The flu bug will simply not let go of Mike Russo, so I'm filling in while he recovers. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if he shows up at the game tonight. You just cannot keep the man down.

At today's morning skate, the players greeted two of their own with a round of applause. Owen Nolan will be back in the lineup tonight after missing four games because of a leg injury, and Petr Sykora has progressed enough in his recovery from a concussion to take part in the morning skate. Of the three players who had the flu and didn't play at Ottawa, Eric Belanger is the only one ready to go tonight. Guillaume Latendresse is still ill and was far from the arena today, and Robbie Earl skated but hasn't regained enough energy to play tonight. John Scott will be a healthy scratch.

Sykora was unbelievably gassed after the skate. Seriously, I've seen people stumble across the finish line at the Twin Cities Marathon looking livelier than he did. But he had a huge smile on his face and said he has never been happier to be at a morning skate.

Sykora hasn't played since Nov. 7 and has missed 19 games. He said he's lost pretty much all of his conditioning, because his recovery required periods of complete inactivity. He had a good week of skating last week, and he plans to skate as much as his body will allow, staying after practice to get in some more laps. No date has been set for his return, because concussions are so unpredictable.

"I actually felt better than I expected,'' he said. "It was good to be on the ice. We'll see how my body reacts. I hope each day, I can do a little more.''

Sykora said it's been a difficult injury to deal with, because no one could tell him when he might get better. It's been hard to watch the team play without him, he said, but he's grateful to be closer to returning--and he feels bad for Brent Burns and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who haven't progressed to the same point yet.

Santa Claus showed up at the rink Sunday for a Christmas skating party for the players, coaches and staff. Todd Richards reports that everyone had a good time, but alas, Santa did not have any new equipment to replace the stuff lost in the fire. The players continue to piece together complete sets of gear from old and new.

Niklas Backstrom is still using his old goalie pads. The biggest problem, he said, is that they soften up and shrink as they wear out, so there's a reason he scrapped these. He hopes to have new pads within a few days; the manufacturer has marked the order urgent. He also lost a brand-new mask in the fire, though he wasn't as concerned about that as he was about the pads.

At the skate, the guys looked like they had just stepped out from a catalog modeling shoot. All the equipment is so clean and unmarked! Another bonus: no hockey smell in the locker room. It's been replaced by an aroma of brand-new gear, with a hint of leftover smoke from the stuff that got salvaged.

That's it for now. Enjoy the game!    

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Three Wild players hit with the flu; Team playing one short tonight

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