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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Posts about Wild pregame skate

Darcy Kuemper to make first start since Jan. 6

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 9, 2015 - 9:35 AM

Morning from Nashville.

If you didn't read Chip Scoggins' awesome story on Chris Stewart today, check that out here.

Here's my story on how far the Wild has come since the Jan. 14 Devan Dubnyk trade.

In that story, I also reported that it was believed Dubnyk's run of 39 consecutive starts (38 for the Wild) would come to an end tonight and that Darcy Kuemper would make his first since Jan. 6 tonight against the Predators.

Coach Mike Yeo confirmed that this morning on KFAN.

Dubnyk's 39 straight starts was the most in the NHL since Evgeni Nabokov started 43 in a row for the San Jose Sharks in 2007-08.

In 38 starts for the Wild, Dubnyk is 27-8-2 (one no decision) with a 1.73 goals-against average and .938 save percentage.

Kuemper's lone action since getting hurt in practice Jan. 7 came Jan. 20 in Detroit when he played 38 minutes in relief of Dubnyk. Kuemper stopped 14 of 14 shots and the Wild rallied from a 4-1, third-period deficit before suffering a shootout loss.

He did take part in a two-week AHL conditioning stint from Jan. 27-Feb. 8, going 2-3 with a 3.22 goals-against average, .891 save percentage and one shutout with Iowa.

Kuemper is 13-12-2 this season with a 2.62 goals-against average, .904 save percentage and three shutouts. He got off to a solid start this year before his game started to take a turn for the worse in mid to late November.

I talked to Kuemper the other day about getting a start in one of the final games.

“It’ll be fun to definitely be back in there,” Kuemper said. “You obviously want to play. This last little bit hasn’t been easy, but I’m just doing my best to stay sharp in practice and be supportive of the team.

“I know what I can do. I feel I’m a better goalie now than I was at the start of the year with all this practice. I feel my game is in a pretty good place right now.”

Obviously, there will be inevitable rust. This won't be an easy game as the Wild looks to tie the NHL record set by the 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings with a 12th consecutive road win.

Dubnyk is expected to start Saturday's season finale against St. Louis.

There was a lot of internal debate as to which game Kuemper should start. Part of the concern was putting Dubnyk in harm's way against the Blues, a rugged team that the Wild may face in the first round, and during a game where players may not want to go all out in order to avoid injury. Remember last year's rout by the Predators against Minnesota in the home finale?

Historically (coincidence or not), the Wild has gotten goalies hurt in St. Louis (Manny Fernandez, Josh Harding, Niklas Backstrom and Kuemper), including Kuemper last year when David Backes ran him twice.

But in the end, Yeo didn't want Dubnyk basically having eight or nine days between starts (Tuesday in Chicago to the start of the playoffs Wednesday or Thursday).

I'd suspect Matt Cooke returns tonight. He has missed 30 games with a sports hernia. It wouldn't shock me if Nino Niederreiter rests in his injured foot. More after the morning skates.

Jason Zucker expected to return tonight; Nino Niederreiter OK; Another win and in for the Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 7, 2015 - 4:33 PM

Coach Mike Yeo kept us in the dark about the Wild’ lineup against the Chicago Blackhawks, but Nino Niederreiter has a bruised foot (not a break) and will play and there’s a very, very, very good possibility Jason Zucker returns from a broken collarbone unless he says he’s unable after warmups.

Zucker has missed 26 games since Feb. 9 and certainly looked like a guy prepping to play. The Wild has won a franchise-record 10 consecutive road games and is 6-2-4 in the second of back-to-backs this year (thanks to Devan Dubnyk).

My guess is Jordan Schroeder plays for Ryan Carter.

My guess is if Zucker returns, Erik Haula is out.

My guess is defenseman Jordan Leopold plays for Nate Prosser.

My guess is Matt Cooke’s return waits.

My guess is Dubnyk starts. smileyHe is 4-0-1 in the second of back-to-backs with a 1.17 goals-against average and .967 save percentage since being pulled Jan. 20 at Detroit. Dubnyk is 14-1-1 in 17 road starts with a 1.44 goals-against average and .952 save percentage.

The Wild would clinch a playoff berth if they defeat the Blackhawks in regulation or overtime OR if they win in a shootout AND any of the following occurs:

  • the Flames fail to win in regulation or overtime;
  • the Jets lose in any fashion; or
  • the Kings lose in any fashion.

* The Wild also would clinch a playoff berth if they lose to the Blackhawks in overtime or a shootout AND any of the following occurs:

  • the Kings lose in regulation;
  • the Kings lose in overtime or a shootout AND the Jets lose in regulation;
  • both the Flames and Kings lose in any fashion; or
  • the Flames lose in any fashion AND the Jets lose in regulation.

* If the Wild lose to the Blackhawks in regulation, they would clinch a playoff berth if both the Flames and Kings lose in regulation.

Only in the NHL can you have clinching scenarios this complicated. The fun part is everybody plays tonight: L.A at Edmonton (Kings beat the Oilers 8-zip last week). Calgary vs. Arizona (Coyotes stink). Jets playing in St. Louis. Tough game for Winnipeg.

Plain, simple: If the Wild wins in regulation or overtime, and the Wild’s in.

Let’s see if it can take care of business … this time.

Yeo on Niederreiter: “I think he’s going to be fine. There’s no breaks. Just a bit of a bruise. I’m expecting him to play. There’s no damage there.”

On the lineup, Yeo said, “We’re contemplating a few [changes], but there’s nothing set in stone.”

On Zucker, “There is a possibility that he could be in.”

Yeo said Cooke is “getting close. We have lineup decisions to make for tonight. We’ve got a lot of guys at our disposal. Everybody brings something different to the table. Zuck, his speed and the season that he’s been having, we’re very hopeful that he can come in and get up to speed in a real hurry and has the ability to play in different roles.”

Cooke, Yeo said is a veteran guy, a big part of “our PK, real effective in his role especially this time of year.”

On being battle tested for this, Yeo said, “We’ve faced adversity before, whether it was at different points of this season, whether it was previous years. Certainly whenever you’re in a situation like this, you want to draw upon that. And thats where the value of leadership comes in, just kind of showing the way. It’s not about what you say, it’s about how you go out and perform. When you step over the boards, the message you’re sending to the group that we have there.”

Asked though if he loses sleep that the Wild never does anything the easy way, Yeo said, “That’s kind of been our MO (smiling). That’s OK. Nothing good comes easy. But there really is no easy way. We played a very desperate, very good hockey team last night. We lost a hockey game, that happens. When we wake up this morning, there’s still a bitter taste in our mouth. Bottom line is, we’re still in a better position than most teams. We have three hard games coming up, but we’ve been a real good team over this last little stretch. We just have to make sure we’re ready each game to assert ourselves.”

Zucker said he has taken some contact from teammates in full equipment, but he said let’s be honest, “Full equipment isn’t really full equipment. You don’t know how it really feels until it happens in a game.”

Zucker said if he plays, “I’ll be ready. But I haven’t heard anything yet. It’s always a little bit different. Obviously none of your teammates want to crush you in practice or anything like that, but as far as what I’ve been doing, it’s been feeling good.”

On being out so long and how rusty he thinks he’ll be with the league so playoff-ready, Zucker said, “You never know. This is a hard time of year to be playing. It’s definitely a fun time to be playing, as well. I’ve obviously been out awhile, but I just want to get back in there.

“The process takes awhile, but once you get to this point and you’re almost playing again, it’s definitely fun. I know for myself, it’s just wanting to get back out there and help the team.”

Niederreiter said of the Matt Dumba blast that hit him, “I was just trying to get out of the way and hope it went in the net. But then it hit my foot. It was a great shot and we want the D to shoot the puck and sometimes you get hit.

“I was very happy that nothing major happened.”
 

Brad Richards is out for the Blackhawks with an upper-body injury. Patrick "Stanchion" Kane is still out with the broken collarbone. Bryan Bickell playing, so 1-0 Hawks already. wink

Talk later.

Revised Wild clinching scenarios as Mikko Koivu returns to Minnesota lineup

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 6, 2015 - 12:41 PM

The NHL has clarified this morning that if the Wild win in regulation OR overtime tonight against the Winnipeg Jets (not just regulation) in tonight's home regular-season finale, it will clinch a playoff spot regardless of the Kings outcome at Vancouver. Originally, it was thought if the Wild won in overtime, the Kings would have to lose in regulation.

Winning in regulation or overtime tonight gets the Wild to 98 points and 41 ROW (regulation and overtime wins). Because Winnipeg plays Calgary one more time, there is no way both those teams could finish BETTER than 98 points and 41 ROW.

There is a scenario in which Winnipeg finishes with more than 98 points (99) AND Calgary ties the Wild with 98 points and 41 ROW, but the Wild would win the head-to-head tiebreaker with Calgary.

If the Wild wins in a shootout tonight, the Wild would have 98 points and 40 ROW and theoretically both Winnipeg and Calgary could finish ahead of the Wild. So a shootout win only gets the Wild a playoff spot tonight IF the Kings lose to the Canucks in any fashion.

Obviously, in a league where there are three-point games, loser points and non-shootout win tiebreakers, clinching scenarios get very complicated.

Mikko Koivu says he is definitely back tonight. He said his injury occurred in an off-ice accident and it was just too dangerous for him to play the other night. He said the docs did a great job and he is good to go. He said this time of year, it was obviously very tough to miss the Red Wings game.

Jordan Schroeder will be scratched tonight. Ryan Carter gets back in. Since coach Mike Yeo said yesterday he wanted to give Erik Haula a chance to respond from a bad game against the Red Wings, this was the predictable decision just because of Carter's size and physicality against the big, physical, very aggressive Jets plays into his identity as a player.

Matt Cooke says he's ready to return. Yeo said tomorrow's lineup at Chicago is up in the air and will be determined after tonight's game.

Assistant coach Darby Hendrickson said the next step for Jason Zucker is to start getting into battles with players wearing pads. If he's to play Thursday in Nashville, that would need to happen tomorrow in Chicago because the Wild isn't practicing Wednesday.

Yeo said he's confident Zucker will be able to return "very soon."

Huge game tonight, and probably a nailbiter.

Ten of the 11 meetings between the Wild and Jets have been one-goal games, and the other one by two had an empty-netter. The Wild is 6-2-3 against the Jets and 3-0-2 at home against the Jets.

The Jets have won seven of their past 10 overall.

Devan Dubnyk vs. Ondrej Pavelec. No Toby Enstrom for the Jets, or suspended Dustin Byfuglien.

Wild's clinching scenarios tonight and how next week's trip is shaping up to be dramatic

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 4, 2015 - 11:25 AM

Wild and Detroit Red Wings tonight at 6 p.m. at Xcel Energy Center.

Pavel Datsyuk returns for the Wings. Devan Dubnyk vs. Jimmy Howard in goal. For Dubnyk, it'll be his 37th consecutive start overall, the most in the NHL since Evgeni Nabokov started 43 in a row for San Jose in 2007-08.

The Wild will be looking to rebound from Thursday's loss to the Rangers. The Wild has not lost two in a row in regulation under Dubnyk or two in a row (including shootout) since Jan. 19-20 (vs. Columbus, at Detroit).

Last time the Wild faced the Wings, it rallied from 4-1 down in the third, the tying goal coming on an incredible play by Zach Parise to steal a breakout pass from Jonathan Ericsson at the goalmouth. All the Wild's vets were great -- Parise, Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Ryan Suter.

Erik Haula and Nate Prosser in for the Wild tonight, Ryan Carter and Jordan Leopold sit. Suter is fine to play, coach Mike Yeo said.

The Wild would clinch a playoff berth if they defeat the Red Wings in regulation or overtime AND any of the following occurs:
 
- the Flames lose in regulation
- the Flames lose in overtime or shootout AND either the Jets or Kings lose in regulation
- both the Jets and Kings lose in regulation
 
The Wild would clinch a playoff berth if they defeat the Red Wings in a shootout AND any of the following occurs:

- the Flames lose in any fashion AND either the Jets or Kings lose in regulation
- both the Jets and Kings lose in regulation
 
The Wild cannot clinch a playoff berth Saturday if they lose in any fashion.

Check out the top of the Central Division right now and how much the Wild's trip next week will mean to the top-4 teams in the division.

Basically, the Wild will have a large say next week who wins the Central and its likely first-round opponent if the Wild makes the playoffs.

The Wild closes the regular season at Chicago on Tuesday, at Nashville on Thursday and at St. Louis on Saturday.

DRAMA!!!!!

Remember, if the Wild finishes in the top wildcard spot, it plays the second-best division winner. The three top Central teams all have two games in hand on Anaheim, but the Ducks so far look in decent shape to win the West.

The Ducks' last two games are vs. Dallas and at Arizona.

Devan Dubnyk nominated for the Masterton Trophy by the Twin Cities chapter of the PHWA

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 2, 2015 - 1:22 PM

Frankly, there has been no better comeback story in the NHL.

A year ago at this time, Devan Dubnyk was playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs in the American Hockey League. Today, he has become the toast of the NHL for turning the Wild’s season around an incredible run of success since being traded to Minnesota on Jan. 14.

The Wild workhorse goalie, who will start his 36th consecutive game tonight (35th in a row for the Wild) against the New York Rangers, has allowed two goals or fewer 26 times. He has allowed 57 goals in 34 starts, one fewer than the Wild allowed in the 14 games before he arrived. He is 26-6-1 with the Wild with a 1.70 goals-against average and .939 save percentage, which includes a crazy 14-1-1 road record with a 1.44 goals-against average and .952 save percentage.

Behind the scenes, it took a ton of work to resurrect his career and become this year’s feel-good NHL story.

If you didn’t read here, I wrote today about how Dubnyk has put himself in the conversation for the Hart and Vezina Trophies. In fact, Bovada has him as the fourth-best odds to win the Hart (15/1)

The Bill Masterton trophy is the award given annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey. The Twin Cities chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association has chosen Dubnyk as this year’s Wild nominee.

Last season, Dubnyk was basically run out of Edmonton. He was dealt to Nashville, played two admittedly poor games and was traded to Montreal after the Olympic break and immediately assigned to Hamilton.

During the playoffs, Dubnyk was so far buried on the depth chart, the Canadiens permitted him to leave the team and return to his wife and infant son in Edmonton so he could be a husband and a dad.

“It was crazy. It feels like last year was so long ago now,” Dubnyk said this morning after being informed of the honor by the two Wild beat writers. “The most important thing was getting that break in the summer, really getting a chance to reflect on last year, think about what happened, what could I have controlled and what couldn’t I have controlled?

“The most important thing for me is I wanted to take the mindset of realizing that if I would have played better, I wouldn’t have been in that situation, and not think that I didn’t get a fair shake or wasn’t treated fairly somewhere. The thing is if I would have played better hockey, I wouldn’t have ended up in Hamilton.”

Last summer, the NHL allowed a free-agent interview period for teams. That turned out to be perfect for Dubnyk.

His agent knows Arizona Coyotes coach Dave Tippett well, and Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke, like Wild goalie coach Bob Mason, always liked Dubnyk’s game from afar.

Burke and Dubnyk had a long phone conversation.

“To have them put full confidence kind of just allowed me to start from square one and feel good about what I had done and really try to forget about that period of time,” Dubnyk said.

Off the ice, Dubnyk said, “A lot of it was mental. I’ve always been comfortable as far as my summer program and conditioning. I think I got on the ice a little more early on. And then to have that opportunity to go to Vail and work with [former NHL goalie] Steve Valiquette [on a new head trajectory technique] was important for me and also going to Arizona early and talking to Burkie and starting that early.

“The reflecting part – during the season] you don’t have a chance to think about it. It’s not a lot of fun and you’re just kind of stuck in it. You go to the rink every day and it’s kind of the same old, same. You don’t have a chance to sit back, but once I was able to get away with it and get back with my family, it gives you the opportunity to really just look back on the entire situation and go through it and understand what it was that happened and what I could do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Now, he’s come to Minnesota and was immediately embraced by his teammates. It helped a ton that he showed such commitment by flying all night after the trade to start that first game in Buffalo when the Wild so needed something different. The next day, after that 7-0 win, a lot of teammates also took note that there he was at J.P. Parise’s funeral even though he had his entire life uprooted and his wife and son were still in Arizona.

This afternoon, I am filling in for Dan Barreiro on KFAN from 3-6:30 p.m. One of my guests is Zach Parise. I pre-taped the interview because the interview is running at 5:55 p.m. and he has a game tonight.

“I remember playing against him, scoring on him a couple times before he got here, I remember that,” Parise said, laughing. “Other than that, I didn’t know much about him at all. So I was surprised and happy we traded for him because I knew he was a big guy, and it’s just been a really good story.”

Parise also said how well he’s fit in, saying, “He’s a really easygoing guy, very easy to get along with. You’ve got a guy like [Niklas] Backstrom, you can’t talk to him on the day of a game. It’s like you don’t even exist.” He said, kiddingly, “I don’t know how he lives his life like that. So it’s kind of refreshing to have someone you can joke around with in the locker room before the game.”

Dubnyk said he is enjoying everything about being here.

“I’ve been trying to do that the whole way through,” Dubnyk said. “You want to stay level. You don’t want to get too high and think too much about it, but at the same time my approach from the get-go this year was to really try to enjoy and embrace every opportunity that I got. That continued when I got here, just taking those days in between games to just enjoy the wins and enjoy the feeling that we have here and what we’re doing because it is a special thing, and that’s made it that much more special. It’s not like I’m trying my best to pretend nothing’s going on here. It’s been fun and I’m enjoying it, so it’s just going to get more exciting from here on out.”

In 2013, Josh Harding won the Masterton Trophy.

The Wild’s all-time nominees are Harding (2013-14, 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).

As I mentioned, I am filling in for Barreiro today.

Besides Parise, my guests include Super Troopers/Beerfest, etc. actor/comedian/writer/director Erik Stolhanske, Edmonton Journal hockey writer Jim Matheson, Rangers play-by-play guy Kenny Albert, Minnesota United coach Manny Lagos and the Wild’s Kevin Falness will be in with me as well.

I’ll also be on Fox Sports North tonight to talk about the Wild, Dustin Byfuglien, Dubnyk and the Wild’s upcoming schedule and potential playoff opponents if the Wild makes it.

Lineup the same as has been reported all week.

Coach Mike Yeo said today that Matt Cooke’s conditioning after so much time off still needs to improve, so the first “realistic goal” for Cooke to return is likely next Tuesday in Chicago.

The Rangers are awesome on the road. The Metro leaders are a road win for its 26th to break a team record. They are fast and good, so the Wild will have to beware the first 10 minutes tonight to make sure the inevitable rust from four days off doesn’t kill them.

Yeo is worried about an emotional letdown after two big wins and just wants the Wild to get back to that desperation level it was playing with every night.

Also, after four days of hearing how good they are and after four days of so much talk that they’re already in the playoffs, Yeo wants to make sure his players remember they’re not yet.

Yeo met with the six potential fourth-liners down the stretch, tonight’s fourth line of Ryan Carter, Kyle Brodziak and Jordan Schroeder and scratched Erik Haula and Sean Bergenheim and the injured Cooke to explain that they all have arguments as to why should play down the stretch, but if they’re not, it is incumbent on them to have good attitudes, support the rest of the team, not create problems and work hard.

He doesn’t foresee problems but wanted to get ahead of it and explain the situation.

“It’s healthy for a team to have competition,” Schroeder said. “It pushes guys. But at the same time you don’t want guys being upset and negative around the locker room. You want guys to be upbeat and positive and trying to help and support each other.

“Good teams have depth. It’s difficult for everyone from the coaches on down to make decisions when guys are playing so well and the team’s playing so well. So if you’re in, play your butt off and try to stay in the lineup. But things can change night to night.”

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