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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Wild lineup changes tonight vs. Jonathan Bernier and the defending Cup champs

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: April 23, 2013 - 12:22 PM

Biggest game of the season thus far when the Wild hosts the red-hot Los Angeles Kings tonight at Xcel Energy Center.

Why was the Calgary loss so big? Because if the Wild loses tonight, it could very likely face two must-wins Friday and Saturday vs. Edmonton and at Colorado.

Now the Wild, winless in five at home, faces a very important game against the defending Cup champs, a team that is 9-2-3 in its past 14 and 4-0-1 in its past five. Its best players are on fire -- Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, its power play has connected in eight straight games, its penalty kill is 16 for its last 16 and in a 48 for 53 stretch.

Jonathan Bernier, who in 13 games has the second-lowest goals against average in the NHL (1.86), gets the start for No. 1 Jonathan Quick. Bernier is 9-2-1 with a .922 save percentage.

Against Minnesota, Bernier is 3-0-2 with an 0.97 goals against average and .960 save percentage. Oh, and three of his six career shutouts are against the Wild.

Tough game for the Wild, to say the least. Win tonight, and the tension lightens during the next two off-days before the Oilers come to town.

First the Wild lineup, and then below Mike Yeo's rationale for them: Cal Clutterbuck will move up to the second line, Jake Dowell will play left wing on the fourth line, Zenon Konopka is ready to return and will center that fourth line, Stephane Veilleux is scratched, Justin Falk gets in and plays for Brett Clark.

That means:

Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle

Clutterbuck-Matt Cullen-Devin Setoguchi

Pierre-Marc Bouchard-Kyle Brodziak-Jason Pominville

Dowell-Konopka-Torrey Mitchell

Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin

Clayton Stoner-Jared Spurgeon

Justin Falk-Tom Gilbert

Niklas Backstrom

1. Coach Mike Yeo wants the Wild to be harder to play against. When the Wild was flying high for the month of March, one overshadowed reason was because the Mike Rupp-Konopka-Mitchell line had a a clear identity most nights -- could take defensive zone faceoffs because Konopka is so good at em, created momentum by playing in the offensive zone, played physical.

Without Rupp and Konopka, the Wild's lost that. So even with one practice, Yeo wants to get Konopka back in. Dowell, who can play wing or center, will play left wing.

On Dowell, Yeo said, "A veteran guy, he knows what his role is, he's going to go in straight lines, he's going to finish checks and he's going to be responsible defensively. ... He's a guy that's very well respected within our locker room (meaning buddies with some of the Houston guys, and of course former Badgers Tom Gilbert and Ryan Suter). Obviously, Jake Dowell's not Mike Rupp. But he's going to go up and down his wing and chip pucks ahead and be tough to play against by finishing checks and managing the puck the right way. Let's get back to an identity with that line -- a line that is tough to play against."

On his game, Dowell said, "I'm not out here to do anything crazy. I'm not a guy that has a lot of sexy numbers. I have a handful of points. I play hard and I do a lot of things that maybe go unnoticed to the untrained eye. It's something that teammates and coaches and management respect, and that's what I hope to bring."

On getting the goal during such an important stretch: "Who wouldn't want to be in this game? This is a huge game for the team. I'm excited and just hope to bring everything I can."

Dowell's got his playoff beard going already due to Houston opening a five-game series with Grand Rapids on Friday. Maybe that's a good omen for the Wild? "I hope so. ... If it works, I'll keep it. If not, I guess I'll have to shave it."

I've gotten a lot of tweets about why not Justin Fontaine, who is having a heck of a season for Houston. Basically, it comes down to role, as Yeo said above. Fontaine is a scorer. The Wild wants to have veteran experience (Dowell's played 154 NHL games and is 28 years old) and a hard-nosed guy that can bring that element to the fourth line. That's not Fontaine's game. Also, and nobody's said that to me, but I'm also guessing that having Fontaine make his NHL debut in this tense situation wouldn't be the fairest position to the kid.

2. Veilleux is obviously disappointed. He was so wound up, he probably would have gone through the end boards his first shift. I think Veilleux will have to be reassigned now with Konopka back. Both Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker were up on emergency recall status. That means Dowell and Veilleux took that status. With Konopka back, I think Veilleux has to go. By the way, Veilleux's wife and infant son had been living in St. Paul, not Houston, so he just saw his son in person and not on Skype for the first time in 2 1/2 months.

3. Yeo's decision to move Clutterbuck to the line with Cullen or Setoguchi rather than Bouchard or Pominville: Cue Yeo, "It's a guy, when he's playing well, is hard on the forecheck, he's separating guys from pucks, creating turnovers, which benefits Cully and Seto and their counterattack speed. But more than anything else, what we should be looking for is somebody who's going to get to the middle of the ice, somebody who's going to get to the net. That line, it's been too perimeter."

Clutterbuck has not had a good season offensively. Three goals and eight points in 39 games, none in the last 18 games and one since Feb. 9. He's been firing hide and wide often or more disconcertingly not finishing in real big situations, like the half open net last game and that one on the last homestand where he just couldn't get his stick on the puck sitting along the goal line.

"It's been a tough year in the sense that I've had some opportunities to score and I'm just going through one of those stretches," Clutterbuck said. "You go through a period of time where the team's winning and you're in the playoffs, and you've got your mind on other things. You start to think about it maybe a little more when the team loses a couple games. Obviously you want to help out. But I can't let that get me off or away from what I do well."

On the mindset of the team after yesterday's meeting: "We've got a great opportunity. This time of year we just don't have these conversations normally (meaning, the Wild's usually out of it by now in past seasons). I think we've got to remove ourselves from the negativity surrounding it all and realize we have a great chance. We're still in control."

4. Clark didn't see a shift after Calgary's second goal the other night, so Falk playing was expected. Yeo said right-shot D Tom Gilbert, aside from last game, has improved his game recently, so that's why right-shot D Nate Prosser won't play.

5. I talked to Rupp and he has been skating on a bad left knee since his fight in Colorado last month. He's been managing it, but it got worse and worse "until I couldn't do anything on it." He said he is on a time window now where he is going on the ice more and more each day. Yesterday it was 20 minutes, today it was 30, although he's not going hard.

"Each day I'm going a little longer," said Rupp. "But it's frustrating right now, that's for sure."

They really need Rupp back. He was acquired Feb. 5. The Wild's turnaround began Feb. 9 (17-6-1 from Feb. 9 vs. Nashville to March 30 vs. Los Angeles). No coincidence, in my opinion. Rupp was a huge addition and now a big loss.

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