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Russo's Rants

Michael Russo gives you complete coverage of the Minnesota Wild and the NHL

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final tonight: Penguins vs. Sharks; Expansion chatter

Good morning from Pittsburgh, where the Penguins and Sharks held optional morning skates in advance of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final tonight at 7 p.m. CT.

That's right. I'm here in Pittsburgh. Thanks to our great newspaper, I'll be covering the series, so please be sure to grab the paper and come back and throughout the series.

If you head to the Wild page now, you can see my advance on the series, particularly on how amazing it is that San Jose overcame the turmoil of the past few seasons to get to this point. Former Shark Alex Stalock has a lot of good stuff to say in there. You can also read Jim Souhan's column on Penguins star and former Gopher Phil Kessel and my matchup scouting report.

In tomorrow's paper, a report on the game and a story on former Gopher Paul Martin.

I'm also planning a Matt Cullen feature for Wednesday's paper (his wife, Bridget, as usual was full of great anecdotes; she wasn't please with my series prediction, which she had just read right before I called her) and I am working on features on former Wild players Joel Ward and Brent Burns and former Shattuck St. Mary's center ... Sidney Crosby. I'll also do something soon on White Bear Lake's Justin Braun and likely Joe Pavelski.

The cool thing about this Final: With Minnesotans on both teams, the Stanley Cup is guaranteed to come to the State of Hockey this summer.

Also, come back later and follow along on Twitter during Commissioner Gary Bettman's state of the league news conference today at 4:30 p.m. CT.

I hear later this week ("early June," to be exact) the nine-person executive committee, which includes Wild owner Craig Leipold, will convene to discuss expansion to Las Vegas. Does that include a vote? Potentially. Remember, if there is going to be an expansion draft next June and an expansion team in 2017-18, it would make a lot of sense to make an official announcement when the Board of Governors meet in Las Vegas June 22 before the NHL Awards.

Maybe Bettman will shed further light on all this.

As for this series, it should be fun, fast hockey between two fun, fast teams.

As Sidney Crosby said yesterday, "This is going to be some of the fastest hockey that any of us have played."

It'll be an interesting series. Not sure there's ever been a Cup Final with two starting goalies with less experience. But Martin Jones and Matt Murray have been amazing.

Wild reaches deal with prospect Chase Lang; other signing news

The Wild signed forward prospect Chase Lang to his three-year, entry-level contract this morning.

Lang, 19, is considered a two-way center who plays with energy. The 2014 sixth-rounder put up points in junior (66 goals and 155 points in 244 career games), but assistant GM Brent Flahr has always said that Lang's bread and butter will be his defensive game and energy. He's a good penalty killer. As with most kids, he needs to keep filling out and get stronger, which he'll have a chance to do starting next season in Iowa.

The Wild had until June 1 to sign Lang.

Similarly, it has until June 1 to sign forward Reid Duke, who's currently playing in the Memorial Cup for the Western Hockey League champion Brandon Wheat Kings. Brandon got smoked last night, 9-1, by the London Knights, so the Wheat Kings now must beat host Red Deer to advance in the tournament.

Duke, a 2014 sixth-rounder, ranked sixth in the WHL playoffs with 24 points in 21 games. He tied for 23rd in the league during the regular season with 33 goals.

The Wild has until June 1 to sign Duke, trade him or let him go back into next month's draft. I'm hearing the Wild has had three or four teams call on Duke in the last week, so my gut says, if the Wild can't sign Duke or is uninterested in signing Duke, it'll trade his rights in the next week for a pick or young player.

Remember, the Wild will likely be looking to add picks in this year's draft. It currently has no second-, third-, fifth- or sixth-round pick. It has a first, fourth and two sevenths.

Also, it doesn't sound like 2014 fifth-round pick Tanner Faith will be signed. The defenseman had a good underage year with Kootenay, but he has had some shoulder injuries.

As for the other 2014 draft picks, Alex Tuch and Pavel Jenys are signed, Louis Belpedio is still in college and Kaapo Kahkonen and Pontus Sjalin are still in Europe. So the Wild still owns their rights.

Also, the Wild doesn't plan to sign former Michigan State defenseman John Draeger, a 2012 third-round pick. The Faribault native also had a number of injuries throughout college.

Back to Lang, from the Wild press release:

Lang, 19 (9/13/96), notched 63 points (27-36=63) including eight power-play goals and five game-winning goals and 76 PIM in 69 games with the Vancouver Giants and Calgary Hitmen in the Western Hockey League (WHL) this season. He was traded by Calgary to Vancouver on Oct. 27, and led the Giants in scoring and ranked second in goals. The 6-foot-1, 193-pound native of Nanaimo, B.C., recorded three points (2-1=3) in 11 games with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League (AHL) following the conclusion of the WHL season. Lang tallied 155 points (66-89=155) and 199 PIM in 244 career WHL games with Calgary and Vancouver. He was originally selected by Minnesota in the sixth round (167th overall) of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft.