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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Typical goalie drama before tonight's pivotal game; Zenon Konopka on waivers; Keith Ballard scratched

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: January 2, 2014 - 2:50 PM

Never a dull moment for the Wild, which is trying to snap a six-game losing streak tonight. As is often the case, it starts with goalie drama.

The Wild's six-game losing streak began in Pittsburgh on Nov. 19 when Josh Harding couldn't come on a four-game road trip because of a necessary alteration to his treatment for multiple sclerosis.

The Wild lost all four games with Niklas Backstrom surrendering 17 goals. Harding returned against the Islanders on Dec. 29 and has lost two games since, including the 3-0 blown lead against the Islanders while giving up a season-high five goals.

Tonight, in a pivotal game against the Buffalo Sabres that could determine the future of coach Mike Yeo, Harding will be sidelined. He's not feeling well, Yeo said, and Backstrom, who is 2-9-2 with a 3.32 goals against average and .893 save percentage, will get the start and be heavily relied upon.

Backstrom has given up 24 goals in his past six starts, three or more in each.

"Here's another opportunity for Back, and hopefully he takes advantage of it," Yeo said. "Last year, when we needed to win that last game against Colorado, he came up with a great performance. I actually feel pretty good that he's going to come out and do the same thing tonight."

Backstrom and Harding have been the Wild's tagteam for GM Chuck Fletcher's five years (Harding has missed much of two full seasons though, once with a torn ACL/MCL, once last year with MS complications).

But it is unbelievable how many times Harding and Backstrom have been sick or injured in that five-year timespan and unbelievable how many times the Wild has had to carry three goalies on its active roster because of it.

The Wild's goalie carousel annually is not a normal thing in the NHL. I mean, just look at last year's playoffs as the best example. Backstrom hurt in warmups, Harding hurt during Game 4, the will he start, won't he start, will he start, won't he start drama at the pregame skate in Game 5.

More on this below.

Tonight is no exception. Darcy Kuemper has been recalled to back up. The Wild obviously doesn't want to put Harding on injured reserve because he would have to miss a week and this hopefully is a short-term thing.

To be able to make the roster move, the Wild placed Zenon Konopka on waivers today. Now, Yeo said it was because the Wild needed to call up a goalie, which is actually is baloney from the standpoint that there were many other things the Wild could have done if it wanted to keep Konopka here:

The Wild could have placed Mike Rupp on waivers, the Wild could have kept Clayton Stoner on injured reserve another game (he's been activated and struggling Keith Ballard will be a healthy scratch), the Wild could have sent down Stephane Veilleux and moved Torrey Mitchell back to wing and played Konopka at center.

So this is obviously a Konopka-specific decision, and we do know the Wild last summer tried to trade Konopka. So this appears to be the end of the line in Minnesota for Konopka, who has the NHL's best faceoff win percentage and the most fights since he's been in the league.

Losing Konopka to another team or sending him to Iowa on a one-way contract would open a roster spot if there's a trade brewing. I don't think it's to create cap space though because the Wild's cap space isn't an issue right now as much as the lack of cap space for other teams.

In other words, the Wild has about $1.5 million in cap space. Believe it or not, there are 20! other teams actually in worse shape than the Wild from a cap standpoint. That is why it's been so hard for Fletcher and other GM's frankly to make moves right now.

Just to show you how tough a time Ballard is having lately, this is the first time in Nate Prosser's Wild tenure that I can remember where he was actually kept in the lineup to remove another veteran.

Back to the Wild's goalie drama. Check this year out alone:

Oct. 8 in Nashville, Backstrom strains his knee.

Oct. 15 in Toronto, Darcy Kuemper gives up three goals on seven shots and Harding, whom the Wild wanted to give the game off because of his MS, has to come in and relieve him.

Oct. 24 against Carolina, Harding sustains muscle spasms in his leg and Backstrom, in his first game back from the knee injury, has to replace him after two periods and start consecutive games against Chicago.

Nov. 13 against Toronto, Harding can't start because he's not feeling well.

Nov. 13 against Toronto, Backstrom suffered a concussion when run by Nazem Kadri. Harding has to enter.

Nov. 23 at Winnipeg, Backstrom is activated off IR to back up first game after concussion. Kuemper reassigned. In warmups, Harding suffers muscle spasms. Backstrom is thrust into duty (Kuemper is rushed back from the airport and arrives in the first period on emergency status), Backstrom wins that game, has to start in St. Louis and against Phoenix.

Harding returns against Colorado on Nov. 29 and then has to start Nov. 30 because Backstrom is sick.

Harding leaves the team again Dec. 18-29.

Jan. 2 against Buffalo: Harding sick, Kuemper called up.

--Kuemper has been on the Wild's roster five separate occasions this season.

--Johan Gustafsson has been on the Wild's roster four separate occasions this season.

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