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Wild In Duluth To Bond, Continue Season Prep

by Evan Sporer / Minnesota Wild

With 26 players in tow, the Wild left Xcel Energy Center after Sunday's 8-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets for a team-bonding trip in Duluth.

The Wild is practicing at AMSOIL Arena, home of the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs, the alma mater of both Justin Fontaine and goaltending coach Bob Mason.

"I love this place, I have a lot of great memories here, and it's such a good hockey place," Fontaine said. "My memories from college to coming up here with these guys—we always have fun up here—it's definitely a great place to get away."

Though the Wild has a roster very similar to the one from last year, there are some new players, and the days in Duluth provide some good get-to-know-you time.

"Trips like this are a lot of fun, and if you look around, it's not many guys that haven't been here before," Tyson Strachan said. "I'm kind of the one outside guy, so it's a nice opportunity to get to know the teammates, and just see them outside of the rink a little bit. Hockey-wise, every extra day you can stay here as the roster gets trimmed down you want to keep staying here, so I'm happy every day."

There was a practice on Tuesday morning that went about an hour long, and was a very active session.

"It's just part of the conditioning process, and if you're playing a lot of games it's hard to get that in," Head Coach Mike Yeo said. "When you have a little bit of an opportunity, you take advantage of it."

The Wild played five preseason games in seven days last week, crunching the time available for conditioning work. The Duluth trip, according to Yeo, will provide a good balance of continuing to get ready for the regular season, and for team bonding.

"There's still work involved; today was a pretty heavy skate," Yeo said. "We're pretty close to our group right now, and just to kind of get away, and no distractions, you've got nothing but your teammates there."

Fontaine is still not skating due to a lower-body injury that will likely keep him out of the start of the season.

"Coming into camp you feel ready, you feel healthy, and then that's what happens," Fontaine said. "I'm staying positive, and I've been working off the ice trying to get back as soon as possible."

Wild Goalie Situation Gained Stability

Back at Duluth, Mason got to relive a bit of his glory years. In his three seasons as a Bulldog, Mason was once named Western Collegiate Hockey Association Player of the Year. He also spent time with the US National Team right after his collegiate career ended, including as a member of the 1984 Olympic team.

"This building is fantastic, and it's always good to get back in this city," Mason said. "It's a nice little team-bonding time here before the season starts."

Mason's offseason and training camp have been a bit different than last year's. Goalie Devan Dubnyk was extended after being acquired via trade in January, and has supplanted himself as the clear number one. The Wild currently has three goalies in training camp—Dubnyk is flanked by Darcy Kuemper and a healthy Nicklas Backstrom—and have plenty of strength and depth at the position.

"Early in the year [last year], camp started well, and then they both kind of fell off a little bit midseason," Mason said of Kuemper and Backstrom. "Then Dubnyk came in and really saved our season."

Mason said the Wild's turnaround was a combination of the players in front of the goalie performing better, and Dubnyk coming up with timely goaltending.

"He made a lot of stops when games were maybe 1-1, 2-1, so they couldn't stretch the lead, or we stretched the lead," Mason said. "He was very critical in those parts of the games that he played."

Having played so many games against the Edmonton Oilers, Mason said he had plenty of chances to scout Dubnyk, and knew the kind of goalie he was getting.

"Watching him practice numerous times, I just liked the way he stopped the puck," Mason said. "He's a smart goaltender. Technically, I looked at him, and I thought he had a really good package, but he's a smart goaltender, he reads plays well, he's good with the puck, and he was my guy on the list."

Mason said even dating back to the previous season, when the Wild traded for goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, Dubnyk had been on the radar and discussed as a potential target.

As for the role Mason played in Dubnyk's torrid finish to the season, Mason said it was mostly reinforcing little things, not overcomplicating the message, and letting everything else fall in place.

"Positioning a little bit, and the big thing with him was his feet, getting set before the shot would come," Mason said. "When he's that calm and set in there he's pretty clean with the puck."

Back To 3-on-3

The Wild opened training camp with a bit of 3-on-3 practice, and then moved away from it. Tuesday was a return to tinkering with the NHL's new overtime format, and one that Yeo is still trying to figure out in some respects.

"There are some areas—you can see some things—how important changes are, recognizing when to change, and how to change," Yeo said. "Making sure you don't give up a chance, and you don't want to lose possession of the puck; if you can keep possession that's a huge advantage."

An area Yeo has brought up more than once is using the goalie to recoup and maintain possession while changing out players. With the long change made in overtime, and a greater distance to the bench, it's another area Yeo said is being worked out.

"If you're giving the puck to the goalie and he's under heavy pressure that's going to be a tough situation," Yeo said. "There were a couple of times when we used it in a longer play, almost like a deep-regroup with your goalie, and it allowed some guys to get off."

The advantage the Wild has is when Dubnyk is one the ice, he can confidently and cleanly move the puck, and be used in that role.

"It's hard for that other team to forecheck, because they don't want to be flying in on your goalie, and then you have a guy like [Dubnyk] who can move the puck," Yeo said. "He makes one long play and it's an odd-man rush."

Open Practice In Duluth For Wednesday

The Wild will also practice at AMSOIL Arena on Wednesday, Sept. 30. The practice at AMSOIL Arena on Wednesday will be open to the public starting at 10:00 a.m. Gates will open at 9:30 a.m.

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