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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John Curry's Wild debut, Christian Folin's NHL debut among Wild lineup changes

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: April 10, 2014 - 2:03 PM

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.” cool

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:

Parise-Koivu-Coyle

Moulson-Haula-Pominville

Cooke-Brodziak-Nino

Rupp-McCormick-Heatley

Suter-Blum

Brodin-Prosser

Scandella-Folin

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."

Christian Folin's NHL debut, John Curry's Wild debut may come Thursday against St. Louis

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: April 10, 2014 - 7:59 AM

updated

Happy Off-Day to you and yours.

As I mentioned after the Wild's Tuesday night win over the Boston Bruins, the Wild's first-round opponent isn't clear.

If the season ended right now, St. Louis will be the opponent after Anaheim beat San Jose to win the Pacific. If the Wild plays the Blues, that series would likely start next Thursday because Miley Cyrus is playing Scottrade Wednesday.

The Wild can only play St. Louis, Anaheim or Colorado now. If the Wild plays the Avs, that series also can't start until Thursday.

So we wait.

Again, the Wild, as the top wildcard spot, plays the West division winner with the second-best record.

As I mentioned at the top, today was a day off for the Wild, so no access.

My guess though is Ilya Bryzgalov (7-0-3 with a 1.65 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and three shutouts in 10 starts with Minnesota) gets spelled for a night and John Curry makes his Wild debut in net against the Blues. The Shorewood native and former Breck School and Boston University goalie would become the fifth goalie to start a game for Minnesota this season and make his first NHL start since Jan. 11, 2010, for Pittsburgh.

If you didn't read my feature on Curry in Tuesday's paper, here ya go.

I'd also guess that defenseman Christian Folin makes his NHL debut against the Blues, maybe for Jared Spurgeon. The UMass-Lowell free-agent pickup has been practicing with the Wild since last Wednesday after signing last Monday.

The 6-foot-3 right-shot blue-liner skates well, is physical, passes crisply and has a heavy shot. He wears No. 5. If he plays, that'll be huge for his development because it'll give him a taste of what he needs to work on this offseason to get ready for training camp next fall. Remember, he is not playoff eligible, but he will continue to practice with the Wild throughout the postseason. Eventually, Iowa players will join him, too.

Want to know more about Folin? Read Thursday's Star Tribune. I wrote a real cool profile on the kid that will allow you to get to know him a bit better.

Last night, I guessed coach Mike Yeo would rest all his big guns against the Blues.

The more I think about it, the more I doubt that would happen.

The Wild is 5-0-1 in its past six, has been playing playoff style hockey for awhile, has beaten some good teams and I'd think the Wild would be hesitant to just pull the plug on that. Sunday, even if Yeo goes with his full lineup against Nashville in a regular-season finale playoff tune-up, that game will be more like a glorified exhibition game.

After all, the Wild may be in do-not-get-hurt mode, so if all of a sudden you don't play your big guns Thursday, by the time the playoffs begin Wednesday or Thursday of next week, it'll be more than a week since the Wild played a playoff-like game.

So I'd guess they don't quote-unquote rest a bunch of guys. Obviously, if Yeo wants, he could cut back on ice time on some of his heavy-minute guys if he opts to go that route.

The Blues are supposed to be without David Backes Thursday, by the way. The Blues captain was hit by a shot in Tuesday's loss to Washington.'

Talk to you after Thursday's morning skates. I'll be on KFAN inside the penalty box with Paul Allen at 9:55 a.m.

Wild locks up top wildcard spot with shootout victory over Boston

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: April 9, 2014 - 8:58 AM

The Wild is playoff bound after tonight’s come-from-behind 4-3 shootout victory over the NHL-leading Boston Bruins.

This was an opponent that was 16-1-2 in its past 19.

Jason Pominville scored two goals and an assist, Ryan Suter scored the tying goal with 65 seconds left, Mikko Koivu, who had two assists, three takeaways and won 18 of 27 faceoffs, scored the shootout winner on his signature move and Ilya Bryzgalov, the only goalie to get a point in his first 10 starts in Wild history, improved to 7-0-3 with 24 saves and a spotless shootout.

The Wild clinched a playoff spot at 8:44 p.m. when Columbus beat Phoenix in overtime. There were 12 minutes left in the second intermission. The fans didn’t know until the P.A. announcer let everybody know at the start of the third period.

Wild players? They knew at that point because coach Mike Yeo told them. But Yeo made clear that the Wild didn’t want to back in, and a victory would secure the top wildcard spot (again, the Wild cannot pass L.A. because the top three teams in each division get the 1 through 6 seeds).

“We know we’re in the playoffs, down a goal, played the night before, [playing] against a team sitting here waiting for us, to see our guys go after it, good on them,” Yeo said.

As it turned out, the Wild had to win to get that spot because Dallas ended up beating Nashville in a shootout. If the Wild got zero points, the magic number for top wildcard spot still would have been two. If the Wild got one point, the magic number would have been one.

The Wild’s opponent? It’s clear as mud right now. It’ll be Anaheim, St. Louis, Colorado or San Jose.

St. Louis is at 111 points with three games left. Anaheim is at 110 with three games left. Colorado is at 109 with three games left. San Jose is at 107 with three games left

Read the gamer for all the details and some great quotes, but the gist of the locker room was last year the players were disappointed with their April tumble and the necessity to win the final game of the regular season to sneak into a playoff just merely because of a tiebreaker with Columbus.

This year, despite having a schedule that on paper was hellacious, the Wild has gone 5-0-1 in the past six games. In that stretch, the Wild beat Boston, L.A. and Pittsburgh and got a point against Chicago. Those four teams have won the last five Stanley Cups. Toss in the Detroit win March 22 and that’s the last six Stanley Cup winners.

“More importantly I feel good about where our game is at right now,” Yeo said. “We want to build our game right now. I was glad playing teams like Boston and Pittsburgh and L.A. and all these teams. Listen, if we want to have a chance of doing anything, we’re going to have to beat good teams and be at our best. We know what our game is, there’s confidence in it. I feel like we’re ready for the playoffs right now.”

Bruins coach Claude Julien said of the Wild, “The quicker you can clinch, the better it is. To me, I was really impressed with the effort, especially in the third period. Third game in four nights, and there’s some desperation there, and you want to clinch. You find that energy somewhere and I thought there was some pretty good energy in the third period.”

I had a funny back and forth with Suter in the locker room. If you read my blog last night, you saw that I mentioned how I asked Suter about the Wild’s 9 for 9 penalty kill in a four-game stretch after a 12 for 35 stretch in 13 games. He, in the middle of his quote, went into a funny tangent about his lack of goal scoring lately.

Tonight, the Wild’s PK was scored on twice on five chances, including the first two.

Suter said, “I was thinking about those comments you made yesterday about the PK. That’s how it works.”

I go, “I was thinking about your goal-scoring comments.”

Suter smiled, “It’s funny how it works, right?”

Suter talked about playing the right way to get into the playoffs as you can read in the gamer and said, “Hopefully we can keep this thing going here. Yeozie told us after the second that we’re in the playoffs, but for us, it was not about just being in it. It was about being in on our own terms.

“Going into these last little stretch of games, we were concerned. We had the toughest schedule out of the other teams, so for us to turn it on the way we have, it says a lot about the group. You don’t want to wait ‘til the last day like last year.”

Matt Moulson, on March 5, was on the 30th-place Buffalo. Now he’s playoff bound. He assisted on Pominville’s first-period tying goal.

“It’s exciting,” Moulson said. “You dream of lifting that Cup over your head. To get a chance at that, you never know how many chances you’re going to get. You have to take advantage of them. It’s an exciting time.”

The Wild now has two games left in the regular season, starting Thursday against St. Louis, which has lost four of six. Go on Twitter or check out the St. Louis papers for Ken Hitchcock’s pointed comments after tonight’s loss against Washington. The Blues were booed off the ice and Hitchcock said there’s not a lot of buy-in right now. Also, apparently David Backes sustained a lower-body injury.

It’ll be interesting now to see how Yeo works these next two games. There’s a day off Wednesday, so we won’t know for sure until Thursday.

Here’s what I would do. I’d rest some guys against St. Louis. I’d have John Curry make his Wild debut so Bryzgalov gets a rest. I’d give Christian Folin his NHL debut, maybe for Suter. I’d even consider giving Parise or Koivu an off night.

I’d then probably play the team against Nashville just because you do want that last regular-season game to be a bit of a tune-up to make sure you don’t have some of your big guns going more than a week without playing.

Yeo said he’s discussing it behind the scenes. He did intimate that he does want to talk to some of the leaders to get their input.

“We’ll try to figure all that out. For me, I’m real happy with our team game right now. It’s more a matter individually what we need as far as making sure we’re ready to go.”

Parise said, “You get some time to sharpen up, fine tune some things, work on things we need to be better at. I don’t know who we’ll be playing yet, but we’ll prepare a little bit when we find out who.

“We knew the scenarios, but you don’t want to back in. You want to win yourself in. To do it against arguably the best team in the league, it feels good to win to get in.”

Pominville on the playoffs: “It’s what you play for. We’ve had ups and downs, we’ve had injuries, we’ve had goalies get hurt, we’ve had a lot of different guys in the lineup, but we did a good job of staying even-keeled and not getting frustrated when times were tough. It’s nice to be where we want to be.”

Funny line from Yeo on that waved off icing everybody was ticked at moments before Suter scored: “I would have drawn up a perfect play if they would have called an icing,” he joked.

Yeo on the crowd: “I thought the crowd was awesome. It was a fun night.”

That’s it for me. Day off Wednesday, meaning no blog unless there’s news.

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.
 

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