The Minnesota Wild was hit in the face with a cold dose of winter as it climbed off the team plane today in Winnipeg, but quickly had to shake off the cold for an afternoon practice at the MTS Centre. The team takes on the Jets tomorrow for its first regular season game in Winnipeg this year.
Defenseman Keith Ballard and goaltender Niklas Backstrom are on the trip and returned to the ice today. Backstrom was retroactively placed on Injured Reserve after suffering an upper-body injury on Nov. 13. Facing shots from his teammates today the goaltender looked good, moving well and was pretty locked in.
“I thought he looked really good,” Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said after practice. “I don’t know what that means for tomorrow or the next game.”
With Darcy Kuemper still with the team and practicing today, Yeo said he’d speak with Backstrom and the team’s medical staff before making any decisions.
However, one decision that Yeo doesn’t have to think too much about is tomorrow’s starter. Josh Harding is expected to get the start in net tomorrow against the Jets. If Backstrom is feeling healthy and good enough, the team could return Kuemper to the club’s American Hockey League Affiliate, the Iowa Wild.
As for Ballard, the blueliner has had a string of bad luck early. After skating in the team’s opening six games, he missed six games after taking a puck to the face in Buffalo on Oct. 14. He came back for three games before suffering another upper-body on Nov. 5. Ballard won’t be in the lineup tomorrow, but has been skating on his own since last week, so his conditioning level shouldn’t be an issue. Ballard’s biggest hurdle will be regaining the battle-level through contact and practicing with the team.
You’d think that it would be a frustrating start for the Minnesota native and although he’s spent a majority of his time with the Wild on Injured Reserve, he’s not dwelling on it.
“I’m past the frustration part of it,” Ballard said. “I’m not going to sit and pout about it or get down about it. It sucked when I was out that first time and again this time, but I’m comfortable where I fit in and where I can help this team.”
Yeo said he liked the way Ballard looked in practice and thinks his status can be upgraded to day-to-day.
For the rest of the blue line, Matt Dumba was skating with Clayton Stoner. Yeo said that there is a good chance Dumba will be in tomorrow against the Jets, which would be the rookie’s second game in a row.
“I liked his game in Ottawa,” Yeo said. “When we’re playing in high-paced games, he helps us with his skating ability, he helps us with his execution and puck movement.”
Both times the Wild has faced the Jets this season Dumba has been in the lineup, which Yeo said plays a part in his decision making process. Dumba has also skated in Winnipeg before; during the team’s preseason game here he scored a goal.
“Hopefully that gives him a little comfort,” Yeo added.
Notably missing from practice today was center Mikael Granlund and winger Torrey Mitchell. Mitchell didn’t travel with the team due to a lower-body injury and will miss his second-straight game. Granlund took a maintenance day and will be in tomorrow.
Granlund’s linemate, Jason Zucker, also will play in his second-straight game. Yeo said that he’s handling Zucker a lot like the team handled Granlund and Nino Niederreiter earlier this season and is not trying to overload him with too many corrections, assignments or video work. Of course, like any young player there will be teachable moments, but Yeo wants to give the forward his best chance to play well.
“I don’t want to bombard him and have too much in his head where he can’t go out there and play with confidence and play off his instincts, as well,” Yeo said.
With Mitchell out of the lineup, it’s an opportunity for Zucker, but Yeo doesn’t want him to think about things like that. Actually, Yeo doesn’t want anyone on the team to get too far ahead of themselves:
“We try to have all our players have that mindset. It’s hard to be successful when you’re too far ahead; when you’re losing site of what’s most important…what’s right in front of you.”
In front of the Wild at 2 p.m. tomorrow are the Jets. The game will be broadcast on FOX Sports North and KOOL 107.9FM.