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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Just a quick blog from the arena before I have to hustle for my flight to Winnipeg:
1. Full practice today, except Keith Ballard (groin) didn't skate.
2. Likely the same lineup in Winnipeg as last night, so check out those lines on yesterday morning's blog.
3. Ilya Bryzgalov is 5-0-3 with a 1.87 GAA. He'll start in Winnipeg. Will he start against Boston, too, in the second half of a back-to-back on Tuesday?
"We haven't even discuss it," coach Mike Yeo said. "It's a possibility. I dont want to say it's going to happen. I don't know. I haven't gotten to that. Just getting focused for [Winnipeg] right now, and then we'll worry about that afterward."
If Shorewood's John Curry started Tuesday, it would be his first start since Jan. 11, 2010, and the fifth of his career. I'll write more about Curry in Tuesday's paper. He's had a fascinating career.
On what he has seen from Curry, Yeo said, "This is a guy with experience. It's not like he's a young rookie who has never been in a situation like this before. I think our team's been playing strong right now that if he were to be in there that it would give him a chance to have success. But it's a big step going from practice to games, but he's been playing well in practice."
Obviously, the decision will largely depend on the outcome and how the Wild plays in Winnipeg. It's easy to say, 'Just play Bryz, all goalies play back-to-back," but all teams aren't the Wild. This is an organization who's got a goalie injury hex or something, so the Wild may want to treat Bryzgalov's health with kid gloves because if he gets hurt, the Wild's in deep trouble going into the playoffs.
4. Yeo says Darcy Kuemper is feeling a lot better, but there is still no timetable. "I'm not expecting it to be real serious, but I don't know." Yeo also said Mikael Granlund is day-to-day, but "we're not going to rush him back. But at the same time, I haven't been given any reason to believe he won't be ready [for the playoffs." Clayton Stoner (knee) is close to skating.
Afternoon from Johnny's Ice House West in Chicago, the practice facility of the Blackhawks.
The Wild practiced today with three goalies -- Thursday's starter Ilya Bryzgalov, Thursday's backup John Curry and ... first-half MVP Josh Harding.
Harding, sidelined since Dec. 31 from complications of multiple sclerosis, joined the Wild in Chicago and is practicing with the team for the first time since Jan. 19.
If you remember, he missed the Wild's four-game road trip to Pittsburgh, New York, Philly and Winnipeg to have an adjustment to his MS treatment. He returned to play two games Dec. 29 and Dec. 31 before being sidelined again. He then returned to practice with the team but then was sidelined for good starting Jan. 20.
Harding would only say he had a "rough patch" that was out of his control.
“This isn’t the time [to talk about it],” Harding said. “We’re in a playoff crunch. If I could’ve been out there, I would've been out there. It's tough, it was tough.”
You can read more about Harding's return in Thursday's paper. He looked good today, but this is obviously a first step.
“I know that he doesn’t want us really talking about [his MS], but the reality is it’s always going to be day-to-day, basically,” coach Mike Yeo said. “But he’s feeling very good right now and he’s motivated.”
With Darcy Kuemper out with an upper-body injury, Harding's return is obviously great news (great news for reasons beyond hockey, too).
This is getting way ahead of ourselves, but no chance Harding is able to return without an eventual conditioning stint in Iowa, and this is provided things continue to go well after a number of days of practice.
The Baby Wild has nine games left this season.But as Yeo said, everything is day-to-day right now.
Christian Folinalso joined practice today. Kuemper and Mikael Granlund did not practice. Nino Niederreiter did and is expected to play.
Scratches appear to be Heatley for a third game in a row, McCormick, Rupp. Yeo basically said that in the Wild's eyes, McCormick's not a center, so that's the reason for the Dowell callup.
D pairs remain the same:
Ballard looks like he'll continue to wait with the Wild having won two in a row.
Curry (Curry's jersey assigned was No. 30 when he came on the Edmonton, Vancouver trip in late February. The Wild has since acquired Bryzgalov, so Curry will wear No. 33 tomorrow. That means two different Wild backups (Rob Laurie) will wear the same number in consecutive games, which is par for the course with the Wild, which has had seven goalies up with the big team this season).
Officially, Granlund has an upper-body injury. Unofficially, replays show that Granlund’s head smacked into the left shoulder of Los Angeles Kings center Jarret Stoll on Monday as Granlund tried to deliver a check.
Yeo said there’s no timetable until Granlund sees the Wild doctors. Yeo said, “All I know right now” is that Granlund won’t play Thursday against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“We’re losing a very talented player, an offensive guy that we count on,” Yeo said of Granlund, the Wild’s fourth-leading scorer during a solid sophomore campaign with 41 points in 63 games. “In a situation like that, we’re going to lean on our other lines a little bit more, lean on our power play a little bit more.”
Captain Mikko Koivu will continue to get the bulk of the big minutes and matchups. Since March 18, Koivu, is on a six-game point streak, ranks first in the NHL with 10 assists and is tied for first with 12 points.
Rookie center Erik Haula, who led the Gophers in scoring during his sophomore and juniors years, has played a fourth-line role for much of his 40 games with the Wild. Haula, 23, has three goals and nine points, is plus-9 and will assume Granlund’s role between veterans Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville.
Yeo has been impressed with Haula’s ability to adapt to a defensive and penalty-kill role. Now that Haula will skate with two skilled scorers like Moulson (five goals and four assists in 14 games with the Wild) and Pominville (27 goals), Yeo said, “We’re going to ask him to be a little more creative.”
Haula will have to improve in the faceoff circle. That was one of Granlund’s biggest improvements. Granlund won 52.6 percent of his draws; Haula has won 42.7 percent.
“You’re on a line like that, starting with the puck in the offensive zone is a huge key,” Yeo said.
Folin got overshadowed today, so I will write a lot more about him in Friday's paper.
Just as advertised, he was big with a booming shot.
The plan initially is to get him involved in practice, teach him the Wild’s system and allow him to get comfortable. He is eligible to play in any of the remaining six games, but Yeo said the decision will be based on “team-first.”
Folin played two years with Austin (Minn.) in the North American Hockey League and said, “In the back of my head, I always wanted to come [back] to Minnesota.”
With Darcy Kuemper sidelined with an upper-body injury, the Wild has recalled John Curry from the Iowa Wild to back up Ilya Bryzgalov (4-0-2, 2.15 GAA) Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks. If Kuemper is out for awhile, the Wild has one back-to-back left (at Winnipeg on Monday, vs. Boston on Tuesday). Bryzgalov would probably get both games.
The Wild has also recalled center Jake Dowell, a former Blackhawk, with Mikael Granlund likely sidelined for a bit with an upper-body injury.
Coach Mike Yeo could either put Dowell or Cody McCormick as fourth-line center. I'd think Erik Haula moves up to second-line center because the Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle line is going real well, so why fiddle with that and bounce Coyle back to center again?
I saw Granlund after the game in L.A., and he had a red raspberry-looking mark under his left eye. He was walking slowly and definitely had a disappointed look on his face when talking to teammate Mikko Koivu.
Replays show that Granlund's head smacked right into Kings forward Jarret Stoll's left shoulder as Granlund got the worst of a check he tried to make.
Granlund, who has a history of concussions, missed 13 of 14 games with a concussion earlier this season after taking three hard hits in a six-game stretch from Toronto's Nazem Kadri, Ottawa's Marc Methot and Phoenix's Connor Murphy (actually, similarly, Granlund tried to initiate this check and got the worst of it when Murphy protected himself).
The one game Granlund played in that stretch, he lasted 29 seconds, so that was basically a missed game.
The Wild struggled without Granlund. In that 14-game stretch, Minnesota went 6-7-1 with 23 goals. But, remember, this is a Wild team that survived with Koivu, Zach Parise, Jared Spurgeon and Josh Harding out at the same time, so it has proven before that it is, dare I say, resilient (I actually hate that term in sports, so I may as well use it).
No doubt Yeo gives the old day-to-day line with Granlund, but we'll try to find out more after today's 1:30 p.m. practice in Chicago. Obviously, if it's a concussion, there's just no way to accurately give a timetable, so it would be truthfully day-to-day. These head injuries with Granlund are becoming a true concern. Remember, he came to the NHL with a history of them.
I never saw Nino Niederreiter after the L.A. game, but word yesterday was it's not supposed to be serious and he's considered questionable for Thursday's game. I'll let you know on Twitter in three hours if Niederreiter indeed practices. If he doesn't and can't play Thursday, the Wild has Dany Heatley waiting in the wings. The Wild is 2-0 without Heatley, incidentally.
Christian Folin, signed out of UMass-Lowell Monday, will practice for the first time today. He is eligible to play in any of the remaining six regular-season games (not playoff eligible). I cannot imagine Yeo plays him until he gets some practice time under his belt and only if there comes a point where maybe the Wild's locked into that top wildcard spot later next week.
Who knows if the Wild will ever get that breathing room. Dallas took over the second wildcard spot last night, has a game in hand and a cupcake schedule the rest of the season. The Stars are playing outstanding right now and just annihilating teams. Phoenix, which could be in trouble, lost in a shootout last night to Winnipeg, fell to ninth and plays in L.A. tonight.
Both teams are four back of Minnesota, which just further displays how gigantic the Wild's comeback wins at Detroit, Phoenix and Los Angeles were.
Yeo's in a tricky spot with Folin. I'm always fascinated when a team is still in a playoff race and then parachutes a rookie into the locker room. Chicago's done that with Teuvo Teravainen and Matt Carey and has lost three in a row. I think the smartest thing to do is just practice Folin and play him the last game or two if the Wild's locked and the team wants to rest guys like Ryan Suter or Jared Spurgeon.
Speaking of D, it'll be interesting to see if the Wild plays Jon Blum against Chicago. The Wild's won two in a row and got solid play from its blue line. But Keith Ballard could be ready to return. If Ballard returns, one would think it would be for Blum. If that were the case, I'd think Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin become a pair again and Ballard gets paired with Nate Prosser.
I'll be back later after practice to update the blog, but follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/russostrib for real-time updates later.
Afternoon from the friendly sky, where I'm on a short flight from Phoenix to L.A., where the ground has been shaken lately.
Wish me luck.
I wrote a follow for Monday's paper on the Wild's player-only team meeting Friday. This is a real neat story. I usually kind of ignore team meetings, but this was not your typical one. The story behind what Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter is real cool and may give you a better appreciation of the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes on with teams and a better respect level for the Wild's leadership group.
So check that out (it'll be on the web later this evening).
Wild practiced in Glendale this afternoon after its big win last night at Phoenix. Heck of a comeback victory over the Coyotes, holding them to no shots in the first 18:04 of the third period, including a shotless carryover from the second that lasted 24 minutes, 28 seconds.
Now, it must continue. Minnesota's not out of the woods yet and face a formidable opponent Monday night at Staples Center. The L.A. Kings, the best defensive team in the West and second-best in the NHL, has won six in a row and 14 of their past 17.
At today's practice, coach Mike Yeo went with the lines that pretty much took over Saturday's game in Phoenix.
Parise-Koivu-Coyle (By the way, I thought Coyle had another terrific game)
Veilleux (whom I also thought brought some great shifts)-Haula-Niederreiter (who's struggling)
Ilya Bryzgalov is expected to get his second consecutive start.
Defenseman Keith Ballard (groin) practiced but looks like he won't yet play.
Dany Heatley looks like he'll be scratched for a second straight game.
I will be on KFAN with LaVelle E. Neal The Third at 10:20 a.m. CT Monday.
Good early evening from the X, where I just completed a feature on defenseman Jon Blum for Wednesday’s paper. Please definitely give this one a read. It’s pretty gripping. Get used to seeing Blum with Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard injured right now. He certainly played a great game in Detroit this past weekend.
The Wild held an optional practice this morning at the X. Eight of the big-minute guys – five top-6 forwards except Charlie Coyle, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Cooke – didn’t practice.
Coach Mike Yeo opted for an optional despite yesterday’s off-day based on the team just completing five games in seven nights and the four games in six nights about to come up.
“We deemed this the one opportunity to try to put a little extra back in the tank and get ready for this final push,” Yeo said.
Yeo loved the Wild’s game in Detroit on Sunday, especially because coaches have been preaching that the way to score goals this time of year is to get pucks and bodies to the net.
Important game coming up against a desperate Vancouver opponent on Wednesday (6:30 p.m.). On Thursday in St. Louis, the Wild begins a four-game trip to the Blues, Phoenix, L.A., and Chicago.
Entering tonight’s action, the Wild is five points up on Phoenix and six up on Dallas. The Coyotes play in Pittsburgh and just lost Mike Smith with a knee injury. The goalie’s listed day-to-day, so that could prove big. The Stars are in Chicago.
Yeo wouldn’t say which goalie is starting against the Canucks. I’d think it’d be Darcy Kuemper, especially when one considers how awesome he was in Vancouver during that 7-round shootout win last month.
That would leave Ilya Bryzgalov to likely start in St. Louis. The Wild has lost eight in a row against the Blues and could probably use new blood in net in St. Louis, where it rarely puts up a fight.
If Kuemper is going to be the Wild’s No. 1 down the stretch and into the playoffs (Yeo said he wants to ride one goalie in the postseason), I’d give him the Coyotes game. That’ll be like a playoff game when you consider how critical that game is in the standings. So what better way to see if Kuemper can handle the pressure than to throw him into such a big game?
And we know Kuemper was tremendous in L.A. back in January, so I’d think you’d want to start him there, too. That Jan. 7 game in L.A. set in motion Kuemper taking over the Wild’s No. 1 reins.
Yeo said today that he’s not going to say these games will serve in determining the Wild’s No. 1 goalie if it makes the playoffs, but he said there’s no question the Wild will use these next 10 “days” to sort things out.
Kuemper’s game hasn’t been as strong as it was before the trade deadline. He has allowed three or more goals in four of his past six starts, but Yeo said he doesn’t think Kuemper is that far off from his “A” game.
As for Bryzgalov, who is 2-0-2, Yeo said, “He’s got experience being deep in the playoffs, which can be a real positive. Kuemps and his personality and his situation as far as being part of our future is going to play into it. He shows signs of being a guy that could be not only a good goalie, but a really good goalie in the playoffs because of his mental makeup, because of how he’s handled pressure, because how he’s been able to stay focused and stay in the short term and not get too wrapped up in what’s happened.”
Talk to you Wednesday. I’ll be on KFAN starting at 9:55 a.m. and I’ll be on Fox Sports North during the pregame show Wednesday and first intermission.
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