Mike Yeo was relieved to hear Wednesday that goaltender Niklas Backstrom, who strained his right knee in Tuesday’s loss at Nashville, is not expected to be sidelined for long. Still, the Wild coach confirmed that Josh Harding will start in goal Thursday against Winnipeg — and the rest of the lineup will look different as well.
With the Wild still searching for its first victory of the season, Yeo spent Wednesday’s practice tinkering with his line combinations and defensive pairs. The team also made a roster change, sending forwards Jason Zucker and Carson McMillan back to the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa and recalling Stephane Veilleux. While Yeo and his players do not think major changes are necessary, they agreed that the details still need refining in order to escape an 0-1-2 start.
Even as Yeo praised his team’s overall play, he pointed out shortcomings, such as failing to go to the net or defensive lapses that hand an opponent a premium scoring chance. Closer attention to those particulars, he said, will make all the difference against the Jets at Xcel Energy Center.
“The urgency has been there,’’ Yeo said of his team. “But the focus and how to direct it, we’ve been a little off there.
“We don’t have a win yet in three games. That has to be on our minds. But there also have been some positives. So let’s learn from the things that haven’t been good enough, let’s focus on the things that have been really good, and take that into the next game and figure out how to make sure we get rid of that goose egg.’’
Backstrom was hurt when Nashville forward Eric Nystrom barreled into him in the first period of Tuesday’s 3-2 loss, pushing the goalie’s right leg into the goalpost. He did not practice Wednesday and is listed as day to day. Yeo said Backstrom will be reexamined Thursday morning and could be healthy enough to serve as Harding’s backup against Winnipeg.
The Wild is averaging 2.33 goals over its first three games, ranking it 18th in the NHL. To stimulate more scoring, Yeo moved first-line winger Jason Pominville to the second line with center Mikael Granlund and winger Dany Heatley. Winger Nino Niederreiter was elevated to the top line with Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise.
Justin Fontaine will team with Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke on the third line, with the trio of Veilleux, Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell handling fourth-line duties. Zucker, who was recalled Sunday to fill the roster spot vacated by the injured Charlie Coyle, was sent to Iowa.
“He wasn’t going to factor in on the third line,’’ Yeo said of Zucker, “and we weren’t going to play him on the fourth.’’
The new look, Yeo said, gives speed and balance to the fourth line and puts Pominville in position to jump-start a sputtering second line.
“Looking at [Tuesday’s loss], our top line had probably 90 percent of our scoring chances,’’ Yeo said. “Certainly, they should lead the way, but we need something from somebody else.
“Nino has played very well through three games. He’s a guy that should be able to factor in on that top line and have a positive impact. [The new second line] should have the potential to create offense for us, too.’’
Yeo also switched some defensive pairings Wednesday. He teamed Matt Dumba with Clayton Stoner, reprising a tandem that played effectively against Winnipeg in the preseason, and Keith Ballard will play with Jared Spurgeon.
Harding performed well under challenging circumstances Tuesday. He surrendered a goal on the penalty shot awarded to Nystrom after his collision with Backstrom, then shut out Nashville through the rest of the game.
Thursday’s game marks Harding’s first start of the season after he recorded an 0.83 goals-against average and .962 save percentage in preseason play.
“I came in here knowing I’m going to have to play some big games and find a way to win,’’ Harding said. “There are still things I have to clean up in my game. Winning a couple of games in the preseason doesn’t mean anything if you don’t do it in the regular season.’’
His teammates can identify with that sentiment.
“I think we’re still playing good hockey,’’ Parise said. “We just need to be a little sharper in different areas. We’re still in a good mood. Everyone is in good spirits. It’s just frustrating that we haven’t won.’’