The Wild, 5-5-5 on the road, begins a four-game trip to St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Florida and Columbus on Thursday without left wing Zach Parise and goalie Darcy Kuemper.
Kuemper won’t make the trip with what the team called a “mild concussion."
Parise will make the trip, but he’s at least out for Thursday’s game at St. Louis. If he doesn’t practice Friday in Tampa (the only full practice on the trip), the odds are he’ll at least miss the weekend games against Tampa Bay and Florida (no morning skate at Florida). The Wild also has a scheduled travel day/non-practice day Monday before playing in Columbus on Tuesday.
The Wild won’t say what’s wrong for Parise, but it’s definitely a lower-body injury and certainly seems like he aggravated the knee injury that caused him to miss eight games in November.
It’s obviously a good sign he’s going on the trip, and coach Mike Yeo said the Wild’s not concerned this is a major thing.
“As much as anything, just a little maintenance right now,” Yeo said. “It’s something we don’t have a lot of concern for, but we’d just rather take a little time here and make sure he gets fully rested, right and ready.”
The Wild won its first three games without Parise in November, then went 1-3-1 the last three games before he made an accelerated return Nov. 27 against Winnipeg.
As of now, the Wild doesn’t plan to call up a forward.
The lines Thursday in St. Louis are expected to be:
Jason Zucker-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle
Thomas Vanek-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville
Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Justin Fontaine
Chris Porter-Jarret Stoll-Ryan Carter
When Parise was out the first time, Vanek scored five goals in eight games on that line. Granlund had two goals and five assists and Pominville five assists, so Yeo is hoping they can rediscover some of that offensive production.
“Obviously we’re a better team with Zach in the lineup, but we’re still good enough to win hockey games,” Yeo said. “We have to make sure that guys step up, and step up doesn’t mean that you go out and score two goals and take his extra time on the power play. Step up just means that you do your job effectively. We can’t have bad games [Thursday], that’s the thing. If everybody goes out and plays a good game at least, then we’ve got a good chance to win the game.”
As for Kuemper, he apparently took a shot off the mask either in the Sunday practice or the Monday morning skate.
“He’s not participating in anything right now that’s going to get his heart rate up, so that will be the first step,” Yeo said. “We’ll just keep him back here and let him get the rest.”
The Wild plays four games in the next six nights, including back-to-back less than 24 hours apart in Tampa and Sunrise, Fla., on Saturday and Sunday. The Wild plays eight times in the next 13 days.
Asked if the Wild will ride Devan Dubnyk, who started 39 consecutive games last season, or give Niklas Backstrom his first start in almost a calendar year, Yeo said, “I don’t know. I’m ready for [Thursday] right now. We have no plan. Backy’s getting a good workload and if we need him, he’ll have to be ready. And I’m pretty sure that he will. He’s obviously a pro, he’s been around for a long time and I know he’s been waiting for an opportunity. So no guarantees of what’s going to happen, but there is a possibility.”
Dubnyk said if the Wild plans to start him every game (which would be the first option, I bet), “Last year prepped me for it. It’ll be good. It’s a good time. I feel pretty good about my game on the ice. The important thing in a stretch like this is to just worry about the game that’s in front of you. You don’t want to start looking down the schedule and looking at this tough stretch, you just take it each day and use the rest when you have a chance.”
He said his cut wrist is “OK. It’s still there, but it’s very manageable now. It won’t affect me at all. Just more annoying than anything when it gets hit in practice. But it’s not excruciating or anything. It’s pretty manageable.”
Asked if guys are aiming at his blocker, Dubnyk, laughing throughout, joked, “Some guys are. You learn a lot about a few guys and how their minds work when you have a hole in your wrist and they still continue to fire at it as hard as they can. I won’t name anybody, but there are a couple.”
As I said, the Wild is 5-5-5 on the road.
I figured it out this morning, but in the past 13 road games, the Wild has led for a grand total of 56 minutes, 55 seconds out of 791 minutes, 9 seconds of road hockey.
That’s absurd for a team that from Jan. 27 through April 9 last season was a league-best 15-1-1 on the road with 23 goals allowed.
Before the recent ugly loss in Nashville that the Wild still lost by a goal in, the Wild had points in four straight on the road, including wins at Chicago and San Jose and overtime losses at Colorado and Arizona “that easily could have been wins,” Yeo said.
“Nashville we were down 1-0 before we even had a chance to settle ourselves down into the game, so we have to be ready right from the drop of the puck,” Yeo said. “That’s going to be huge for us [Thursday]. We know how [the Blues] start, we know how they play against us, they’re going to be motivated, they’re playing real well. I haven’t been overly disappointed with our road play lately minus the Nashville game.”
On the road play, Dubnyk said, “I think we get away from our game a little right now. But I think we’re trying to find it. Finding it at home is important and we have been. If you go back and look at the games we won on the road last year, it was pretty simple. We were winning games 2-1, 1-0. Just simple road games that might not have been the most exciting thing to watch but sometimes that’s what you have to do on the road. I thought we were doing a great job of that. It only takes one or two games to get that feeling of how you have to win on the road. We know we’re more than capable of that.”
Yeo and captain Mikko Koivu said it’s a good time to get on the road.
“It feels like we’ve spent a lot of time at home,” Yeo said. “Not to make any excuses, but it’s always a little bit of a tougher time to keep yourself focused, to prepare for games. Everybody has company in town and distractions and buying Christmas presents. We’re professionals but everybody is human beings too and everyone has relationships whether it’s kids or wives or …. That’s part of the reality of it. I don’t think we necessarily did a great job, but we didn’t do a terrible job. We got a big win last game. Now we can get on the road and kind of get re-focused here. They’ll be tough games, but I think it’ll be good for us to get back on the road.”
On getting consistency, Yeo said, “It’s always tougher this time of year. That’s just the reality. You look around the league this time of year and other teams are facing it. You read the clippings and you see other coaches are saying it. You start the year and obviously you want to get off to a great start then you face these middle parts of the year where the playoffs aren’t quite there and you get a little tired. This is a real important time, this is a real character test for your group. In a lot of ways, this is where winners really step up and make the difference. It’s one thing to prepare when you know what’s at stake. But when things are a little further down the line and you’re tired, how do you come to the rink, how do you prepare, how do you get ready? That’s the character that is required right now. We have a ton of character, it’s just a matter of making sure we put the urgency into it.
Said Koivu of the road trip, “It was a big win for us heading into a road trip. It’ll be a tough one, but I think it’s good for the team to get on the road and spend some time just as a team. It was a long home stretch here. I think we did pretty good overall and now we have to go game by game and get ready for the first one first and then go from there.”
On getting consistency, Koivu said, “I think we had [consistency] already at some point. There were a lot of games (nine) where we had points in a row and you can win, you can lose, but I think as long as we play as good as we can and the right way, I think we have a good chance each and every night to win a hockey game. We can’t look too far ahead of ourselves and try to stay in the moment, but this is the time you’ve got to really push and get better as a team. We’re in a good spot right now.”
The Blues have won six of eight and typically beat the Wild at home, well, at least in the regular season. They have some guys on fire right now, like their entire third line Robby Fabbri, Jori Lehtera and Dmitrij Jaskin, their star Vladimir Tarasenko and one of their best defensemen, Kevin Shattenkirk.
Jake Allen will start in goal.
Talk to you Thursday after the morning skates in St. Louis.