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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Josh Harding closing in on his return to the Wild cage

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: December 28, 2013 - 3:57 PM

Afternoon from Xcel Energy Center, where it’s actually nice to be back in the press room again after spending 17 of the past 19 days on the road.

Out on the ice right now, the United States and Canada women’s hockey teams are getting set for an exhibition game. Like the men, the final women’s roster will be announced Jan. 1 on NBC. The women’s will be announced during the second intermission of the Winter Classic, the men’s after the game.

At noon, the Wild took the ice for what coach Mike Yeo termed a “productive practice.” He was happy with the team’s execution and attention to details, and that’s obviously two things the Wild better get back to doing during this important four-game homestand that begins Sunday night against the New York Islanders.

The other thing the Wild needs is Josh Harding back in the cage and that appears to be very close. Yeo wouldn’t divulge Sunday’s starter, but Harding spent every moment of practice in one of the two nets and Johan Gustafsson was just a spectator. At the very least, he'll dress because Gustafsson was reassigned.

Afterward, Harding talked to the beat writers for the first time since making 29 saves in a Dec. 17 shootout win over Vancouver. He certainly sounded like a guy who thinks he can start Sunday and said he planned to talk it over with Yeo.

“I felt good today,” said Harding, who is 18-5-3 with a 1.51 goals-against average and .939 save percentage. “Obviously you don’t like watching games, so I’d like to get back out there as soon as possible and help the team out if I can.”

On seeing the Wild sink in the standings and on the ice during his four-game absence, Harding said, “It’s definitely frustrating. It’s frustrating for everybody in here. We’re a team. We win as a team, we lose as a team and whether you’re not playing or you’re playing, you’re a part of it. But the only bad thing about not being with the team is you feel kind of helpless, You want to be there for the guys.”

Harding said he felt much better and cleaner in the cage during Saturday’s practice than Friday’s pregame skate in Winnipeg.

Harding again reiterated that he did not sustain complications from multiple sclerosis. This was a schedule treatment alteration.

“Without going into detail, it’s something that has to be done, really minor and I’m ready to go right now,” Harding said.

For whatever reason, the Wild plays better in front of Harding than Niklas Backstrom. In Harding’s 18 wins, it has allowed 25.3 shots per game. In Backstrom’s 13 decisions, it has allowed 32.3. He has allowed three or more goals in his past six starts and 17 in the four starts in place of Harding.

Asked if the Wild seems to be more confident in front of Harding, Yeo said, “I don’t want to start painting that picture. I will say that, especially lately, I don’t think we’ve played nearly well enough in front of Back. And we’ve got to fix that.”

Friday, I felt Harding would return New Year’s Eve against St. Louis. Now I think he’ll return against the Islanders, if for no other reason than the Wild is really up against it now.

Zach Parise was around the rink today walking around in sneakers with no visible limp. But again, the Wild will keep him off the ice until doctors give him the clear. He was placed on injured reserve Saturday.

Yeo said Parise is frustrated. “He wants to be in the lineup. Hopefully everyday he gets his rest is a day we get closer to him coming back. He wants to get on the ice and he wants to help the team. He’s a huge part of our team. We can’t wait to have him back.”

Cal Clutterbuck returns Sunday with the New York Islanders. Since the NHL started recording hits in 2005-06, he is the franchise leader in hits by 908 (Nick Schultz was second with 549 to Clutterbuck’s 1,457).

I talked to Clutterbuck a few days ago and did a story on his return in Sunday’s paper. He’s nervous and excited and is looking forward to playing in front of the fans again. He won’t get much time here because the Isles play at home Saturday night against New Jersey.

The Isles have had a tough year.

“It’s been tough,” said Clutterbuck, who scored a shorthanded penalty-shot goal in a win over the Islanders last week. “The toughest thing about it all is the team, we’re not playing poorly at all. It’s been a tougher stretch for us because we’re playing pretty decent hockey against some pretty good teams. I don’t know what the stat is, but we’ve something like 10 two-goal leads in the third period. We get to the 10-minute mark of the third and make mistakes and it’s costing us a lot of games. We’re figuring that out right now. It’s been a frustration and a little bit long.

“But we have a lot of good players and we’ll become a good team.”

One of those good players, superstar John Tavares, is missing the game against the Devils with a lower-body injury, so the Wild may catch a giant break Sunday.

Nino Niederreiter is also playing his first game Sunday against the team that drafted him fifth overall in 2010. The Nino story has been written a ton this year, so I’m not about to rehash. But it’s kind of apropos that the team that sanctioned him to the fourth line as a teenager will  face him on the first line in Minnesota. We’ll see if Niederreiter can make a statement.

He says he’s just looking at it as a normal game, but after asking to be traded and having that request met with his fresh start in Minnesota, you know he’ll be motivated.

Talk to you Sunday.

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