This is Michael Russo's 18th year covering the National Hockey League. He's covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005 following 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. Michael 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 has seven games left, is seventh in the West, is tied in points (47) with 8th-place Detroit and two points up on Dallas and Columbus, which both play tonight at Chicago and Colorado, respectively.
Strength of schedule the rest of the way favors the Wild over the teams it is battling with, but that means nothing if the Wild, 2-6-1 in its past nine, doesn't start winning some games.
The Wild is 1-5-1 in April, has scored eight goals in those seven games and allowed 16 goals.
This is the first of two games in a row at Calgary and Edmonton. Winnable games, but the Wild better not take them for granted.
The Flames, without Jarome Iginla and Jay Bouwmeester, are a young, hungry team embracing the role of spoiler. Every night they have been going out playing hard with players trying to make a good impression on GM Jay Feaster and coach Bob Hartley.
The Oilers just got booed off home ice and fired their GM, Steve Tambellini, this morning, so the Wild better anticipate an inspired group of young Oilers on Tuesday.
It's time for some players on the Wild to step up, whether it's a Niklas Backstrom stealing a game or a Mikko Koivu (no points in seven games with the team slipping down the standings) captaining the team to a win or a slumping player like Zach Parise (0 goals, 3 assists, -4 in April) or Devin Setoguchi (one goal in the past 12 games) or Cal Clutterbuck (no goals in 14 games, one in 24) or Kyle Brodziak (no goals, one assist, minus-5 in 10 games) scoring a big goal.
One thing that should help is the return of veteran Matt Cullen, who feels "young and fresh." That return will happen tonight in the front end of the back-to-back in Calgary.
Cullen should add some speed and energy, help a guy like Setoguchi and make it more difficult to solely check and worry about that Koivu line, coach Mike Yeo said. The Wild was 1-4-1 without the former St. Cloud State stud.
Cullen will hop right back between Jason Zucker and Setoguchi.
"The way that they were playing, we would obviously like to see them get back to that level very quickly," Yeo said. "I also think just mentally, the confidence that adds to the group. It's a welcome addition and important part of our team."
Mikael Granlund will be scratched. Same blue line, meaning Justin Falk and Nate Prosser are scratched. Yeo wouldn't say if he's considering starting Darcy Kuemper in Edmonton.
Cullen has been given medical clearance and said he's very happy how his injury felt this morning. It is clear though that if the Wild wasn't in such a desperate situation, he would remain sidelined. He is rushing back because of the circumstance of the team.
"It's been awfully tough watching and it will be nice to get back in the fight with the guys," Cullen said. "It responded as well as I had hoped, so good enough to go here. ... If there's a side benefit to it, it's a pretty good stretch of rest to be rejuvenated here. ... We've gone through a tough stretch of games. We have seven left here and we have to win a bunch."
Said Parise: "He was playing so well before he got hurt. Really, that line with him and Setoguchi was playing unreal before he got hurt. That was a big part of us winning games and scoring a lot of goals, so for us to be getting him back, it'll be big for those guys that he's playing with and it'll be big for our team."
Parise and Koivu will play with Charlie Coyle. Yeo quipped, "We hope to have him for more than about 15 seconds tonight," referring to the major and game misconduct that he received vs. Columbus 17 seconds in Saturday.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard again skates with Brodziak and Jason Pominville, while Mike Rupp skates with Torrey Mitchell and Clutterbuck.
Speaking of now-former Huskies, one of the Flames looking to make a good impression tonight is Little Falls' Ben Hanowski, fresh off his Frozen Four appearance with St. Cloud State.
Hanowski, who will wear No. 58 and is still full of long hair for the Huskies' Locks of Love charitable endeavor, will make his NHL debut against his favorite team growing up, the Wild. He arrived yesterday.
Hanowski, acquired in last month's trade for Calgary Flames icon Jarome Iginla, said that debuting against Minnesota adds a "cherry on top."
He said the last few days has been exciting and hectic, but "I'm excited to be here and excited for this opportunity. I'm getting thrown right in there, and it'll be fun. Growing up, you always dream of playing a game in the NHL. ... I enjoyed my four years at St. Cloud, but I'm excited to start my new journey."
Hanowski, by the way, will have to skip his financial institutions and insurance exams today and tomorrow at St. Cloud. He's a bit busy right now. But he says his professors have been great and are going to let him make up for all the missed classes this summer.
I'll have a lot more from Hanowski in tomorrow's newspaper. He didn't know which teammates he'd line up with tonight and still hadn't met with the coaches to discuss systems and roles. So this has been a whirlwind to say the least for the kid.
In other Wild news, the Wild has assigned defenseman Matt Dumba from Red Deer to the Houston Aeros. This is not technically an amateur tryout (ATO) because he is under contract.
Also, as previously reported too, Josh Harding's conditioning stint in Houston can be six days and three games. He leaves today for Houston and begin work on the ice tomorrow. He will likely play two games this weekend. The Aeros' final three regular season games are Friday at Texas, Saturday at San Antonio and Sunday at Oklahoma City. GM Chuck Fletcher indicated the plan is Friday and Saturday.
Tonight's game is on FSN-PLUS, so please put that in your memory banks because I'll be ignoring the incessant Twitter question, "Is the game on TV?" tonight.
I will be on during Wild Live at 7:30 p.m. CT and the first intermission tonight.
Great timing by Russo to send in a substitute for Thursday's morning skate! This is Rachel Blount, who braved the slop to check in with the Wild before tonight's game against St. Louis at Xcel Energy Center.
Everyone talks about the need to quickly get past disappointments in this compressed season, but the Wild played so poorly against the Blues in a 4-1 loss on April 1 that it's hard to forget. That stinker put the brakes on the team's momentum, ending a four-game home winning streak and beginning a run of four losses in five games. Coach Mike Yeo said the Wild must playat a faster pace tonight against the big, rugged Blues, and it must do a better job of getting to the net--a key to its success that has been missing lately.
"We have to be a little bit better with the puck,'' Yeo said. "A lot of it is understanding it's going to be that kind of game, with not a lot of free space. We've got to be going north quickly when we have a chance; the longer we hang on to the puck, the more opportunity you give them to work their way back on top of it. And the next thing you know, you're trying to go through those big bodies again.
"They don't give you anything for free. You've got to be committed to breaking them down, forcing them into mistakes. I think one thing we have to do a much better job of, that we haven't done as much of lately, is funneling pucks and bodies to the net. When we were scoring goals, that was sort of our mentality. Quite often, when you haven't scored as many goals, for whatever reason, you drift further and further away from the area where you do score those goals. That's going to be something that's very important tonight.''
One lineup change for tonight: defenseman Tom Gilbert will return to the lineup, with Nate Prosser scratched. Gilbert has sat out the past two games.
Other notes from the morning skate:
--No news on Matt Cullen's return, though the injured center skated again today.
--Yeo said no timetable has been set yet for goaltender Josh Harding's return to competition. Harding practiced for the second consecutive day Thursday after being sidelined for two months because of issues related to his treatment for multiple sclerosis. Yeo and Harding both said he is being assessed on a day-to-day basis, and Harding said he feels great and is eager to get back.
"It's coming back a lot quicker than I thought,'' said Harding, who said he is focusing on "getting the feel of the puck'' and practicing situations he will face in games. "I'm feeling good out there. I'm definitely excited. I know there's a lot of work to do to get back to the game. But I'm feeling good, and I hope it keeps going like this.''
--Winger Devin Setoguchi said he is continuing to work on developing chemistry with center Mikael Granlund. Setoguchi has cooled considerably since Cullen--who had been centering his line--was injured. He has only one assist in the four games Cullen has missed and has one goal and three assists in his past 10 games.
With Cullen, Setoguchi said, the rapport they had meant he knew where Cullen was going to be, which made it easy to anticipate the play. That made for good positioning without wasting energy. Without him, he said, he must do more.
"I think when you don't have (chemistry), sometimes you try to take a shortcut,'' Setoguchi said. "You need to work harder. And when you do that, you tend to build the chemistry. That's what our plan is, to work really hard and hope it pays off.''
Setoguchi said that without Cullen or injured winger Dany Heatley in the lineup, it creates opportunity for others to step into larger roles. Yeo said he would like to see Setoguchi do that, because he believes Setoguchi has the skill to do so even without the aid of a highly complementary linemate.
"I'll be perfectly honest,'' Yeo said. "I don't know that (Setoguchi) has been completely on top of his game. Certainly going into a game, he can maybe be a little more sharp, a little more alert if you think you're going to get a few more pucks. He's got the opportunity to help be a leader of this team, and of that line as well. Obviously, Cully is a huge complement to him. But Seto has the ability to have an impact in every game.''
As expected, the Wild has signed Gophers center Erik Haula, who led the U in scoring the past two seasons, to a two-year entry-level deal. He signed an amateur tryout and will immediately report to Houston, where he is eligible to play in the Calder Cup playoffs.
He is expected to make his debut Wednesday against Oklahoma City.
Haula's contract is the max for a 2009 pick, I understand, with max A bonuses. Not bad for a 2009 seventh-rounder.
"My dream has always been to have a chance to play in the big leagues and this is the start," Haula said by phone after flying to Houston. "I’ve worked hard for it and I’m really excited to get started with a great organization."
Here is a feature I wrote on Haula, the Finnesotan, in November.
The product of Shattuck-St. Mary's recorded Minnesota's first 50-point season since 2005-06. He hit the 100-point plateau this past season and ranks 49th on the Gophers' all-time list.
He was the first Gopher since Ryan Potulny (2003-06) to finish his collegiate career with an average of more than a point a game.
"It was tough to leave," Haula said. "Being with the same guys for three years, it’s not easy to leave. We’ve had pretty good success lately and to not get to that last game of the year this year was really disappointing, so that made the leaving part harder. But it’s time to take the next step and I was happy to get the support from my coaches and teammates."
Haula said he knows he has to learn to play against men and he hopes to take everything in to set himself up for training camp next year. He said he talked to buddy and fellow Finn Mikael Granlund about coming to Houston the other day and the next day he was called up by the Wild.
Haula, 22, ranked second in the NCAA in assists (35) and tied for fourth in scoring (51 points) and was named to the 2012-13 All-WCHA Second Team and the All-WCHA Academic Team. Haula led Minnesota and ranked ninth in the nation in scoring with 49 points (20-29=49) in 43 games in 2011-12 to help the Gophers advance to the NCAA Frozen Four. He tallied 24 points (6-18=24) in 34 games during his freshman season and ranked tied for first on the team in assists and third in scoring.
The Wild, now four points up on surging and ninth-place Phoenix, has a huge game tonight against Columbus. Marian Gaborik will make his home debut. Brandon Dubinsky and Nikita Nikitin are game-time decisions for the Blue Jackets.
Gaborik said in New York, "One team wants you, one team maybe tries to go in a different direction. I told myself this was a new, fresh start, new challenge. Young team, a lot of potential for the future, so I'm glad I made the decision."
The Blue Jackets, 11-3-5 in their past 19 and 9-0-3 in their past 12 at home, have been running hot. The Wild has not and badly needs a victory to stop the bleeding, or things will get real tense.
"They're a desperate team right now, too, based on where they sit in the standings and just kind of the way it's gone for them lately," former Wild coach Todd Richards said. "They were a hot team and have lost some games here in a row, so you know they're going to be ready to go."
Richard said the special feelings of playing the Wild have "worn off."
Niklas Backstrom vs. redhot Sergei Bobrovsky and his gigantic pads tonight.
For the Wild, veteran defenseman Tom Gilbert, whose play has dipped like a few defensemen, will be scratched for what he says is the first time in his career. He says he has to get back to simplicity.
Coach Mike Yeo said, "Hopefully this is something that spurs him to get it back. A lot of it is mental. I don't think we have to get too much into it. I'm not saying that he's been awful or he's the reason that we lost three games, but I think it was time to make a change. Hopefully this helps him get back on track."
Gilbert is a minus-13, tied for 269th out of 275 NHL defensemen, and plainly has been playing badly.
I know fans are clamoring for Clayton Stoner to be scratched, but my sense is Yeo does not feel comfortable giving Justin Falk, Nate Prosser or Brett Clark top-4 minutes. And that is simply the decidling factor. If Stoner sits, somebody has to go into that slot.
Plain, simple. I don't know a better way to explain it. I get your frustration. Stoner has struggled bigtime lately. But this is one of those occasions where the Wild needs to work with him and badly needs for him to improve his play. Taking him out is not simple if you don't have somebody to take that top-4 spot.
Clark sits tonight, too. Falk and Prosser are in.
Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville
P-M Bouchard-Mikael Granlund-Devin Setoguchi
Cal Clutterbuck-Kyle Brodziak-Charlie Coyle
Mike Rupp-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell
The Wild hopes to get veteran Matt Cullen back soon. He is expected to see the doctor tomorrow, but since he hasn't practiced in awhile, we'll see how soon he can get back in the lineup even if he's cleared.
I am not as confident that we'll be seeing Dany Heatley any time soon.
By the way, I will be hosting a live chat on startribune.com on Monday at 2 p.m. CT.
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