Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.
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Josh Harding, who still technically leads the NHL with a 1.65 goals-against average and is second with a .933 save percentage, took the ice at Xcel Energy Center this morning for the first time since January.
Harding, who hasn’t started since Dec. 31 because of the effects of multiple sclerosis, has been feeling much better in recent days.
“I saw him this morning, and I can’t say that I have a plan right now,” coach Mike Yeo said. “The first step was just to see him at the rink and I know he was here last game and I had heard how much better he was doing. And when I got a chance to talk to him this morning, you could see it. You could see it in his face, you could see the relief. You could just see he’s in a much better place right now. I think it’s great. It’s great to have him around. The next step is getting him on the ice and talk more about what the plan is. We haven’t discussed that.”
Harding, indisputably the Wild’s first-half MVP with an 18-7-3 record, had an adjustment to his treatment after beating Vancouver on Dec. 17. He missed the Wild’s four-game road trip and returned to start two games Dec. 29 against the Islanders and Dec. 31 against the Blues.
He missed the next smattering of games, came back to practice, but then had to leave again because he wasn’t feeling well. He has missed the past 22 games.
Obviously, Harding taking the ice is a great sign, but obviously there’s a long road yet to getting back into a game. Still, outstanding news that Harding is feeling better.
Also, Niklas Backstrom, one week after being “shut down” by GM Chuck Fletcher, skated today in pads with Harding. Apparently, this is part of Backstrom’s treatment plan from a Toronto specialist.
So, is Backstrom shut down?
“I don’t know with Backy,” Yeo said, laughing. “We don’t want to shut him down because you never know, he might all of a sudden come back and feel great. We don’t have a plan there. I know that he’s still not feeling great, so he’s going out there and keeping sharp just in case he can come back.”
Darcy Kuemper vs. Viktor Fasth (Oilers debut and first game since Nov. 18) tonight against the Edmonton Oilers.
Clayton Stoner, Justin Fontaine and Mike Rupp will be scratched for Minnesota. Oscar Klefbom will make his NHL debut for Edmonton.
Matt Cooke will skate in his 1,000th game and I’ll return soon with his thoughts.
I will be hosting a live chat at startribune.com at 2 p.m.
After a pair of intense back-to-back games at Dallas and St. Louis, Wild coach Mike Yeo predictably gave most his big-minute players a mandatory practice off.
With the Wild near the start of 20 games in the final 37 days of the season, I'd expect a lot of this down the stretch as Yeo weighs the importance of rest vs. work. I was shooting the breeze with a coach the other day and he too was saying the most important thing this time of year is rest.
Besides keeping players fresh, rest, the coach said, is the most critical thing when trying to avoid injuries down the stretch. Scheduled to practice today for the Wild were Erik Haula, Cody McCormick, Nate Prosser, Keith Ballard, Mike Rupp, Justin Fontaine, Clayton Stoner, Ilya Bryzgalov and Darcy Kuemper.
Couple housekeeping items:
1. The final Star Tribune Chalk Talk with Wes Walz and I is Tuesday night prior to the Oilers-Wild game. If you want to come to the Chalk Talk and attend the game, tickets are at www.wild.com/chalktalk.
2. I will be hosting a live Star Tribune chat right here at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Please join.
3. On Wednesday, from 12-3, I will be co-hosting Common's show with Brandon Mileski on KFAN (100.3-FM). Lots of hockey talk, which is the best kind of talk.
4. If you missed, here's David La Vaque's article on Minnesota Mr. Hockey, Avery Peterson, a Wild draft pick.
The Wild, 0-1-1 in its past two, hosts the Oilers, who have won two of their past three, in the second game of its four-game homestand Tuesday night at 7. The Wild is 20-2 in its past 22 home games against the Oilers and 24-11-2 all-time against them at home.
Oilers coach Dallas Eakins said today that goalie Viktor Fasth and defenseman Oscar Klefbom will debut on the Oilers' four-game road trip. Eakins didn't necessarily say Minnesota, I don't think, and the Oilers are hitting the road this afternoon for four games.
If Klefbom plays vs. the Wild, it'll be the NHL debut for the 2011 first-rounder. He's one of Jonas Brodin's best buds.
Fasth, if he plays, it'll be his Oilers debut after being acquired from Anaheim last Tuesday -- the day Bryzgalov was traded from Edmonton to Minnesota. If Fasth plays over Ben Scrivens against the Wild, it'll be Fasth's first game since Nov. 18. He's been hurt all year. He won 15 games as a rookie for the Ducks last year.
Kuemper is expected to start against the Oilers.
For the Wild, Matt Cooke is slated to play his 1,000th game. He'll become the 286th NHL player to play in 1,000 games and the fourth to do so while wearing a Wild uniform.
Keith Carney, Andrew Brunette and Matt Cullen were the others. With his family on hand, Cooke will be honored before Tuesday's game with the customary silver stick from the Wild and a crystal from the NHL. NHL official Jim Gregory will be on hand from the league.
Cooke, 35, has collected 162 goals and 384 points, a plus-61, 2,013 hits and 1,120 penalty minutes in 999 regular-season games over 15 years. He ranks 10th among active players in hits, 13th in penalty minutes and 28th in games. He has played another 97 playoff games and won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009.
Also, captain Mikko Koivu is now up to 435 points, putting him two from tying and three from passing Marian Gaborik to become the Wild’s all-time leading scorer. Koivu has 38 points in 49 games against Edmonton, tied for his most against any opponent.
Talk to you after the morning skates Tuesday and again, please join my 2 p.m. Star Tribune chat.
I tweeted a bunch of quotes about how positive the Wild was after its 3-2 shootout loss tonight to St. Louis. I was hit back with so many cynical replies, my Twitter followers would make awesome sportswriters.
Read the game story on www.startribune.com/wild for some of the best.
Hey, nobody likes moral victories. You pay $100 for a ticket and your team loses a shootout, you walk out disappointed. But if the Wild pulled that extra point out from tonight’s game by winning the shootout, did that really change anything in regards to how it actually played the game?
No. Obviously, it’s disappointing the Wild couldn’t get the extra point if you’re a fan, but the reality is the locker room was upbeat after the game, the team played quite well and I think any Wild fan would have settled for one point after the Wild fell behind 2-zip early in the first.
Now, a lot of the positivity postgame was them trying to convince themselves that they can play and match up against the Blues, and as a fan, you better pray the Wild truly does believe it can match up against arguably the best team in the NHL because not only does the Wild have two more games this season against the Blues, the Wild could very potentially play St. Louis in the first round.
Again, #1 in the West plays the second wildcard team, #2 plays the first wildcard team. So, by St. Louis leapfrogging Anaheim tonight for the top spot in the NHL, if the season ended today, the seventh-place Wild would play Anaheim. But if the Wild falls to eighth OR St. Louis falls to 2 and the Wild stays 7, the Wild plays the Blues.
Now, it’s just one game, and in the end, the Blues did, by virtue of that shootout, beat Minnesota for an eighth straight time and has beaten Central Division teams 15 straight times and are 18-0-1 against the Central. It was a team playing on the road and it was a team that, like the Wild, was playing for the second time in two days and it was a team playing without Ryan Miller, although let’s be honest, Brian Elliott was certainly up to the task and usually is against Minnesota (6-0 in his career).
But the Wild certainly had its chances tonight and certainly didn’t cower to the big, bad Blues, even at times taking it to the Blues. The Wild got pucks deep, spent long shifts in their end and hit their defensemen, forcing them into turnovers. The Wild started to pick up the intensity and play fast hockey, and according to coach Mike Yeo, showed that the Blues aren’t “unlike anybody else. You put them under pressure, you take away their options, it’s going to be tough.”
But again, it’s one game. Did the Wild prove once and for all tonight that they match up with the Blues? Uh, no, they didn’t. I still think it’d be a terrible matchup, and frankly, until the Wild shows they can play the Blues well in St. Louis, I’ll still be skeptical.
But, hey, it was an entertaining game and the Wild played well, so it was natural for the Wild to feel as it did after the game. Even when the Wild was down 2-0, it wasn’t getting overwhelmed, and in fact, held St. Louis to one shot through a 23-minute span between the first and second periods.
Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson (first with the Wild) helped the Wild rally in the second. Moulson, in two games with the Wild, has a goal, an assist, seven shots and three drawn penalties.
With the game tied at 2-2 in the third, the Wild lucked out early when Alex Steen looked to score. But referee Brad Watson ruled Ilya Bryzgalov, who made 21 saves in his Wild debut, had the puck covered.
A few minutes later, Elliott robbed Mikael Granlund’s goalmouth shot with a desperation stick save. The Wild drew a power play with 1:29 left in regulation but failed to score for a third straight time. In fact, Pominville’s turnover inside the blue line (very same spot to his boo-boo in San Jose that led to the Sharks’ OT winner in January) led to Steen nearly winning it. But his hit the post shorthanded with seven seconds left.
That would have been absolutely devastating after the blown game in Dallas. But the Wild got the point and is now four up on Dallas and seven up on Phoenix with Edmonton, the Rangers and Columbus coming in the rest of the homestand.
Yeo on Bryzgalov, who looked like he was fighting it at times, “He didn’t need to be exceptional, but I thought he got better as the game went on.”
Yeo on the 0 for 3 PP: He said they’re still trying to find chemistry with two brand new units, but “bottom line is we’ve got the personnel that we have to find a way to get one in.”
On Parise and Koivu being 3 for 10 in shootouts and whether maybe he should change up his shootout list: “We’ve got more guys down the line that have the ability, but usually when I’m back there and we’re making the decisions as coaches, we want those guys having the opportunity to make the difference.”
I liked this quote from Kyle Brodziak, who fought Steve Ott early and got into it again later when Ott got too close to Bryzgalov: “That’s definitely one of the most intimidating teams in the league. They’re big, they play physical. It was a good response by everybody. Maybe early on, we didn’t go all-in with it, but as the game wore on, we started to have a pushback and saw the benefit. Not a single guy shied away.”
Again, please read the gamer for a more comprehensible look at the game and the quotes.
The Wild is having a very optional practice Monday after back-to-back road and home games, so there’s a chance there won’t even be a blog. Reminder, I’ll be hosting a live chat on startribune.com at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
The Wild looks to rebound from last night's 4-3 loss at Dallas tonight against the red-hot St. Louis Blues.
Wild wasted what would have been a valuable two points last night when it coughed up a 3-2 third-period lead. The Wild went from potentially gaining a seven-point lead on Dallas and an eight-point lead on Phoenix to a three-point lead on Dallas and a six-point lead on Phoenix.
This with St. Louis on deck, a team that can leapfrog Anaheim for the top spot in the NHL with a win tonight. This is the first of three meetings with the Blues in the Wild's final 19 games and a potential first-round matchup. If the Wild makes the playoffs, it appears as if St. Louis or Anaheim would be the opponent.
The Blues have won 14 in a row against the Central Division and are 17-0-1 within the division. The Blues are 2-0 against the Wild this season and have won the past seven meetings, outscoring Minnesota 22-8 during the win streak.
Ilya Bryzgalov will make his Wild debut tonight. With Edmonton, he was 5-8-5 this season with a 3.01 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. He is 6-11-1 all-time vs. St. Louis with a 3.22 goals-against average and .895 save percentage.
Brian Elliott will start for St. Louis. He is 15-5-2 this season with a 2.08 goals-against average and 5-0 all-time vs. the Wild with a 1.83 goals-against average.
Same forward lines for the Wild tonight. Defenseman Nate Prosser will get back in for the Wild and Keith Ballard will be scratched. Yeo said the turnover that led to Erik Cole's winning goal last night played "no relevance," that this was the plan.
Yeo isn't fibbing. Yeo did indicated yesterday morning that Prosser would play tonight and with the big, bad Blues in town and their group of forechecking forwards, Clayton Stoner, the Wild's most physical defenseman, was obviously going to play.
Haula wasn't disciplined by the NHL for his charging major. He was tripped up by Cody Eakin. Still, that's a hard call for the official. Haula bulldozed over Kari Lehtonen, there's an obvious injury. That's a major. If that happened to Darcy Kuemper, you'd want a major.
My only issue is after the collision, Haula was attacked by the Stars. That's usually an area where the ref would at least give Trevor Daley, the first one in, a roughing minor to essentially make it a three-minute major.
It didn't happen, and like Yeo said after the game, the Wild did more than enough in that game to shoot itself in the collective foot. Now, it must bounce back tonight against a motivated team.
Costly loss for the Wild tonight. Up 3-2 in the third on Kyle Brodziak’s go-ahead goal, the Wild handed two points to the team right on its tail.
The Wild nearly crashed Mike Modano's party and could have been seven points up on Dallas with a win. Now it’s three with St. Louis, which can take the top spot in the NHL with a win, on deck Sunday in Minnesota to open a four-game homestand. A win could have given the Wild an eight-point lead on Phoenix, too.
Matt Moulson was talking this morning about how excited he was to parachute right into a playoff race. After all, this is a guy that didn’t have a lot of meaningful games late in seasons on Long Island and certainly not in the past four months in Buffalo.
Tonight’s game had the intensity of two desperate teams fighting for a playoff spot and the Wild battled back twice from one-goal deficits.
But then after taking a 3-2 lead 1:23 into the third, the wheels came off. It started a minute after Brodziak’s goal when Matt Cooke took a tripping penalty. I still haven’t seen the replay because I was pounding on my keyboard, but the Twitterphere was screaming that it was a knee.
Regardless, the Wild killed the two minutes off and it appears Valeri Nichushkin escaped injury.
But two minutes after the kid, Haula, who scored his first career shortie on a great play in the first to tie the game at 1-1, generated speed again. But as he drove the net, he locked skates with Cody Eakin and bulled into goalie Kari Lehtonen.
Lehtonen was injured, leaving the game with blood on his face and what coach Lindy Ruff said afterward was a likely concussion. Haula got a major for charging and game misconduct.
Darcy Kuemper did a terrific job killing the major, but on Dallas’ ninth shot on the power play, Tyler Seguin, who had a hat trick two nights earlier against Vancouver, scored the tying goal for his third point of the night.
Four minutes later, Brodziak sent the puck up top to Clayton Stoner. Stoner quickly slid it to his left to Keith Ballard. The puck barely stayed in the zone. Too bad it didn’t leave because Ballard looked to shoot, then tried to slide it back to Stoner.
It happened way late in their shift, too, so they were gassed and basically dead meat when speedy Erik Cole picked it off. Kuemper was the only hope to save Ballard’s bacon, but Cole scored the eventual winner with 4:49 left.
To Ballard’s credit, he was standing in the locker room just waiting for the buzzards.
“Bad read on my part. It was pretty obvious what I was looking to do. I don’t know if I telegraphed it, but I misjudged how high he was. Split-second decision. Bad feeling. Tough way to lose a game.”
He continued, “It’s not the first time I’ve done that. Every guy in this room has done that. It’s not the last time it’s going to happen. Do something like that, you can really talk yourself into you played a real bad game. I looked at my game a lot different than that. I’m not going to judge my entire game based on one shift. It was a tough mistake and it stinks, but you move on.”
We’ll see if he plays against St. Louis. The Wild has seven healthy defenseman and coach Mike Yeo made the questionable decision to scratch Nate Prosser, who has been nothing but consistent for two months (plus-9 in the past 20 games). I’ve got to think Prosser slides back in.
But tonight, Yeo said the Ballard mistake was bound to cost them eventually. He said the Wild gave up way too many odd-man rushes, and frankly, even the Wild’s most reliable players were playing the puck like a grenade. Normally reliable Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon each had tough nights.
Moulson had five shots, an assist on Charlie Coyle’s goal to snap a 15-game drought (actually had no goals in 25 of his past 26 games) and drew two penalties. Moulson said he has to bury his chances though.
Unfortunately the Haula penalty put a damper on what would have been an awesome story line with his shortie. It was so fitting because Saturday morning, Haula, who led the University of Minnesota in scoring the past two years, and I were talking about the pride he’s taking in his fourth line and penalty kill duties, saying, “I love my role on this team. I've accepted it.”
On the Haula penalty, Yeo said, “I’m not sure what else a player can do. You’re trying to score a goal. Unless you want the player not to try to score a goal. I feel bad for the goalie. He got hurt. But if you watch the replay, he’s trying to make a play to score a goal, he gets tripped up a little bit, there’s really nowhere for him to go. I would say it’s incidental.”
But Yeo stopped short and said he’s not about to complain about that call, saying, “We did enough things in this game to shoot ourselves in the foot. … Just not enough of a 60-minute focus.”
OK, I’ve got to get out of here. It’s midnight, and with the clocks moving ahead, my 4 a.m. wakeup is coming in, what’s that, three hours????
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