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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Matt Cullen returns for Wild's critical game in Calgary; Ben Hanowski to make NHL debut

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: April 15, 2013 - 1:32 PM

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.

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