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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The Wild closes the regular season tonight at 7 against the Nashville Predators.
If the St. Louis Blues lose to the Detroit Red Wings, the Wild will play the Colorado Avalanche for the third time in Minnesota’s five all-time postseasons (1-1). In the second period, Detroit leads 2-0. I will update this later, of course.
In 2003, the Wild rallied from 3-1 down to beat Colorado in the first round. In 2008, after the Wild won the Northwest Division, Jose Theodore and the Avs stoned the Wild in six games.
The Avalanche, with Patrick Roy in his first year as head coach, has gone from 29th place to a near Central Division title in one year. Colorado is 8-1-1 in its past 10 heading into tonight’s finale at Anaheim and went 4-0-1 against the Wild this season.
In tonight’s Wild-Preds game, Kyle Brodziak’s 231 consecutive games played streak will end. He has played every game since Feb. 25, 2011, but coach Mike Yeo said it would be “silly” to play him tonight. This way, Brodziak will be given every opportunity to get healthy for the start of the playoffs, which are expected to begin Thursday for the Wild.
NHL playoff schedules come out late tonight.
With Brodziak hurt, Nino Niederreiter will play center for the first time in his NHL career on a line believed to be with Matt Cooke and Justin Fontaine. Niederreiter has played center previously in his junior career and has been so defensively responsible, Yeo feels he should be able to slide in for a game and provide a big body and good presence. Cody McCormick is expected to center Stephane Veilleux and at times defenseman Jon Blum.
That’s because Dany Heatley left today’s skate with “lower-body discomfort,” Yeo said.
Clayton Stoner, who sprained his MCL March 22 against Detroit, returns and will be paired with Nate Prosser.
Yeo said tonight may be a meaningless game, but “our goal should be to get to 100 points.”
The Predators are 5-0-1 in their past six and Yeo wants the Wild to “match their intensity.”
“We have to make sure we’re keeping our foot on the gas as much as possible,” Yeo said. “We’ve talked so long about how we feel good about our game. That can leave you in a hurry, too, so we should make sure we’re able to keep our intensity up and carry that momentum into the playoffs.”
Yeo said his primary focus tonight is to get Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville quality ice time because they were essentially “rested” last game and Yeo wants them getting enough of a workload to get them ready for the playoffs.
Pominville hopes to get Goal No. 30. "It would have been nice to get it the other night when they threw me out there with an empty net (he just missed), but at the same time, it's only a number," he said.
Yeo said Mikael Granlund had another good day on the ice. If the Wild opens Thursday, the Wild will have Monday off and then have a couple hard practices in St. Paul Tuesday and Wednesday. Yeo hopes Granlund can participate in those so he can get the green light to return for Game 1.
Josh Harding is still around. The Wild has talked about Harding having a rehab stint with Iowa (four games left), but so far that hasn’t come into fruition and Yeo said he’s not sure if it will.
By the way, good to see Preds GM David Poile in the house. Last time he was here, Poile was struck by the puck and suffered major facial damage, multiple surgeries, lost vision in his right eye and missed the Winter Olympics as Team USA’s GM.
Poile said he needed to come back here just to show himself he could.
Wild (5-0-1 in the past six) and St. Louis Blues (lost three in a row) at the X tonight in Minnesota’s penultimate game of the regular season.
If the season ended today, the Wild and the Blues would meet in the first round with the series beginning likely next Thursday in St. Louis.
Again, the Wild will face St. Louis, Anaheim (starting next Wednesday or Thursday) or Colorado (starting likely next Thursday).
John Curry vs. Ryan Miller tonight.
For Curry, it’ll be the Shorewood native’s first NHL appearance since Jan. 11, 2010. If you didn’t read Tuesday’s feature on the former Breck School goalie, see the link of the previous blog.
Not too many goalies are his size in the NHL anymore. He looks like the Beezer -- John Vanbiesbrouck -- or Mike Vernon in the cage – two guys I covered in, ahem, Florida.
Coach Mike Yeo, who his familiar with Curry from his days with Pittsburgh, said he makes up for it by being a battler.
“He doesn’t have the size of a Bryzgalov,” Yeo said. “I don’t know that technique is his strength. But he’s a gamer.”
It’ll be interesting to watch him play. Not only is he facing the league’s 5th-best offensive team, he hasn’t had any game action since March 26.
In his last start for Iowa, Curry gave up a touchdown with an extra point and he has allowed 22 goals in his past five Iowa starts.
Yeo won’t rest his big guns tonight. This is an organizational decision in consultation with those big guns.
“We wanted to make the playoffs, but we want to make sure our game is ready,” Yeo said. “So with those guys and our team, just because we made the playoffs, it doesn’t mean all of a sudden we’re satisfied and we’re happy. This is about making sure that we continue to stay ready and sharp for game 1 of the postseason.”
Mike Rupp will play for the first time since Feb. 1 and fifth time since Dec. 31. Dany Heatley is in. Stephane Veilleux and Justin Fontaine will get the night off.
Christian Folin will make his NHL debut and Jared Spurgeon will sit.
Rupp said, “I’m excited to get an opportunity. I think our team has been playing really well and making some strides in our game and I just want to be a part of it and go in and do my job.”
His agent, Allan Walsh, tweeted after the Chicago shootout loss that the Wild had been targeted for two games in a row and asking if it was time to play Rupp.
“I just want to play,” Rupp said. “I think the team’s been playing awesome. We’ve got a great group of guys in here and a nice blend the last few games and really hit stride. I don’t want to shake that up. I just want to come in and do my job.”
Rupp is a tough guy and said he won’t change the way he plays. Obviously, the Blues have challenged the Wild physically throughout their nine-game winning streak (0-6-3) against the Wild, so Rupp may add an intimidating element tonight.
Not only is Rupp going to have to quickly get used to the NHL game tonight, but as I joked with him, it’s not like he’s been walking the streets getting into fights. He has gotten into one fight this season and none since Dec. 2.
“You’ve got a lot of pent-up energy,” he said. “I’m not going to go look for anything, but it’s one of those things where you’re not concerned about it.”
Yeo said, “I want to get those guys (Rupp and Heatley) some action before the end of the season. We want to make sure that these guys get an opportunity so if called upon that they feel like they’re ready to play.”
On Rupp, Yeo said, “I don’t expect miracles. He’s been off for a long time, but those guys have all been working real hard. It’s not like he’s a young kid. He knows what his game is. He plays a pretty smart game as far as knowing the system and position.”
On Folin, whom I wrote about today, so check out that story, “I want to give him an opportunity to test the waters and see where he’s at. It’s a chance for him to really show us what he can do.”
Folin was excited and said he would have a big smile on his face. He may see some time on the No. 2 power-play unit with Jonas Brodin, Matt Moulson, Heatley and Nino Niederreiter.
My guess on lines and D combos:
Keith Ballard, who skated the other day, is shut down again with a groin injury.
Clayton Stoner took part in the morning skate and is very close to a return. Perhaps, Sunday?
Josh Harding continues to practice.
Mikael Granlund, Yeo said, “I talked to Granny today and it’s really encouraging just how good he felt.”
I’d think it’d be hard for Granlund, who hasn’t skated since March 31, to be ready for the start of the playoffs, but we’ll see if Granlund begins skating this weekend.
No update on Darcy Kuemper beyond Yeo saying he’s “progressing.”
David Backes (foot) is likely out the rest of the regular season, but he’ll be ready for the playoffs, coach Ken Hitchcock said.
The Blues have lost three in a row and four of six.
Hitchcock: “We saw this coming with the looseness. Thank God this didn't happen Monday. We've got lots of time to fix it. You go from looking at championships to fixing problems. That's just coaching."
Good morning from Chateau Rousseau, where I'm making a quick pitstop between my return flight to MSP and the Wild's later-than-normal optional morning skate.
When you're the home team and you played the night before, you have the option to move your skate to the normal 11:30 a.m. visitors' time and the visitors takes the 10:30 slot.
That's what coach Mike Yeo opted this morning.
I interrupt the Vancouver Canucks' implosion to remind you that the Wild is THIS CLOSE to a playoff spot.
If you look at the standings, they're basically clinched now because it would be almost impossible for Phoenix to catch Minnesota based on the goal differential tiebreaker (+2 for Minnesota; -12 for Phoenix) IF the Wild went 0-3 and the Coyotes went 4-0 (no shootout wins).
But, the Wild hopes to make it official tonight. Here's how it can happen:
The Wild would clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs if they get at least one point against the Bruins OR if Coyotes lose to the Blue Jackets in any fashion or defeat the Blue Jackets in a shootout OR if the Stars lose to the Predators in any fashion.
The Wild's magic number for the top wildcard spot is two points, so a win against Boston will get it done. The Wild's already gotten a huge break because Jarome Iginla, the all-time leading scorer against Minnesota, is out. That means the Wild isn't already trailing 1-0.
A Stars loss and a Coyotes loss would get it done, too, I believe.
If you haven't paid attention, the Blues are in a bigtime slump right now (Anaheim has pulled within one point) and are putting themselves in a position where they may fall to the second seed and ... face the Wild.
If the Wild clinches the top wildcard spot tonight, a win over St. Louis on Thursday could very well "aid" in the Wild ending up playing St. Louis in the first round.
Maybe that's the night coach Mike Yeo may want to opt "resting" some of his big guys.
As I always say, it's pick your poison in the West. But as I have also said often, the Blues would not be a good first-round matchup for the Wild. They've beaten the Wild nine in a row and I wasn't yet balding the last time the Wild won in regulation in St. Louis.
You know how the cliche "must-win" is thrown around by writers all too often?
Has there ever been one who called a game a "must-lose?" I kid, I kid (or am I?)
Of course, there's such things as bad karma and fate, and most times you try to manipulate situations, it winds up biting you in the rear.
(In full selfish disclosure: I deserve to go to California )
Of course, with the Avs surging, the Blues are also putting themselves in a position where maybe Colorado passes them and maybe the Wild faces the Avs. Colorado's four back, so that's still sorta unlikely.
The Wild and the NHL-leading Bruins, who are 16-1-2 in their past 19 overall and 13-1-4 in their past 18 on the road, tonight.
Ilya Bryzgalov in the cage.
From the NHL PR email this morning:
BRYZGALOV, WILD POST SECOND STRAIGHT SHUTOUT
Ilya Bryzgalov made 24 saves to pick up his second consecutive shutout and help the Wild extend their point streak to five games (4-0-1).
* With the win, the Wild (41-26-12, 94 points) moved seven points ahead of the idle Stars (38-29-11, 87 points) for the first Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.
* Bryzgalov extended his shutout streak to 142:15 following a 4-0 victory over the Penguins on Saturday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first Wild goaltender to record consecutive shutouts since Jan. 4-6, 2009, when Niklas Backstrom did so against the Avalanche and Bruins, respectively.
* This marks the third time Bryzgalov has earned back-to-back shutouts in his NHL career – he posted three consecutive shutouts for the Flyers March 8-13, 2012, and two straight blank sheets for the Coyotes Feb. 5-7, 2011.
* Bryzgalov improved to 8-0-5 with a 1.65 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in his last 13 starts, including a 6-0-3 mark with a 1.52 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and three shutouts in nine starts since joining the Wild. Elias says he is the first goaltender in Wild history to earn at least one point in each of his first nine starts with the team.
* Charlie Coyle potted the lone goal to extend his point streak to four games (2-3—5). He has recorded at least one point in eight of his past nine games, totaling 5-5—10.
OK, that's it for me. No changes to Wild lineup. Injured defensemen Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard did skate this morning.
“Same lineup tonight. Goaltender out,” coach Mike Yeo said, before the Wild visits the Winnipeg Jets for its final road game of the regular season.
When I looked stunned, Yeo said, laughing, “I mean ‘from the goaltender out.’ I should have worded that better. I should be careful, especially with our team the way things have gone this year.”
I'll be on Hockey Night in Canada Radio on SiriusXM (207/211) today at 2:45 p.m. CT and on the arena cam on NHL Network today at 5:40 p.m. CT.
Ilya Bryzgalov for the Wild (5-0-3 in nine appearances/eight starts with a 1.87 goals-against average and .920 save percentage) vs. Michael Hutchinson for the Jets.
The 6-foot-3 Hutchinson, 24, will make his NHL debut. He’s a 2008 Boston Bruins third-round pick who started this season in the ECHL. He was promoted to AHL St. John’s, where he played well (15-5-1 with a 2.33 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
The Wild’s magic number to make the playoffs is three points, the Wild’s magic number to clinch the top wildcard spot is four.
The Wild cannot clinch tonight. If the Wild ends up tied in regulation/overtime wins with Phoenix, the next tiebreaker is head-to-head. Yes, the Wild is 2-1 against the Coyotes this year, but technically, in a bit of a strange rule, the Wild’s first win in Phoenix ceases to exist.
In determining the head-to-head tiebreaker when an odd number of games were played in the season series, the first game played in the city with the extra home game is not counted. So the Jan. 9 game (4-1 Wild win) is thrown out. Thus, for tiebreaker purposes, the Wild and Coyotes split the two-game season series, both teams earning two points and coincidentally tied in goals because they were each 3-1 victories.
So if the Wild’s actual totals and the Coyotes’ maximum totals after Monday night are 94 points and 34 regulation/overtime wins (which would happen if the Wild wins in regulation or overtime tonight), that still would not officially clinch a playoff berth for the Wild. If the Wild at the end of the season is tied with Phoenix in points and regulation/overtime wins, the next tiebreaker is goal differential for the season. Since that couldn’t be determined until Game 82, the Wild would have to wait to officially clinch if it wins in regulation/overtime.
Now, if the Wild wins tonight, and Tuesday night gets a point vs. Boston OR the Coyotes lose in Columbus, the Wild would clinch a playoff spot.
“They’re playing hard,” Yeo said of the Jets. “I look at the road trip, the way that they played, … they’re doing a lot of things well. I see a very strong work ethic, I see a team that’s playing with a lot of pride right now. I think we’re going to have to be ready to play very hard and I think we’re going to have to play very fast.”
My guess is Bryzgalov also starts tomorrow’s game against Boston, but we shall see. If the Wild does clinch the top wildcard spot by the time Thursday’s St. Louis game comes around, I wonder if we get to see local boy John Curry’s
NHL Wild debut. I did a big story on Curry for tomorrow's paper, so check that out. I also wonder if Yeo would take that opportunity to rest some of his big-minute guys. I’d be nervous against injury against a Blues team that the Wild still conceivably could play in the first round.
I also think if the Wild clinches before Thursday or Sunday vs. Nashville that we’ll get to see Christian Folin’s NHL debut.
“It would be a great feeling. I can’t wait. So hopefully they have a good game tonight,” said Folin, laughing.
Lines again for the Wild:
Niederreiter continues to have to play the fourth line. “It’s a function of the pieces fitting elsewhere right now,” Yeo said.
Basically, look at the lines, and unless he’s replacing Fontaine, where’s he playing? Coyle’s been absolutely fantastic for 2½ weeks, Moulson and Pominville are top-6 guys, Cooke and Brodziak have been a staple.
Niederreiter just has to continue to stay with it and his time to move up will come. On this line, he just needs to get pucks deep, get in on the forecheck and be physical. It has been a work in progress playing the right side. He’s clearly better and more comfortable on the left, but Yeo says that’s improving. Yeo said he’s been very pleased with Niederreiter’s defense all year.
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:
Same D, so:
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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