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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Happy Game Day everybody! Wild and Avs tonight at 8:30 p.m. CT.
I will be hosting a live Wild-Avalanche/NHL chat on startribune.com today at 3 p.m. CT. Please join. I'll also be on Fox Sports North during tonight's pregame show and first intermission.
I'll also be on KFAN today, Friday and Monday at 4:30 p.m. CT.
John Mitchell is indeed out tonight for Colorado, as are Matt Duchene and Cory Sarich.
John Curry will back up Ilya Bryzgalov. Darcy Kuemper is getting closer to backing up, but with only two practices under his belt, coach Mike Yeo said the Wild's not comfortable yet putting him in uniform.
I had a great chat this morning with Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Colorado's now backup who may be leaning toward retirement after this season. He talked about his days with Bryzgalov, who was Giguere's backup in Anaheim, and also looked back to the 2003 Western Conference Finals. I'll write some of that in Friday's paper.
"You never have a boring day with Bryz around," Giguere said.
Avs coach Patrick Roy reminded us that Avs goalie coach Francois Allaire was also Bryzgalov's goalie coach in Anaheim, so "we have a lot of info on him."
Wild fans will probably get an appreciation in this series about just how good Nathan MacKinnon will be, is already and how lightning fast he is.
Obviously, the Wild will want Ryan Suter out against MacKinnon, but I think Yeo will also feel very comfortable with his two most mobile defensemen, Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella, out there against him, too. I asked Yeo if the Wild may go with a coaching strategy of yesteryear and assign a player also to shadown MacKinnon (although the only one probably capable is speedy Erik Haula), but Yeo indicated it'll be a five-man unit thing.
"He’s a very dynamic player," Yeo said. "They have a number of them. We have to be careful that we’re not just keying on one guy, but this is a guy that you have to be incredibly impressed with his rookie season. His speed, the way he’s able to generate it so quickly – it doesn’t take much, there’s a loose puck and he’s jumping on it and his first couple strides are so explosive that you have to limit those opportunities. Once he does build that speed, then you have to make sure you’re containing it. We do feel good about the mobility of our defensive group. That’ll be a good challenge for them as far as them testing us with the one-on-one play."
MacKinnon was a playoff star in juniors, and he's ultra-confident. I'll write more about him later in the series. I gathered a lot of yarn on him today. I also chatted with Bloomington's Erik Johnson about his transformation into a No. 1 defenseman, and I'll write him later in the series.
On Semyon Varlamov, who won 41 games and will be a Vezina finalist, Yeo said, "We’ve done a scouting report. We’ve watched a lot of video. This is a great goalie. He’s very athletic, great side-to-side. The one thing I believe with any great goalie is the quicker you shoot the puck, the better off you are. He does a very good job of coming out and closing angles and making himself big in the net. The quicker you get the puck off your stick, the more net there is to shoot. We have to have a strong focus of making sure we’re putting a lot of traffic in front of him, making it difficult for him to come out and be aggressive on those shots."
Other little notes, Christian Folin returned to
BU Massachusetts-Lowell (had a brain cramp, sorry) to finish some schooling and pack up his life. He'll be back next week for practice with a handful of Iowa players who should be coming up Tuesday just to practice.
If you missed today's coverage, I suggest picking up a newspaper, but here are some links:
--Today's MUST READ: Ilya Bryzgalov can be goofy, eccentric, standoffish. But he's a fascinating person and goalie. Here's a decent look into his personality as the Wild's playoff hopes ride on his shoulders.
--The Wild notebook. Patrick Roy says the Avs must check Ryan Suter every chance they get. Also, Mikael Granlund set to make his playoff debut tonight.
--The Avs notebook by freelancer Michael Kelly (@berge19). Hotshot rookie Nathan MacKinnon is set to make his playoff debut, and Jan Hejda is ready to play.
--Chip Scoggins' column on how the Wild's got a shot against Colorado.
--My scouting report into the Wild and its projected lineup
--My scouting report into the Avalanche and its projected lineup
Also, below is a deeper look at the Wild-Avs series with some cool stats and tidbits
WILD VS. AVALANCHE
The series, the players, the history
Season series: Avalanche won 4-0-1, outscoring the Wild 15-10.
All-time series: Wild 37-32-10. The Avalanche has outscored Minnesota 218-198. Since March 5, 2006, the Wild is 32-14-6 against Colorado and 13-3-3 in its past 19 in Denver.
All-time playoff meetings: 1-1. 2003 Western Conference quarterfinals, Wild won 4-3, outscored by Colorado 17-16; 2008 Western Conference quarterfinals, Avalanche won 4-2, outscoring Minnesota 17-12.
Wild leading scorers vs. Avalanche this season: Zach Parise 2 goals, 5 points in 5 games; Dany Heatley 1 goal, 4 points in 5 games; Jason Pominville 1 goal, 4 points in 5 games; Mikael Granlund 1 goal, 3 points in 2 games.
Avalanche leading scorers vs. Wild this season: Gabriel Landeskog 3 goals, 6 points in 5 games; John Mitchell 1 goal, 6 points in 5 games; Nathan MacKinnon 3 goals, 5 points in 5 games; Max Talbot 3 goals, 4 points in 5 games; Ryan O’Reilly 3 goals, 4 points in 5 games.
Wild goaltending vs. Avalanche this season: Josh Harding 1-1-1 with a 1.58 goals-against average.
Avalanche goaltending vs. Wild this season: Semyon Varlamov 3-0-1 with a 2.16 goals-against average.
Wild leading scorers all-time vs. Avalanche: Mikko Koivu 15 goals, 38 points in 49 games; Dany Heatley 8 goals, 29 points in 29 games; Kyle Brodziak 7 goals, 21 points in 42 games; Ryan Suter 1 goal, 20 points in 38 games.
Wild goaltending all-time vs. Avalanche: Ilya Bryzgalov 7-4-4 with a 2.31 goals-against average; Darcy Kuemper 0-0 with a 6.66 goals-against average.
Avalanche leading scorers all-time vs. Wild: Paul Stastny 10 goals, 29 points in 46 games; Matt Duchene 5 goals, 15 points in 26 games; Gabriel Landeskog 6 goals, 14 points in 15 games.
Avalanche all-time goaltending vs. Wild: Semyon Varlamov 7-4-1 with a 2.13 goals-against average; Jean-Sebastien Giguere 11-12-5 with a 2.34 goals-against average.
Wild all-time playoff leading scorers: Dany Heatley 15 goals, 57 points in 66 games; Zach Parise 22 goals, 44 points in 66 games; Matt Cooke 13 goals, 33 points in 97 games; Jason Pominville 12 goals, 28 points in 47 games; Ryan Suter 4 goals, 13 points in 44 games.
Wild all-time playoff goaltending: Ilya Bryzgalov 17-19 with a 2.81 goals-against average and .908 save percentage; Kuemper 0-0 with a 3.29 goals-against average and .879 save percentage.
Avalanche all-time playoff leading scorers: Max Talbot 18 goals, 39 points in 77 games; Paul Stastny three goals, eight points in 15 games.
Avalanche all-time playoff goaltending: Semyon Varlamov 10-9 with a 2.49 goals-against average and .915 save percentage; Jean-Sebastien Giguere 33-17 with a 2.08 goals-against average and .925 save percentage.
No. 2 Colorado Avalanche vs. No. 7 Minnesota Wild
Records: 52-22-8; 43-27-12
Home: 26-11-4; 26-10-5
Away: 26-11-4; 17-17-7
Season-series: 4-0-1; 1-3-1
Goals For: 245 (2.99, 4th in NHL); 199 (2.43, 24th)
Goals Against: 216 (2.63, 14th); 198 (2.42, 7th)
Shots For: 29.5 (20th); 26.6 (29th)
Shots Against 32.7 (25th); 27.7 (5th)
Power play: 19.8 (5th); 17.9 (16th)
Penalty kill: 80.7 (24th); 78.8 (27th)
Goals: Colorado – Ryan O’Reilly 28, Gabriel Landeskog 26; Wild – Jason Pominville 30, Zach Parise 29
Assists: Colorado – *Matt Duchene 47, Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon 39; Wild – Mikko Koivu 43, Ryan Suter 35
Points: Duchene 70, Landeskog 65; Wild – Pominville 60, Parise 56
Power-play goals: Colorado – O’Reilly 9; Wild -- Parise 14
Time on ice: Colorado – Erik Johnson 23:00; Wild – Suter 29:24
Colorado: Semyon Varlamov – 41-14-6, 2.41 goals-against average, .927 save percentage, 2 shutouts
Wild: Ilya Bryzgalov – 7-1-3, 2.12 goals-against average, 911 save percentage, 3 shutouts
* Duchene has a sprained knee and may miss the start of the series; Mitchell is questionable with a concussion; Alex Tanguay, out for the series, isn’t included.
The Wild closes the regular season tonight at 7 against the Nashville Predators.
If the St. Louis Blues lose to the Detroit Red Wings, the Wild will play the Colorado Avalanche for the third time in Minnesota’s five all-time postseasons (1-1). In the second period, Detroit leads 2-0. I will update this later, of course.
In 2003, the Wild rallied from 3-1 down to beat Colorado in the first round. In 2008, after the Wild won the Northwest Division, Jose Theodore and the Avs stoned the Wild in six games.
The Avalanche, with Patrick Roy in his first year as head coach, has gone from 29th place to a near Central Division title in one year. Colorado is 8-1-1 in its past 10 heading into tonight’s finale at Anaheim and went 4-0-1 against the Wild this season.
In tonight’s Wild-Preds game, Kyle Brodziak’s 231 consecutive games played streak will end. He has played every game since Feb. 25, 2011, but coach Mike Yeo said it would be “silly” to play him tonight. This way, Brodziak will be given every opportunity to get healthy for the start of the playoffs, which are expected to begin Thursday for the Wild.
NHL playoff schedules come out late tonight.
With Brodziak hurt, Nino Niederreiter will play center for the first time in his NHL career on a line believed to be with Matt Cooke and Justin Fontaine. Niederreiter has played center previously in his junior career and has been so defensively responsible, Yeo feels he should be able to slide in for a game and provide a big body and good presence. Cody McCormick is expected to center Stephane Veilleux and at times defenseman Jon Blum.
That’s because Dany Heatley left today’s skate with “lower-body discomfort,” Yeo said.
Clayton Stoner, who sprained his MCL March 22 against Detroit, returns and will be paired with Nate Prosser.
Yeo said tonight may be a meaningless game, but “our goal should be to get to 100 points.”
The Predators are 5-0-1 in their past six and Yeo wants the Wild to “match their intensity.”
“We have to make sure we’re keeping our foot on the gas as much as possible,” Yeo said. “We’ve talked so long about how we feel good about our game. That can leave you in a hurry, too, so we should make sure we’re able to keep our intensity up and carry that momentum into the playoffs.”
Yeo said his primary focus tonight is to get Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville quality ice time because they were essentially “rested” last game and Yeo wants them getting enough of a workload to get them ready for the playoffs.
Pominville hopes to get Goal No. 30. "It would have been nice to get it the other night when they threw me out there with an empty net (he just missed), but at the same time, it's only a number," he said.
Yeo said Mikael Granlund had another good day on the ice. If the Wild opens Thursday, the Wild will have Monday off and then have a couple hard practices in St. Paul Tuesday and Wednesday. Yeo hopes Granlund can participate in those so he can get the green light to return for Game 1.
Josh Harding is still around. The Wild has talked about Harding having a rehab stint with Iowa (four games left), but so far that hasn’t come into fruition and Yeo said he’s not sure if it will.
By the way, good to see Preds GM David Poile in the house. Last time he was here, Poile was struck by the puck and suffered major facial damage, multiple surgeries, lost vision in his right eye and missed the Winter Olympics as Team USA’s GM.
Poile said he needed to come back here just to show himself he could.
Wild (5-0-1 in the past six) and St. Louis Blues (lost three in a row) at the X tonight in Minnesota’s penultimate game of the regular season.
If the season ended today, the Wild and the Blues would meet in the first round with the series beginning likely next Thursday in St. Louis.
Again, the Wild will face St. Louis, Anaheim (starting next Wednesday or Thursday) or Colorado (starting likely next Thursday).
John Curry vs. Ryan Miller tonight.
For Curry, it’ll be the Shorewood native’s first NHL appearance since Jan. 11, 2010. If you didn’t read Tuesday’s feature on the former Breck School goalie, see the link of the previous blog.
Not too many goalies are his size in the NHL anymore. He looks like the Beezer -- John Vanbiesbrouck -- or Mike Vernon in the cage – two guys I covered in, ahem, Florida.
Coach Mike Yeo, who his familiar with Curry from his days with Pittsburgh, said he makes up for it by being a battler.
“He doesn’t have the size of a Bryzgalov,” Yeo said. “I don’t know that technique is his strength. But he’s a gamer.”
It’ll be interesting to watch him play. Not only is he facing the league’s 5th-best offensive team, he hasn’t had any game action since March 26.
In his last start for Iowa, Curry gave up a touchdown with an extra point and he has allowed 22 goals in his past five Iowa starts.
Yeo won’t rest his big guns tonight. This is an organizational decision in consultation with those big guns.
“We wanted to make the playoffs, but we want to make sure our game is ready,” Yeo said. “So with those guys and our team, just because we made the playoffs, it doesn’t mean all of a sudden we’re satisfied and we’re happy. This is about making sure that we continue to stay ready and sharp for game 1 of the postseason.”
Mike Rupp will play for the first time since Feb. 1 and fifth time since Dec. 31. Dany Heatley is in. Stephane Veilleux and Justin Fontaine will get the night off.
Christian Folin will make his NHL debut and Jared Spurgeon will sit.
Rupp said, “I’m excited to get an opportunity. I think our team has been playing really well and making some strides in our game and I just want to be a part of it and go in and do my job.”
His agent, Allan Walsh, tweeted after the Chicago shootout loss that the Wild had been targeted for two games in a row and asking if it was time to play Rupp.
“I just want to play,” Rupp said. “I think the team’s been playing awesome. We’ve got a great group of guys in here and a nice blend the last few games and really hit stride. I don’t want to shake that up. I just want to come in and do my job.”
Rupp is a tough guy and said he won’t change the way he plays. Obviously, the Blues have challenged the Wild physically throughout their nine-game winning streak (0-6-3) against the Wild, so Rupp may add an intimidating element tonight.
Not only is Rupp going to have to quickly get used to the NHL game tonight, but as I joked with him, it’s not like he’s been walking the streets getting into fights. He has gotten into one fight this season and none since Dec. 2.
“You’ve got a lot of pent-up energy,” he said. “I’m not going to go look for anything, but it’s one of those things where you’re not concerned about it.”
Yeo said, “I want to get those guys (Rupp and Heatley) some action before the end of the season. We want to make sure that these guys get an opportunity so if called upon that they feel like they’re ready to play.”
On Rupp, Yeo said, “I don’t expect miracles. He’s been off for a long time, but those guys have all been working real hard. It’s not like he’s a young kid. He knows what his game is. He plays a pretty smart game as far as knowing the system and position.”
On Folin, whom I wrote about today, so check out that story, “I want to give him an opportunity to test the waters and see where he’s at. It’s a chance for him to really show us what he can do.”
Folin was excited and said he would have a big smile on his face. He may see some time on the No. 2 power-play unit with Jonas Brodin, Matt Moulson, Heatley and Nino Niederreiter.
My guess on lines and D combos:
Keith Ballard, who skated the other day, is shut down again with a groin injury.
Clayton Stoner took part in the morning skate and is very close to a return. Perhaps, Sunday?
Josh Harding continues to practice.
Mikael Granlund, Yeo said, “I talked to Granny today and it’s really encouraging just how good he felt.”
I’d think it’d be hard for Granlund, who hasn’t skated since March 31, to be ready for the start of the playoffs, but we’ll see if Granlund begins skating this weekend.
No update on Darcy Kuemper beyond Yeo saying he’s “progressing.”
David Backes (foot) is likely out the rest of the regular season, but he’ll be ready for the playoffs, coach Ken Hitchcock said.
The Blues have lost three in a row and four of six.
Hitchcock: “We saw this coming with the looseness. Thank God this didn't happen Monday. We've got lots of time to fix it. You go from looking at championships to fixing problems. That's just coaching."
Good morning from Chateau Rousseau, where I'm making a quick pitstop between my return flight to MSP and the Wild's later-than-normal optional morning skate.
When you're the home team and you played the night before, you have the option to move your skate to the normal 11:30 a.m. visitors' time and the visitors takes the 10:30 slot.
That's what coach Mike Yeo opted this morning.
I interrupt the Vancouver Canucks' implosion to remind you that the Wild is THIS CLOSE to a playoff spot.
If you look at the standings, they're basically clinched now because it would be almost impossible for Phoenix to catch Minnesota based on the goal differential tiebreaker (+2 for Minnesota; -12 for Phoenix) IF the Wild went 0-3 and the Coyotes went 4-0 (no shootout wins).
But, the Wild hopes to make it official tonight. Here's how it can happen:
The Wild would clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs if they get at least one point against the Bruins OR if Coyotes lose to the Blue Jackets in any fashion or defeat the Blue Jackets in a shootout OR if the Stars lose to the Predators in any fashion.
The Wild's magic number for the top wildcard spot is two points, so a win against Boston will get it done. The Wild's already gotten a huge break because Jarome Iginla, the all-time leading scorer against Minnesota, is out. That means the Wild isn't already trailing 1-0.
A Stars loss and a Coyotes loss would get it done, too, I believe.
If you haven't paid attention, the Blues are in a bigtime slump right now (Anaheim has pulled within one point) and are putting themselves in a position where they may fall to the second seed and ... face the Wild.
If the Wild clinches the top wildcard spot tonight, a win over St. Louis on Thursday could very well "aid" in the Wild ending up playing St. Louis in the first round.
Maybe that's the night coach Mike Yeo may want to opt "resting" some of his big guys.
As I always say, it's pick your poison in the West. But as I have also said often, the Blues would not be a good first-round matchup for the Wild. They've beaten the Wild nine in a row and I wasn't yet balding the last time the Wild won in regulation in St. Louis.
You know how the cliche "must-win" is thrown around by writers all too often?
Has there ever been one who called a game a "must-lose?" I kid, I kid (or am I?)
Of course, there's such things as bad karma and fate, and most times you try to manipulate situations, it winds up biting you in the rear.
(In full selfish disclosure: I deserve to go to California )
Of course, with the Avs surging, the Blues are also putting themselves in a position where maybe Colorado passes them and maybe the Wild faces the Avs. Colorado's four back, so that's still sorta unlikely.
The Wild and the NHL-leading Bruins, who are 16-1-2 in their past 19 overall and 13-1-4 in their past 18 on the road, tonight.
Ilya Bryzgalov in the cage.
From the NHL PR email this morning:
BRYZGALOV, WILD POST SECOND STRAIGHT SHUTOUT
Ilya Bryzgalov made 24 saves to pick up his second consecutive shutout and help the Wild extend their point streak to five games (4-0-1).
* With the win, the Wild (41-26-12, 94 points) moved seven points ahead of the idle Stars (38-29-11, 87 points) for the first Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.
* Bryzgalov extended his shutout streak to 142:15 following a 4-0 victory over the Penguins on Saturday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first Wild goaltender to record consecutive shutouts since Jan. 4-6, 2009, when Niklas Backstrom did so against the Avalanche and Bruins, respectively.
* This marks the third time Bryzgalov has earned back-to-back shutouts in his NHL career – he posted three consecutive shutouts for the Flyers March 8-13, 2012, and two straight blank sheets for the Coyotes Feb. 5-7, 2011.
* Bryzgalov improved to 8-0-5 with a 1.65 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in his last 13 starts, including a 6-0-3 mark with a 1.52 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and three shutouts in nine starts since joining the Wild. Elias says he is the first goaltender in Wild history to earn at least one point in each of his first nine starts with the team.
* Charlie Coyle potted the lone goal to extend his point streak to four games (2-3—5). He has recorded at least one point in eight of his past nine games, totaling 5-5—10.
OK, that's it for me. No changes to Wild lineup. Injured defensemen Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard did skate this morning.
“Same lineup tonight. Goaltender out,” coach Mike Yeo said, before the Wild visits the Winnipeg Jets for its final road game of the regular season.
When I looked stunned, Yeo said, laughing, “I mean ‘from the goaltender out.’ I should have worded that better. I should be careful, especially with our team the way things have gone this year.”
I'll be on Hockey Night in Canada Radio on SiriusXM (207/211) today at 2:45 p.m. CT and on the arena cam on NHL Network today at 5:40 p.m. CT.
Ilya Bryzgalov for the Wild (5-0-3 in nine appearances/eight starts with a 1.87 goals-against average and .920 save percentage) vs. Michael Hutchinson for the Jets.
The 6-foot-3 Hutchinson, 24, will make his NHL debut. He’s a 2008 Boston Bruins third-round pick who started this season in the ECHL. He was promoted to AHL St. John’s, where he played well (15-5-1 with a 2.33 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
The Wild’s magic number to make the playoffs is three points, the Wild’s magic number to clinch the top wildcard spot is four.
The Wild cannot clinch tonight. If the Wild ends up tied in regulation/overtime wins with Phoenix, the next tiebreaker is head-to-head. Yes, the Wild is 2-1 against the Coyotes this year, but technically, in a bit of a strange rule, the Wild’s first win in Phoenix ceases to exist.
In determining the head-to-head tiebreaker when an odd number of games were played in the season series, the first game played in the city with the extra home game is not counted. So the Jan. 9 game (4-1 Wild win) is thrown out. Thus, for tiebreaker purposes, the Wild and Coyotes split the two-game season series, both teams earning two points and coincidentally tied in goals because they were each 3-1 victories.
So if the Wild’s actual totals and the Coyotes’ maximum totals after Monday night are 94 points and 34 regulation/overtime wins (which would happen if the Wild wins in regulation or overtime tonight), that still would not officially clinch a playoff berth for the Wild. If the Wild at the end of the season is tied with Phoenix in points and regulation/overtime wins, the next tiebreaker is goal differential for the season. Since that couldn’t be determined until Game 82, the Wild would have to wait to officially clinch if it wins in regulation/overtime.
Now, if the Wild wins tonight, and Tuesday night gets a point vs. Boston OR the Coyotes lose in Columbus, the Wild would clinch a playoff spot.
“They’re playing hard,” Yeo said of the Jets. “I look at the road trip, the way that they played, … they’re doing a lot of things well. I see a very strong work ethic, I see a team that’s playing with a lot of pride right now. I think we’re going to have to be ready to play very hard and I think we’re going to have to play very fast.”
My guess is Bryzgalov also starts tomorrow’s game against Boston, but we shall see. If the Wild does clinch the top wildcard spot by the time Thursday’s St. Louis game comes around, I wonder if we get to see local boy John Curry’s
NHL Wild debut. I did a big story on Curry for tomorrow's paper, so check that out. I also wonder if Yeo would take that opportunity to rest some of his big-minute guys. I’d be nervous against injury against a Blues team that the Wild still conceivably could play in the first round.
I also think if the Wild clinches before Thursday or Sunday vs. Nashville that we’ll get to see Christian Folin’s NHL debut.
“It would be a great feeling. I can’t wait. So hopefully they have a good game tonight,” said Folin, laughing.
Lines again for the Wild:
Niederreiter continues to have to play the fourth line. “It’s a function of the pieces fitting elsewhere right now,” Yeo said.
Basically, look at the lines, and unless he’s replacing Fontaine, where’s he playing? Coyle’s been absolutely fantastic for 2½ weeks, Moulson and Pominville are top-6 guys, Cooke and Brodziak have been a staple.
Niederreiter just has to continue to stay with it and his time to move up will come. On this line, he just needs to get pucks deep, get in on the forecheck and be physical. It has been a work in progress playing the right side. He’s clearly better and more comfortable on the left, but Yeo says that’s improving. Yeo said he’s been very pleased with Niederreiter’s defense all year.
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