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 places Stephane Veilleux on waivers, creates roster flexibility for potential trade

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 27, 2015 - 3:25 PM

Wild left wing Stephane Veilleux was placed on waivers today. With one roster spot open already, Veilleux would create a potential second roster spot if needed. Basically, the move gives the Wild the flexibility if it wants to make a trade in the next day or so (see below for one name the Wild has inquired about).

The trade deadline is Monday at 2 p.m. CT.

If Veilleux clears waivers, he won't necessarily be assigned to AHL Iowa. In fact, with no extra forwards or defensemen, he'll probably stay on the roster unless the Wild needs that spot prior to Saturday's game against the Colorado Avalanche.

By having Veilleux clear waivers, this again just allows the Wild that ability to send him to the minors IF it needs his roster spot because of a trade.

As I reported last week in this article (and frankly several articles recently), General Manager Chuck Fletcher is in the market for a depth defenseman.

In recent games, the Wild has had injury scares with defensemen Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella. Jared Spurgeon is already on injured reserve with a concussion, although coach Mike Yeo has said he is doing better. But all this was a reminder to Fletcher that even with Matt Dumba, fellow rookie Christian Folin and Nate Prosser playing well, it may behoove him to acquire a depth defenseman who can jump into the lineup if needed. There is little doubt the Wild needs another NHL body or two on the blue line, not just in case of injury, but performance. For instance, Dumba had a couple bigtime rookie moments the Wild did survive last night.

In Iowa, the only defensemen considered callup options remaining are Justin Falk and Jon Blum. Falk is the Wild’s only left-shot defenseman beyond Ryan Suter, Brodin and Scandella, meaning the Wild's one left-side injury away from having to recall Falk.

The Wild has inquired with the Columbus Blue Jackets about former University of Minnesota defenseman Jordan Leopold, sources say. The price is believed to be a mid-range draft pick. He was acquired from St. Louis for a 2016 fifth-round pick in November.

Leopold, 34, is most importantly a left-shot that could bring depth in case of injury. Good vision, moves the puck well, suspect at times defensively, good locker-room guy and again would be a depth player to have around for a playoff run.

He has scored 67 goals and 213 points in 677 games for seven teams (Calgary, Colorado, Florida, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, St. Louis and Columbus).

The former Hobey Baker winner won a national title with the Gophers in 2002, scoring 20 goals and 48 points in 44 games.

The top two defensemen on the open market are considered Edmonton's Jeff Petry and former Wild Zbynek Michalek, but Michalek has a concussion and Petry is a right-shot.

Other defensemen potentially available include Philadelphia's Kimmo Timonen (coming back from blood clot and hasn't played all years), Carolina's Tim Gleason, Buffalo's Andrej Meszaros and Colorado's Jan Hejda. Others, too, but those are the most well-known names and Leopold is the only one I know the Wild has inquired about.

Again, for the Wild to give itself the flexibility to technially acquire two bodies, perhaps some other stuff is cooking, too. Remember, after Monday's deadline, rosters expand so injured players will be able to come back at any time without the need to create roster spots.

The Wild plays the Avs tomorrow night. The Avs are in Dallas tonight.

The Wild has shut out the Avalanche in three consecutive meetings (combined 9-0), the first NHL team to accomplish that feat since 2007-08. The Wild, 12-2-1 since the All-Star break and 14-3-2 in its past 19 games, has won six of eight on the road to climb over .500 on the road (15-14-2) for the first time since being 1-0 with a 3-0 win at Colorado on Oct. 11.

It is 14-3-3 in its past 19 games in Denver.

Devan Dubnyk is expected to start his 20th consecutive game, tying Niklas Backstrom's team record set in 2009. If all goes well, he has to be a candidate for February's First Star of the Month. The Wild has never had a Player of the Month.

By the way, Nino Niederreiter is the first Swiss-born player in NHL history to hit the 20-goal plateau.

That's it for now, although whether it's today, Saturday, Sunday or Monday, I'd expect the Wild to make a move for at least a defenseman.

I'll be on KFAN today at 4:30 p.m. CT, Saturday at 11:35 a.m. CT and Saturday night on Fox Sports North during the pregame show.

Strength of schedules of the Wild and contending teams

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 16, 2015 - 2:38 PM


Morning from beautiful, sunny Vancouver. The Wild, 10-1-2 in its past 13, has beaten the Canucks twice in the past eight days and is 6-1 against Vancouver in seven meetings since March 10, 2013, including three straight wins in Vancouver.

Alex Edler is out for Vancouver. Banged-up Chris Tanev is playing and will be on top pair with Dan Hamhuis. Luca Sbisa moves to the left side and Yannick Weber comes back in for an all-Swiss pair.

Eddie Lack starting because Ryan Miller stinks vs. the Wild. smiley

Same Wild lineup tonight. Coach Mike Yeo thoughts about playing Stu Bickel up front, although it doesn't like for long. That may sound outlandish to some, but after the Canucks ran around in St. Paul last week and injured Jason Zucker, Ryan Carter and took a run at Zach Parise, it was something Yeo is at least considered.

In the end, he decided why change a lineup that is 8-0-1 since the All-Star break and is a point from establishing a new franchise-record point streak of 11 games (8-0-2 right now)? Defenseman Matt Dumba has struggled the past two games, but the Wild is 22-8-1 with him in the lineup and Yeo typically likes Bickel up front more than on the back end. And up front, Stephane Veilleux was good the other night on the Wild's penalty kill, which is 25 for 25 since the All-Star break, so why take him out when Veilleux is needed in a PK role with Zucker, Carter and Matt Cooke hurt?

Yeo said he felt the Wild needed four lines that could play regular shifts tonight, and the three guys that have been playing on the fourth line -- Veilleux, Erik Haula and Kyle Brodziak -- have been a huge part of Minnesota's penalty kill "and quite frankly, nobody deserves to come out."

"Listen, we've got to be ready for them to play a physical game again," Yeo said. "What I'd really like to see is us to combat that with our power play the way we did [with two power-play goals last Monday]. I thought that was instrumental in us getting that win. If they want to run around, then hopefully we can combat that with other ways as far as execution and creating. But we've got to be ready to compete in our own way. We have to be ready to finish checks, to take hits to make plays and we have to make sure that we're strong in our one-on-one battles and if we do that, then we like our squad."

Jordan Schroeder, a Canucks first-round pick who scored his first goal with the Wild at home against Vancouver, makes his first trip back.

"It's exciting. This is where my pro career started. It's fun to be back here, but it's just another game that we have to win," Schroeder said.

I will be on Fox Sports North tonight during the pregame show and first intermission.

Yesterday on my plane ride out here, I put together a strength of schedule chart for the Wild and all the teams it's contending for a playoff spot with. The category, "Games vs. current playoff teams," is exactly that. If the top-8 in the West or East change in the coming days, that number listed for each team will be inaccurate afterward.

San Jose is in danger of falling out of the top 3 in the Pacific (top 3 in each division is essentially 1 through 6 and playoff locks), so suddenly the Sharks, Canucks, Flames and Kings are all jockeying with each other.

Just root for no 3-point games the rest of the way when these teams play. As I said to somebody the other night, just because the Wild didn't move into the top-8 didn't make Calgary beating Vancouver a bad thing at all. What it did was kept Vancouver closer to the pack that the Wild is contending against.

Tonight, the Wild will move into the top-8 tonight if it beats Vancouver in regulation AND Calgary loses to Boston in regulation. If that happens, the Wild would be tied in points (65) with Vancouver and Calgary but get into the top-8 because the Flames have played one more game.

The Jets are five up on the Wild for the first wildcard spot. They have still played three more games than Minnesota, so the Wild's still in a good spot if it keeps winning. But Winnipeg gets lowly Edmonton at home tonight.

I included regulation/overtime wins in the chart because that is the first tiebreaker after 82 games.

San Jose (66 points, 2nd in Pacific)

Games left: 24

Home: 11

Away: 13

Games vs. current playoff team: 13

Back-to-Backs: 3

Regulation/overtime wins: 27

Note: Floundering of late. 5 of final 6 games vs. Colorado, Arizona, Dallas and Edmonton

Vancouver (65 points, 3rd in Pacific)

Games left: 27

Home: 14

Away: 13

Games vs. current playoff team: 12

Back-to-Backs: 3

Regulation/overtime wins: 29

Note: Pretty much a .500 team lately and their defense is starting to get beat up. Last 2 games vs. Arizona and Edmonton at home.

Winnipeg (68 points, 1st wildcard spot)

Games left: 24

Home: 13

Away: 11

Games vs. current playoff team: 15

Back-to-Backs: 2

Regulation/overtime wins: 24

Note: Arguably the easiest schedule the rest of the way, but they still have four games against St. Louis.

Calgary (65 points, 2nd wildcard spot)

Games left: 26

Home: 12

Away: 14

Games vs. current playoff team: 11

Back-to-Backs: 4

Regulation/overtime wins: 28

Note: Pretty easy schedule and have a five-game homestand in the middle of the next month, including four current non-playoff teams.

Wild (63 points, 9th)

Games left: 27

Home: 13

Away: 14

Games vs. current playoff team: 17

Back-to-Backs: 5

Regulation/overtime wins: 26

Note: The Wild’s final 6 games and 8 of last 9 are against playoff teams, including a road trip to Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis. The Wild has lacked success in each of those cities, however, if those teams are locks with position just prior to the playoffs, could the Wild be facing teams in do-not-get-hurt-mode? Look for the Wild to try to add a scoring forward and defenseman before the March 2 trade deadline

Los Angeles (62 points, 10th)

Games left: 27

Home: 11

Away: 16

Games vs. current playoff team: 17

Back-to-Backs: 3

Regulation/overtime wins: 24

Note: Actively looking for a defenseman to replace suspended Slava Voynov. Lots of road games left. Despite the fact the Kings were so good on the road in last year’s playoffs, they’ve been fairly awful this year.

Dallas (60 points, 11th)

Games left: 26

Home: 12

Away: 14

Games vs. current playoff team: 19

Back-to-Backs: 4

Regulation/overtime wins: 24

Note: Tyler Seguin is out with a knee injury.

Colorado (57 points, 12th)

Games left: 26

Home: 13

Away: 13

Games vs. current playoff team: 15

Back-to-Backs: 5

Regulation/overtime wins: 16

Note: Avs are tied for the fourth-fewest ROW’s in the NHL. Only 32 of its 57 points have come via regulation/overtime wins.

Nick Bjugstad returns home; Stephane Veilleux on 500 games; "Red Army" a must-see

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 12, 2015 - 3:19 PM

Wild (8-1-2 in its past 11, winners of three straight at home) vs. America's Team, the Florida Panthers (points in four straight).

Spooky, but the two teams I have covered are identical.

Same system, same neutral-zone forecheck, similar D-zone coverage.

Wild 59 points, Panthers 59 points. Wild can move within two of a playoff spot in the West with a win, Panthers can move within two of a playoff spot in the East with a win.

Both teams playing real well. Both teams desperate.

The Panthers have Blaine's Nick Bjugstad, the former Gopher and Minnesota Mr. Hockey and apparently a terrible softball player on a super secretive special team I plan to write about this summer. He led the Panthers in scoring as a rookie last year with 38 points (Yes, the Panthers' leading scorer last year had THIRTY-EIGHT POINTS, like the lowest in history or something). He leads them in scoring again this year with 18 goals and 33 points. No sophomore slump for him.

He led the Panthers' stretch this morning, his Blaine coach, Dave Aus (who now coaches Brainerd), was in the house and his mom gobbled up a package deal of 160 tickets for tonight's game.

"Hopefully we'll see a lot of red, a lot of Panther red," Bjugstad said.

Cute story: I'm chatting with Panthers coach Gerard Gallant in the stands during the Panthers' morning skate and a little kid wearing a Koivu jersey tiptoes over. Olaf was his name, 8 years old.

He starts talking to Gallant about Bjugstad and then goes, "My dad coached him before you. He's nice."

It was one of Aus' four children, and basically, his son arranged a meeting between Aus and Gallant.

On the ice, Gallant skated up to Bjugstad, points to the stands and asks, "Is that your high school coach?"

Bjugstad goes, "Yeah." Gallant goes, "Well, he didn't teach you $&^%&," then turned and skated away, laughing.

"[Aus] was a good coach, more like a life coach," Bjugstad said. "He was always trying to be a good person. He taught me quite a bit. He taught me how to lift weights. I was a toothpick back in the day, so he made sure we were hitting the gym. It's good to see familiar faces."

Part 2 of this story. Olaf has a school project. He had a choice to write about an NHL player. His choices were Wayne Gretzky, TJ Oshie or Zach Parise.

Turns out, former goalie and Devils color analyst Chico Resch is on Brainerd's staff. Chico texts Parise, and after today's morning skate, Olaf interviewed Parise for his story.

Pretty neat.

Right before, I was standing with Hall of Famer Denis Potvin, a former Islanders teammate of JP Parise, as Denis talked to Zach Parise.

He told two great JP one-liners to a laughing Zach.

1. In practice, JP skated over to Chico Resch and said, "You're very, very hard to hit today."

2. Whenever Potvin would miss the net and hit the end boards or glass, JP would skate up to him and say, "Your shot sounds great today."

Bjugstad is excited to be back. His dad and aunt came to the skate, and yesterday on the team bus as he pointed out the new Vikings stadium and TCF Bank Stadium to teammates, his teammates wanted him to grab the bus mic and be a tourguide.

They wanted to know where to eat and he told them, "Chipotle, since that's all I ate in college."

Last night, he was able to have dinner with his family after being picked up at the team hotel by former teammate, roommate and maybe future Panthers prospect Kyle Rau.

"It's exciting always coming home," Bjugstad said. "We're both in the playoff hunt and we need these points. We're in the push right now and these are really important points for us."

The Wild has reassigned defenseman Christian Folin to play some games. He was going to be scratched for a seventh in a row.

Devan Dubnyk vs. Roberto Luongo, who if you remember had to stop playing at Xcel Energy Center for the most part with Vancouver because other than a 0-0 tie in his first outing here many years ago and a 2004 All-Star Game appearance, the X has been a house of horrors for him.

He has played one game here since 2010 after being pulled in three in a row and four of five starts.

He is 3-9-3 all-time in St. Paul with a 3.42 goals-against average and .879 save percentage in 15 starts.

Among active NHL goalies, he has the most losses in St. Paul (not including Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding obviously), has the second-highest goals-against average among active goalies with at least five games played here and ranks 22nd in save percentage among active goalies with at least five games here.

The Panthers have never beaten Minnesota in regulation in St. Paul.

However, as coach Mike Yeo indicated after Tuesday's overtime loss in Winnipeg, this game will be a big challenge. Despite the fact that the Panthers are a good road team and have points in four straight, often times that first home game in a three-in-four stretch after a home-road back-to-back is one with sluggish legs.

But the Wild can't have any excuses right now, especially after allowing Winnipeg to take a seven-point lead in the standings the other night and Vancouver winning last night and San Jose getting a point.

The Wild, which was two points back of a playoff spot, is now four.

That's part of the reason the team recalled Iowa captain Stephane Veilleux to play his 500th game. Because the legs may be heavy tonight, the Wild decided for this game to call up a straight-line skater who may bring energy and some talking on the bench. We shall see.

Why Veilleux over Tyler Graovac, whom I think will be here in short time? Yeo said, "You look at this game, emotionally, it's making sure that we're bringing up somebody who's going to bring energy and leadership. You look at Cooke, Carter, guys that we've lost, we're missing physicality and different ways they can bring momentum to your group. But also they're guys who talk on the bench and in the locker room and Steph provides some of that. Also, the penalty killing is such an important part for us right now. The more we have to use the Mikkos, the Zachs, the Granlunds in these situations, the more difficult it is to free them up for some offensive roles."

On 500 games, Veilleux said, "It goes so fast. You take a step back and the success and the grind that you have, you feel very fortunate that the work you put in that you actually accomplish that many games. It's a great feeling personally."

Veilleux said big influences were Jacques Lemaire and Todd McLellan, "Since me and Mikko got drafted the same year, we were roommates as well on the road for five years, we grew up together in the organization. Guys like Andrew Brunette, Wes Walz, Darby Hendrickson, Richard Park, Jim Dowd, those guys were always supportive and taught you how to be a professional. It's been a great ride."

Lines tonight:





I hope to see you at tonight's Star Tribune Guys Night Out, which I believe is sold-out (350 people).

Last night, I had the honor of taking in the screening of the Sony Pictures, highly-acclaimed film, Red Army, which opens in Uptown theaters this weekend. It is honestly a sensational documentary. You basically forget you're watching a documentary because the film is so fascinating, funny, artistic, educational and entertaining.

It's mostly through the eyes of Slava Fetisov, one of the most famous and decorated Soviet players in history. There are twists and turns and things you'd never imagine as the writer, director and producer, St. Cloud-born Gabe Polsky, takes you behind the scenes of the Red Army team and Soviet Union and gives you an incredible glimpse of what it was like for these guys after they returned home after losing to the Americans in 1980.

After the film, it was my privilege to moderate a Q and A with Polsky, Lou Nanne and John Harrington with an audience that included hockey fans and well-known hockey people like -- off the top of my head -- Neal Broten, Don Lucia, Brian Lawton, Shjon Podein, Pat Micheletti, Tom Chorske, Blake Sloan, USHL Commish Bob Fallen, Paul Ostby and many other heavy hitters. I brought my buddy George Richards from the Miami Herald with me. Follow him @georgerichards during tonight's game.

Awesome job by the USA Hockey Foundation's Pat Kelleher and Mike O’Connor, who were responsible for last night.

There were some hilarious stories, like Polsky talking about what it was like for Fetisov and him to be on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.

Just a neat film. I highly recommend it and again it was honor to watch the film, moderate the Q and A and meet Polsky, who is a brilliant and highly-touted filmmaker.

Wild will try to get back to .500 on the road Wednesday against the surging Blue Jackets

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 30, 2014 - 4:41 PM

Mike Yeo’s Wild vs. Todd Richards’ Blue Jackets on Wednesday night at Nationwide Arena.

The NHL’s most sickly team vs. the NHL’s most injured. The Wild will try to silence that obnoxious cannon of theirs.

Columbus, devastated all season by injury, is riding high right now, going 9-1-1 in its past 11 after losing 15 of its previous 17. Nino Niederreiter’s junior linemate, Ryan Johansen, leads the team with 22 assists and is tied with Nick Foligno with 31 points.

Foligno, expected to play his 500th game Wednesday, is tied for sixth in the NHL with 17 goals and tied for first with nine power-play goals. The Blue Jackets’ power play ranks fourth, by the way, and they have power-play goals in seven of the past nine games.

The Blue Jackets rank 27th in goals against (3.18), rank 26th in shots per game (27.8) and 27th in shots against per game (33.7). Sergei Bobrovsky, AKA, is the stud in goal, is returning from illness and has been good in his previous games against Minnesota. He is 3-1 against the Wild with a 1.68 goals-against average and .939 save percentage.

Wild has lost 16 of 23 visits all-time to Columbus and played one of last season’s worse games there, a 4-0 defeat.

The Wild’s coming off a hard-fought, well-played 3-2 win at Winnipeg.

Darcy Kuemper will get the start. He is 4-6 on the road with a 2.42 goals-against average and .921 save percentage. At home, he is 7-4 with a 2.86 goals-against average and .876 save percentage. #weird.

This will be the Wild’s third attempt to get to .500 on the road after starting 2-6 on the road. The Wild has won six of its past nine road games (8-9).

Same lineup is expected Wednesday, meaning Erik Haula will likely be scratched for the second straight game and third time in four games.

Defenseman Jonas Brodin (head) is feeling better and had a doctor’s appointment today, and GM Chuck Fletcher told me it makes no sense to fly him here and risk his health. So perhaps Friday’s game against the Maple Leafs is a possibility.

Niklas Backstrom (sick) is feeling much better and coach Mike Yeo said the team was even considering flying him to Columbus even if it was just to skate Wednesday morning. Yeo said the quicker the Wild can get him back onto the ice with the team, the quicker he can return. Remember, the Wild has back-to-back games this weekend with a big division game at Dallas on Saturday. So if Backstrom can’t play, Kuemper will either have to play back-to-back or John Curry would have to get his second start.

This weekend may be pushing it to play Backstrom no matter how much better he’s feeling. Remember, he basically started to get sick in that game at Chicago two weeks ago, so he has got to be pretty depleted right now.

Jason Zucker, no change in his sickness, Yeo said. He just has no energy and is doing the same with the stomach bug that’s invaded the Wild.

Yeo liked Kuemper’s game against the Jets and he said again today this is what the Wild needs consistently from Kuemper and Backstrom.

“We need both guys healthy and we need both guys playing well,” Yeo said. “You can point to a lot of different areas where we may not be completely on top of our game, but nobody plays perfectly and you don’t win without really good goaltending in this league. That’s the reality.

“The way Kuemps played last night is very encouraging, but him like our whole team, we can’t be satisfied with one game and have to look to build off it now.”

I talked to Marco Scandella, who’s riding high with confidence right now, and Ryan Suter, who admitted that his confidence is a little shaken lately with a slew of minuses and no goals since opening night.

Remember though, he had no goals in the first 40 games last year and then scored five in four games around this time of year. He said if they come in bunches, he hopes it starts and he gets a little of what Scandella’s got. Everything Scandella shoots seems to be going in these days, and he talked to me about a shorter stick he’s using and a new technique this year. I’ll put all that in the paper.

“I’m just trying to fire it hard every time,” said Scandella, who has nine goals, four in the past six games and a league-leading 0.3 goals per game (for defensemen). “I have a lot more confidence this year in my shot. In junior, I felt I had a lot of confidence in it. I got a lot of good looks and I was taking good windups. Once you get to pro hockey, it’s harder. But now I’m getting back to finding my groove and I try to shoot as hard as I can. I know I have a good shot, I know it’s a hard shot. Now I try to put everything into it every time.”

On his play recently, Suter doesn't seem to be overly concerned, but he says he just needs to work hard to get back to his A game. He admits the good news is things can only get better from the Winnipeg game. But he definitely seemed to be beating himself up today.

In the first 20 games, Suter had 10 assists and was plus-13 in 29:14 a night. In the past 12 games, he has 11 assists and is minus-11 in 30:23 a night.

But he says that’s just the nature of the team losing and when the team loses, with the amount of shifts he plays, he’s bound to be on the ice for goals against.

Yeo did say he may lower Suter’s ice time a little to try to help him out and he did say again today the Wild coaches are considering Scandella for No. 1 power-play duty. However, he said that doesn’t necessarily mean Scandella would replace Suter. He said he has no problem using two lefties at the top to change up the look.

More on this in the paper.

Nate Prosser and Stu Bickel had a few notable turnovers last night, but Yeo liked their game overall. Bickel is an interesting cat. For a bruiser, he looked great jumping up in the play in the Winnipeg game and last night his stretch passes created a few opportunities.

Yeo gave Prosser a mulligan for some of the giveaways last night because he said it’s not easy for a righty playing the left side.

“Those guys, they’re hard to play against. That’s what I like,” Yeo said. “Guys come around the net, they’re going to feel it. It shouldn’t be a comfortable place for people to go. [Bickel] brings that element and Pross too. I think when teams are too comfortable, it makes it too easy to execute.”

Yeo also liked Tyler Graovac’s initial game.

“For a young kid, there’s a lot of things he needs to learn as far as details. These things take not only days but probably more like years to get on top of.” But Yeo loved his size, speed, skating ability and hands. He nearly scored a goal, made a great play to the blue line to set up one play and pickpocketed a guy in the neutral zone to trigger a quick transition in the first periods. Still raw, but he should become a player one day. He only won 2 of 10 faceoffs, so the Wild will have to gauge that and perhaps keep him from key defensive zone draws.

From my pal at the Columbus Dispatch, Aaron Portzline:

Hartnell - Johansen - Morin
Calvert - Dubinsky - Tropp
Foligno - Wennberg - Skille
Cracknell - Chaput - Boll
Johnson - Savard
Tyutin - Prout
Connauton - Wisniewski
Bobrovsky in net
scratches: goloubef, leopold and maybe a forward recall later today.
RW Jack Skille (head) is probable. RW Cam Atkinson (shoulder), C Boone Jenner (back), C Artem Anisimov (triceps), D Ryan Murray (knee), C Mark Letestu (groin), RW Nathan Horton (back) and LW Brian Gibbons (knee) are out.

Rejuvenated after break, Wild hopes to start a new chapter tonight against Winnipeg

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 27, 2014 - 11:25 AM

UPDATE: John Curry was recalled from Iowa and will start tonight. Niklas Backstrom was placed on IR (retroactive) with the stomach plague. He did skate this morning. Darcy Kuemper is sick, too, and will back up Curry. 

Wild and Winnipeg Jets tonight at Xcel Energy Center as the Wild opens a critical home-and-home (completed Monday at the PEG). Morning from the arena’s press room. I’ll be on KFAN at 11:30 a.m. and I’m doing a Podcast today with columnist Jim Souhan at 3 p.m. on souhanunfiltered.com.

If you didn't read my state-of-the-team article with GM Chuck Fletcher today, here is the link (also see last blog for full transcript).

Wild’s eight back of Winnipeg for the top wildcard spot with three games in hand. Win both games in regulation somehow, and it’ll be four back with three games in hand. Lose both in regulation, and it’ll be 12 back with three games in hand.

The Jets, who have overcome a devastated top-4 all year long, are 8-1-4 in their past 13 overall, 4-0-3 in their past seven on the road and are 10-4-4 on the road this season. They did lose in overtime at Minnesota on Nov. 16.

The Wild is 5-6-3 in its past 14 overall and 2-3-3 in its past eight at home. The Wild is 11-4-3 all-time vs. the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers and 5-2-1 since Atlanta’s move to Winnipeg. The Wild is 3-0-1 at home against the Jets.

Coach Mike Yeo met with the team prior to this morning’s skate. Nino Niederreiter said the message was simple: “We have to start a new chapter. It’s not the end of the story. That’s the main thing. It was a chapter. We passed it. We just have to look forward. We have 50 games left. We just have to make sure we leave it all out there to make sure we get a playoff spot.”

The norovirus (not kidding) that’s been hammering Wild players the past three weeks. It’s now hit Jason Zucker. “It’s his turn,” Yeo said with defeated sarcasm.

Darcy Kuemper will start in goal. The first game after the break is usually hairy, and as we know, the Wild and Kuemper haven’t played well for awhile. Remember, both teams haven’t been allowed to practice or play the past three games (the Jets flew here this morning).

Last year in the first game after the break, the Jets had a 4-3 lead after one period against the Wild en route to a 6-4 win. Sloppy game, to say the least, particularly by the goalies.

Asked if Kuemper may have taken shots during the break, Yeo said he didn’t ask and hoped not.

“I actually hope that he turned his brain completely off, to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “That’s what our entire group needed. Sometimes mentally, just to step away, that’s the best thing that can happen.”

Kuemper has an .860 save percentage and 4.23 goals-against average in his past seven appearances (23 goals against).

As for the team, “First game back, the biggest challenge is finding your execution level, finding your timing, conditioning. I find that the guys are a little bit heavy, a little bit more winded as the game goes on. But I think more than anything else, it’s the details, the challenges of finding the details in the game.”

On the Wild’s struggles and lack of confidence recently, Yeo said, “We can’t just snap our fingers and make it reappear. I think that’s the main thing that we have to understand. There’s going to be some work involved. Every game is big for us because it’s another opportunity to move closer to the way that our game should look, and once we get our game looking the way it should look, then results will follow that. there’s no better time to start than right now. You look at this game tonight, this is a team that occupies a spot that we want to get. This is a team that we want them to know that we’re coming for them.”

He said the past 14 games are irrelevant as far as he’s concerned.

“What matters is what’s in front of us,” Yeo said. “At the end of the year, there will be a story. The story has not been written yet. There’s been a couple chapters in the story, but we get to decide how it plays out still.”

Yeo is scratching Nate Prosser and Christian Folin tonight for … Justin Falk and Stu Bickel. It’ll be Bickel’s sixth game and second on the blue line (he played there at Arizona when Jared Spurgeon got the norovirus).

Why Falk and Bickel? “That’s what we thought we needed for tonight,” Yeo said. “Big, physical pair against a physical team.”

I asked Yeo if the Wild needs to trade for a defenseman immediately with a string of games where clearly there’s not a lot of confidence in the third pair when they’re playing six, seven, eight minutes a night.

“I’m not going to sit here and say they’re only going to play six, seven minutes tonight. We’ll see what they bring tonight,” Yeo said. “I’m definitely not going to say that we need anything right now. We’re very confident and comfortable with our group. There’s no question that we need to find a little bit more consistency, and some of that will lend itself to having a little bit more of a consistent lineup, but we are very confident with the group that we have.”

Lines tonight:









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