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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Good afternoon from the Rexall Place, a building that has housed some of the greats -- Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mike Greenlay.
The Wild practiced this afternoon and plays an actal game against the Oilers on Thursday night -- the first of back-to-back games. The Wild plays in Vancouver on Friday. The Wild has won 12 of its past 14 in this arena and has won 18 times here -- its most in any arena.
These are no longer division foes .
John Curry was called up as goalie insurance in case Niklas Backstrom didn't handle today's practice well. He looked good on the ice, and coach Mike Yeo planned to talk with Backstrom afterward to see how healthy he is. If he's healthy, Yeo indicated that Backstrom could start Thursday's game against the Oilers.
He's 25-4-1 all-time against Edmonton with a 1.91 goals-against average and .928 save percentage and at Rexall Place, he's 8-3-1 with a 2.51 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.
The rationale behind maybe starting Backstrom over Darcy Kuemper is his success in this arena (although he's been pulled here three or four times, I believe) and mostly that Friday's game in Vancouver is huge. A win over the Canucks, who had lost seven in a row before the break, could put a whole world of hurt on their playoff chances. So maybe you save Kuemper for that game.
The Canucks are 10th in the West and a point out of a wildcard spot.
The other option is start Kuemper, who had started 12 in a row before the break and is 8-2-2 in his past 13, back-to-back, which he's done in his pro and junior career. We shall see Thursday.
Captain Mikko Koivu rotated in and out of lines during today's practice. Yeo didn't rule him out for the game vs. Edmonton, but he did say back-to-back games may be tough after ankle surgery Jan. 6. So that made it sounds like Thursday is doubtful but Friday is possible.
"I thought he looked good," Yeo said. "He continues to progress. I don’t want to say that he’s in or he’s out for tomorrow. Obviously back to back games might be tough for him. So that said, I don’t want to say that he’s in, I don’t want to say that he’s out. But those are the things that we’d have to consider along with making sure that he’s 100 percent. I know speaking to him today, he’s not quite there yet so we’ll see after today."
Marco Scandella won't play because of his sprained knee. Two practices is too quick. Jason Zucker isn't on the trip because of his leg injury, so he was placed on injured reserve with Scandella and Stephane Veilleux was called up.
The lines today:
Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville
Dany Heatley-Charlie Coyle-Justin Fontaine
Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Nino Niederreiter
Stephane Veilleux-Erik Haula-Torrey Mitchell
Mike Rupp, the extra
Ryan Suter-Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin-Nate Prosser
Clayton Stoner-Keith Ballard
Steven Kampfer, the extra
In a trade today, the Wild sent Iowa defenseman Brian Connelly to the Chicago Blackhawks for former Badger Brad Winchester. Winchester will report to Iowa initially, but this was definitely a trade made for depth moves and Winchester will likely see games with the Wild.
Remember, after next Wednesday's trade deadline, the roster is unlimited as long as you don't go over the cap. Winchester, a former college teammate of Heatley and pro teammate of Brodziak, is a tough customer and adds some ruggedness (6-5, 230) to a smaller Wild lineup. He's got 390 games of NHL experience in seven seasons with Edmonton, Dallas, St. Louis, Anaheim and San Jose. He's also played 24 NHL playoff games, including scoring an overtime winner for the Oilers in 2006 against Detroit in the first round when they went to the Cup Finals.
He has 68 career points and 552 penalty minutes in NHL regular seasons.
"I think it’s great, and depth of a different type of player for us," Yeo said. "He’s a hard-nosed guy, he’s a guy that’s not fun to play against and he’s got that experience, so definitely a good move for us."
As veteran goalie Niklas Backstrom indicated last week, the Wild figured out what's going on with his abdominal issues and it's something he'll have to deal with for the rest of the season.
Backstrom saw the surgeon who repaired his sports hernia last offseason during the Olympic break and was given some new treatment plans. However, Backstrom reported soreness this morning, so the Wild gave him a maintenance day off. The hope, coach Mike Yeo said, is Backstrom can practice Wednesday in Edmonton and start one of the next two games (almost certainly Friday in Vancouver).
"It’s not lower body and it’s not upper body. It’s somewhere in the mid part of the body," Yeo joked when asked if it's more of the abdominal stiffness. "Yeah, he was a little sore today. I expect him on [Wednesday]. We kept him off today, just precautionary."
Yeo said hopefully the soreness just has to do with being on the ice a lot after such a long time off for the Olympic break.
"We probably won’t know for a couple more days [if it's just general soreness], but hopefully he can get on the ice [Wednesday] and be fine," Yeo said. "We’ve pushed the goalies hard, doing a lot of extra drills with those guys and hopefully this is just something where he’s a little bit sore and just needed a day today."
Asked how the Wild continues to deal with this (remember, the trade deadline is March 5, and while the Wild as of now looks like it'll continue to ride Darcy Kuemper, the pressure may be on GM Chuck Fletcher to get further insurance before the deadline in case Backstrom continues to be labored or Kuemper gets hurt), Yeo said, "Day by day, the same way we’ve been doing it all along. I think we’ll have a better idea [Wednesday] how he comes out of this. Obviously two games coming up here, it would be real nice to have him 100 percent and healthy and ready to go."
There's been no change with Josh Harding's status.
How do the Wild continue to keep Kuemper grounded? Yeo said, "Just make sure we stay on him a little bit to make sure he stays sharp, stays sharp on his game. We’re working him hard in practice to make sure he’s got the right habits. It says a lot about him and the attitude that he has that he hasn’t gotten complacent and comfortable. But at the same time, we’ve got to make sure that we’re on him with that. On the flip side, when things aren’t going too well, we’ve got to help him through that. Certainly he’s getting a lot of attention from us right now and I think that’s going to be important the rest of the way."
Defenseman Marco Scandella, who sprained an MCL on Feb. 4, practiced for the first time today. He took part in most drills, although he left the ice a little early.
Scandella was asked if he could maybe play Thursday in Edmonton.
"I haven’t thought of any options," he said. "I just know it’s getting a lot better. Today was a big step and I just want to continue on that road."
He said his conditioning isn't 100 percent after two weeks off. He's been skating on his own for about six days now, he said.
Yeo said of Scandella, "I was actually a little bit surprised with how much Marco participated in our practice and what he was able to do out there. Very good sign."
He said Thursday is a "possibility" for Scandella, but "I wouldn’t say it’s a probability, so we’ll see. This was one practice that he’s had and obviously he’s been off for a considerable amount of time given the break, which was obviously good for the healing of the leg. But at the same time, we’ve got to make sure we get his timing back and get him up to speed and conditioning, where that needs to be too. So we’ll see."
Mikko Koivu, working his way back from ankle surgery, said today was another good day. "Hopefully another [Wednesday], and then we'll see" for Thursday.
Yeo said, "Mikko continues to get better. He’s getting closer. I don’t think we can make a decision here until we get probably to Thursday, but all we can do right now is keep pushing Mikko as hard as we can and keep seeing how he responds to that."
If Koivu returns, I'd think the lines go:
Total shot in the dark guess. Maybe Brodziak and Haula flip. Or maybe the Wild start Koivu on the third line and Haula on the second in order to ease Koivu back in. We'll see.
If Koivu isn't going to play Thursday, the Wild either will have to play Mike Rupp on the trip or call up another forward with Jason Zucker hurt.
Parise, Granlund and Ryan Suter will return to practice Wednesday in Edmonton.
Talk to you after practice in Edmonton on Wednesday.
Zach Parise, along with fellow Olympians Ryan Suter and Mikael Granlund, was given the day off today by the Wild, but the veteran winger and United States captain wanted to clarify comments he made after the Americans' loss to Finland in the bronze-medal game.
Parise was quoted as saying the Americans were "passive" and sent one guy in on the forecheck and allowed the Canadians (in the semifinals) and Finns to break out of the zone easily because of that.
It was construed by some in the media and by fans as Parise taking potshots at coach Dan Bylsma and his system.
Via email today, Parise said that wasn't the case.
“I liked his system, along with each of the other players. His system didn’t have anything to do with why we didn’t win a medal,” Parise said. "I wasn't even misquoted, someone just took a response to a different question and made it sound like I was referring to him. I was asked about how we played in a particular game and I said we were passive as a team, not playing a passive system. We seemed slow as a group that particular game. Dan did a great job coaching us and preparing us for all of the games, along with the other coaches. They put in a lot of work and it's unfortunate someone would say different."
Parise, who was pursued by the Penguins before he chose Minnesota two summers ago, said he had a good relationship with Bylsma throughout the Olympics and the months leading up to it. That included phone calls and meetings.
"He always asked for the opinion of the players on different things," Parise said in the email. "And on the ice he let us play and demanded us to work. He was always detailed in his approach and his meetings and like I said earlier we were more than prepared from a scouting standpoint for each game."
Parise spoke Sunday with Penguins GM Ray Shero, also the associate GM for the U.S. during the Olympics (became acting GM when David Poile was struck by the puck in Minnesota on Feb. 6), to clarify his comments and to assure Shero that they were not meant to take aim at Bylsma.
I think I mentioned on the previous blog, but Parise also told me in an email that his hand is fine from the Olympics, that he's actually not quite sure what happened, but it just started to hurt during the bronze-medal game.
As for the Wild, the team practiced for an hour this morning and captain Mikko Koivu continues to progress from his return from ankle surgery Jan. 6.
If the Wild had a game today, coach Mike Yeo said Koivu would be unable to play. The hope though is that he continues to progress during practices Tuesday and Wednesday and can maybe play in Edmonton and/or Vancouver Thursday and Friday.
"Individually you know when you’re ready," Koivu said. "When you know that you don’t think about it in the back of your mind, then you know for sure you’re ready to go. It’s a lot better right now than what it was last week, so that’s a good sign. Still have a couple days here before the first game. We’ll see tomorrow morning [how it feels]."
Yeo said the Wild has a bunch of meetings here to figure out what the lineup will look like if Koivu can return. He indicated the centers would be Koivu, Granlund, Kyle Brodziak and Erik Haula (recalled back from Iowa), so that seems to indicate that Charlie Coyle will move back to wing.
Yeo said that potentially Parise, Granlund and Jason Pominville, a line the last four-plus games before the Olympic break, would remain intact. However, after some terrific shifts together in a win at Anaheim and an offensive explosion during a loss in Colorado, the Parise-Granlund-Pominville line combined for one goal and two assists the last three games (and the Parise goal was a power-play goal). All three players were minus-3 those three games.
But with Granlund coming back from Sochi on a high and probably the need to ease Koivu back into things, my guess is Yeo separates Parise and Koivu for the first extended stretch in their Wild career together.
I'll be on KFAN at 5:15 p.m.
Good morning from the X, where Mike Yeo's putting the Wild through a practice.
Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Mikael Granlund have the day off, and my guess as of now is they'll have Tuesday off, too. If that's the case, they'll be on Wednesday's charter to Edmonton, where the Wild will practice in preparation for Thursday's game there. By the way, Parise emailed me that his hand is OK and that it just started hurting out of the blue the final game against Finland. He doesn't know what happened, but he says he's fine.
Nino Niederreiter, who returned last week from Sochi, has rejoined the Wild for today's practice. Mikko Koivu is practicing again and is taking part in game-like situation drills, which could be a good sign for a return Thursday.
Erik Haula, as expected, has been recalled again from AHL Iowa with Jason Zucker sidelined at least through the Wild's two-game road trip. Haula scored five goals and five assists in seven games with Iowa during the Olympic break.
Steve Kampfer has also been recalled with the Wild short defensemen. Suter isn't here and Marco Scandella isn't practicing today, so Kampfer, I assume, is here for a few days just to practice.
More after practice.
Wild center Mikael Granlund, who won a bronze medal at the Olympics, was named to the Olympic All-Star team after Canada's gold-medal win over Sweden today.
Granlund led Finland with seven points and 20 shots and all Finnish forwards in ice time at 18 minutes, 15 seconds a game. Here is the rest of the Olympic awards.
If you didn't read my Sunday Insider on the Wild's goaltending situation heading into the March 5 trade deadline, here that is.
The Wild held an outdoor practice this morning at the John Rose OVAL in Roseville. Afterward, defenseman Marco Scandella skated with strength and conditioning coach Kirk Olson. We'll find out Monday if Scandella practices with the team.
My guess is the Wild will recall a couple players later today. With Jason Zucker hurt and Mikko Koivu up in the air, my guess is Erik Haula is one. Another will likely be a defenseman.
Nino Niederreiter is back in town and may practice Monday. I believe Granlund, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were due back today.
Talk to you Monday and I'll update the blog later if the callups are announced.
The Wild, five points up in the playoff race with Phoenix and Dallas, resumes its schedule Thursday in Edmonton. It'll practice at the X Monday and Tuesday and in Edmonton on Wednesday.
I'll be on Rosen's Sports Sunday tonight on Channel 4. I'll be on "Hockey This Morning" on Sirius/XM NHL Network Radio Monday at 8:25 a.m. and on KFAN with Dan Barreiro at 5:15 p.m. Monday.
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