Big names, new-look top line will play for Wild on Saturday

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Zach Parise admittedly would have rather been on the ice than watching from a distance when his Minnesota Wild played their first preseason game Tuesday against Columbus. He also didn’t travel to Winnipeg for Thursday’s preseason game and said he didn’t tune into the game on the radio, only catching highlights afterward.

Saturday against Winnipeg, however, Parise and some of the Wild’s other big names will finally take the ice in Minnesota’s third of six preseason games leading up to the opener Oct. 3 against the Los Angeles Kings.

“I think that’s the only way you really get in your game shape,” Parise said Friday of playing in preseason games. “We can skate as hard as we want all year. You have to start playing some games to get into the full game shape, so it will be good to start tomorrow.”

Wild fans will get their first chance to see the new-look top line of Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville when Minnesota hosts the Winnipeg Jets at Xcel Energy Center. Parise, of course, was one of two big offseason acquisitions the Wild made before last season, along with defenseman Ryan Suter (who will also play Saturday). Pominville was added late in the season in a trade with Nashville but played only a handful of games down the stretch and missed a few games due to a concussion.

That top line has now had the chance to develop some chemistry during training camp. Saturday, they’ll test that chemistry in an actual — well, sort of — game situation.

“Obviously I’ve been skating with them the whole camp. We’ve gotten a little bit of a feeling of what it’s going to be like,” Koivu said. “You never know what to expect in a game.  . . . It’s different, but that’s the best way to find out where we’re at and work on our game and make sure as a line we’re ready to go if we play together on opening night.”

Just like the NFL, the NHL’s top stars rarely play in every preseason game. Most of Minnesota’s marquee names did not play in the team’s first two games against Columbus and Winnipeg. It’s a balancing act that head coach Mike Yeo must perform of taking a look at some of the team’s younger players fighting for roster spots while also allowing the veterans enough time to get into regular-season form without creating too many opportunities for a preseason injury.

Parise said Friday that he’d ideally like to play in three or four preseason games before he feels comfortable for the regular season. If he plays in the remainder of Minnesota’s four exhibition games, that’s exactly the number he’ll reach.

“I think the more games you play in the preseason, the more ready you are for the regular season. That’s just personal preference,” Parise said. “I know that they have their own plans and you’ve got to watch certain players. Either way, three or four, it doesn’t matter. I’ll be ready for the season when the time starts.”

During last year’s lockout-shortened season — Parise and Suter’s first with Minnesota — there were no preseason games. Instead, teams jumped right into things with their regular-season openers, which started much later than usual. Because of that, it took most teams a handful of games to knock off the rust that otherwise would have been shaken off in the preseason.

This year, the Wild have the luxury of six preseason games to fine-tune everything before next month’s opener. It may not seem like a lot, but for the veterans it’s the perfect amount.

“I don’t know if there’s the right number, but I think three to four games,” Koivu said when asked how many he’d prefer to play in. “I think it’s good to have it in a short period of time, too, so you kind of get the rhythm a little bit and get the routine and all that.  . . . But at the end, it’s the coaches who make that call. They’ve got to think about the team and make sure the team’s ready to go when we start.”

Former Gopher impresses in debut: Finland native Erik Haula was one of several players from the University of Minnesota hockey team who left school early to turn pro. Haula, a seventh-round pick of the Wild back in 2009, felt he was ready to play at the next level and left the college game behind him, signing his pro contract a few days after the Gophers’ season ended.

In his NHL preseason debut Thursday in Winnipeg, the 22-year-old left wing made a good impression as he continues to fight for a roster spot. He had an assist and also had a team-high five shots on goal in 13:09 of ice time.

“I was impressed with Haula,” Yeo said. “His speed is noticeable. His confidence is noticeable. In a young kid going into a situation like that, going into some of the roles that we gave him through the course of the game, I thought that he showed really well last night.”

Haula led the Gophers in scoring last year with 51 points (16 goals, 35 assists). After leaving the U of M following the Gophers’ season, Haula played in six games with the Houston Aeros of the AHL and had two assists.

Zucker still out with groin injury: Wild forward Jason Zucker suffered a groin strain in Minnesota’s first preseason game Tuesday and did not play Thursday in Winnipeg. Yeo said Zucker is still not practicing with the Wild’s top group but continues to make progress.

“From what I heard, he had a good day today,” Yeo said. “We want to make sure that he’s healed up the right way. We can’t rush it, but at the same time we want to see him on the ice, too. So we’ll just have to take it day by day right now.”

Zucker, 21, played in 20 regular-season games with Minnesota last year and had five points (four goals, one assist). He also scored an overtime game-winner in the Wild’s playoff series against Chicago.

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