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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Posts about Wild practice

Wild likely to make changes, but Mike Yeo not tipping hand yet

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 20, 2014 - 4:19 PM

Wild gathered at the X this afternoon for video work and a meeting, and then a handful of players went on the ice for a little practice.

Wild returns home Monday night (6 p.m. CT) with the goal of trying to get back into this series with the Colorado Avalanche. The Avs are 12-0 all-time when they’re up 2-0 in a series, … so they’re due.

Coach Mike Yeo wasn’t tipping his hand as far as lineup changes (Justin Fontaine, Dany Heatley and Jon Blum having been the scratches; Wild is 0-3 since Blum came out of the lineup for banged-up Clayton Stoner) or the starting goaltender. Let’s be honest: Darcy Kuemper is likely going to make his first career playoff start after stopping all 14 shots in relief of Ilya Bryzgalov in Saturday’s Game 2 defeat in Denver.

It was his first action since leaving the morning skate March 31. Matt Cooke accidentally let the cat out of the bag today with reporters: Kuemper suffered a concussion in practice – perhaps March 30 in Phoenix, which could explain why I never saw him get hurt (my flight to L.A. was right as the Wild hit the ice the day after its win at Phoenix).

Bryzgalov has allowed 16 goals in the past four starts and was pulled in two of them.

“If I do get the start, I'm really excited,” Kuemper said. “It's a big game for the team and I'm going to do my part and I’m sure everyone else is going to do their part to try to come up with a win.”

If the Wild’s going to get back in this series, it must neutralize the Gabriel Landeskog-Paul Stastny-Nathan MacKinnon line. The trio combined for 10 points last night.

From the NHL’s morning PR email:

MacKinnon collected three assists in his postseason debut in Game 1. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, his seven points (1-6—7) match an NHL record for points in the first two games of a playoff career, tying Odie Cleghorn (MTL: 1919) and Barry Pederson (BOS: 1982).
 * MacKinnon also became the third 18-year-old in Stanley Cup Playoffs history to post a four-point game, joining Pierre Turgeon (BUF: April 10, 1988) and Trevor Linden (VAN: April 9, 1989). The record for points by an 18-year-old in one postseason is 13, set by Jaromir Jagr in 1991 (PIT: 3-10—13 in 24 GP).
 * At 18 years, 228 days, MacKinnon became the youngest player in Avalanche/Nordiques history to score a playoff goal, doing so in highlight-reel fashion. He also became the sixth-youngest player since 1979 to record a goal in the Stanley Cup Playoffs: 
1. Jordan Staal, PIT – 18 years, 213 days
2. Brian Bellows, MIN – 18 years, 217 days
3. Pierre Turgeon, BUF – 18 years, 222 days
4. Patrick Marleau, SJ – 18 years, 224 days
5. Martin Lapointe, DET – 18 years, 227 days
6. Nathan MacKinnon, COL – 18 years, 228 days
 * Stastny now has 3-4—7 through the first two games of the series. He had 3-5—8 in 15 career postseason appearances entering 2013-14.
 * At 21 years, 147 days, Landeskog became the youngest player in Avalanche/Nordiques history to record a multi-goal playoff game. Alex Tanguay (21 years, 200 days) previously held the mark, posting 2-1—3, including the game-winning goal, in the Avalanche’s Game 7 victory over the Devils in the 2001 Stanley Cup Final.

For the first time in this series, Yeo will have last change because the team’s coming home.

One would think the Wild will assemble a third line of Matt Cooke-Erik Haula-Nino Niederreiter and give them the task of going up against Colorado’s top line.

Yeo made clear though that he believes that when the Wild’s playing its game, any line and any center can go against the Avs’ top line.

But, Yeo said, the Wild hasn’t been on top of its game.

The Wild must be better with the puck. Players are turning pucks over, and the Avs are exploding out of the zone, which puts Wild defenders on its heels. As Ryan Suter, no forward likes to skate backwards, but the Wild spent the second period skating backward Saturday.

“We’ve got to get more aggressive in our mentality because there’s too much gap, and we’re giving them too much ice,” Yeo said. “We have to do a better job of making sure they’re coming through tight layers.”

On MacKinnon, Yeo said, “He’s playing really well right now, we’ve played against some other great players this year too and we’ve done the job against them. It’s just a matter of resetting and getting back to our game. Getting home, I think, will give us that opportunity.

I wonder if the Wild tried to stick Haula on MacKinnon like a glove. He’s the only Wild forward who can maybe keep up with the speedster. Cooke said, “Obviously I want that [Colorado top line] matchup for me and for my line and for our team. It’s tough when you’re on the road. We’re going to get the last change and if that’s the way that coach wants to go, then I’ll be ready.”

Koivu, who was caught flat-footed on the first three goals Saturday, said, “We recognize the challenge. We’re excited to be home. We’re excited for tomorrow’s game. We know we need to play better. As a team, there’s things we need to do better. We recognize that and that’s our goal.

“We just have to take advantage of coming home and playing in front of our fans and in our building.”

Avs are landing about now. They didn’t practice. Patrick Roy did say Matt Duchene is on the trip and will begin skating Monday. Talk to you Monday. I’ll be on KFAN at 9:15 a.m. and on Fox Sports North before and during Game 3.

Wild looking to put Game 1 meltdown in rearview mirror

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 18, 2014 - 5:04 PM

Friday’s practice was all about taking the good things from Thursday’s 5-4 Game 1 overtime loss to Colorado and repairing the bad things.

Since I’m a cynical beat writer, let’s focus on the bad things.

1. Managing the puck better

2. Being better in the defensive zone by pressuring more aggressively and cutting off the Avs’ cycle.

3. Being more physical.

4. Uh, managing the puck better.

On points 1 and 4, the only obvious lineup shuffle for Saturday’s Game 2 is third-line center Kyle Brodziak, who was minus-3, and fourth-line center Erik Haula switched spots in practice. Haula will start Saturday’s game between Matt Cooke and Nino Niederreiter, while Brodziak is expected to be between Stephane Veilleux and Cody McCormick.

The Wild could have put Thursday’s game away umpteen different ways – scoring on that power play up 4-2, Mikael Granlund shooting the puck on that one clear as day opportunity, if Erik Johnson didn’t race down Haula’s empty-net try, Jared Spurgeon getting the puck out before Paul Stastny’s tying goal, Jason Pominville’s shot not hitting the post in OT.

“The mistakes that we made were some big ones,” said Spurgeon.

Let’s be honest, though, it’s a game of mistakes but the Wild has Thursday’s game in its hip pocket if Brodziak doesn’t turn over the puck to Ryan O’Reilly before Jamie McGinn cut it to 4-3.

“The third goal was tough for sure,” Brodziak said. “I double-clutched myself and it ended up in the back of the net and was the turning point in the game. You just have to move on. It’s never fun when that happens. The most important thing for everybody and myself is how we respond, how we bounce back. That’s the focus for today.”

Haula scored his first career playoff goal Thursday and played well, but one big reason coach Mike Yeo will put him on the third line is his speed should match up better against Colorado’s speed than Brodziak (particularly Nathan MacKinnon; as I said before the series, I feel is the only Wild player that can track MacKinnon, maybe the fastest player in the NHL, stride for stride). MacKinnon, 18, became the second-youngest player in NHL history to have three points (all assists) in his playoff debut (Pierre Turgeon, 1988).

The Wild’s challenge?

Put this game before them?

“You’re going to face adversity in the playoffs,” Yeo said. “We want to get on a run here and any team that’s going to have any kind of success in the playoffs , you’re going to face adversity.”

Yeo said today’s practice was proof of a loose group.

“I think it would be a lot worse if we were dominated in the game, if we felt like we were badly outplayed. It’s frustrating that we let a game get away from us. But if we won that game, there are no guarantees either. It’s one game. There’s enough positives to take from that game where we should feel good about ourselves. The best part for me is that was a winnable game for us, but I know that we can be better.”

Yeo didn’t like the Wild’s response after Brodziak’s gaffe.

“We’re still leading,” he said. “We have to have a mentality that every play is the difference in a hockey game. I thought we got tight after that. Normally with a one-goal lead, we’re very confident, we’re very strong in our game.”

In the D zone, Yeo said, “I think we had too much respect for them, personally. I look at situations where we’re in D zone and we’re on our heels. Normally we’re on our toes, we’re jumping, we’re pressuring. We always talk about our structure, but it doesn’t mean anything if we’re giving time and space to great players. … I know we can pressure the puck harder, I know that we can take straight lines and go through guys harder,

“We can be more physical on them. There’s no question about that. I don’t believe we made things hard enough on them physical.”

Yeo said also that Jonas Brodin probably should be a little more aware so he’s not peeling himself off the glass every shift. OK, I’m saying that. Not him.

But Yeo said there are times the defensemen go back to retrieve pucks that it doesn’t benefit anybody to go back and get run. Sometimes you’re better off protecting the puck, protecting yourself and waiting for support.

Haula on playing the third line, “I’m just excited to play the game. I don’t worry about where I play. I’m just trying to bring the same kind of effort every night. Whatever the task, whatever the role, I’ll take that challenge. They have a lot of good players. It’s not one line.”

Parise said they worked on some tactical things that needed to be cleaned up today and “upping our intensity level and playing more playoff-style hockey. We did it OK, but not well enough.”

On being more aggressive in the D zone, Parise said, “You’ve got to be careful with skilled guys. You don’t want to overcommit yourself. We can do a better job of stopping the cycle earlier and being a little more physical and pinning them rather than letting them cycle and cycle.”

Parise said life goes on after a loss like Thursday. “You think about it the rest of the night. You don’t have a choice. You’ve got to come in today with a clear mind ready to learn and ready to see how we can be better. Playoffs are never going to go the way you want them to go. The quicker you can move on, not only from losses but wins, too, the better off you’ll be.”

Mikko Koivu also said it was tough to sleep after Thursday’s game, but “it helps when you get out there and get a little sweat. We went through the things that happened last night and now we just have to learn from that and prepare ourselves for Game 2. We did a lot of good things, too. We can’t forget that. We have to be a little sharper.

“It’s not easy. That’ hockey. If it were easy, you’re in the wrong spot. Now it’s all about tomorrow. And we feel pretty good about ourselves and our game. We have to fix the little things.”

Ilya Bryzgalov has allowed 13 goals the past three games. The Wild’s not pinning last night on him, but he has got to be better, too.

Of the loss, Haula said, “Basically, it came down to inches,” referring to Johnson running down his empty-netter attempt and swiping it inches from the goal line.

“I tried to get some elevation so it wouldn’t go for icing and we can get a change. Suddenly, I’m looking and it might go in. Then it doesn’t’ go in, net’s off, scrum going on and I don’t know what the heck’s going on. I think the ref’s made a terrible call there.”

Yeo said the Wild also plans to talk to the series supervisor of officials (Don van Massenhoven) Saturday to try to get a ruling on a few things they were upset about, like Brodziak and Cooke being bowled over by Barrie before Stastny’s winner, why Koivu’s net off the moorings wasn’t a penalty vs. Johnson knocking the net off, why that faceoff was outside the zone as opposed to inside when Johnson started the whole thing and the scrum, in the Wild’s eyes, was at the top of the circle.

Regardless, the Wild gave this game away and it knows it.

“They got goals coming directly off our stick,” Yeo said. “We had the hockey game on our stick last game.”

A big storyline last night was Patrick Roy pulling Semyon Varlamov with 3:01 left. He has done this a few times this year and said today he did this a lot in junior, including in the second period.

Earlier this season, the Avs pulled off the same thing against New Jersey (tied game, won it in overtime). He tried same thing this season against Boston, although it didn’t work and neither team scored.

Roy said every morning skate for the past month the Avs have practiced 6-on-5’s.

He's done it a few times throughout the year, with some success. He pulled Varly with about 2:30 left in New Jersey on Feb. 4, down 1-0 and they tied it and won in OT. Not sure what the time of the goal was.
He pulled him against Boston down 2-0 with five minutes left but they didn't score. Neither did the Bruins. 

“As a goalie I would love to see my coach doing that,” Roy said. “You want to see the team tying. It doesn’t matter if it happens at 3 minutes or 2 minutes or one minute. It’s just a feeling. I know one day it might bite us, but it’s a longterm thing. If you do it 10 times and you score four goals, it’s 40 percent. It’s pretty big. If you give up one goal, what the heck, let’s keep doing it. I think it gives us momentum, it also forces them to defend. We keep it in their end, they get tired. The longer it lasts the tougher it is for them to make the right plays.

“I never look at statistics. I think sometimes just go with a feeling. If guys have been on the ice for a long time we think it’s a good time. The matchup. I’m looking at this more than anything else. If you have the momentum I’m not afraid to do it early, even if it can backfire.”

By matchup, he means the guys on the ice. He said he considered it with four minutes last night because the Wild had Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner (third pair) on the ice.

Johnson said he didn’t realize the net was empty until one of the officials told him (that was very nice by the official).

“I didn't realize it until O'Reilly said something when we were out there,” Stastny said. “I looked up and Factor said, 'We're pulling the goalie.' I thought ‘I better win this draw.’”

Most amazing about pulling the goalie with 3:01 left? The six guys on the ice were out there for the final three minutes of the game (obviously there were rests like TV timeouts and the scrum after Johnson’s save on Haula).

“But you know what, they’re standing still,” Roy said. “They had to move side to side because we were up and down. It’s like being on a power play. If you go on a power play you could be out there a minute or minute as a half. If you move the puck well it’s not as demanding than if you have to defend.”

You’ve got to love this guy. Roy does it his way.

Mikael Granlund excited to make NHL playoff debut against Colorado

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 16, 2014 - 6:21 PM

Finally, Game 1 is right around the corner between the Wild and Colorado Avalanche.

“The season ends, the playoffs begin, and it’s just a new feeling when you come to the rink,” coach Mike Yeo said today after the Wild skated at Magness Arena on the University of Denver campus. “We all feel it. We’re excited it’s upon us.”

Good early evening from beautiful Denver, where the weather’s nicer than Minnesota.

A reminder, I plan to hold a live Wild-Avs/NHL chat on startribune.com/wild at 3 p.m. CT Thursday. Please join in. Your employers and teachers give you permission (actually, to be safe, you better confirm that).

Wild second-line center Mikael Granlund will return to the lineup Thursday night and make his NHL playoff debut. The former Finnish Elite League champ with HIFK said it’s going to feel amazing.

The rest of the lineup is identical to what the lines and D pairs were on yesterday’s blog. Darcy Kuemper practiced for a second consecutive day, but Yeo said the Wild won’t decide until Thursday if Kuemper or John Curry will back up Ilya Bryzgalov.

The scratches will be Dany Heatley, Justin Fontaine, suspended Mike Rupp and John Blum. Keith Ballard practiced for a second day in a row and he’ll miss the game with a groin injury. Josh Harding is said to be fine, but since he’s not ready to play, he didn’t travel.

For Colorado, banged-up defenseman Jan Hejda practiced today and is expected to play.

I wrote a big, interesting story on Bryzgalov in Thursday’s Star Tribune, so definitely give that a read. I’ll also be doing a notebook on minute-muncher Ryan Suter, whom Patrick Roy said will be targeted in the series for physicality. That’s not something unexpected and in fact Yeo said the Avs’ defensemen, especially their banged-up ones (Tyson Barrie and Hejda), should expect the same from the Wild.

More on that in the paper.

From our stringer Michael Kelly (@berge19 on Twitter), he attended Avalanche Executive VP Joe Sakic’s presser today, and he passed along some comments:


(experience a factor in playoffs?) It depends on what type of team you have and also expectations. This is a team that expects a lot from themselves. We have some guys who are going to learn on the fly when it comes to first-time playoff experience, but I'm a big believer that if you play the right way and don't cheat out there, then you can have success. You can get that experience while winning. That's the best way to get that experience. The way the teamhas reacted all year, expecting more and playing with that consistency, is going to do them well in the playoffs. 

(what does it take to win?) At the end of the day, it's a grind and the team that outlasts the rest of them is going to win. You're going to have adverse times in the playoffs. The biggest thing is stick to what you know, stick to your game plan, stay resilient, battle for one another. As long as you stay on that same path, whether it's going great or you had a terrible game the night before, you got to wake up the next morning and there's a new game coming up and it's probably a game that's more important than the previous game. Stay even keel and forgetting what happened the night before and just getting ready and focus on the next one.

(what does he expect in playoffs?) You don't know how different players will handle it, but this is going to be a great experience for them. You can gain that experience and win hockey games at the same time. We know we have a tough opponent in Minnesota. just like us, they played unbelievable hockey down the stretch and they're playing their best hockey at the right time as well. It's going to be a great series.  


    SAINT PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild will hold a pre-game party outside Gate 2 of Xcel Energy Center prior to Games 3 and 4 on Monday, April 21, and Thursday, April 24.
    The pre-game party for Game 3 will begin at 4 p.m., with gametime at 6 p.m. For Game 4, the festitivies will run from 5-8 p.m., leading up to the 8:30 p.m. gametime. All fans at each game will receive a Wild playoff towel. In addition, 2003 Game 6 playoff hero Richard Park will be doing Let’s Play Hockey prior to Game 3, and Jim Dowd will do Let’s Play Hockey for Game 4.
Game 3 Pre-Game Party (4-5:30 p.m.)
Music from Five Man Advantage
Live broadcast from 100.3 FM KFAN’s Dan Barriero (3-6 p.m.)
Appearance by FOX Sports North Girls
Hockey Lodge booth (beginning at noon)
Photo Booth
Wild Plinko
Face Painters
$3 beer specials courtesy of Budweiser
NHL Alumni autographs (Players TBD, 4:30-5:30 p.m.)
Game 4 Pre-Game Party (5-8 p.m.)
Live Music (DJ)
100.3 FM KFAN Live Broadcast (6:30-8 p.m.)
Appearance by FOX Sports North Girls
Hockey Lodge booth (beginning at noon)
Photo Booth
Wild Plinko
Face Painters
$3 beer specials courtesy of Budweiser
NHL Alumni autographs (Players TBD, 6-7:30 p.m.)

Granlund, Brodziak expected to play in Game 1 of Wild-Avs series Thursday

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 15, 2014 - 5:18 PM

The Wild, which hops on a charter Wednesday morning aimed for Denver, held an up-tempo practice here at the X on Tuesday in preparation for Game 1 of its first-round series with the Avalanche on Thursday.

If you’re on Twitter (and all the cool people are), you can follow our stringer, Michael Kelly, at @berge19, throughout the first round for Avs practice and game updates in Denver. For real-time Wild news, follow me at @russostrib.

Wild center Mikael Granlund had another real good practice today, said he felt “real good” afterward and coach Mike Yeo wasn’t playing it coy afterward.

“Obviously we want to get him in the lineup,” Yeo said.

So barring a setback at Wednesday’s practice in Denver, Granlund will return to the lineup. Kyle Brodziak is also good to go for Thursday, while injured goalie Darcy Kuemper and defenseman Keith Ballard also practiced. Ballard won’t be ready by Thursday, and since this was Kuemper’s first practice with the big group, John Curry may back up Ilya Bryzgalov on Thursday. But we’ll see.

“We’re all hopeful that that’s never called upon,” Yeo said of using his backup, before letting out a laugh. “Crazier things have happened. We saw Game 1 last year (Niklas Backstrom getting hurt in warmups).”

Josh Harding practiced with the group before the main Wild group today.

So far, so good regarding unforeseen injuries. As I was reminded on Twitter, between Backstrom’s injury in warmups last year and Nick Schultz’s appendicitis right before Game 1 of the 2008 Avs series, the Wild should be ready for anything.

Wild lines in practice today:


Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle
Matt Moulson-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville
Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Nino Niederreiter
Stephane Veilleux-Erik Haula-Cody McCormick


Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon
Marco Scandella-Jonas Brodin
Clayton Stoner-Nate Prosser

Ilya Bryzgalov

Darcy Kuemper
John Curry

Extra forwards: Dany Heatley, Justin Fontaine, Jake Dowell, Mike Rupp (suspended)

Extra defensemen: Jon Blum, Keith Ballard.

Avs lines from their practice today in Denver:


Ryan O’Reilly-Nathan MacKinnon-P.A. Parenteau 

Gabriel Landeskog-Paul Stastny-Jamie McGinn

Max Talbot-Marc-Andre Cliché-Cody McLeod

Patrick Bordeleau-Brad Malone-Paul Carey


Nick Holden-Erik Johnson

Tyson Barrie-Nate Guenin

Andre Benoit-Stefan Elliott


Semyon Varlamov

J-S Giguere

Reto Berra

Coach Patrick Roy (still weird to write that) said he expects Jan Hejda to play Game 1, so if so, he’d slide likely back onto the Johnson pair and Elliott would likely come out of the lineup. Holden would likely go to Barrie’s pair and Guenin to Benoit’s pair.

Coach Roy (still weird to write that) indicated Duchene won’t be ready to play early in the series and that third-line center John Mitchell (concussion) is feeling better and should return at some point in the series. Alex Tanguay is done for the year.

These are significant injuries for Colorado. For a change, the Wild pretty much enters the playoffs with all its pieces.

(So far, no rumors of another Peter Forsberg comeback and Joe Sakic is still wearing a suit).

By the way, five of the six defensemen for Colorado listed above will be making their playoff debuts (four if Hejda plays). Hejda and Benoit have combined for eight playoff games. Seven of Colorado’s 12 forwards listed above have never played a playoff game.

So, this is one area where the Wild may have the intangible edge.

“I think it’ll help a lot,” Suter said. “Whenever you do something, the more you do it, the more comfortable you feel, just like driving your car or riding a bike. The more you do it, the better you get at it.”

As you can see above, Heatley, who has more playoff points than any Wild player (57 in 66 games), enters as an anticipated scratch.

Also, I got the lines dead-on the other day. Fontaine enters as the 13th forward. Remember, if he doesn’t play three games in the playoffs, he can become an unrestricted free agent as opposed to a restricted free agent. But, most essential is Yeo goes with the lineup he feels he has the best chance to win with, and he’s clearly picked for now the 12 forwards.

That fourth line will be used to bring momentum, that third line will be used to not only shut down, but also to help dictate from the physicality department.

Stoner’s back in for the same reason. Blum has played well, but so far, Prosser stays in on that right side of the third pair.

OK, I better get writing for the paper. Lots of preview stuff will be in the paper the next few days, and obviously, please check out Tuesday’s paper. Also, coming Thursday, a real good look at Ilya Bryzgalov. I’ve gathered a lot of good yarn. Now I just need to write it well. So, with WISH me luck. (see what I mean)

Talk to you after practice Wednesday from Denver.





    SAINT PAUL, Minn. – In celebration of the great tradition of the playoff beard, the Minnesota Wild is kicking off the Minnesota Wild Beard‑a‑Thon® to benefit the Minnesota Wild Foundation and build excitement for the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs. This Wednesday, April 16, celebrities and one lucky Wild fan will gather at Xcel Energy Center to clean off the stubble on some notable local faces and raise money for a great cause. Fans of Wild hockey and facial hair are invited to drop by for a free lunch, a chance to win playoff tickets and revel in the shaving merriment. Fans who make a donation of $10 or more will receive an official Minnesota Wild “Fear the Beard” t-shirt (quantities limited). The Shaveoff is presented by Bic Flex 4 Shaver.

    One lucky fan will also win an autographed Wild jersey and the chance to join the celebrities for a shave as part of the “Shaveoff Sweepstakes.” To enter, fans tweet a photo showing their Wild playoff spirit to @mnwild, using the hashtag #itsplayoffseason. The contest runs now through 4:59 p.m. on Tuesday, April 15. Official Rules are available at http://www.wild.com/shaveoff.

Minnesota Wild Beard-a-thon®

11:30 a.m. – 1 p.m. – Wednesday, April 16

Gate 1 – Xcel Energy Center

199 W. Kellogg Blvd. – Saint Paul, MN 55102

Celebrities participating:

-  Wes Walz, Minnesota Wild

-  Dave Schwartz, KARE 11

-  Chris Hawkey, KFAN 100.3

-  Paul Fletcher, Cities 97


- Donate $10 or more to receive an official Minnesota Wild “Fear the Beard” t-shirt (quantities limited)

- Free lunch (hot dog, chips, soda) for the first 250 fans

- Register-to-win tickets for the first Wild home playoff game

- Watch celebrities get clean shaven by the barbers from St. Paul’s legendary Heimie's Haberdashery

Granlund returns to practice, Stoner to return vs. Nashville; Mike Rupp talks about T.J. Oshie hit

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 12, 2014 - 3:21 PM

Afternoon from Starbucks, where I’m writing and caffeinating after an up-tempo Wild practice as coach Mike Yeo and staff prep the team for its exhibitio…, I mean regular-season finale against Nashville.

It’ll be interesting to see how the game goes. Yeo plans to go with his potential playoff lineup, but the players could also be in severe don’t-get-hurt mode like veterans often are in exhibition finales.

Couple news items:

--Mikael Granlund (head) returned to practice today for the first time since being injured at Los Angeles on March 31. A lot more on this below.

--Kyle Brodziak left practice early in “discomfort,” but Yeo says he expects him to play against Nashville. If Brodziak doesn’t, it’ll be his first missed game since Feb. 25, 2011, when he missed two games with the flu. He has played in 231 straight games, not missing any last season or the season before. In Brodziak’s six 82-game seasons, he has played 79 or more in all six and then played all 48 in last year’s lockout-shortened season. The Wild needs Brodziak healthy and playing well in the playoffs because just like that Penguins game recently, Yeo needs Matt Cooke, Brodziak and I think eventually Nino Niederreiter to be a shutdown line in the playoffs to lessen the burden on the top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle. I personally feel that one reason why Parise and Koivu were so ineffective (one combined point) in last year’s playoff series to Chicago is because the Blackhawks were so deep, Yeo used them to really go head-to-head vs. Jonathan Toews’ line. Toews also didn’t do anything offensively until Game 5, but it’d be nice with the Brodziak line is somebody Yeo can continually put out there against the top line of whatever team the Wild faces.

-- Clayton Stoner, who has missed 10 games since spraining his MCL March 22 against Detroit when he was nudged and his skate his a rut, will return against Nashville. He’ll be paired with Nate Prosser (Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin were paired together in today’s practice) and Jon Blum will be taken out of the lineup. More on this below.

Couple of items:

-- I keep getting questions about the playoff schedule. That will come out Sunday night after every NHL game is complete. If the Wild opens in St. Louis or Colorado, it will likely start Thursday because St. Louis’ and Colorado’s arenas have conflicts Wednesday. Unless NBC Sports Network would pick up Game 1 Wednesday if the Wild faces Anaheim, I think that series begins Thursday, too, because Fox Sports North has the Wolves and Twins on Wednesday. We shall see. If the Ducks series started Thursday, there couldn’t be a game there Saturday, so it would probably have to go Thursday-Friday or Thursday-Sunday. All conjecture.

After tonight’s Ducks-Kings game, I’ll update this blog with playoff scenarios heading into Sunday’s last day. IF the Ducks get a point tonight, they clinch the West and the Wild can no longer play them.

Basically, the one scenario I’ll tell you now, IF the Ducks get a point tonight, AND the Blues lose to Detroit in regulation (11:30 a.m. game Sunday), we’ll know the Wild’s playing Colorado before the Wild plays Nashville and before the Avs visit Anaheim.

But, … as complicated as trying to figure out all this stuff has been, that scenario would be waaaaay too easy to actually occur.

Again, as of now, the Wild would play Colorado.

As I mentioned north on this blog, Granlund practiced today, skating in the middle of the so-called fifth line with suspended Mike Rupp and Dany Heatley, who continues to be as professional as you can be with the fact he’s an extra going into the playoffs. Even just shooting the breeze with him today about playoff scenarios, you’d never even know that he’s an extra.

Yeo on Granlund: “He looked pretty good, didn’t he? We knew that he was progressing well. Kinda talked about how he was feeling and getting through the workouts and getting cleared to have the first step of getting on the ice. Obviously he’s trying to accelerate things in a hurry [to be ready for Game 1]. He wants to get back in the lineup and he looks good. But obviously we’ll be smart about this, too.”

Granlund won’t play against the Predators, but Yeo said, “This was a good first step. The next step will be a matter of him getting into some contact drills and the battle part of our practices,” which could happen in practice next week.

If Granlund returns, he will like take back his No. 2 center spot with Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville.

My guess, and this is a total shot in the dark, is Cooke-Brodziak would be a tandem with Niederreiter moving from Line 4 to Line 3.

Haula would take back his spot on the fourth line (Brodziak is the guy who will be the shutdown checking-line center to open the playoffs), and that may be between Stephane Veilleux and Cody McCormick. I think that has the makings of a good line – Haula’s speed, Veilleux’s speed, energy and physicality (the Wild’s record with Veilleux this season is 21-11-1). If one assumes Yeo will want McCormick’s straight-line physicality on the forecheck and considering how well he has played lately, I’m guessing the odd guy out will be Justin Fontaine.

However, there is one tricky thing here that may come into play. Fontaine will play his 66th game of the season tomorrow. He needs 69 games to be a restricted free agent this summer vs. a Group 6 unrestricted free agent. If Fontaine doesn’t get three playoff games, the Wild will no longer own his rights when his contract expires after the season. Fontaine has proven to be a valuable, very good player, so I don’t think the Wild would want to potentially lose the guy for nothing via free agency.

As for Stoner, he’s ahead of schedule here. We were told week to week. He was told 4 to 6 weeks, but he feels good and the Wild wants to give him a game to see where he’s at before Game 1.

Remember, he got a concussion in Game 1 last year and the Wild really felt it missed his physicality vs. the Hawks.

“The playoffs, it’s tough hockey, there’s no question,” Yeo said. “A lot of stuff going on around the front of our net, in front of our goalie, so if you can have a guy who’s a physical presence along the boards and in front of our net, then that’s a nice element to have.”

If Stoner plays, the only way Blum starts the playoffs in the lineup is if Nate Prosser comes out (Suter, Scandella, Brodin and Spurgeon, in no particular order, are in). I don’t think Prosser’s taken out for Game 1.

Yeo said, “It doesn’t mean necessarily that he won’t even be playing. I don’t want to make that decision. I’m comfortable that he’s been able to come in, come out of our lineup. His game’s looked the same. We know and we’re happy with what he brings. His execution level has been real strong. That St. Louis game was maybe the best game that he’s played, and I feel that he’s gotten better since he’s been with us. Part of that is probably getting comfortable with the team and how we play. Some of it I think is his confidence and showing what he could do.”

Again though, if Stoner plays, do the math: It’s either Blum or Prosser coming out.

You’ll hear from Stoner in tomorrow’s paper. Same with Granlund.

If Granlund returns, the trickle-down effect means three lines could be altered. If Stoner returns, the trickle-down effect is two pairs are altered.

When this happened after the trade deadline, it took awhile for the Wild to rediscover its game.

I asked Yeo if he’s concerned: “If you have the opportunity to get a player like Granny back, this would do an awful lot for our group and I don’t think it’ll be a huge adjustment for us. You look what it would do for our power play, whether it’s the first PP or the second PP, either way we’re going to get stronger. Lineup-wise, if he’s able to come in and step right into that second-line role, we’re getting stronger there and we’re also getting stronger the rest of the lineup, too. I’m not too concerned about it. Until we get the green light that he’s ready to go, we’re comfortable with the guys we have.”

If Granlund returns, he’ll likely be on the No. 2 unit because in my opinion, Charlie Coyle’s got to be on the first. His right-handed shot in the middle gives that unit a bigtime threat like we saw in Winnipeg on his goal. And no, Granlund is not taking Koivu’s spot on the No. 1 unit.

Rupp was suspended four games for his hit on T.J. Oshie. We talked to him this morning.

Rupp: “I was glad to hear that Oshie is doing well. For me, that’s truly the main concern that the player is not seriously injured. Hopefully he’ll get back on the ice soon. He’s a great player for the Blues and the league, so I’m happy to hear that.”

“It was a situation where I got stuck out there for a long shift. We were starting out there against their fourth line and we got stuck out there and they were trying to get the mismatch that they’d want. I was just in a time where it’s my first game back and trying to be structurally sound was my main objective coming into the game. I have, in that situation, a player come up the boards and my job there is not to let the player or the puck come to the middle of the ice. There was a late attacker and there was a sixth attacker probably in the middle of the ice. So my intent there is to finish my hit there and not allow the puck to go in the middle or the player. There’s zero intent on the outcome. I feel awful for that. I know coming around the circle he looked up and I felt like he saw me and his D-man right there. I don’t want to say we made eye contact – don’t think there was eye contact  --but he looked up to kind of see what player was around him. Then he looked down at the puck and cut to the middle. I know that what I felt on the ice was I hit chest and his shoulder. I didn’t feel his head. I’m not naïve enough to know when I watch the video there was some head contact there. But I can tell you that definitely the first point of contact was shoulder and chest, so I think it’s a matter of me being 6-5 and a hit that got away from me. I’ll take responsibility for that.

No suspensions, no fines?

It’s been something – there have been things in my career that I’ve said in my career that you want to be remembered for when you leave the game and one thing is the respect of your teammates. That far outweighs any goals or anything else you accomplish on the ice. There’s that and then you want to be known as a guy who plays the game the right way. Even on our call in talking to the league, they made note of saying that a guy who’s been in the league as long as I have in the role that I have, it’s unheard of that nothing’s been of question for me in my career. So I don’t like that there’s questions of marking a player or head-hunting. That’s never been the case for me. I’ve been a guy who’s gone out and stirred things up emotionally in games, but I’ve never taken a shot at a player and I would never start to do that now. It’s just one, like I said, that hit got away from me and I’ll take responsibility for that.

That's it for now. I'll be on Fox Sports North during Sunday's pregame show and first intermission.



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