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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Afternoon from Starbucks, where I’m writing and caffeinating after an up-tempo Wild practice as coach Mike Yeo and staff prep the team for its exhibitio…, I mean regular-season finale against Nashville.
It’ll be interesting to see how the game goes. Yeo plans to go with his potential playoff lineup, but the players could also be in severe don’t-get-hurt mode like veterans often are in exhibition finales.
Couple news items:
--Mikael Granlund (head) returned to practice today for the first time since being injured at Los Angeles on March 31. A lot more on this below.
--Kyle Brodziak left practice early in “discomfort,” but Yeo says he expects him to play against Nashville. If Brodziak doesn’t, it’ll be his first missed game since Feb. 25, 2011, when he missed two games with the flu. He has played in 231 straight games, not missing any last season or the season before. In Brodziak’s six 82-game seasons, he has played 79 or more in all six and then played all 48 in last year’s lockout-shortened season. The Wild needs Brodziak healthy and playing well in the playoffs because just like that Penguins game recently, Yeo needs Matt Cooke, Brodziak and I think eventually Nino Niederreiter to be a shutdown line in the playoffs to lessen the burden on the top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle. I personally feel that one reason why Parise and Koivu were so ineffective (one combined point) in last year’s playoff series to Chicago is because the Blackhawks were so deep, Yeo used them to really go head-to-head vs. Jonathan Toews’ line. Toews also didn’t do anything offensively until Game 5, but it’d be nice with the Brodziak line is somebody Yeo can continually put out there against the top line of whatever team the Wild faces.
-- Clayton Stoner, who has missed 10 games since spraining his MCL March 22 against Detroit when he was nudged and his skate his a rut, will return against Nashville. He’ll be paired with Nate Prosser (Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin were paired together in today’s practice) and Jon Blum will be taken out of the lineup. More on this below.
Couple of items:
-- I keep getting questions about the playoff schedule. That will come out Sunday night after every NHL game is complete. If the Wild opens in St. Louis or Colorado, it will likely start Thursday because St. Louis’ and Colorado’s arenas have conflicts Wednesday. Unless NBC Sports Network would pick up Game 1 Wednesday if the Wild faces Anaheim, I think that series begins Thursday, too, because Fox Sports North has the Wolves and Twins on Wednesday. We shall see. If the Ducks series started Thursday, there couldn’t be a game there Saturday, so it would probably have to go Thursday-Friday or Thursday-Sunday. All conjecture.
After tonight’s Ducks-Kings game, I’ll update this blog with playoff scenarios heading into Sunday’s last day. IF the Ducks get a point tonight, they clinch the West and the Wild can no longer play them.
Basically, the one scenario I’ll tell you now, IF the Ducks get a point tonight, AND the Blues lose to Detroit in regulation (11:30 a.m. game Sunday), we’ll know the Wild’s playing Colorado before the Wild plays Nashville and before the Avs visit Anaheim.
But, … as complicated as trying to figure out all this stuff has been, that scenario would be waaaaay too easy to actually occur.
Again, as of now, the Wild would play Colorado.
As I mentioned north on this blog, Granlund practiced today, skating in the middle of the so-called fifth line with suspended Mike Rupp and Dany Heatley, who continues to be as professional as you can be with the fact he’s an extra going into the playoffs. Even just shooting the breeze with him today about playoff scenarios, you’d never even know that he’s an extra.
Yeo on Granlund: “He looked pretty good, didn’t he? We knew that he was progressing well. Kinda talked about how he was feeling and getting through the workouts and getting cleared to have the first step of getting on the ice. Obviously he’s trying to accelerate things in a hurry [to be ready for Game 1]. He wants to get back in the lineup and he looks good. But obviously we’ll be smart about this, too.”
Granlund won’t play against the Predators, but Yeo said, “This was a good first step. The next step will be a matter of him getting into some contact drills and the battle part of our practices,” which could happen in practice next week.
If Granlund returns, he will like take back his No. 2 center spot with Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville.
My guess, and this is a total shot in the dark, is Cooke-Brodziak would be a tandem with Niederreiter moving from Line 4 to Line 3.
Haula would take back his spot on the fourth line (Brodziak is the guy who will be the shutdown checking-line center to open the playoffs), and that may be between Stephane Veilleux and Cody McCormick. I think that has the makings of a good line – Haula’s speed, Veilleux’s speed, energy and physicality (the Wild’s record with Veilleux this season is 21-11-1). If one assumes Yeo will want McCormick’s straight-line physicality on the forecheck and considering how well he has played lately, I’m guessing the odd guy out will be Justin Fontaine.
However, there is one tricky thing here that may come into play. Fontaine will play his 66th game of the season tomorrow. He needs 69 games to be a restricted free agent this summer vs. a Group 6 unrestricted free agent. If Fontaine doesn’t get three playoff games, the Wild will no longer own his rights when his contract expires after the season. Fontaine has proven to be a valuable, very good player, so I don’t think the Wild would want to potentially lose the guy for nothing via free agency.
As for Stoner, he’s ahead of schedule here. We were told week to week. He was told 4 to 6 weeks, but he feels good and the Wild wants to give him a game to see where he’s at before Game 1.
Remember, he got a concussion in Game 1 last year and the Wild really felt it missed his physicality vs. the Hawks.
“The playoffs, it’s tough hockey, there’s no question,” Yeo said. “A lot of stuff going on around the front of our net, in front of our goalie, so if you can have a guy who’s a physical presence along the boards and in front of our net, then that’s a nice element to have.”
If Stoner plays, the only way Blum starts the playoffs in the lineup is if Nate Prosser comes out (Suter, Scandella, Brodin and Spurgeon, in no particular order, are in). I don’t think Prosser’s taken out for Game 1.
Yeo said, “It doesn’t mean necessarily that he won’t even be playing. I don’t want to make that decision. I’m comfortable that he’s been able to come in, come out of our lineup. His game’s looked the same. We know and we’re happy with what he brings. His execution level has been real strong. That St. Louis game was maybe the best game that he’s played, and I feel that he’s gotten better since he’s been with us. Part of that is probably getting comfortable with the team and how we play. Some of it I think is his confidence and showing what he could do.”
Again though, if Stoner plays, do the math: It’s either Blum or Prosser coming out.
You’ll hear from Stoner in tomorrow’s paper. Same with Granlund.
If Granlund returns, the trickle-down effect means three lines could be altered. If Stoner returns, the trickle-down effect is two pairs are altered.
When this happened after the trade deadline, it took awhile for the Wild to rediscover its game.
I asked Yeo if he’s concerned: “If you have the opportunity to get a player like Granny back, this would do an awful lot for our group and I don’t think it’ll be a huge adjustment for us. You look what it would do for our power play, whether it’s the first PP or the second PP, either way we’re going to get stronger. Lineup-wise, if he’s able to come in and step right into that second-line role, we’re getting stronger there and we’re also getting stronger the rest of the lineup, too. I’m not too concerned about it. Until we get the green light that he’s ready to go, we’re comfortable with the guys we have.”
If Granlund returns, he’ll likely be on the No. 2 unit because in my opinion, Charlie Coyle’s got to be on the first. His right-handed shot in the middle gives that unit a bigtime threat like we saw in Winnipeg on his goal. And no, Granlund is not taking Koivu’s spot on the No. 1 unit.
Rupp was suspended four games for his hit on T.J. Oshie. We talked to him this morning.
Rupp: “I was glad to hear that Oshie is doing well. For me, that’s truly the main concern that the player is not seriously injured. Hopefully he’ll get back on the ice soon. He’s a great player for the Blues and the league, so I’m happy to hear that.”
“It was a situation where I got stuck out there for a long shift. We were starting out there against their fourth line and we got stuck out there and they were trying to get the mismatch that they’d want. I was just in a time where it’s my first game back and trying to be structurally sound was my main objective coming into the game. I have, in that situation, a player come up the boards and my job there is not to let the player or the puck come to the middle of the ice. There was a late attacker and there was a sixth attacker probably in the middle of the ice. So my intent there is to finish my hit there and not allow the puck to go in the middle or the player. There’s zero intent on the outcome. I feel awful for that. I know coming around the circle he looked up and I felt like he saw me and his D-man right there. I don’t want to say we made eye contact – don’t think there was eye contact --but he looked up to kind of see what player was around him. Then he looked down at the puck and cut to the middle. I know that what I felt on the ice was I hit chest and his shoulder. I didn’t feel his head. I’m not naïve enough to know when I watch the video there was some head contact there. But I can tell you that definitely the first point of contact was shoulder and chest, so I think it’s a matter of me being 6-5 and a hit that got away from me. I’ll take responsibility for that.
No suspensions, no fines?
It’s been something – there have been things in my career that I’ve said in my career that you want to be remembered for when you leave the game and one thing is the respect of your teammates. That far outweighs any goals or anything else you accomplish on the ice. There’s that and then you want to be known as a guy who plays the game the right way. Even on our call in talking to the league, they made note of saying that a guy who’s been in the league as long as I have in the role that I have, it’s unheard of that nothing’s been of question for me in my career. So I don’t like that there’s questions of marking a player or head-hunting. That’s never been the case for me. I’ve been a guy who’s gone out and stirred things up emotionally in games, but I’ve never taken a shot at a player and I would never start to do that now. It’s just one, like I said, that hit got away from me and I’ll take responsibility for that.
That's it for now. I'll be on Fox Sports North during Sunday's pregame show and first intermission.
Happy Off-Day to you and yours.
As I mentioned after the Wild's Tuesday night win over the Boston Bruins, the Wild's first-round opponent isn't clear.
If the season ended right now, St. Louis will be the opponent after Anaheim beat San Jose to win the Pacific. If the Wild plays the Blues, that series would likely start next Thursday because Miley Cyrus is playing Scottrade Wednesday.
The Wild can only play St. Louis, Anaheim or Colorado now. If the Wild plays the Avs, that series also can't start until Thursday.
So we wait.
Again, the Wild, as the top wildcard spot, plays the West division winner with the second-best record.
As I mentioned at the top, today was a day off for the Wild, so no access.
My guess though is Ilya Bryzgalov (7-0-3 with a 1.65 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and three shutouts in 10 starts with Minnesota) gets spelled for a night and John Curry makes his Wild debut in net against the Blues. The Shorewood native and former Breck School and Boston University goalie would become the fifth goalie to start a game for Minnesota this season and make his first NHL start since Jan. 11, 2010, for Pittsburgh.
If you didn't read my feature on Curry in Tuesday's paper, here ya go.
I'd also guess that defenseman Christian Folin makes his NHL debut against the Blues, maybe for Jared Spurgeon. The UMass-Lowell free-agent pickup has been practicing with the Wild since last Wednesday after signing last Monday.
The 6-foot-3 right-shot blue-liner skates well, is physical, passes crisply and has a heavy shot. He wears No. 5. If he plays, that'll be huge for his development because it'll give him a taste of what he needs to work on this offseason to get ready for training camp next fall. Remember, he is not playoff eligible, but he will continue to practice with the Wild throughout the postseason. Eventually, Iowa players will join him, too.
Want to know more about Folin? Read Thursday's Star Tribune. I wrote a real cool profile on the kid that will allow you to get to know him a bit better.
Last night, I guessed coach Mike Yeo would rest all his big guns against the Blues.
The more I think about it, the more I doubt that would happen.
The Wild is 5-0-1 in its past six, has been playing playoff style hockey for awhile, has beaten some good teams and I'd think the Wild would be hesitant to just pull the plug on that. Sunday, even if Yeo goes with his full lineup against Nashville in a regular-season finale playoff tune-up, that game will be more like a glorified exhibition game.
After all, the Wild may be in do-not-get-hurt mode, so if all of a sudden you don't play your big guns Thursday, by the time the playoffs begin Wednesday or Thursday of next week, it'll be more than a week since the Wild played a playoff-like game.
So I'd guess they don't quote-unquote rest a bunch of guys. Obviously, if Yeo wants, he could cut back on ice time on some of his heavy-minute guys if he opts to go that route.
The Blues are supposed to be without David Backes Thursday, by the way. The Blues captain was hit by a shot in Tuesday's loss to Washington.'
Talk to you after Thursday's morning skates. I'll be on KFAN inside the penalty box with Paul Allen at 9:55 a.m.
Just a quick blog from the arena before I have to hustle for my flight to Winnipeg:
1. Full practice today, except Keith Ballard (groin) didn't skate.
2. Likely the same lineup in Winnipeg as last night, so check out those lines on yesterday morning's blog.
3. Ilya Bryzgalov is 5-0-3 with a 1.87 GAA. He'll start in Winnipeg. Will he start against Boston, too, in the second half of a back-to-back on Tuesday?
"We haven't even discuss it," coach Mike Yeo said. "It's a possibility. I dont want to say it's going to happen. I don't know. I haven't gotten to that. Just getting focused for [Winnipeg] right now, and then we'll worry about that afterward."
If Shorewood's John Curry started Tuesday, it would be his first start since Jan. 11, 2010, and the fifth of his career. I'll write more about Curry in Tuesday's paper. He's had a fascinating career.
On what he has seen from Curry, Yeo said, "This is a guy with experience. It's not like he's a young rookie who has never been in a situation like this before. I think our team's been playing strong right now that if he were to be in there that it would give him a chance to have success. But it's a big step going from practice to games, but he's been playing well in practice."
Obviously, the decision will largely depend on the outcome and how the Wild plays in Winnipeg. It's easy to say, 'Just play Bryz, all goalies play back-to-back," but all teams aren't the Wild. This is an organization who's got a goalie injury hex or something, so the Wild may want to treat Bryzgalov's health with kid gloves because if he gets hurt, the Wild's in deep trouble going into the playoffs.
4. Yeo says Darcy Kuemper is feeling a lot better, but there is still no timetable. "I'm not expecting it to be real serious, but I don't know." Yeo also said Mikael Granlund is day-to-day, but "we're not going to rush him back. But at the same time, I haven't been given any reason to believe he won't be ready [for the playoffs." Clayton Stoner (knee) is close to skating.
Afternoon from Johnny's Ice House West in Chicago, the practice facility of the Blackhawks.
The Wild practiced today with three goalies -- Thursday's starter Ilya Bryzgalov, Thursday's backup John Curry and ... first-half MVP Josh Harding.
Harding, sidelined since Dec. 31 from complications of multiple sclerosis, joined the Wild in Chicago and is practicing with the team for the first time since Jan. 19.
If you remember, he missed the Wild's four-game road trip to Pittsburgh, New York, Philly and Winnipeg to have an adjustment to his MS treatment. He returned to play two games Dec. 29 and Dec. 31 before being sidelined again. He then returned to practice with the team but then was sidelined for good starting Jan. 20.
Harding would only say he had a "rough patch" that was out of his control.
“This isn’t the time [to talk about it],” Harding said. “We’re in a playoff crunch. If I could’ve been out there, I would've been out there. It's tough, it was tough.”
You can read more about Harding's return in Thursday's paper. He looked good today, but this is obviously a first step.
“I know that he doesn’t want us really talking about [his MS], but the reality is it’s always going to be day-to-day, basically,” coach Mike Yeo said. “But he’s feeling very good right now and he’s motivated.”
With Darcy Kuemper out with an upper-body injury, Harding's return is obviously great news (great news for reasons beyond hockey, too).
This is getting way ahead of ourselves, but no chance Harding is able to return without an eventual conditioning stint in Iowa, and this is provided things continue to go well after a number of days of practice.
The Baby Wild has nine games left this season.But as Yeo said, everything is day-to-day right now.
Christian Folinalso joined practice today. Kuemper and Mikael Granlund did not practice. Nino Niederreiter did and is expected to play.
Scratches appear to be Heatley for a third game in a row, McCormick, Rupp. Yeo basically said that in the Wild's eyes, McCormick's not a center, so that's the reason for the Dowell callup.
D pairs remain the same:
Ballard looks like he'll continue to wait with the Wild having won two in a row.
Curry (Curry's jersey assigned was No. 30 when he came on the Edmonton, Vancouver trip in late February. The Wild has since acquired Bryzgalov, so Curry will wear No. 33 tomorrow. That means two different Wild backups (Rob Laurie) will wear the same number in consecutive games, which is par for the course with the Wild, which has had seven goalies up with the big team this season).
Officially, Granlund has an upper-body injury. Unofficially, replays show that Granlund’s head smacked into the left shoulder of Los Angeles Kings center Jarret Stoll on Monday as Granlund tried to deliver a check.
Yeo said there’s no timetable until Granlund sees the Wild doctors. Yeo said, “All I know right now” is that Granlund won’t play Thursday against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“We’re losing a very talented player, an offensive guy that we count on,” Yeo said of Granlund, the Wild’s fourth-leading scorer during a solid sophomore campaign with 41 points in 63 games. “In a situation like that, we’re going to lean on our other lines a little bit more, lean on our power play a little bit more.”
Captain Mikko Koivu will continue to get the bulk of the big minutes and matchups. Since March 18, Koivu, is on a six-game point streak, ranks first in the NHL with 10 assists and is tied for first with 12 points.
Rookie center Erik Haula, who led the Gophers in scoring during his sophomore and juniors years, has played a fourth-line role for much of his 40 games with the Wild. Haula, 23, has three goals and nine points, is plus-9 and will assume Granlund’s role between veterans Matt Moulson and Jason Pominville.
Yeo has been impressed with Haula’s ability to adapt to a defensive and penalty-kill role. Now that Haula will skate with two skilled scorers like Moulson (five goals and four assists in 14 games with the Wild) and Pominville (27 goals), Yeo said, “We’re going to ask him to be a little more creative.”
Haula will have to improve in the faceoff circle. That was one of Granlund’s biggest improvements. Granlund won 52.6 percent of his draws; Haula has won 42.7 percent.
“You’re on a line like that, starting with the puck in the offensive zone is a huge key,” Yeo said.
Folin got overshadowed today, so I will write a lot more about him in Friday's paper.
Just as advertised, he was big with a booming shot.
The plan initially is to get him involved in practice, teach him the Wild’s system and allow him to get comfortable. He is eligible to play in any of the remaining six games, but Yeo said the decision will be based on “team-first.”
Folin played two years with Austin (Minn.) in the North American Hockey League and said, “In the back of my head, I always wanted to come [back] to Minnesota.”
With Darcy Kuemper sidelined with an upper-body injury, the Wild has recalled John Curry from the Iowa Wild to back up Ilya Bryzgalov (4-0-2, 2.15 GAA) Thursday night against the Chicago Blackhawks. If Kuemper is out for awhile, the Wild has one back-to-back left (at Winnipeg on Monday, vs. Boston on Tuesday). Bryzgalov would probably get both games.
The Wild has also recalled center Jake Dowell, a former Blackhawk, with Mikael Granlund likely sidelined for a bit with an upper-body injury.
Coach Mike Yeo could either put Dowell or Cody McCormick as fourth-line center. I'd think Erik Haula moves up to second-line center because the Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle line is going real well, so why fiddle with that and bounce Coyle back to center again?
I saw Granlund after the game in L.A., and he had a red raspberry-looking mark under his left eye. He was walking slowly and definitely had a disappointed look on his face when talking to teammate Mikko Koivu.
Replays show that Granlund's head smacked right into Kings forward Jarret Stoll's left shoulder as Granlund got the worst of a check he tried to make.
Granlund, who has a history of concussions, missed 13 of 14 games with a concussion earlier this season after taking three hard hits in a six-game stretch from Toronto's Nazem Kadri, Ottawa's Marc Methot and Phoenix's Connor Murphy (actually, similarly, Granlund tried to initiate this check and got the worst of it when Murphy protected himself).
The one game Granlund played in that stretch, he lasted 29 seconds, so that was basically a missed game.
The Wild struggled without Granlund. In that 14-game stretch, Minnesota went 6-7-1 with 23 goals. But, remember, this is a Wild team that survived with Koivu, Zach Parise, Jared Spurgeon and Josh Harding out at the same time, so it has proven before that it is, dare I say, resilient (I actually hate that term in sports, so I may as well use it).
No doubt Yeo gives the old day-to-day line with Granlund, but we'll try to find out more after today's 1:30 p.m. practice in Chicago. Obviously, if it's a concussion, there's just no way to accurately give a timetable, so it would be truthfully day-to-day. These head injuries with Granlund are becoming a true concern. Remember, he came to the NHL with a history of them.
I never saw Nino Niederreiter after the L.A. game, but word yesterday was it's not supposed to be serious and he's considered questionable for Thursday's game. I'll let you know on Twitter in three hours if Niederreiter indeed practices. If he doesn't and can't play Thursday, the Wild has Dany Heatley waiting in the wings. The Wild is 2-0 without Heatley, incidentally.
Christian Folin, signed out of UMass-Lowell Monday, will practice for the first time today. He is eligible to play in any of the remaining six regular-season games (not playoff eligible). I cannot imagine Yeo plays him until he gets some practice time under his belt and only if there comes a point where maybe the Wild's locked into that top wildcard spot later next week.
Who knows if the Wild will ever get that breathing room. Dallas took over the second wildcard spot last night, has a game in hand and a cupcake schedule the rest of the season. The Stars are playing outstanding right now and just annihilating teams. Phoenix, which could be in trouble, lost in a shootout last night to Winnipeg, fell to ninth and plays in L.A. tonight.
Both teams are four back of Minnesota, which just further displays how gigantic the Wild's comeback wins at Detroit, Phoenix and Los Angeles were.
Yeo's in a tricky spot with Folin. I'm always fascinated when a team is still in a playoff race and then parachutes a rookie into the locker room. Chicago's done that with Teuvo Teravainen and Matt Carey and has lost three in a row. I think the smartest thing to do is just practice Folin and play him the last game or two if the Wild's locked and the team wants to rest guys like Ryan Suter or Jared Spurgeon.
Speaking of D, it'll be interesting to see if the Wild plays Jon Blum against Chicago. The Wild's won two in a row and got solid play from its blue line. But Keith Ballard could be ready to return. If Ballard returns, one would think it would be for Blum. If that were the case, I'd think Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin become a pair again and Ballard gets paired with Nate Prosser.
I'll be back later after practice to update the blog, but follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/russostrib for real-time updates later.
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