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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Roberto Luongo to "exorcise that demon" at Xcel; Josh Harding injury-free after scare

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: December 17, 2013 - 12:51 PM

Good afternoon from the X, where the Wild and the detested, yet scorching hot Vancouver Canucks face off tonight at the X.

I’ll be on Fox Sports North during tonight’s Wild Live pregame show at 6:30 p.m. and the first intermission at around 7:40ish.

Josh Harding vs. Roberto Luongo tonight.

There was a scare in the morning skate when Harding took a high shot near his throat from rookie Erik Haula. Harding went down in pain and then skated to the bench and down the back tunnel. Harding thankfully emerged less than five minutes later.

Haula, set to play his eighth NHL game tonight, looked sickened and white as a ghost after his shot that stung the Wild’s MVP. Zenon Konopka cracked in the locker room afterward: “I’m pretty sure he wet his pants.”

It reminded me of Sept. 1999 when Pavel Bure, in his first practice back from reconstructive knee surgery, was crushed by teammate Chris Wells as he crossed the blue line. Ray Whitney said afterward, “I skated by the bench and said to the trainers, ‘Start packing his bags.’”

Here’s the kinda funny article. It’s one of my favorites I’ve ever written believe it or not. Mentions an assistant GM in there named Chuck Fletcher.

As I mentioned, Luongo gets the start for the Canuckleheads. He is 3-9-2 with a 3.56 goals-against average and .873 save percentage at the X, and that includes a 0-0 tie in his first-ever start at the X with Florida in 2000. Luongo has been pulled in his past three starts here and has just had such struggles here that former Van. coach Alain Vigneault didn't play him in Minnesota since Oct. 19, 2010. Luongo joked yesterday to ask AV if he was playing.

“He’s going to exorcise that demon, I guess, if that’s what everybody thinks this is,” Canucks coach John Tortorella said. “He’s a pro. He needs to play.”

Keith Ballard, Luongo’s former Canucks teammate, said, “He’s having a real good year. I don’t know why, whatever it is, why his numbers in this building aren’t closer to what they are in every other building. Maybe he lets a couple squeak by tonight. That’s OK with us.”

Ballard is playing his first game against the Canucks after three up and down years there resulted in a compliance buyout. I’ll have more about that in my notebook in Wednesday’s newspaper. He started the season well, had two injuries that sidelined him for 16 games when the league picked up pace and has struggled to rediscover his game since returning from nine out with broken ribs. In his past 10 games, he is minus-6. But he’s happy with his last few and is glad the Wild stuck with him when it could have replaced him with Nate Prosser or Matt Dumba when he was still with the team.

On tonight, Ballard said, “We need a win, we need two points. The standings are tight right now. We’re barely in eighth place right now and they’re a couple points ahead of is. It’s a huge game. Personally, I’m not looking at this as I need to come out [and show they] should have kept me. It’s more playing my role and my position and trying to execute well.
 

Matt Cooke will play his fifth game against the team he spent 10 years with. He has three goals and one assist in four games against the Canucks “I grew up there – good and bad.”

Cooke always says Mike Keenan turned him into the “bad guy” in Vancouver and he continued to play that way under Marc Crawford, who always gave him more rope to turn himself into a player. As he even says, why was he on the ice with 2.3 seconds left in Game 1 of the 2003 playoffs against the Wild to score that goal to force overtime before Trent Klatt’s winner? Because Crawford trusted him.

Then he moved onto to Washington, then Pittsburgh, where he further developed his game as a shutdown third-liner and penalty killer.

Mikael Granlund looked good in the skate today. Mike Yeo said he was flying and didn’t rule out a return Thursday in Pittsburgh. That will also be Yeo’s first game coaching there in the regular season (he coached an exhibition game there his first year in Minnesota). That’ll also be Cooke’s first return as a Wild winger.

I’ll have more on Granlund in Wednesday’s paper, as well.

Mike Rupp, Prosser and Justin Fontaine will be scratched. Same lines and D pairs as was the case in Colorado.

The Canucks have killed 20 straight power plays during their seven-game winning streak. Yeo was asked how the Wild goes after the PK.

“Hopefully we get a couple power plays,” Yeo joked, referring to the three or fewer power-plays in 15 of 16 games now. “The biggest thing is the one or two power plays we get every game, it’s tough to get into a rhythm.”

Yeo said the Wild can do a better job drawing more power plays by playing less on the perimeter. Even on that two-minute shift in the offensive zone in Colorado in the second period the other night, the Wild peppered Colorado with six shots, but it really didn’t come close to drawing a penalty because it was too outside.

Usually in situations like that, if you’re not scoring, at the very minimum you’re drawing a power play. Not that night and not lately.

I asked Zach Parise about it after the Avs win and he said it’s a “touchy subject, but maybe there’s more we can do offensively to make them hold us more.”

I kind of found that funny: “hold us more.”

He made a couple references to how Colorado grabs on and holds on in the D-zone, all inferences to there should have been more than one power play in that game and zero in the previous Wild game in Denver.

Tortorella’s got the Canucks running well right now. He said there’s still areas where they can improve a lot and he found many examples to show his team of areas where they can be better even from the 6-2 win over Boston. He said it’s a results business, but for him, it’s how are they playing. Sounds like Jacques Lemaire with that one.

He also had some other good lines beyond the exorcise demon one.

Much to my personal enjoyment, he smacked radio personality Kevin Falness around when he said, “I don’t care about the Wild.”

I should have called Falness’ cell phone during Tortorella’ press availability to really get some amusement.

Also, I loved this Tortorella quote on how the Canucks have changed under Torts rather than AV: “Ask the players. It’s not rocket science here. The game isn’t too hard. I think coaches convolute it a little bit.”

Talk tonight and seeya on Fox Sports North later.

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