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 returning to Wild cage tonight; Zach Parise injury update

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: December 29, 2013 - 1:22 PM

Josh Harding will return to the Wild nets tonight when his team opens a four-game homestand against “my” New York Islanders.

Well, my childhood team at least.

Remember 1981? That was fun. Just a joke peeps, although even though I was a young pup, those four Cups during the Islanders’ dynasty is what embedded hockey into my veins.

Those were the early days of SportsChannel in New York, and I still remember watching Jiggs McDonald call Islanders game. The semi-retired Hall of Fame broadcaster is actually in Minnesota today filling in for Howie Rose on tonight’s Islanders telecast. Few better than Jiggs, whom I became pals with during his five seasons calling Florida Panthers games on radio during my Sun-Sentinel days.

There’s good and bad news with the Islanders’ lineup tonight if you’re a Wild fan.

The good news: The Wild will catch the Isles on the second of back-to-back after playing at home last night in a 2-1 loss to the Devils. Michael Grabner is sick and won’t play. Josh Bailey got injured last night and won’t play. Kevin Poulin will start for the Isles (if you consider backups good news).

The bad news: The Isles’ best player, captain John Tavares, the No. 1 pick in the 2009 draft and 2013 Hart Trophy finalist, says he plans to play tonight after missing last night’s game with a lower-body injury.

For the Wild, center Zenon Konopka will be scratched and Torrey Mitchell will center a fourth line with Mike Rupp and Stephane Veilleux.

The rest of the lines and D pairs stay the same.

Zach Parise continues to work hard off the ice but is not allowed to be on it. I don’t think we’re going to see him for awhile. I don’t know what awhile means, but I hear the latest MRI he had showed a fracture in his foot that didn’t show up the first time around.

Typically stress fractures take four to six weeks. Knowing Parise, it won’t take that long and this shouldn’t affect his Olympic status, but coach Mike Yeo has changed his tune the past few days and stopped calling it day-to-day.

“We’ve got to keep him off the ice until it starts to feel better and then we might have to keep him off a little bit longer,” Yeo said this morning. “We just have make sure he gets a full opportunity to heal. It’s a long season and we need him to have the opportunity to go out and perform and compete at the level that he’s capable of.

“He’s been really grinding it out there. He’s such a competitor, he wants to be in the lineup and it’s been extremely difficult for him. We have to give him a lot of credit for that, but at the same time, we’ve got to make sure he gets better.”

So again, we don’t know the timeframe but we do know that the team is not going to let Parise play through this anymore after four goals and one assist in the 12 games he did. Parise will miss his third consecutive game today and is on injured reserve.

As I mentioned above, Harding, who is 18-5-3 with a 1.51 goals-against average and .939 save percentage, is back tonight. He’ll play for the first time since beating Vancouver on Dec. 17. He’s missed the past four games to have his treatment protocol altered for MS. Harding is 14-1 at home.

But Yeo said the Wild can’t use Harding’s return and the homestand as a reliance that all will be cured. The Wild’s game has turned south dramatically the past four games and Yeo says the Wild has to put in the work to get it back.

As I wrote in today’s paper though, the Wild does look like it plays more confidently in front of Harding than Niklas Backstrom.

Yeo said, “That’s something I’d like to rectify. I’d like to be the same team regardless of who’s in the net for us and who we’re playing against and whether we’re playing at home or the road. We have played a stronger game in front of josh, but I also don’t want to take anything away from him. He’s also made it appear that way many times, too. At the end of the game, when you win 2-1, it’s easy to forget about some of the great saves he’s made. There’s no question there’s been times where he’s allowed our team to find our game.”

And that to me is the big thing. Harding has made the big saves early when the Wild starts slow or makes the big saves late when the Wild needs him to cover up for them. Backstrom just hasn’t done the same thing.

Cal Clutterbuck, as you can read in this feature, will return to play the Wild tonight. He took the ice during the Islanders’ optional this morning.

Nino Niederreiter will play the Isles for the first time. His quotes were in the Harding notebook today here.

Yeo is very happy with Niederreiter’s game, although Yeo said, “I do believe there’s another level to get to [offensively]. I’m very pleased with his defensive game. He’s a very responsible player now, he’s playing better without the puck, he’s in a better position on the ice, he’s playing less off instincts and he’s showing he’s maturing as a player.”

I’ll have more from Niederreiter in Monday’s paper. I talked to him a lot this morning about world juniors, which is where he really skyrocketed up the draft charts when he was eventually taken fifth overall three years ago by the Islanders.

Oh, and Thomas Vanek is playing the Wild tonight at the X. He has 2 goals and 2 assists in 3 games here, and as you know, there’s a chance the Wild pursues him as a free agent. If he gets to free agency and the Wild does pursue, it’ll have a terrific chance at landing the former Gopher and Stillwater resident. He’ll have 40 people in the stands tonight and joked that he hoped former Gophers teammate Keith Ballard helps get him some tickets.

Talk later.

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