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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Posts about Wild pregame skate

Spurgeon out again tonight vs. Dallas; Wild can get into top-8 with win; Kuemper trying to stay sharp

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 22, 2015 - 1:06 PM

Wild vs. the Dallas Stars tonight. The game is on NBC Sports Network with TSN’s Gord Miller on the call with … … … great Minnesotan Bret Hedican, who won a Cup with Carolina and but is best known as, of course, a former Florida Panther.

“Hedi” was involved in two big Florida trades, coming to the Panthers in the Pavel Bure blockbuster and eventually being traded to the Canes in the Sandis Ozolinsh deal.

Devan Dubnyk vs. Jhonas Enroth tonight. Remember, the Dubnyk era (I wrote a profile on Dubnyk in today’s paper here, and I left a lot of the cutting room floor for later stories) began Jan. 15 in Buffalo with a 7-0 win against Enroth.

The Wild is 12-2-2 since. Ales Hemsky, who typically stinks against the Wild dating to his Edmonton days, may be out tonight. Brendan Ranford had been recalled if Hemsky can’t play. If Hemsky can, Ranford will probably be reassigned.

Wild has won four straight at home against Dallas, is 3-1 against Dallas this year but last got pounded 7-1 there.

For the first time since the Wild’s 10-1-1 post-All-Star break run began, there’s no reason for you or the Wild to scoreboard watch tonight.

If the Wild wins, it’s at least temporarily inside the top-8 for the first time since Nov. 24 without the need of somebody losing.

Coach Mike Yeo said the Wild is aware of the standings, but just “because we’re closer now doesn’t mean we should change our approach.” He said the Wild has done a good job “not being clouded with outside noise” and the standings and he knows the Stars, who are four points behind Minnesota, will be a very desperate hockey team tonight.

They lost 7-6 in overtime last night against Detroit.

The Wild is 5-1-1 since the injuries to Jason Zucker and Ryan Carter (if you include the Vancouver game that they were hurt in during the first period).

No changes to the Wild lineup. The Wild will again be without Jared Spurgeon tonight, who remains day-to-day with what sounds like concussion-like symptoms. So same D tonight: Suter-Brodin; Scandella-Dumba; Prosser-Folin.

Coach Mike Yeo cautioned Dumba after his terrific game in his hometown of Calgary (he had 30 friends and family members there) that often kids take a step back the following game, so Yeo was very pleased with the 20 minutes Dumba played in Edmonton. Same with Folin, who played 16:55 and mostly a necessary regular shift because Marco Scandella missed the second half of the first period to have a wound closed after having his ankle stepped on.

Yeo said of missing Spurgeon, “It’s a difficult player to replace in your lineup. We’re losing a valuable player and a guy that provides a lot to our group in many different roles,” but Yeo said you need guys to step up and the two rooks are certainly doing that.

Yeo said Dumba is a “kid who wants more and he recognized the opportunity with Spurg being out of the lineup and he had himself ready to play the right way.”

Dumba has a lot of confidence in his overall game, not just offensively. He said, “That’s when I play my best hockey when I can be trusted and relied on and can make plays out there. It’s easy playing on a team that’s playing with so much confidence and trust in each other. We have something really good going on right now, and hopefully we keep building on that.”

Folin said he feels in great shape right now and he said that’s a testament to the work assistants Darryl Sydor, Andrew Brunette and Darby Hendrickson put him through while he was a healthy scratch six straight games. He felt in Edmonton he carried the momentum from playing four games in Iowa into that game.

Yeo loves Folin’s ability to defend, execute through the neutral zone and get shots through from the blue line like he did on Justin Fontaine’s first goal in Edmonton.

Yeo said right now they’re going day-to-day with the goaltending.

GM Chuck Fletcher told me the Wild won’t be allowed to get Darcy Kuemper to Iowa on another conditioning stint to get some action before he starts next, so he’ll just have to play.

Yeo talked to him today and told him that especially with not a lot of practice days, “it’s increasingly important for him how he handles these pregame skates, how he handles the extra work when he goes on earlier or after practice. Bob Mason is doing a good job with both those guys (Niklas Backstrom). We have to make sure we’re keeping them sharp. It’s not just the repetition. It’s the habits. Quite often in the pregame spot, you don’t have the urgency you would in a practice.

“He’s mindful of it right now, and we’re just trying to stay on him about it.”

Yeo said there is no plan as to when Kuemper will make his first NHL start since Jan. 6. “We’re going day by day,” Yeo said. The Wild has four sets of back-to-backs next month, so Kuemper will be needed at some point. But as of now, Dubnyk will make his 17th consecutive start tonight.

Christian Folin recalled, will play for injured Jared Spurgeon tonight in Edmonton

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 20, 2015 - 2:00 PM

Wild at Edmonton Oilers tonight at the Rex, which isn’t as cool as the X, but they do sell Starbucks in the concessions area here and have the best press box sightlines in the NHL.

Good day from Edmonton, where I’m a little sore from my curling match last night. I was on captain Anthony Lapanta’s team, and we lost by one to captain Mike Greenlay’s team after Greenhorn himself hit an amazing final shot to knock us out of the house.

This may shock you, but I was the worst curler, and the most embarrassing-looking one. And probably the sorest one today. I have a new appreciation of the curling, that’s for sure. It’s not just shuffleboard on ice.

I’ll be on KFAN with Dan the Man Barreiro at 3:55 p.m. CT.

Tonight’s Wild game is on FSN++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++, so don’t ask again. smiley

Devan Dubnyk vs. Ben Scrivens tonight, so don’t ask again. kiss

With defenseman Jared Spurgeon day-to-day with what I believe are concussion-like symptoms (Yeo confirmed to me there was no broken jaw as some feared), rookie defenseman Christian Folin was recalled from AHL Iowa. He’ll play on the right of Nate Prosser (see feature I wrote on Prosser and his propensity to get demolished in games here) tonight and rookie Matt Dumba, who had elevated responsibilities when Spurgeon went down and responded by having what coach Mike Yeo called his best game as a pro in Calgary) will move up and play with Marco Scandella.

Folin was sent to Iowa on Feb. 12 because he was going to be scratched for a seventh consecutive game. With few practices because of the suddenly condensed schedule, the Wild felt it was important for him to go down and play after playing once in three weeks (including the All-Star break).

Folin was admittedly rusty in Iowa and was minus-8 in four games for lousy Iowa. His last NHL game was at Edmonton on Jan. 27, a game that precipitated his healthy scratch two days later in Calgary and the subsequent string of scratches because the Wild got on a tear.

“It was a long break for me, especially with the All-Star break, too,” Folin said. “Not playing for six games is tough. In the back of my head, I wanted to play games and it was good I could go down there and play some games. It was helpful. The first game wasn’t great, but I think I kept building my game up to where it was before I got scratched a few times.”

Stu Bickel was reassigned to make room for Folin.

On Dumba’s elevation, Yeo said, “For young players coming off a real good game, I think sometimes that’s the challenge for these guys. How do you respond to that? Are you able to come back and remember the things that you did to make you play well or do you just come back into the game with an assumption that it’s going to go the same way? So that’ll be a good test for him. I think he should be excited for the opportunity, a little bit more ice time, a little bit more role and responsibility. If he handles it the right way in terms of managing the game and looking for those opportunities to make those great games that like he scored that goal [in Calgary] but also an understanding that every play doesn’t have to be a home run, then he should be fine.”

Tonight’s lines:

Niederreiter-Koivu-Pominville

Parise-Granlund-Fontaine

Vanek-Coyle-Schroeder

Veilleux-Haula-Brodziak

Suter-Brodin

Scandella-Dumba

Prosser-Folin

Yeo reminds me of a school teacher these days that has to teach the same lesson from period to period. He has gotten real good at answering questions about Devan Dubnyk and the talking points are the same yet evolve. We’re on kind of the Devan Dubnyk tour for the second time in three weeks. He played junior hockey in BC, he’s a Calgary native and he played in Edmonton, so he has been front-page material in every city and in the national papers in Canada.

He’ll be front-page material in Sunday’s Star Tribune as I profile him again.

Kyle Brodziak will play his 600th game tonight against the franchise that it all started for him. Quite an accomplishment if you do the math because this is really his eighth full season. In six years with the Wild, he has missed three games due to injury (one) or illness (two).

Brodziak is in the final year of his contract. He knows he could be trade bait by the March 2 deadline, although with the Wild fighting for a playoff spot, GM Chuck Fletcher may not want to trade a penalty killer and centerman (he has been mostly playing wing though the past few weeks).

“Every day you think about it,” Brodziak said. “I don’t know really what’s going to happen. I’ve had a long time to think about it. Whatever happens, I just have to be ready for it. If nothing happens, then I’ll be ready to stay here and help out as much as I can.”

Last year, the Wild came to Edmonton and not long after acquired Ilya Bryzgalov. The Wild needs a defenseman and rental Jeff Petry is on the block. He’s out tonight with a rib problem, but he’s having a decent season. Fletcher was seen chatting with Oilers GM Craig MacTavish this morning.

Problem with Petry is he’s a right-shot D and the Wild’s biggest need is left-shot, although Prosser has been doing a solid job at left D the past 11 games (9-1-1, even or plus in all 11 games).

Talk to ya later.

Michael Keranen NHL debut up in the air tonight in Calgary

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 18, 2015 - 3:49 PM

Wild and Calgary Flames tonight. Kind of a big game as the Wild, which is strangely the favorite tonight (Vegas knows all?), looks to rebound from Monday’s one-goal loss in Vancouver.

The Flames are 10-16-1 when trailing after two periods. The 10 wins are a team record and two off the NHL record. As impressive as those comebacks are, the 27 times they have been trailing after two periods are only one fewer than Edmonton and Buffalo.

So, the Wild, which held onto a 1-0 lead in Calgary on Jan. 29 thanks largely to Calgary native Devan Dubnyk’s third-period brilliance, would love to build itself an early lead again tonight to force the Flames to chase.

Even coach Mike Yeo joked when asked about the comebacks, “I’d like to see if they can try to come back again.”

The Wild has outscored its opponents 18-5 in Dubnyk’s 14 first periods as the Wild goalie. He’ll make his 15th consecutive start tonight. The Wild is 10-2-2 since his Jan. 14 acquisition. I’m planning to do a big profile on him for Sunday’s paper, by the way. I’ve been gathering yarn for awhile.

Tonight: I don’t know line combinations, I don’t even know the full lineup, and we won’t until prior to the game, so follow me on Twitter by clicking this link.

Michael Keranen was recalled for the first time this season (see previous blog), but Yeo was noncommittal if he’ll alter the lineup and give Keranen his NHL debut if winger Thomas Vanek can play.

Vanek, who has been dealing with a lower-body injury for some time, aggravated the injury Monday in Vancouver. But he took part in this morning’s skate, lasted the entire skate and said the injury felt better and better through the skate.

“”Hopefully it’ll stay that way this afternoon. I’m sure I’ll have a chat with [Yeo] and see what to do for tonight,” said Vanek, the Wild’s third-leading scorer.

Vanek said, “The way I look at it, if I can deal with the pain and still contribute, then I’ll play. But if I feel I can’t help the team, I think it’s better if a different guy plays.”

One thing that could affect Yeo’s decision to play Keranen is the Wild shuttled him in from Charlotte (Iowa played there tonight) this morning instead of late yesterday for some reason, and Keranen had not arrived as of the end of the morning skate.

So if Keranen debuts, he would have to do so without a morning skate to get acclimated and after traveling from the wee hours of this morning for much of the day.

Still, Yeo said he didn’t want to say for sure yet if Keranen wouldn’t play if Vanek does play. “We have to make sure Thomas is 100 percent before we put him in the lineup tonight. If he were not to play, then that leaves a lot of things up in the air,” Yeo said.

Yeo said most of the things Jim Mill said on the previous blog, that Keranen is smart and “very crafty when he does get the puck,” but he needed to learn the North American game, how to play in more confined quarters and how to play well without the puck.

Yeo said all of the Wild’s youngsters in Iowa must realize that while they might have skill to be plugged into a top-6 role in Minnesota if ever needed, where they help their likelihood of contributing and getting recalled is if the team has trust they can play in any role.

Mikael Granlund is excited for his buddy. Keranen and Granlund were in the Finnish Army together, played against each other in the SM-Liiga and trained together last summer.


“I’m happy for him that he finally got up here,” said Granlund.

Keranen was recalled over Tyler Graovac because the Wild needs a winger, not a center, but Mill said, “Tyler is a real young kid in the middle of his second year and having success. We’ve got to be careful with this kid’s development. We can’t have him up and down on a yo yo right now. In fact, I had a conversation with him the other day. Not that he needed an explanation because he’s that good of a kid, but I wanted him to understand why he may see guys like Stephane Veilleux and Brett Sutter and Keranen going up over him.”

Besides the fact it often has to do with the role the Wild needs (scorer vs. checker or penalty killer) and position (center vs. wing and D), Mill told him that “his development has gone very, very well the last few years. Obviously we weren’t good, but there were times at the end of last year where he was the best player on the ice. As a first-year player, that was a good sign and this year that has continued and we want him playing big minutes and having a lot of responsibilities to generate offense and things like that.”

That’s it for me. Yeo praised the job Calgary native Matt Dumba has been doing lately.

I also had a real good conversation today with Nate Prosser about how often he gets annihilated on checks. It was real interesting, colorful stuff, and (subject to change) I’ll be writing about that for Friday’s paper. I’ve also got a bunch of other interesting stuff in the can you’ll be reading about in the coming days.

Big game tonight. Talk later. I've got a lot of work to do this afternoon, like writing and practicing for tomorrow night's, uh, media curling event in Edmonton.

I'm about to google the rules. Can I curl in slacks and loafers?

Maybe I'll live tweet!!!!

Wild recalls Finnish scorer Michael Keranen for likely NHL debut

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 18, 2015 - 10:54 AM

UPDATED

The Wild is giving 25-year-old skilled winger Michael Keranen, one of the Finnish Elite League's top scorers a season ago, a shot.

With Thomas Vanek questionable to play tonight against the Calgary Flames, Iowa's second-leading scorer was recalled by the Wild this morning to likely make his NHL debut. He would be the second Wild player to make his NHL debut this season (Tyler Graovac). Keranen's a winger, Graovac a center, and the Wild needs a winger if Vanek is hurt.

"[Keranen's] earned this opportunity," director of minor-league operations Jim Mill said by phone from Charlotte, where the Iowa Wild faces the Checkers tonight.

Keranen is second behind Graovac in Iowa scoring with 32 points (9 goals) in 52 games and a team-leading 23 assists. He is minus-7 and second on the team with 113 shots.

Keranen had 17 goals and 35 assists for Ilves Tampere in Finland's Elite League last season. The 6-1, 175-pounder tied for the Elite League lead in scoring with 52 points and won the Golden Helmet Award as the league's best player. Keranen had 13 goals in 2012-13 for Ilves, a team he has played for during the past four seasons. He's a left-handed shooter and was signed as a European free agent last June.

He flashed skill in training camp, assisting on two goals in an exhibition win against Winnipeg, but the Wild sent him to the minors to adjust to the North American pro game. In camp, he was getting used to the Wild's system defensively, had a tendency to overpass and needed to improve in the dirty areas and with his strength on the puck. That has by all accounts also been a work in progress during his first year pro in Iowa.

But there's no denying Keranen's skill and speed, and after Monday's loss in Vancouver, the Wild's clearly looking for an influx of skill.

"He’s a smart hockey player," Mill said. "He thinks the game real well and he’s had to adjust to the smaller ice surface, which he’s done and done well.

"I think the pace of game, because he doesn’t have as much room, that’s where he’s had to adapt and he has. He’s been very, very good for us down here for, geez, a month or two. He was always fine, but his game has gotten better specifically over the last month."

Keranen was born in Stockholm, Sweden, but grew up in Finland and has represented Finland in international events.

The Wild's morning skate is at 11:30 a.m. Mountain Time. We'll see then if the lineup tonight includes Vanek and Keranen is replacing somebody else or if Keranen plays for Vanek. Coach Mike Yeo wasn't very convincing yesterday when he said he expected Vanek to play. And Vanek has been walking with a visible limp the last little while and has been clearly playing through a lower-body injury lately.

Strength of schedules of the Wild and contending teams

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 16, 2015 - 2:38 PM

UPDATED

Morning from beautiful, sunny Vancouver. The Wild, 10-1-2 in its past 13, has beaten the Canucks twice in the past eight days and is 6-1 against Vancouver in seven meetings since March 10, 2013, including three straight wins in Vancouver.

Alex Edler is out for Vancouver. Banged-up Chris Tanev is playing and will be on top pair with Dan Hamhuis. Luca Sbisa moves to the left side and Yannick Weber comes back in for an all-Swiss pair.

Eddie Lack starting because Ryan Miller stinks vs. the Wild. smiley

Same Wild lineup tonight. Coach Mike Yeo thoughts about playing Stu Bickel up front, although it doesn't like for long. That may sound outlandish to some, but after the Canucks ran around in St. Paul last week and injured Jason Zucker, Ryan Carter and took a run at Zach Parise, it was something Yeo is at least considered.

In the end, he decided why change a lineup that is 8-0-1 since the All-Star break and is a point from establishing a new franchise-record point streak of 11 games (8-0-2 right now)? Defenseman Matt Dumba has struggled the past two games, but the Wild is 22-8-1 with him in the lineup and Yeo typically likes Bickel up front more than on the back end. And up front, Stephane Veilleux was good the other night on the Wild's penalty kill, which is 25 for 25 since the All-Star break, so why take him out when Veilleux is needed in a PK role with Zucker, Carter and Matt Cooke hurt?

Yeo said he felt the Wild needed four lines that could play regular shifts tonight, and the three guys that have been playing on the fourth line -- Veilleux, Erik Haula and Kyle Brodziak -- have been a huge part of Minnesota's penalty kill "and quite frankly, nobody deserves to come out."

"Listen, we've got to be ready for them to play a physical game again," Yeo said. "What I'd really like to see is us to combat that with our power play the way we did [with two power-play goals last Monday]. I thought that was instrumental in us getting that win. If they want to run around, then hopefully we can combat that with other ways as far as execution and creating. But we've got to be ready to compete in our own way. We have to be ready to finish checks, to take hits to make plays and we have to make sure that we're strong in our one-on-one battles and if we do that, then we like our squad."

Jordan Schroeder, a Canucks first-round pick who scored his first goal with the Wild at home against Vancouver, makes his first trip back.

"It's exciting. This is where my pro career started. It's fun to be back here, but it's just another game that we have to win," Schroeder said.

I will be on Fox Sports North tonight during the pregame show and first intermission.

Yesterday on my plane ride out here, I put together a strength of schedule chart for the Wild and all the teams it's contending for a playoff spot with. The category, "Games vs. current playoff teams," is exactly that. If the top-8 in the West or East change in the coming days, that number listed for each team will be inaccurate afterward.

San Jose is in danger of falling out of the top 3 in the Pacific (top 3 in each division is essentially 1 through 6 and playoff locks), so suddenly the Sharks, Canucks, Flames and Kings are all jockeying with each other.

Just root for no 3-point games the rest of the way when these teams play. As I said to somebody the other night, just because the Wild didn't move into the top-8 didn't make Calgary beating Vancouver a bad thing at all. What it did was kept Vancouver closer to the pack that the Wild is contending against.

Tonight, the Wild will move into the top-8 tonight if it beats Vancouver in regulation AND Calgary loses to Boston in regulation. If that happens, the Wild would be tied in points (65) with Vancouver and Calgary but get into the top-8 because the Flames have played one more game.

The Jets are five up on the Wild for the first wildcard spot. They have still played three more games than Minnesota, so the Wild's still in a good spot if it keeps winning. But Winnipeg gets lowly Edmonton at home tonight.

I included regulation/overtime wins in the chart because that is the first tiebreaker after 82 games.

San Jose (66 points, 2nd in Pacific)

Games left: 24

Home: 11

Away: 13

Games vs. current playoff team: 13

Back-to-Backs: 3

Regulation/overtime wins: 27

Note: Floundering of late. 5 of final 6 games vs. Colorado, Arizona, Dallas and Edmonton

Vancouver (65 points, 3rd in Pacific)

Games left: 27

Home: 14

Away: 13

Games vs. current playoff team: 12

Back-to-Backs: 3

Regulation/overtime wins: 29

Note: Pretty much a .500 team lately and their defense is starting to get beat up. Last 2 games vs. Arizona and Edmonton at home.

Winnipeg (68 points, 1st wildcard spot)

Games left: 24

Home: 13

Away: 11

Games vs. current playoff team: 15

Back-to-Backs: 2

Regulation/overtime wins: 24

Note: Arguably the easiest schedule the rest of the way, but they still have four games against St. Louis.

Calgary (65 points, 2nd wildcard spot)

Games left: 26

Home: 12

Away: 14

Games vs. current playoff team: 11

Back-to-Backs: 4

Regulation/overtime wins: 28

Note: Pretty easy schedule and have a five-game homestand in the middle of the next month, including four current non-playoff teams.

Wild (63 points, 9th)

Games left: 27

Home: 13

Away: 14

Games vs. current playoff team: 17

Back-to-Backs: 5

Regulation/overtime wins: 26

Note: The Wild’s final 6 games and 8 of last 9 are against playoff teams, including a road trip to Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis. The Wild has lacked success in each of those cities, however, if those teams are locks with position just prior to the playoffs, could the Wild be facing teams in do-not-get-hurt-mode? Look for the Wild to try to add a scoring forward and defenseman before the March 2 trade deadline

Los Angeles (62 points, 10th)

Games left: 27

Home: 11

Away: 16

Games vs. current playoff team: 17

Back-to-Backs: 3

Regulation/overtime wins: 24

Note: Actively looking for a defenseman to replace suspended Slava Voynov. Lots of road games left. Despite the fact the Kings were so good on the road in last year’s playoffs, they’ve been fairly awful this year.

Dallas (60 points, 11th)

Games left: 26

Home: 12

Away: 14

Games vs. current playoff team: 19

Back-to-Backs: 4

Regulation/overtime wins: 24

Note: Tyler Seguin is out with a knee injury.

Colorado (57 points, 12th)

Games left: 26

Home: 13

Away: 13

Games vs. current playoff team: 15

Back-to-Backs: 5

Regulation/overtime wins: 16

Note: Avs are tied for the fourth-fewest ROW’s in the NHL. Only 32 of its 57 points have come via regulation/overtime wins.

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