With the Olympics officially over, the focus in the Minnesota locker room is squarely back on Wild hockey.
Despite the various locales the Wild found itself in over break — whether it was Sochi, a tropical island or back home with family — the Wild is back and working to find that momentum it had prior to the break.
“Everybody has the same challenge,” Head Coach Mike Yeo said. “It’s just like starting the season, you want to start the season off on a good note.”
When the Wild resumes play on Thursday against the Edmonton Oilers, it will mark the start of a stretch of 23 games over 47 days.
“I just want to get going again,” Yeo said. “I’m excited to play. It’s been a nice break but we’re ready to get going. We’ll start off with a bang with back-to-back games.”
As the Olympians make their return to the team — Mikael Granlund, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will rejoin practice on Wednesday — Yeo and co. is also hoping to see captain Mikko Koivu work his way back into the lineup.
Koivu is still recovering from surgery to repair his ankle, which was broken by a blocked shot against the Capitals on Jan. 4. The injury caused him to bow out of the Olympics where he was expected to help lead Team Finland. Despite an injury-ravaged roster, the Finns took home bronze (aided by Granlund’s seven-point effort (3-4=7) over six games).
Today was the first time the Captain participated in all five-on-five drills since his injury, but neither he nor Yeo said if he would play Thursday.
“Progress has been good since we came back,” Koivu said. “Each and every day it’s getting stronger and stronger so that’s a good sign.”
Regardless of his status for Thursday, Koivu said that when it’s no longer on his mind, when he doesn’t think about the injury, that’s when he knows he is ready to go.
Yeo noted that if the Wild had a game tonight, Koivu wouldn’t be in the lineup. Fortunately for all those involved, that’s not the case and there’s still a few days left before that decision needs to be made. But Yeo also said that when they get Koivu back, they want it to be for the rest of the season.
“Let’s be honest, there’s no question we want to get him back, he’s a huge part of our team,” Yeo said. “But at the same time, when we get him back, we want to have him in the lineup at 100 percent or at the very least very close to that. More importantly we want to have him back for the rest of the season.”
With Koivu’s status still uncertain the Wild recalled centerman Erik Haula from the Iowa Wild this morning.
Haula seemed to slip right back into practice after spending the break in the minors. The Pori, Finland native put up five goals and five assists for 10 points over seven games with Iowa. The offensive output was really about keeping up his confidence, according to Haula.
“I think I finished strong up here and gained some confidence by finding a little roll, so to say,” Haula said. “I felt good about my game and I think it reflected on the ice down there.”
Along with Haula, the Wild also recalled defenseman Steven Kampfer from Iowa as a sixth defenseman with Suter off and Marco Scandella still skating on his own. Scandella is expected to join the team tomorrow, but whether he’s a full participant or limited remains to be seen.
While Suter, Granlund and Parise just returned to the State of Hockey today after Team USA and Team Finland squared off for the Bronze Medal, one Wild Olympian was back on the ice today: Nino Niederreiter traded in his Team Switzerland sweater for a Wild one as he returned to practice for the first time.
In his first Games, Niederreiter said it was a lot to take in between the atmosphere, all the athletes and all the events. While he didn’t record any points during his four games — Switzerland was eliminated by Latvia in the quarterfinals, 3-1 — Nino recorded ten shots on goal, a plus-two rating and 68:20 TOI, which led the Swiss forwards.
“Obviously we lost a very frustrating game against Latvia, but overall it was an unbelievable experience,” Niederreiter said. “It’s hard to describe what a feeling it is to be there and be a part of the Olympics.”
Yeo noted that he liked how the winger’s game was an all-around performance — beyond playing tough and getting to the net, he was also more active on special teams, particularly the penalty kill which is a role he hasn’t served with the Wild. Yeo took it as a good sign, especially since he went up against the best players in the world.
“I thought he had a great Olympics,” Yeo said. “Obviously I think he was a little disappointed to not go on a little bit further but I think he represented his country very well. I think both him and his country, they have better days ahead.”