It was so unexpected, it was almost a little hard to believe. The handful of spectators at Sunday morning's optional Wild practice kept staring at the guy with the 2 on the back of his helmet, making sure we really were seeing Keith Ballard on the ice at Xcel Energy Center.

The defenseman has been out since he was crushed into the boards Dec. 9 in a victory over the New York Islanders, sustaining a concussion and facial fractures. He wasn't planning to skate Sunday. But Ballard has been taking part in off-ice team activities and felt good when he came to the arena Sunday morning, as the Wild got ready for its road trip to Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. Knowing it would be a light practice, he asked athletic therapist Don Fuller if he could go on the ice.

Fuller cleared it with team doctors, and Ballard put on his hockey equipment for the first time in two months. It was a simple workout, just skating, doing non-contact drills and making and receiving passes. But it was a significant step for Ballard, even though he isn't sure where it will lead.

"It was fun to be out there,'' said Ballard, who has missed 29 games. "I'm not looking too far ahead or reading too far into it. It was one skate. For me, it was just fun to get out on the ice for a little bit.

"We'll see how I feel today and how I feel going forward. This past week has been encouraging, just being able to do something.''

Ballard has been doing light workouts for about a week. He wasn't sure how long he would last Sunday, but he stayed on the ice for most of the practice and skated for about 35 minutes.

Until last week, he had been largely inactive other than running errands and doing home and family chores. Ballard said he knew things were improving when he felt energetic last week; until that point, he typically grew tired and sluggish in the afternoons and wanted to sleep. After the practice--and for the next few days--he will be monitoring how he feels, watching for symptoms such as headaches and fatigue.

Ballard doesn't yet know whether he will return to hockey at all, let alone this season. Coach Mike Yeo said it was good to see a well-liked, well-respected player back on the ice, even if there were only 10 other players and two goalies going through a short and simple practice.

So now the Wild go west again, with a chance to finally move back into the top eight in the Western Conference standings. Yeo said goalie Devan Dubnyk will start at Vancouver, running his streak to 14 games.

A few other notes from Sunday:

--Yeo liked Justin Fontaine's game Saturday, when he got two assists in the Wild's 6-3 victory over Carolina. He thought Fontaine worked well with linemates Mikael Granlund and Thomas Vanek, playing to his personal strengths.

"I thought he had a strong game,'' Yeo said. "It's not an easy assignment when you get moved up and have an opportunity to play with guys like that. First off, you want to take advantage of the opportunity and stay in that kind of role, so you start thinking about points and you start thinking about making plays. And that’s good; you have to be aggressive.

"But at the same time, you have to make sure you're playing your own game. You can't just be trying to get the puck to (linemates) and force plays to them. I thought he did a good job of that. I thought he showed a lot of confidence and composure with those guys. He thinks the game at a high level, which is something very important.''

Yeo said when Jordan Schroeder was playing with Granlund and Vanek, he was forcing things. That affected his speed, negating one of his primary assets. When Schroeder was teamed with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter, Yeo said, he relaxed and began relying again on what he does well.

"He seems to have some comfort with those guys and some confidence that he can just go play his game,'' Yeo said of Schroeder. "I think we've seen that the last couple games that line has played together. Hopefully that can continue.''

--Yeo lauded the Wild's penalty kill, which has been a perfect 25-for-25 in its past nine games. The Wild has been highly disciplined lately, defending aggressively without taking careless or ill-advised penalties. When the penalty kill is called upon, it has been sharply focused, starting with Dubnyk and extending to a surrounding cast that takes pride in its work.

"They deserve a lot of credit,'' Yeo said. "(Dubnyk) deserves an awful lot of credit. We have the confidence we can be a little bit more aggressive up ice and he can help with our clears; also, we can be a little bit more aggressive in the zone and know that he's going to be back there to make the saves when there is a breakdown. So it's been a good joint effort.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

   

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