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 Wild's Masterton Trophy nominee once again

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news Updated: April 8, 2014 - 7:41 PM

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).

Wild can clinch playoff spot tonight + "Let's Go Blues! Let's Go Blues!"

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild pregame skate Updated: April 8, 2014 - 12:23 PM

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.

Gulp.

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.

Gulp.

Maybe that's the night coach Mike Yeo may want to opt "resting" some of his big guys. wink

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 crying)

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.
 

"Il-ya, Il-ya, Il-ya" leads Wild to the brink of the playoffs

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild game coverage Updated: April 7, 2014 - 11:18 PM

For some reason the Wild hasn’t been successful in the front end of back-to-backs (3-9 before tonight’s 1-0 win at Winnipeg; eighth shutout by the Wild to tie a team record), so defenseman Ryan Suter said this was kind of a “trap game” tonight with the hard-working Jets out of the playoff hunt, the Wild so close to clinching a playoff spot and the Boston Bruins, the top team in the NHL, waiting for the Wild in Minnesota for Tuesday night’s game.

But the Wild grinded it out. Its execution wasn’t good all night long offensively, but man, the Wild worked hard and defended well. Players sure had to with as much time as they spent in their own zone.

“That was the definition of grinding it out,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We battled hard. Structure-wise, we were good. Penalty kill was huge (4 for 4). The play of our defensemen in particular, really impressed.”

You have to give Yeo and his staff credit (I know, I know, players win games and coaches lose games).

Obviously, the four goalies who have been No. 1 this season for the Wild (Nik Backstrom, Josh Harding, Darcy Kuemper and now Ilya Bryzgalov) deserve credit, but this could have blown up at any time along the way if not for the Wild’s impressive defensive structure and Yeo’s system.

The Wild’s goalies are rarely peppered and when the Wild most needed it, it has gotten back to a defensive structure that has allowed 26 or fewer shots in the past eight games.

“This team right now, we’re going good places,” said defenseman Jon Blum, who had his best game since his callup. “We’re focused on defense first and you can see that. Whenever they get that big chance, Bryz makes that big save for us. We’re feeding off that.”

“Bryz” tonight made 24 saves for his second consecutive shutout. He’ll start against Boston and carry a shutout streak of 142 minutes, 15 seconds into a game against a team that is 13-1-4 in its past 18 on the road and 16-1-2 in the past 19 overall.

The Wild’s magic number is one point. Its magic number for the top wildcard spot is two.

Tuesday’s clinching scenarios:

-- Wild win or overtime/shootout loss

--Phoenix loss of any kind

--Phoenix shootout win

To not make the playoffs, the Wild would have to go 0-3 and the Coyotes would have to go 4-0 (no shootout wins) and then make up what would seem to be an insurmountable goal differential tiebreaker (plus-2 for Minnesota, minus-12 for Phoenix).

Six or seven games ago, it looked like the Wild was on its way to being toast. Now it’s 4-0-1 in its past five and closed its regular-season road schedule with a 17-17-7 record (7-3-2 since the Olympic break). Remember, before the Olympic break, the Wild was one of the worst road teams in the NHL.

“We went into a lot of tough buildings and I give our guys credit for the way they battled on the road,” Yeo said.

“It’ crazy how fast it can turn around,” said Charlie Coyle, who scored the winning goal 65 seconds into the second period on an even-strength goal that was basically a power-play goal. “Things aren’t going your way and you lose a game, it feels like the end of the world and when you win you’re on top of the world. You have to stay even-keeled.”

Coyle has 10 points in the past nine games and five goals. Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu set up his goal, and the line now has eight goals and 21 points in five games and a period since Yeo reunited them in the third period of that loss in St. Louis.

“I tried to find the open ice there and let those guys make plays,” Coyle said.

Bryzgalov is 6-0-3 in 10 appearances and nine starts with a 1.67 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and three shutouts. He’s been great and had some good quotes you can read in the game story. Also, check out the stuff about the Jets fans (see below) taunting him. Funny stuff.

“Very calm in the net, making a lot of very tough saves look easy,” Yeo said of Bryz.

What Yeo liked most about tonight was the battle level and defensive structure. Suter and Jared Spurgeon were solid all night yet again. Jon Blum may have played his best game with the Wild.

“All night our execution wasn’t very good. We know that,” Yeo said. “But you can win games where you’re not completely at your best” when you defend well and you’re structured and work hard.

The Wild’s penalty kill was 4 for 4 and is now 9 for 9 in the past four games after giving up 12 goals on 35 chances in the previous 13 games.

“That’s how it works,” Suter said. “You give up a couple cheesy ones and it turns around. It’s funny how the game works. It’s just like scoring goals. You don’t score goals all year and you get a hat trick. I mean, who would have thought (referring to his hattie back in January against Washington that helped turn the season around). That’s how the game is. Now I can’t buy one.

“Uh, uh, PK, back on point. Hopefully now we’re going up.”

This doesn’t read as funny as Suter sounded. He just went on a little tangent and then, … back to the penalty kill.

“Come playoff time, it’s got to be good,” Matt Cooke said of the PK. “Our whole game has to be good. We know we have right the system, we know we have the right components in this room. We have three games left to build.”

That’s it for me. Early flight home. Doubtful Wild has a skate in the morning, but if it does, I’ll blog afterward. Otherwise, talk to you pregame.

Check out the gamer, John Curry feature and Nino Niederreiter notebook in the paper Tuesday.

Wild cannot officially clinch playoff spot tonight. Here's why:

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: April 7, 2014 - 2:34 PM

“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:

Parise-Koivu-Coyle

Moulson-Haula-Pominville

Cooke-Brodziak-Fontaine

Veilleux-McCormick-Niederreiter

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 playoff strips on sale this morning; Wild Fan Celebrations at final 3 home games

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news Updated: April 7, 2014 - 9:42 AM

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.

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