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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Josh Harding didn’t just show up to the rink and reel off a first half like few other NHL goalies.
“Behind the scenes, the outward appearance might be that he was just feeling good and going out and playing well, but he has to do a lot to make sure he’s in that state,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “He’s overcoming challenges that not many people have to try to deal with.”
There were injections and cooling vests between periods to keep from overheating and countless other protocols that Harding, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2012, had to ensure in order to simply be able to strap on the pads.
“There were a lot of things that unless you were part of my immediate family that you wouldn’t have seen what I went through and what I have been going through,” Harding said. “There’s no need for people to feel bad. It’s just what it is and you deal with it.”
Harding, the NHL’s Masterton Trophy winner last season for exemplifying perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey, has been selected as the Wild’s nominee for the second year in a row by the Twin Cities chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
“I have a lot of respect [for the other nominees], but this is life and death,” Yeo said.
Harding hasn’t played since Dec. 31 because of a “rough patch.” He still is considered to have a league-leading 1.65 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.
“This year was harder than last year,” Harding said. “Last year you’re coping with the new reality and this year, things were going probably the best they have in my career. From Day One of training camp, I just felt on. I felt back to normal. Unfortunately, things happened.”
Harding, who has started the charitable foundation, Harding’s Hope, took a positive turn last month, began skating and rejoined the Wild last week in practice. With Niklas Backstrom shut down and Darcy Kuemper still sidelined with an upper-body injury, the hope is Harding can at least get to the point where he provides insurance behind Ilya Bryzgalov.
“I would love to give you a distinct plan. I would if I could,” Harding said. “I’m going to take this day-to-day and see where this takes me. I’m very happy where I’m at. I have a ways to go to get to where I want to be, but I’m definitely on the right track.
“If there’s anything I can do to help out this hockey club, whether it’s being the third guy or battling and somehow getting back in there, it all depends how it goes.”
Harding has another year left on his contract. He plans to keep playing.
“Where I’m at right now is a million times better than where I was a month ago,” he said. “The way I’m feeling right now is the feeling I had before my leave of absence. Now it’s just getting back to hockey and doing what I love.
“When you’re out an extended period of time and it’s not a leg injury or an arm injury, you take life lessons away and it gives you more motivation and appreciation for the life that we have. We’re doing something that we love and we’ve worked all our lives to do this and I don’t want to give this up.”
Previous Wild nominees:
Josh Harding (2012-13), Clayton Stoner (2011-12), Pierre-Marc Bouchard (2010-11), Guillaume Latendresse (2009-10), Kurtis Foster (2008-09), Aaron Voros (2007-08), Marian Gaborik (2006-07), Wes Walz (2005-06, 2000-01), Alexandre Daigle (2003-04), Dwayne Roloson (2002-03) and Richard Park (2001-02).
Good morning from Winnipeg, where the Wild and Jets face off tonight in the Wild's final road game. I'll be back later after the morning skates.
Also, 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.
MINNESOTA WILD STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF STRIPS
ON SALE MONDAY, APRIL 7
SAINT PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild of the National Hockey League (NHL) announced today that Stanley Cup Playoff Ticket Strips will go on sale on Monday, April 7, beginning at 10 a.m. CT exclusively on Wild.com. Prices and locations can be found on http://www.wild.com/2014playoffs. There is an additional $15 processing fee per order.
Playoff Ticket Strips include a seat for each potential home game in the first and second round of the playoffs (a total of six games). Fans purchasing Strips for Round 1 and 2 will also have the option of placing a credit card on file for “pay-as-we-play” purchase of home games in Round 3 and 4.
Playoff ticket strips begin at $390 for rounds 1 and 2. 2014 Stanley Cup Playoff strips are limited to six seats and the limit will be strictly enforced. Single-game playoff tickets will go on sale at a later date, pending availability.
Minnesota Wild To Host Fan Celebration at April 8, 10 and 13 Games
SAINT PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild of the National Hockey League (NHL) has announced details of its annual Fan Celebration, set for the final three regular season home games at Xcel Energy Center – Tuesday, April 8; Thursday, April 10; and Sunday, April 13.
Tuesday the Wild takes on the Boston Bruins. It’s Jerseys off Our Backs Night, as random fans will be selected to walk away with jerseys straight from a Wild player’s back. In addition, all fans will receive a Wild Bingoal card, courtesy of Innovative Office Solutions. Thursday, the Wild hosts Western Conference-leading St. Louis. All fans receive a scratch-and-win card. All fans attending the Sunday, April 13 game against Nashville will receive a commemorative team poster.
The Wild is offering a special Fans Night Out ticket package for the games on April 8 and April 13 (Fans Night Out sold out for April 10). The unique ticket package costs $99 - it includes a lower-level ticket, all-you-can-eat hot dogs, popcorn, nachos and fountain soda, $3 draft beers through the end of the second intermission, in addition to an exclusive pre-game chalk talk with NHL alumni. The offer can still be purchased for April 8 and April 13 at http://www.wild.com/fancelebration.
There is also an RBC Wealth Management Club Combo ticket package for all three games. Fans receive a club ticket, plus a $15 concession credit, for $95 or $85 depending on location.
Afternoon from Johnny's Ice House West in Chicago, the practice facility of the Blackhawks.
The Wild practiced today with three goalies -- Thursday's starter Ilya Bryzgalov, Thursday's backup John Curry and ... first-half MVP Josh Harding.
Harding, sidelined since Dec. 31 from complications of multiple sclerosis, joined the Wild in Chicago and is practicing with the team for the first time since Jan. 19.
If you remember, he missed the Wild's four-game road trip to Pittsburgh, New York, Philly and Winnipeg to have an adjustment to his MS treatment. He returned to play two games Dec. 29 and Dec. 31 before being sidelined again. He then returned to practice with the team but then was sidelined for good starting Jan. 20.
Harding would only say he had a "rough patch" that was out of his control.
“This isn’t the time [to talk about it],” Harding said. “We’re in a playoff crunch. If I could’ve been out there, I would've been out there. It's tough, it was tough.”
You can read more about Harding's return in Thursday's paper. He looked good today, but this is obviously a first step.
“I know that he doesn’t want us really talking about [his MS], but the reality is it’s always going to be day-to-day, basically,” coach Mike Yeo said. “But he’s feeling very good right now and he’s motivated.”
With Darcy Kuemper out with an upper-body injury, Harding's return is obviously great news (great news for reasons beyond hockey, too).
This is getting way ahead of ourselves, but no chance Harding is able to return without an eventual conditioning stint in Iowa, and this is provided things continue to go well after a number of days of practice.
The Baby Wild has nine games left this season.But as Yeo said, everything is day-to-day right now.
Christian Folinalso joined practice today. Kuemper and Mikael Granlund did not practice. Nino Niederreiter did and is expected to play.
Scratches appear to be Heatley for a third game in a row, McCormick, Rupp. Yeo basically said that in the Wild's eyes, McCormick's not a center, so that's the reason for the Dowell callup.
D pairs remain the same:
Ballard looks like he'll continue to wait with the Wild having won two in a row.
Curry (Curry's jersey assigned was No. 30 when he came on the Edmonton, Vancouver trip in late February. The Wild has since acquired Bryzgalov, so Curry will wear No. 33 tomorrow. That means two different Wild backups (Rob Laurie) will wear the same number in consecutive games, which is par for the course with the Wild, which has had seven goalies up with the big team this season).
Officially, Granlund has an upper-body injury. Unofficially, replays show that Granlund’s head smacked into the left shoulder of Los Angeles Kings center Jarret Stoll on Monday as Granlund tried to deliver a check.
Yeo said there’s no timetable until Granlund sees the Wild doctors. Yeo said, “All I know right now” is that Granlund won’t play Thursday against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“We’re losing a very talented player, an offensive guy that we count on,” Yeo said of Granlund, the Wild’s fourth-leading scorer during a solid sophomore campaign with 41 points in 63 games. “In a situation like that, we’re going to lean on our other lines a little bit more, lean on our power play a little bit more.”
Captain Mikko Koivu will continue to get the bulk of the big minutes and matchups. Since March 18, Koivu, is on a six-game point streak, ranks first in the NHL with 10 assists and is tied for first with 12 points.
Rookie center Erik Haula, who led the Gophers in scoring during his sophomore and juniors years, has played a fourth-line role for much of his 40 games with the Wild. Haula, 23, has three goals and nine points, is plus-9 and will assume Granlund’s role between veterans Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville.
Yeo has been impressed with Haula’s ability to adapt to a defensive and penalty-kill role. Now that Haula will skate with two skilled scorers like Moulson (five goals and four assists in 14 games with the Wild) and Pominville (27 goals), Yeo said, “We’re going to ask him to be a little more creative.”
Haula will have to improve in the faceoff circle. That was one of Granlund’s biggest improvements. Granlund won 52.6 percent of his draws; Haula has won 42.7 percent.
“You’re on a line like that, starting with the puck in the offensive zone is a huge key,” Yeo said.
Folin got overshadowed today, so I will write a lot more about him in Friday's paper.
Just as advertised, he was big with a booming shot.
The plan initially is to get him involved in practice, teach him the Wild’s system and allow him to get comfortable. He is eligible to play in any of the remaining six games, but Yeo said the decision will be based on “team-first.”
Folin played two years with Austin (Minn.) in the North American Hockey League and said, “In the back of my head, I always wanted to come [back] to Minnesota.”
With Darcy Kuemper sidelined with an upper-body injury, the Wild has recalled John Curry from the Iowa Wild to back up Ilya Bryzgalov (4-0-2, 2.15 GAA) Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks. If Kuemper is out for awhile, the Wild has one back-to-back left (at Winnipeg on Monday, vs. Boston on Tuesday). Bryzgalov would probably get both games.
The Wild has also recalled center Jake Dowell, a former Blackhawk, with Mikael Granlund likely sidelined for a bit with an upper-body injury.
Coach Mike Yeo could either put Dowell or Cody McCormick as fourth-line center. I'd think Erik Haula moves up to second-line center because the Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle line is going real well, so why fiddle with that and bounce Coyle back to center again?
I saw Granlund after the game in L.A., and he had a red raspberry-looking mark under his left eye. He was walking slowly and definitely had a disappointed look on his face when talking to teammate Mikko Koivu.
Replays show that Granlund's head smacked right into Kings forward Jarret Stoll's left shoulder as Granlund got the worst of a check he tried to make.
Granlund, who has a history of concussions, missed 13 of 14 games with a concussion earlier this season after taking three hard hits in a six-game stretch from Toronto's Nazem Kadri, Ottawa's Marc Methot and Phoenix's Connor Murphy (actually, similarly, Granlund tried to initiate this check and got the worst of it when Murphy protected himself).
The one game Granlund played in that stretch, he lasted 29 seconds, so that was basically a missed game.
The Wild struggled without Granlund. In that 14-game stretch, Minnesota went 6-7-1 with 23 goals. But, remember, this is a Wild team that survived with Koivu, Zach Parise, Jared Spurgeon and Josh Harding out at the same time, so it has proven before that it is, dare I say, resilient (I actually hate that term in sports, so I may as well use it).
No doubt Yeo gives the old day-to-day line with Granlund, but we'll try to find out more after today's 1:30 p.m. practice in Chicago. Obviously, if it's a concussion, there's just no way to accurately give a timetable, so it would be truthfully day-to-day. These head injuries with Granlund are becoming a true concern. Remember, he came to the NHL with a history of them.
I never saw Nino Niederreiter after the L.A. game, but word yesterday was it's not supposed to be serious and he's considered questionable for Thursday's game. I'll let you know on Twitter in three hours if Niederreiter indeed practices. If he doesn't and can't play Thursday, the Wild has Dany Heatley waiting in the wings. The Wild is 2-0 without Heatley, incidentally.
Christian Folin, signed out of UMass-Lowell Monday, will practice for the first time today. He is eligible to play in any of the remaining six regular-season games (not playoff eligible). I cannot imagine Yeo plays him until he gets some practice time under his belt and only if there comes a point where maybe the Wild's locked into that top wildcard spot later next week.
Who knows if the Wild will ever get that breathing room. Dallas took over the second wildcard spot last night, has a game in hand and a cupcake schedule the rest of the season. The Stars are playing outstanding right now and just annihilating teams. Phoenix, which could be in trouble, lost in a shootout last night to Winnipeg, fell to ninth and plays in L.A. tonight.
Both teams are four back of Minnesota, which just further displays how gigantic the Wild's comeback wins at Detroit, Phoenix and Los Angeles were.
Yeo's in a tricky spot with Folin. I'm always fascinated when a team is still in a playoff race and then parachutes a rookie into the locker room. Chicago's done that with Teuvo Teravainen and Matt Carey and has lost three in a row. I think the smartest thing to do is just practice Folin and play him the last game or two if the Wild's locked and the team wants to rest guys like Ryan Suter or Jared Spurgeon.
Speaking of D, it'll be interesting to see if the Wild plays Jon Blum against Chicago. The Wild's won two in a row and got solid play from its blue line. But Keith Ballard could be ready to return. If Ballard returns, one would think it would be for Blum. If that were the case, I'd think Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin become a pair again and Ballard gets paired with Nate Prosser.
I'll be back later after practice to update the blog, but follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/russostrib for real-time updates later.
The Wild landed what many considered the biggest college free agent on the open market Monday night.
Christian Folin, the 6-foot-3, mobile, hard-shooting, two-way, right-shot defenseman from Gothenburg, Sweden, agreed to terms on a two-year, $1.85 million entry-level contract that begins immediately. Folin, 23, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, will join the Wild on Tuesday night in Chicago, will practice Wednesday and can play in any of the final six regular-season games.
He is not playoff eligible because he’s a free agent signing after the trade deadline.
“Physically, you don’t normally have a young man coming out of college or junior that possess his physical attributes,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “We think he fits perfectly into our defense corps going forward. He’s what we need. We need a little more size, we need a guy that can shoot the puck and it’s hard to find right-shot defensemen.”
In helping lead the River Hawks to the Hockey East tournament title, Folin led UMass-Lowell defensemen with 20 points in 41 games. He scored 21 points in 38 games as a freshman.
Prior to college, Folin played two seasons with the Austin (Minn.) Bruins of the North American Hockey League, scoring 41 points in 87 points.
“Physically, we certainly feel he can make the jump right away,” said Fletcher said. “Whether he gets in or not will be up to the coaches.”
I'll have more on the signing after the game, but the Wild again burns the first year of the contract, which are the rules of the game. Big signing for a few reasons:
1) Joins growing impressive prospect pool of D that includes Olofsson, Dumba, Gunnarsson, Labbe, Seeler, Soucy, de Jong; 2) He's a right-shot, big, mobile, big shot. This also lessens the Wild's need this summer to go out and spend on a right-shot D in my opinion.
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