeo said of the difference between playing Colorado and Chicago. “The first two games, I don't think we were completely on top of our game. We did a lot of good things and were right there with them. Scoring chances coming through two games were very even, we had a small edge in shots for. We had a pretty small edge in shot attempts for, which is a big difference from last year. As far as I'm concerned, we've leveled the playing field here, but we have to take the next step. We have to push past being close or even to them. We have to make sure that we get ahead of them. I believe that we can.

“It's a great test. It's a great team, but we've got a pretty darn good team ourselves. We just have to prove it now.”

That is the thing. The Blackhawks are the champs. They know how to play in these tight games and almost have this mystique that they’ll eventually remove your heart if you don’t take advantage of your opportunities. Let’s be honest: Both Games 1 and 2 were hanging right there for the Wild to win. It couldn’t score despite some golden looks. And then, the Blackhawks struck.

Tonight, I’d expect the Wild comes out with similar energy and offensive-zone pressure as it did in Games 3 and 4 against Colorado. The Blackhawks certainly haven’t seen Minnesota’s best game yet. The problem is I don’t think Minnesota has seen Chicago’s either.

The Blackhawks have lost eight straight playoff series initial road games, so we’ll see tonight if the Wild can make that nine. Remember, the Wild won Game 3 at home last year down 0-2 on a Matt Cullen to Jason Zucker overtime goal. On the ice for that goal interestingly enough: Zucker, Cullen, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Justin Falk, Tom Gilbert and Josh Harding. None of the six will be in tonight’s lineup.

Thanks to the Star Tribune’s Jim Foster for that tidbit.

As Chip Scoggins wrote in today’s Strib, this series doesn’t even feel like a playoff series because none of that feistiness and energy that made last series so compelling has existed.

I think Chicago makes it tough because the Hawks just play hockey machine-like, plus agitator/motor mouth Shaw is hurt and Brandon Bollig was scratched in Game 2.

But the Wild will be looking for more energy and physicality tonight. Yeo showed several clips to his players of times they could have blown up or at least checked Blackhawks defensemen and peeled off, maybe because of the lack of energy this series after playing a long series last round.

This is one reason why Ballard gets in over Blum, Yeo said.

“Blum played well for us, but it was a pretty small sample size,” Yeo said. “[Ballard’s] been out for a little while, but this is a guy that’s a very big part of our team. Looking at last game, looking at some of the things that we’ve seen, we had a lot of opportunities to get the puck on the blue line and he’s a guy that can move across the line with his head up and maybe get some of those pucks through. But his skating ability is a big part of it too. Plus he brings a competitive edge, which is important against a team that wants to hang on to the puck. So you need a physical presence along with that skating ability to help you separate and alleviate some of that defensive zone time that you’re faced with.”

I think the 25 blocked shots for Chicago was a big reason Ballard plays, which Yeo indicated. Ballard is one of the Wild’s best at sliding across the blue line to get pucks through.

However, this will be tough. He has missed almost two months and now has to jump into the second round of the playoffs. He missed the last 14 games of the regular season and the first nine games of the playoffs.

“It’s been a couple months,” the former Gopher said. “But I’m excited to play, I’m excited to get back in. I’ve been feeling good for the last week and a half or so. A lot of rehab. I had to get strength back in my leg and get feeling good.”

He’ll play on the right side of Clayton Stoner.

“The game’s picked up a considerable amount since the last time I played,” Ballard said. “I think the biggest thing is not try to do too much, especially early. Whether it’s stuff like short shifts, making easy plays, getting yourself into the game a bit. But at the same time, you want to make an impact. You don’t want to come in and just be a passenger and try to just get through the game. It’s a fine line.”

Last change should help Yeo tonight, but the Blackhawks aren’t the Avs. In the home games last round, Ryan Suter was able to play 92 percent of the shifts against Nathan MacKinnon. Same thing with getting Haula’s line out against the Avs’ top line. The Blackhawks have more depth line to line

“It’s going to be a factor for sure,” Yeo said. “But at the same time, this is a deep team. We’ll be looking for matchups but at the same time some of it might be a personnel matchup, some of it might be a zone matchup as well, an opportunity to get guys into an offensive zone faceoff or certain guys into a defensive zone faceoff. If we’re going to beat these guys then we’re going to need everybody to be able to play and
every line ready to go out and win the battle against the guys that they’re facing. So we’ll be paying attention to it but at the same time we will not let their moves dictate how we go about our business.”

On the home crowd, which was unreal last round, Yeo said. “The crowd is going to be awesome. I know that. It’s was unbelievably loud last series and I expect a lot of the same excitement, but we have to help provide some of that. We’ve got to bring some jam into this game right from the start. We’ve got to make sure that we’re finishing checks, that we’re creating momentum, that we’re playing in the offensive zone, that we’re shooting pucks, we’re doing things to make this thing erupt.”

On the Niederreiter-Koivu-Coyle line, Yeo said, “I would love to see that line spend a lot of time in the offensive zone. Those are three guys who are strong on the puck, three guys that can get around the net. It should be a tough line to play against. That's part of it. If they're on top of the game, they should bring momentum to our team.”

Moulson is costing himself millions in free agency with this postseason. Just not skating well, not producing and hurting his line. My gut says this could be his last chance tonight. Barring an injury, somebody’s going to have to come out for Matt Cooke in Game 4. Well, it’s quite coincidental that Moulson slides into Cooke’s spot tonight next to Haula and Fontaine.

This morning, I asked Yeo for the 15th time about Moulson. For the first time, he actually kinda sorta answered the question by addressing Moulson personally.

On Moulson and Fontaine, “They've had chemistry together before. The speed of Haula in the middle of the ice, I think should help those two guys. Hopefully just even mentally for [Moulson] to have the opportunity to just relax and play the game, just concentrate on going out yourself and the things you need to do.

“Fonzie's a guy that can make plays, both off the rush and in the offensive zone, and they've had chemistry before, so hopefully they create some of that.”

On tonight’s game, Yeo admitted, “This game is huge. We know that. This is going to be a tough test. It's a great team and they understand the importance of it, too, but I obviously think we're going to play a very good game tonight and we've got to find a way to get a win here. Find a way to get a win tonight and the series starts to take a different turn.”

Here’s some Zach Parise

On good start: This league is a lot easier when you’re playing with the lead. It’s tough to come from behind all the time. We’ve had some pretty good starts in this building. That’s the plan. But it doesn’t always go the way you want it to. Even if we don’t get a good start or the first goal, I think it’s important for us to not stray away from what we’re trying to accomplish, what we’re trying to do and how we’re trying to play. But I expect us tonight to have a lot of energy and come out with a good start.

What do you have to better: I thought we had a pretty good first game. we did come back and tie it up. But the second game, for whatever reason, our puck movement wasn’t good, we didn’t support each other up the ice and we turned the puck over a lot inside the blue line, which allowed them to make that quick stretch pass and catch us on some odd-man rushes. When we’re playing well, when we’re playing fast, we’re managing the puck a lot better. Against these guys, you have to make sure you do. Otherwise you’re not going to touch it the whole night

Here’s some Ryan Suter:

Suter

On Ballard: Brings a physical element and he’s a good skater. He can get it out of trouble.

I thought we’ve played well. We need to be better for sure, but I think we have that confidence knowing that we’re coming home and we have to get that next one.

Home ice: we play with a little extra confidence, a little extra jam. And that’s how you have to win playoff games. I think in the first couple games, we’ve gotten away from playing that physical style, playoff-type game. we just need to get back to the basics and not turn pucks over.

Last change: It definitely makes a difference. There’s a lot of good players on their team. I think it will be a good thing for us and hopefully we can use that to our advantage.

Getting pucks through vs. Hawks: They’re a great shot-blocking team. It’s seems like they’re always in the lane. I think if we can change the angle, maybe use the back wall, get pucks behind them, they might not come out so aggressive. It’s really important to try to get that puck through.

Crawford: We’ve had chances. He’s a great goalie. He’s solid back there.

JOEL QUENNEVILLE

Challenges with Hjalmarsson not being able to communicate on the ice: “Obviously you like to talk to the goalie playing it, your partner, whether he’s got an out or you’re the out, sometimes that can be beneficial. We always want to say communicate on the bench, make sure we’re talking as well. But I think we’re familiar with a lot, and he’s a lot familiar with the players around him and changes as well and make sure we’re sharp on the bench. so that’s something, we’ll see. He’s pretty aware of how to play the game, and those types of situations. Maybe he’s got to adapt a little bit, but for the most part, we expect him not to change too much.”

On the first 10 minutes tonight being important: Tough building. It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be a lot of excitement in here. Let’s make sure that we come being proactive the best we can, try to weather that first 10 minutes, just be on their heels. Let’s try and be initiating as much as you can. Let’s be prepared to play smart right off the bat, let’s bring a real intense first 10 minutes knowing we have to play the perfect road game, not just the start, but throughout the game.

On Nick Leddy again being in his doghouse (46 seconds last third period): Pace. I think the guys that we always say we’re looking for more, but we’re always looking at guys that are not getting as much as you want, or much ice time, we’re looking for things — everything’s quicker, everything faster, everything more assertive. Whoeever we’re talking about, that’s kind of what we’re getting to, or getting into.

Harder to shut down top two lines without last change: We’ll see. I’m sure that line matching is going to be something we’ll  have to keep an eye on as we go along here. How we either change or adapt, we’re comfortable with it. But I still think we want to play four lines and get everyone in the game early and see how it evolves. They changed their lines in the first couple of games in the Colorado series, and we’ll see how it works out tonight.

On them blocking so many shots: I think everybody’s got a different opinion on blocking shots. You’re taking away primary options by being in the shooting lanes and all of a sudden they have to have their second and third looks, which isn’t as enticing. And I think being there and willing there, it’s the best line of defense and the best way to defend. I think that’s what makes him such a good defender when we’re talking about be it Hammer or shot-blockers. You’re denying them what they really want to do and you’re willing to take one for the team. It’s an important art, it’s an important part of how you defend. Whether you’re getting your stick on it, whether it goes in the crowd off it, or you’re just denying them the shooting lanes sometimes. You don’t even get credit for some of the shot blocks because you’re denying them the lane.
 

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