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.
Also find Russo on Facebook.
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Niklas Backstrom will make his fifth start of the season for the Wild when it hosts Phil Kessel, Jake Gardiner, Mason Raymond, James van Riemsdyk (did I get all Minnesota ties?) and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It was obvious something was awry when I walked into the rink and there was only one goalie on the ice for the Wild's optional skate. Goalies rarely don't take the ice for a morning skate because the shooters then only have one net to shoot at.
Turns out Josh Harding, who leads the NHL in goals-against average and save percentage, was "a little under the weather last night," coach Mike Yeo said, so because there would only be one goalie on the ice, the Wild decided to do the optional.
Harding will back up tonight.
Good morning from the X. Russo's back. I had to leave town unexpectedly the past few days due to a family emergency, but I jetted back here this morning to cover the game.
Three key reminders:
--TONIGHT'S GAME IS 6:30 P.M. (to accomodate TSN)!!!
--And for the persistent "what channel is the game on?" questions tonight, it will be on FOX SPORTS NORTH PLUS (FSN+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++). Here is where you can find the channel.
--Also, most importantly, my buddy Erik Stolhanske, the actor/writer extraordinaire from Super Troopers, Beerfest, etc., and Sven, the Norwegian caddy from Curb Your Enthusiasm, will be doing "Let's Play Hockey" tonight. Minnesota native. Give Rabbit some love tonight. If you didn't hear Erik sit in with me on KFAN earlier this summer, it was a blast and check out their site for archives.
Back to tonight:
The Wild has gotten points in nine of the past 10 games (7-1-2), losing in Toronto earlier this season when Darcy Kuemper was pulled in a rare night off for Harding. Wild outshot the Leafs 37-14 that game.
Backstrom was going to start at least one game this three-game homestand anyway. At least, that's what coach Mike Yeo had been indicating since Saturday. The team wants to get Backstrom back into some kind of rhythm, especially since he'll be needed to start at least one game next week at Montreal or Ottawa.
Here is the article I wrote on Backstrom in Monday's newspaper. Please give it a read.
Backstrom made 33 saves in a win at Chicago late last month but didn't play well at home against Chicago a few days later. He is 1-1-2 in six games this season with a 3.42 goals-against average and .871 save percentage.
Jonathan Bernier appears as if he'll get the start vs. the Wild. Of Bernier's seven career shutouts, three are against the Wild -- all coming as the Los Angeles Kings' backup.
Clayton Stoner is expected to return tonight after missing the Carolina game with a leg injury. If so, Matt Dumba will be scratched after a rough game against the Hurricanes. If scratched, it'll be Dumba's ninth scratch and fifth in six games.
Not much else going on. Tonight will be Gardiner's first game at the X not as a Wisconsin Badger ... or most importantly and impressively and notably a Minnetonka Skipper. He'll have about three-dozen family members and friends in attendance.
Kessel's turned himself into a bona fide star. He's got 10 goals and 19 points in 17 games. He played for the U, if you were born under a rock. Van Riemsdyk is playing center tonight. He's building a home out in Zach Pariseland.
Former Sabres captain Jason Pominville was stunned by today's Buffalo news. Huge, sweeping changes in Buffalo the last several months, from Pominville and Thomas Vanek getting traded to longtime coach Lindy Ruff getting fired to now GM Darcy Regier getting axed and former coach Ted Nolan going from blackballed to being brought back as interim coach.
"It's always tough when you see someone you know get let go like that," Pominville said. "[Regier's] always been good to me and pretty honest to me, but at the same time, it's a business move and something had to be done. I think they have a little time here where the new people in place will be able to build a team the way they want to. Obviously the owners weren't happy with the direction it was going, so they had to make a business move.
"They have passionate fans that want a team that competes and wins. Lately they haven't been getting that. You look back at five, six, seven years ago, that city was unbelievable with the support they gave us. Our playoff runs we had, it was awesome, but lately it hasn't been that way. I feel bad for the fans, but I'm sure this will make them feel a little bit better and buy time for the people in place.
"There's been a lot of changes. There's probably going to be more changes. But I've turned the page and am excited to be here."
I'll be on Hockey Night in Canada Radio at 3:30 p.m. CT and Sportsnet Radio/TV in Toronto at 1:15 CT.
Mike Yeo skated up to Matt Dumba near the end of this morning's pregame skate and asked, "Ready to go tonight?"
Dumba told him, "yes."
With Clayton Stoner injured with a minor leg issue, the 19-year-old Dumba will play his benchmark 10th game tonight against the Carolina Hurricanes. That means the first year of his three-year contract will burn off even if the Wild opts to return him to WHL Red Deer at a later date.
This does not mean he's necessarily here for the season. The next key mark is 41 games because that triggers his seven-year free-agency clock to start.
But most likely Dumba will be here for awhile now because while GM Chuck Fletcher has said all along he didn't care if his three-year deal kicks in, he does care if it kicks in at Game 10 and then you send him back to Red Deer for the year after Game 11 or 12 or 13 or something. That makes no sense. So essentially, the Wild has made the decision to keep Dumba here for significantly longer.
That should bring some ease to Dumba's game. He admitted after a rocky Game 9 against Chicago that the 9-game plateau was too much in his head.
"For it to be my 10th game in the positon I’m in is nice, but I have to keep building from there and hopefully I get the 20th game and 30th game and so on," Dumba said.
Dumba had been scratched in four consecutive games, so Yeo reminded the rookie that he must move the puck quick and decisively tonight against a high-pressure Canes team.
Josh Harding vs. Jeff Peters tonight. Carolina has to start Peters. If it didn't, you or I would have to probably start. Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin are hurt, although Ward took the ice in pads for the first time late in today's skate.
But the Wild thought seriously about starting Niklas Backstrom tonight. Instead, the team will continue to ride the red-hot Harding, who leads the league with a 1.16 goals against average and .949 save percentage. He has allowed 14 goals in 13 games.
Backstrom had a long huddle with goalie coach Bob Mason on the ice after the skate, and Yeo said that Backstrom will almost certainly start at least one of the games on the upcoming three-game homestand. He must, because he will certainly have to start at Montreal or at Ottawa in back-to-back games the following week.
Right-shot D Nate Prosser will move to the left side and be paired with Dumba, although my guess is Ryan Suter gets a bunch of ice time and Yeo said Marco Scandella can bite off more minutes. Last year, Yeo didn't have confidence that Prosser could play the off wing. It's just a different animal because you're playing pucks off the wall on your backhand.
Prosser said he has played the left side a "decent" amount in his career and it's no big deal to him at all.
Mike Rupp is looking better. The Wild has talked to him about a conditioning stint in Iowa. Rupp says he is ready and hopes that rehab stint comes this upcoming week.
I'll have some fun notes on yesterday's hoops game in tomorrow's paper. In a knockout game, Scandella beat Yeo in the finals, although said it's not fair because he lost to a guy who can dunk. Scandella said he beat Yeo "easily."
For more on the Wild hoops game, I did my Wild Minute with the players in the background. That can be seen on www.startribune.com/wild.
That's it for now. Talk later.
Wild faces Joel Ward and the Washington Capitals tonight at the house formerly known as MCI Center.
Wild's looking for its fourth in a row. Caps are looking for their fourth in a row. As they say in the biz, something's got to give!!!!
I'll be on Fox Sports North tonight during the pregame show at 5:30 p.m. CT and during the first intermission. We've got some good topics. Remember, if you're a radio listener and want to hear the sweet voices of Bob Kurtz and Tom Reid and the grating, obnoxious, annoying, insufferable voice of Kevin Falness (he's a really nice guy though), tonight's Wild game can be heard on 107.9-FM due to the 100.3-FM conflict with the Vikings game.
Josh Harding in the cage for Minnesota. Don't be surprised if Niklas Backstrom gets the call Saturday in Raleigh.
Obviously everything is subject to change and maybe Harding's performance tonight makes another no-brainer call for Miguelito Yeo.
But at some point Yeo wants and needs to get Backstrom back in the cage. One, again, Harding has multiple sclerosis and the Wild needs to make sure Harding is not run into the ground. He was lost for two months last year and has shown a propensity the past number of seasons of little and bigger injuries. Two, it would better serve the Wild if it can somehow get Backstrom into a rhythm as well.
"Hards has forced us to keep going here," Yeo said. "There’s no question that I do want to get Backy in there, especially that game that he played in Chicago, I thought he was outstanding in that game and would like to get him playing at that level consistency. We’re a better team if we have both guys going and we’re going to need both guys. At the same time, when you’ve got a hot guy, it’s hard not to ride him, too."
Nate Prosser is in for the injured Keith Ballard. My gut says Matt Dumba plays in Raleigh if it's true the 10th game means squat to the Wild. At some point, he's got to play. But again, if the defensemen are great tonight, Yeo may not want to fiddle with it.
Yeo was impressed with Clayton Stoner standing up to Calgary's Tim Jackman on Tuesday. Jackman crushed Jared Spurgeon and he was lost for all of the second period for it. Then after Zenon Konopka made it 4-1, Jackman slashed and cross-checked Jason Pominville.
Stoner, who had a tough game defensively, stepped up to Jackman, who did challenge Stoner to a fight earlier in the game.
"He didn’t hesitate," Yeo said. "That’s a team guy. That’s a guy that cares about his teammates. There's a lot of debate about fighting right now and whatnot, but bottom line, regardless of how you do it, you have to be there for each other.
"He brings something that we need in the lineup and that’s what forces us to put him in the lineup. We need him on the PK, and we need his physical presence."
Again, the Wild has won six of seven and is not particularly happy the way it has been playing lately.
Today's video session had to do with, STOP THROWING THE PUCK AWAY.
The turnovers lately have been glaring and plentiful.
"When you have success, there’s things that creep into your game, little things, things that you’re not aware of," Yeo said. "These are things that we want to rectify right now. Turnovers. We talk about puck possession. We're making plays. That’s good. But at the same time, we're hurting ourselves in a lot of ways. Make plays when they're there and when they're not there, don’t force it.
"Line changes, not good enough. It's not one player. Collectively, as a group, we have to be much better."
I've got a real fun lead note in tomorrow's paper, so please check that out. Some good stuff. I also talked to Jonas Brodin, who says there's times where his bubble is getting foggy and that has caused some turnovers. I noticed two icings the other day where his passes were way uncharacteristically off the mark. He says it's not a big problem and he's starting to get used to it. He says he'll have to wear the bubble for two or three more weeks.
If you want to ask a question for Sunday's Insider, see the below blog. Again, I can't take every question. I try to pick off about 10 or 12 that can fit in my allotted space.
Caps can you light you up. Wild must stay out of the box. There is no better power play teacher in the league than Caps coach Adam Oates. The once star playmaker had a great PP when he was an assistant in Tampa, when he was an assistant in New Jersey and as the head honcho in Washington.
Talk later and see you on the tube tonight.
Well, you've got to admit the first-line RW story in today's newspaper at least read well.
Of course, it's outdated now.
Torrey Mitchell won't be the first-line right wing tonight. Nor will Justin Fontaine.
That's because when the Wild said Charlie Coyle was day-to-day, it meant it. Coyle, who missed the last game vs. New Jersey with knee soreness, will return tonight against scrappy Calgary, and will play right wing next to Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu.
Mitchell is on the fourth line with Dany Heatley and Zenon Konopka, while Fontaine is on the checking line with Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak.
Coyle said he tweaked his knee late in Friday's game against Montreal, but doctors tell him the knee is stable and he says he'll just have to maybe play through soreness the next few weeks or even months. It'll be interesting to see how he plays off the hop. He has missed 12 of 13 games since one game and a half to start the season. The league has ramped up while Coyle's been sidelined, so don't be surprised if it takes Coyle a little time to get up to snuff.
He has missed a lot of time.
The hope is Coyle can help Parise and Koivu break out at even-strength. Koivu and Parise have combined for nine 5-on-5 points in 15 games this season.
"Adds a lot to that line," coach Mike Yeo said. "We’ve seen a lot of moving parts on that side, so we get a guy that both Mikko and Zach are not only familiar with ... but can help them play at their best."
Yeo says the chances have been there, but like Koivu and Parise, he wants to see more finish. But he feels consistency on that line can only help because some nights, shift to shift or period to period, they're playing with a different right wing.
"The goals will come," Coyle said. "As long as we just get on the puck and forecheck and play hard down low and win battles, we’ll be OK."
Coyle said he did come away from that PK Subban open-ice hit from behind scot-free in the third. He said it just shook him up at the time, "but I'm good. I'm good."
Interesting message coming from the Wild's room this morning. You know how I always say things are never as bad as they seem when you're losing and never as good as they seem when you're winning, well, the Wild has won five of six, which has masked some concerns.
The message today is the Wild is not playing as well as it was at the beginning of the season when it was losing games and it better find a way to improve.
Tonight is an interesting game. The Flames may not have Iggy and Kipper anymore, but they're a hard-working team that just walked into Chicago and took two points behind a rookie goalie who played lights out.
Simple recipe tonight: Wild outworks the Flames, it likely wins. Get outworked, it likely loses.
Same D tonight, meaning Matt Dumba sits for a third game in a row. The D is playing well, the Wild's suddenly healthy with eight defensemen, he's coming off a poor game. Easy decision to sit him.
Yeo believes Dumba's development won't be stalled by hanging out for a little longer, being a sponge and working with assistants Rick Wilson and Darryl Sydor. However, Yeo is of the mind that young kids must play, so it'll be interesting how long the Wild is willing to keep scratching him.
The risk of sending him back is that if the Wild suddenly runs into injuries again like when it lost Jonas Brodin and Keith Ballard at the same time, it would then have to turn toward Iowa beyond of course Nate Prosser. So the Dumba decision has a lot to do with how comfortable the Wild feels about its depth beyond Prosser -- i.e. Jon Blum, Kyle Medvec, Steve Kampfer, Tyler Cuma, etc.
GM Chuck Fletcher said, "We'll see how things go."
In other words, why make a decision today when you can make one tomorrow or the next day?
Carson McMillan skated, but with Coyle looking like he'll return, McMillan is probably Iowa-bound soon.
Josh Harding vs. Reto "Don't call me Yogi" Berra. Yeo would love to get Nik Backstrom back into a rhythm, but the way Harding has been playing (1.10 GAA and .950 SV% to lead the NHL), he is making this a no-decision. Just know, Yeo will have to eventually spot Backstrom a start no matter how Harding is doing.
With his multiple sclerosis and his propensity for injuries the past number of seasons, the Wild will not and can not run him into the ground. He will need to rest at times.
That's it for me. Have to continue working ahead on a couple features for Thursday and Saturday. In my game notebook in Wednesday's paper, I'll have more on Coyle, Dumba and Jason Pominville indeed being very much back on the Olympic radar for USA, USA, USA, USA!
Remember, he was born in Canada, but has dual citizenship. No USA-eligible player has more goals than Pominville's 10.
Talk to you tonight.
Wild forward Charlie Coyle, who just returned to the lineup Friday after missing 11 games because of a sprained knee, will miss at least one more. Coach Mike Yeo said Sunday morning that Coyle won't play Sunday night against New Jersey because he "reaggravated'' his injury. Yeo doesn't expect him out for long; Coyle did practice Saturday, though he skipped Sunday's optional morning skate.
Carson McMillan was recalled from Iowa on Sunday morning. With the Wild's AHL affiliate now conveniently located only one state south, McMillan hopped in his truck and drove up I-35. He participated in the morning skate. Mikko Koivu, Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak did not, though Yeo said they were just taking the morning off to conserve energy for the game.
Yeo said Josh Harding will start in goal, but he would not discuss which defensemen would play or how the Wild's lines would look.
Regarding Coyle, Yeo said, "He’s definitely been cleared (to play). It was just a day-to-day thing, more precautionary than anything else. It’s a long season and we don’t want to push it. ... We'll just keep him out for tonight and see how he does tomorrow.''
Yeo on McMillan, who has two goals, four assists and is plus-4 in seven games for Iowa: "It's an opportunity for sure. Obviously, when a guy goes down, there's more opportunity for somebody. Somebody moves up a line, and somebody moves into the lineup. This is his chance. He had a very strong training camp. He deserves this opportunity. He's been playing very well in Iowa.
"The best part for him is it should be able to translate. We’re not asking him to go out and score three goals. That would be nice, but what we’re asking of him is to be a big body, be strong on the puck, get to the offensive zone, play well defensively. And certainly those are things he’s capable of doing.''
Harding will start his second consecutive game and continues to lead the NHL in goals-against average (1.22) and save percentage (.946). Yeo stopped short, though, of saying he is the clear No. 1.
"I don’t want to say anybody's taking over the role,'' Yeo said. "He’s been playing very well, and he deserves to play the next game. That's kind of what we said going into the season. We don’t really have a set plan, but certainly, he deserves to be in the net tonight the way he’s played.''
That's a wrap for me. Russo has arrived back in Minnesota and will be in his rightful place for tonight's game.
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