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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Hanging with Ed Hochuli, and a lot of Wild-Sabres updates

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: October 14, 2013 - 12:27 PM

The Wild opens a four-game road trip tonight against Thomas Vanek and the Buffalo Sabres.

Good day from Buffalo, where the Sabres and Wild skated this morning in preparation for tonight's tilt.

Josh Harding vs. Jhonas Enroth, as the Sabres will save No. 1 Ryan Miller to start vs. the Islanders in a conference-conference game tomorrow. Darcy Kuemper as expected has been recalled and will back up tonight after playing for Iowa last night in a 4-2 loss to Oklahoma City.

The question is whether Kuemper starts tomorrow at Toronto. Coach Mike Yeo said the Wild's only focusing on tonight's game, but it would seem at least now doubtful the Wild would start Harding back-to-back (unless he faces like 10 shots tonight) behind potentially tired teammates against a formidible, rested opponent and in three of four with travel with two important games on the horizon in Tampa and Florida (run-on sentence).

There's all my reasons, but I don't coach. Niklas Backstrom appears to be getting closer as he took part in the full skate again today, but if he's not ready to back up tonight, hard to buy he's ready to start tomorrow. This is Harding's time. He's got a great opportunity to keep taking the nets even after Backstrom is healthy as long as he continues to play this well.

The Sabres are winless. No team wants to be the first team to lose to a winless team, so the Wild better come jacked and ready to continue playing good hockey tonight. Most impressively about all five games is how often the Wild has the puck and how often it's been in the offensive zone. These are all good signs.

Yeo said it would be "foolish" to come into this game "with our guards down at all."

Marco Scandella and Nate Prosser will be the lone scratches. Third in a row for Scandella, and Yeo says he just has to hang in there. It's clear Yeo is not looking to mess with D that's given up 34 shots the past two wins, and with a game tomorrow in Toronto, Yeo said there's a chance Scandella would play there.

Johan Larsson, the 2010 second-round pick by the Wild, will face pal Jonas Brodin and his old mates tonight for the first time. Larsson, who some say has all the makings of a future captain, sits right between co-captains Thomas Vanek and Steve Ott in the Sabres locker room. He says tonight will be special and I got some good color regarding the day he was traded from the Wild in the Jason Pominville swap in April. That will be in tomorrow's notebook.

Also talked to Justin Fontaine and Matt Dumba about their past few days since scoring their first NHL goals. Fontaine said his mom called him up and told him to watch his mouth after seeing the super slo-mo of his goal celebration. I'll have that in tomorrow's notebook.

I had a cool night last night. I ended up watching baseball with the Human NFL ref Flex, Ed Hochuli, and his cool crew, who officiated yesterday's Bills-Bengals game. Fun talking football and hockey with those guys. They work a game in Kansas City next Sunday, then go to London for 49ers-Jaguars, then come to....Minneapolis to work a Thursday night Redskins-Vikes game Nov. 7.

I tried to convince them to come in Tuesday for Wild-Flames.

All this came after my colleague from across the river and I created a Buffalo firestorm by tweeting that Matt Flynn was on our flight from Minny to Buffalo. Flynn actually sat across the aisle from me on the plane. Bills need a QB. Flynn's a QB recently dumped.

Put 2 and 2 together and it always equals ... 5. He'll be a Bill.

So, suddenly my Twitter follower list includes a bunch of soon-to-be disappointed Bills fans because they'll be peppered with Nino Niederreiter and Fontaine tweets.

The Wild has won two in a row but is 0-1 on the road. The Sabres are 0-5-1 this season, have scored six goals and given up 16.

The Western Conference is 27-6-3 against the East this season, so we'll soon find out if the Wild keeps that trend going as it swings through Buffalo tonight, Toronto tomorrow, Tampa on Thursday and Sunrise, Fla., on Saturday. Doc and Pierre on the NBC Sports Network call tonight.

As you read in today's paper here, I interviewed Vanek soon after the former Gophers star landed in Chicago on Friday. He's always a good dude and is trying his hardest to help young Buffalo escape the early-season doldrums.

He's well aware of all the Vanek to Minnesota assumptions, but he is not thinking about free agency now. As I've written and said many, many times in the Strib, on the Strib web site, on the radio, inside a watering hole when you've asked me, if I had to say right this moment, I think Vanek is playing his future team tonight.

HOWEVER, a lot can change in a year. I still think the Wild lacks a natural goal scorer. But maybe Charlie Coyle, Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, potentially-soon-to-be-suspended-in-the-A Jason Zucker look like they'll blossom into that natural scorer by season's end.

If that happens, maybe at the end of this season the Wild feels it needs a bruising defenseman and the money could be better served there. Maybe it's a goalie. Maybe Vanek has a tough year or gets hurt.

So a lot can change, so nothing is guaranteed. I always felt Zach Parise was guaranteed (although it wasn't as guaranteed as I had always thought) and a number of stars needed to align, like Ryan Suter leading the way here (we have all since learned that Suter was a lot more influential in getting the Parise-Suter tagteam done than we had always assumed at the time). But with Vanek, especially when the Wild has committed so many long-term dollars to Parise, Mikko Koivu, Suter and Pominville, the Wild's got to be smart with however it spends it long-term dollars next summer because you always want to make sure there's the money to eventually commit to Coyle, Brodin, Granlund, Niederreiter, etc., on their next contracts.

Like let's be honest. It wouldn't be surprising if Brodin's signed to the max eight-year deal in a year or so.

Anyways, I mentioned Zucker. He got a match penalty for a check to the head of OKC's Linus Omark last night, so we'll see if further discipline comes from that. A 2-2 tie became a 4-2 loss for Iowa during the Barons' 5-minute PP from the hit. Omark did return to the game soon after the check.

Zucker, by the way, was coached by Sabres coach Ron Rolston with USA Hockey and Rolston is a big fan. I'll toss some stuff from the friendly Rolston in tomorrow's notebook. Rolston says bro Brian Rolston, the 3-time Wild 30-goal scoring sniper, is enjoying retired life in Traverse City, Mich., and loves playing hockey dad.

Who's better than Brian Rolston? Nineteen years covering the NHL, and I'd toss him in my top-10 of favorite players that I've been fortunate enough to cover. Just a great guy.

If you missed the Pominville returns story, that was in Sunday's paper. The former Sabres captain talked to a large media contingent today at the First Niagara Center. Just a classy press conference, and he joked that he hopes the fan response to him tonight is "better than Suter got in Nashville."

Yeo indicated already that Pominville will start tonight.

"It's an important game to him and that makes it an important game for us," Yeo said.

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