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 looks to improve at home tonight against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild pregame skate Updated: April 5, 2014 - 12:39 PM

Wild and Pittsburgh Penguins tonight at the X.

Wild's magic number is five points, eight to get top wildcard spot, and avoid St. Louis in the first round (Anaheim or San Jose).

The Wild is coming off a 2-1-1 road trip and must guard against first-game-after-a-long-road-trip flatness. The Wild really can’t afford it because it has been playing much better on the road than at home since the Olympic break.

The Wild is a yucky 1-2-3 in its past six home games.

“We have to be much better at home than we have been,” said Zach Parise.

Battle of the Z’s in net tonight: Ilya Bryzzzzzzgalov vs. Jeff Zzzzzzatkoff.

Bryzgalov is 4-0-3 in seven starts and eight appearances for the Wild with a 2.11 goals-against average. Zatkoff is 12-5-1 with a 2.58 goals-against average for the Pens. He is 12-3-1 in his past 16 appearances and made 24 saves in a 5-2 win at home against the Wild on Dec. 19.

For the Penguins, Jussi Jokinen won’t play with an injury. Former Wild good guy Andrew Ebbett has been called up and will play. For the Wild, Dany Heatley, Jake Dowell and Mike Rupp will be scratched tonight. The Wild didn’t do line rushes in the morning skate, but my guess is:

Parise-Koivu-Coyle

Moulson-Haula-Pominville

Cooke-Brodziak-Fontaine

Veilleux-McCormick-Niederreiter

Same D, so:

Suter-Spurgeon

Brodin-Prosser

Scandella-Blum

Defenseman Keith Ballard will miss his 10th game with a groin injury.

“He’s not there yet,” coach Mike Yeo said. “He’s a little bit frustrated. He’s dying to get back, … but it’s not coming back as quickly as he had hoped.”

-- Niederreiter is back in after missing last game in Chicago for precautionary reasons. He took a high hit from Jake Muzzin on Monday in L.A. He needs to play better than he has since the Olympics.

In 17 games since returning from the Olympics, Niederreiter has two goals, three assists and 19 shots. He just hasn’t been the same with his board battles and strength on picks either and has taken three penalties in the past five games.

-- Word out of the Wild locker room is that Matt Cooke actually scored the goal Erik Haula got credited for in Chicago with 1:54 left. I tweeted a GIF. You be the judge. Either way, I don’t think it’ll get changed at this point, but we’ll see. Regardless, Haula did a great job throwing that puck through a screen and Cooke did a great job driving the net to forced Nik Hjalmarsson to open up his legs.

Cooke was Mr. Popular this morning with his former team, the Penguins, in town.

-- I’d think Yeo will want a shutdown line tonight going up against the Penguins’ prolific lines and likely Hart Trophy winner Sidney Crosby (102 points). That means Brodziak would stay on the third line and the Wild’s top line should see that type of matchup, too, because Yeo doesn’t ever mind that matchup.

I’ll write about Brodziak’s offensive struggles in tomorrow’s paper. He’s been solid most of the year defensively and the utter opposite offensively. Again though, Brodziak’s season is nothing like his year last year when he was minus-18 in 48 games and was getting almost no scoring chances for long stretches. The reason why Brodziak has gotten so many great chances this year is because he’s been so strong defensively, solid on the forecheck and is usually on the right side of the puck positionally. And, sorry, I know he’s the poster child for hate lately, but that’s a fact.

Unfortunately, once Brodziak gets that puck on his stick, he’s usually missing the net with it, stick-handling himself into a worse position, hitting the iron or shooting it right into the goalie.

You’ll hear from him in tomorrow’s paper.

-- Speaking of Haula, that line should be better tonight if Yeo plays his matchups well.

Yeo said of Haula, who had the tying goal, led the team with five shots last game and logged a career-high 15:30: “We keep giving him more and he keeps showing that he’s able to take it. Every game is a new test for him right now. There’s going to be a bit of a jolt adrenaline-wise for him right now. He knows he’s getting more opportunity and an increased role. He has to make sure he doesn’t lose what got him here, what we need from him night in and night out. He’s got to be a very strong defensive player for us, he has to find a way to use his speed and be a factor on the forecheck, but at the same time, we’re asking a little bit more from him offensively. We’re anxious to see if he can do that against a team like tonight. He’s going to obviously be faced with some tough competition, so we’re anxious to see how he performs.”

-- Yeo said Darcy Kuemper (upper body) is feeling a little better and was in this morning, but no update beyond day-to-day. He also had no update on Mikael Granlund (head) beyond day-to-day. I saw Niklas Backstrom (abdominal surgery) and he’s already working out.

-- McCormick will play center tonight for the first time really as a Wild. Yeo said it was important to get him a practice so he could get familiar for his center responsibilities as opposed to wing.

-- Parise said, “I feel alright” from the blindside hit he got Thursday from Chicago’s Brandon Bollig. “I felt OK yesterday and today even better, so I think I’m fine. I just didn’t see him coming. I was kind of surprised it wasn’t a penalty, at least interference or something, but they have a lot to watch out there and just didn’t see it.”

I'll be on Fox Sports North tonight during the pregame show and first intermission and will talk during the pregame about the three high hits lately and why the league didn't suspend the perpetrators.

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