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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Kuemper starts tonight, Koivu out vs. Oilers; goalie situation intriguing as deadline nears

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: February 27, 2014 - 2:01 PM

Good day from the Rexall Place, where the former Northwest Division rival Wild and Oilers clash tonight at 8:30 p.m. CT.

I’ll be on Fox Sports North during the 8 p.m. pregame show and first intermission to talk about the Wild and all the trade rumors running rampant throughout the NHL. I’ll also riff about them in my Sunday Insider this week as well.

The goaltending situation is something I feel the Wild is trying to address before Wednesday’s 2 p.m. deadline, but a lot could have to do with the next three games beginning tonight in Edmonton.

Darcy Kuemper, 8-2-2 in his past 13 appearances with a 2.18 goals-against average and .929 save percentage, will make his 13th consecutive start. Depending on how tonight goes, coach Mike Yeo even opened the door for Kuemper to start tomorrow’s game in Vancouver.

Here is my profile on Kuemper from today’s paper, and I have a couple extras on the bottom.

Yeo originally contemplated starting Backstrom tonight in Edmonton if he was healthy.

“We argued back and forth as far as whether Backy should play, whether Kuemps should play, whether Kuemps is capable of playing back-to-back games,” Yeo said. “There’s a lot of things, but bottom line is we just want to get off to a good start and we want to see if Kuemps can pick up where he left off.”

There is no doubt the game in Vancouver is a big game. The Canucks are one of the teams the Wild is bound to be fighting with the rest of the way to make the playoffs. But first things first, get the two points tonight, so I think it makes more sense to start Kuemper and then worry about Vancouver tomorrow.

Maybe Kuemper can start tomorrow. Maybe they come back with Backstrom. Last March, Backstrom did have a 35-save performance there during the Wild’s last visit last season to snap Minnesota’s 0-9-2 winless streak in Vancouver.

Yeo says Backstrom is feeling fine, although he has clearly been getting a bunch of treatment on his abdominal region lately and he was chatting with athletic therapist Don Fuller a few times during the skate.

Like I alluded to above, I just don’t see how the Wild doesn’t address the goaltending situation prior to Wednesday. Remember, Backstrom told me last month that he played the final month of last season with a tear in his “core muscle.” He told me last week he visited the surgeon who operated on his sports hernia and they finally figured out what’s ailing him. He said it’s up to the team to divulge it though.

So clearly he’s fighting through something serious. So to me, even if the Wild opts that it wants to ride Kuemper the rest of the way, my gut says they bring in some kind of goalie as insurance because, what if Kuemper gets hurt?

The question is what type of goalie? An experienced No. 2? Or do you wait as long as you can and hope the price comes down for a guy like Ryan Miller? As I’ve written many times, Chuck Fletcher and Sabres GM Tim Murray are close friends from their days in Florida and Anaheim. The Wild has inquired about Martin Brodeur, and I wrote him in last Sunday’s column.

Others maybe available? Jaroslav Halak, Cam Ward, Ilya Bryzgalov, whom the Wild inquired about before he signed with Edmonton.

Captain Mikko Koivu (ankle) and defenseman Marco Scandella (knee) won’t play tonight. Yeo said “tomorrow’s a new day,” so it’s possible the Wild doesn’t want to risk playing them back-to-back and Koivu and Scandella are possible for tomorrow. My guess is Scandella is less likely than Koivu, although that could have a lot to do with tonight’s final.

So Mikael Granlund, who finished third in the Olympics in scoring and made the all-tournament team, will center the top line with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville tonight.

I was going to do a Granlund lead note for my notebook for tomorrow’s paper, but I may hold that for Saturday’s paper with a morning skate doubtful tomorrow. He was real good today talking about playing with legendary good guy/hockey player Teemu Selanne in the Olympics.

I’ve got some good color on Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter rooming together in Sochi that I’ll write for tomorrow’s paper. Some funny stuff.

Yeo believes Granlund has a chance to do something special these final 23 games. He talked to Granlund about that yesterday.

“He’s flying, he’s flying,” Yeo said. “He should be used to playing at a high pace. Those are fast games that we got to watch in the Olympics, and the level that he played at, I’m hoping he can continue that on.”

Justin Fontaine is slated to skate on the second line with Dany Heatley and ChAHlie Coyle. Fontaine, a 26-year-old rookie who is third on the Wild with 12 goals, hails from Bonnyville, Alberta, which is 2 ½ hours northeast of Edmonton. He says he’s got 15 buddies and his entire family coming down for tonight’s game.

I’ll have more on Fontaine in Friday’s game notebook. For the rest of the lines, see yesterday’s blog.

I mentioned in the Kuemper piece how players tell me he goes into the room and apologizes to them when he gives up a bad goal.

I asked Kuemper about that and trimmed it from the article: “My job is to keep the puck out of the net. They’ve done a good job this year and don’t let anything faze them. I just want them to know that if I let in a bad goal it doesn’t mean I’m going to have a bad game. Or if I let one in that wasn’t a great goal it doesn’t mean that I’m out for the game. It was one and I’m going to turn around and be there for them and I know they’re going to be there for me.”

On that Toronto loss, he said, “That game you don’t want to say anything in front of the whole group. You feel bad and everyone knows you feel bad. You don’t always have to say something. They know what you’re feeling like. It was tough because those are the games that you feel like you’ve let them down. They stuck with me and when I came back up they didn’t shut down and they still had confidence in me and that helped me play with a lot of confidence.”

It’s funny how much the Wild players mess with Kuemper. When he stands up to give interviews, there’s a chorus of veterans chiming, “Uhhhhhhhh,” in the background because he kind of “Uhhhhh’s” a lot when he speaks.

“He’s a fun kid,” Dany Heatley said.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft who says he has never scored against Kuemper in the pros, played with Kuemper in Red Deer.

“He was a talkative guy in junior,” RNH said. “Everybody liked him in Red Deer. He is

outgoing. We played jokes on one another. He's a big guy in net. He's so well-positioned and he battles hard. Obviously with goaltending, it takes a little longer to get to the NHL level, but he's

worked his way up. He's taken advantage of his opportunity. That's huge. You have to capitalize on things and it's good to see. He wasn't a high draft pick but he got better as he got older, as a 20-year-old. My second year with him, when he was 20, that's when he really found himself. I do know his

weaknesses a bit though and I'll try and use that [knowledge] Thursday.”

See you on the tube and the Interweb tonight, and the newspaper tomorrow.

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