Afternoon from Vancouver, where the sun's finally coming out predictably just as I sit at my laptop for the rest of the afternoon.
Roberto Luongo vs. Niklas Backstrom tonight as the Wild faces a massive test.
The Canucks are the best and deepest team in the NHL, are coming off a 5-0 road trip in which the top line of the Sedin Twins and Alex Burrows combined for 22 points and are at the top in virtually every important team category in the NHL. Luongo's been great, Ryan Kesler's near the top in goal scoring, their third and fourth lines are deep, their blue line has been good even without Kevin Bieksa (broke foot blocking Nick Schultz's shot in prior meeting) and Alex Edler.
But the Wild, coming off two dismal 4-0 losses that put a world of hurt on its playoff chances, will be getting some significant bodies back.
Cal Clutterbuck declared himself ready to return from a concussion after missing the past four games and Clayton Stoner said he's ready to return from missing three games with abdominal issues.
The big question mark right now is Mikko Koivu. The Wild's captain, head coach Todd Richards and medical trainer Don Fuller had a long talk on the bench after the morning skate. Koivu and Richards said he's a gametime decision. Koivu said "we'll see" when asked if he'd skate warmups. Richards said he will skate warmups.
Richards said they were just trying to map out a plan on the bench and "it's real, real close" to Koivu returning.
I've got to think he's in. It could do more harm than good if Koivu skates warmups and then there's all of a sudden a dejection because Koivu's jersey comes off the hanger.
The guys who really need him back are Andrew Brunette and Antti Miettinen.
Brunette's scored one goal in the past 15 games and in the 11 games Koivu's missed, he has one goal and two assists. Miettinen's got no goals and four assists in the past 14 games and no goals and three assists in the 11 games Koivu's been out (the three assists coming in one game at Anaheim).
For Brunette to be good, the Wild's got to get the puck consistently behind the net on a good forecheck. Otherwise, he's just not effective. Without Koivu, Richards has not been able to find a center to help make Koivu's linemates productive. He's used Warren Peters, Matt Cullen, John Madden and Eric Nystrom. In the first game without Koivu, Kyle Brodziak played there. There's a comfort with Koivu, and the Wild needs to get Brunette and Miettinen going.
It'll be interesting to see Koivu's conditioning initially and whether he has the strength to take faceoffs. Initially, Richards may have to use another center on the line for draws.
If Koivu plays, I think Peters is scratched. If Koivu and Clutterbuck play, I'd think Peters and Chuck Kobasew or Brad Staubitz come out.
With Stoner back in, Marco Scandella obviously comes out.
-- Josh Harding was cleared to drop to his butterfly, and he skated with his team at the tail end of the skate today for the first time this season. He was elated afterward. Still in limbo though. First, he's far from being able to play, but he's not able to go to Houston and obviously he won't be playing here as long as Backstrom and Jose Theodore are healthy.
Harding will become an unrestricted free agent this summer and will almost certain have to move on.
-- The Wild signed University of Massachusetts-Lowell forward Scott Campbell to an AHL amateur tryout with the Houston Aeros. This could be the precursor to eventually signing Campbell to an NHL deal. He is eligible for the Aeros' playoffs. The Wild's interested in a number of college free agents again and should be signing a handful as college seasons end. The big guys they're interested on are on teams that should be playing for awhile. The big dog the Wild would love to sign is Merrimack's Stephane Da Costa.
Report from the GM's Meeting is here. The most interesting this is the concussion protocol being proposed. I'll write about this in my Sunday column this week. Clutterbuck and Miettinen were good on the subject, and as always, Vancouver's Keith Ballard had some very thoughtful comments to make on the subject.