Zach Parise took a lot of ribbing from Wild teammates today when pictures of him modeling Team USA Olympic gear were released (see below).

But the good news for Parise is he will return to action tonight against Chicago after missing 14 games with a left foot injury. He will open the game skating on a line with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter.

“It felt good again this morning,” he said after an optional morning skate. “So I think we’re going to give it a shot. I’m excited. It’s tough when you’re watching the game from the press box for such a long time. So I’m looking forward to playing again.”

It will be a challenge, and not just because his return happens to be against one of the league’s most talented teams. He hasn’t played since Dec. 22, when his first attempt to return from the injury ended after 12 games. So it will take some time to get his rhythm back, to become reacquainted with the pace of an NHL game.

“Just getting that pace down,” he said. “When you’re out for a long period of time? Practice is one thing. But games are just another pace. It’s another speed. Hopefully that won’t take too long to get back to where I was when I was feeling good.”

Parise said he’s confident the foot has healed, that there is no risk of re-injuring it simply by playing. He also said he feels worlds better than the first time he returned and tried to play through the injury. “It’s night and day how much better I feel,” he said. “That’s a good sign. It still hurts a little bit at times. It gets sore after {skating]. But it feels better than it did before when I was playing. The biggest test will be playing in a game.’’

Wild coach Mike Yeo said he and his staff will monitor Parise closely. Parise is not necessarily on a minutes limit, but Yeo will keep track of how he’s playing and where his conditioning is.

“No. 1, we want him on the ice,” Yeo said. “We have to get him back in there, and we wouldn’t be putting him in the lineup if he wasn’t ready. …  We’ll monitor it as far as how he’s doing conditioning-wise and how he looks out there. But we have to get him out there and back to playing his best hockey.’’

Parise’s return should help a team that has struggled to get shots on net, even though the Wild did win seven of their last 10 games.

“He’s going to help us with puck possession, which will help us get more pucks to the net,” Yeo said. “The way he hounds pucks, his work ethic, his skill level, executing, his skill level? We’re talking about a guy who consistently puts five-plus shots on the board. For a team that’s been having a tough time getting shots, that’s enormous.’’

On a lighter note, Parise had to withstand his teammates' teasing  for having modeled the outfit Team USA members will wear at the opening and closing ceremonies at the Olympics. The picture of Parise in the cardigan sweater and white pants has been copied and distributed around the team’s locker room and lounge areas.

The good news is that the U.S. hockey team will arrive in Sochi, Russia too late for opening ceremonies and will leave before the closing ceremonies. So neither Parise nor Ryan Suter will have to actually wear the outfits.  But that picture of Parise is here to stay. “There are a couple 8x10s of that picture hidden around the room that I’ve come across,” Parise admitted.

And there was this, too:


Meanwhile, the return of Parise has pushed Jason Zucker to the fourth line. It’s a new role for him. And, according to Yeo, a chance for Zucker to stick with the Wild long-term. To this point  Zucker has been targeted for the top two lines. When there wasn’t a spot for him there, he was sent back to the Iowa Wild.

“We’re giving him an opportunity here,” Yeo said. “There are no promises that go beyond tonight. If he can prove he can get an asset there, and he can be effective? He’s giving himself a better chance of staying here, long-term.’’

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