Afternoon from Pittsburgh, where the Wild and Penguins face off tonight at 6 p.m. CT.
If you get NHL Network, I’ll be on NHL Live at 5 p.m. CT, 6 p.m. ET, from the penalty box on the bald-spot cam at CONSOL Energy Center.
Penguins, despite being minus 10 guys that are hurt or suspended, just keep on winning. Just on their back end, they are missing Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi and always-friendly Paul Martin, who walked by me on crutches wearing a full beard. Yet, the Pens have won five in a row and 10 of their past 11.
James Neal is expected to return from his five-game suspension tonight for kneeing Brad Marchand in the head. He’s not the first player who wanted to knee Marchand in the head, but he’s the first player to actually do it.
Sidney Crosby, who once upon a time starred at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, will play the Wild for the first time since the 2009-10 season. In five games vs. Minnesota, Sid the Not a Kid Anymore has three goals and four assists. He is riding an eight-game point streak and of course leads the NHL in scoring.
Crosby and Wild coach Mike Yeo had a great relationship when Yeo was Pittsburgh’s assistant for four years. Yeo called the prospect of coaching against Crosby “scary” tonight.
“I can’t say that I’m really looking forward to it,” Yeo said. “He’s a player, every time he steps on the ice he’s a threat and dangerous. It’s a great challenge, too. We pride ourselves on our defensive game. It’s a good opportunity to go out and prove we can do it against the elite.”
The Wild hasn’t lost in Pittsburgh since its first visit many, many years ago. It has won six in a row since and, in fact, the Wild is the only team Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t beaten. He is 0-5 against the Wild with a 3.76 goals-against average and .853 save percentage.
The Pens didn’t have a morning skate, but Fleury played in Pittsburgh’s 8 p.m. game against the Rangers in New Yawk last night, so the guess is backup Jeff Zatkoff, 26, will make his seventh career start. He is 5-2 in seven appearances with a 2.53 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. He’s a product of the L.A. Kings system and signed a free agent in 2012.
We should find out for sure during Dan Bylsma’s 5 p.m. availability.
Good opportunity to play the backup because the Wild hasn’t exactly lit up anybody. Twenty goals scored in the past 13 games and the team is 6-8-3 on the road with three regulation wins – and none since Nov. 20 at Ottawa.
Mikael Granlund won’t play tonight. He was clearly disappointed on the ice when Yeo talked to him this morning. But with no practice yesterday, the Wild wants to put Granlund is a good spot and not rush him back, so he’ll get two battling practices Friday in Pittsburgh and Saturday at Chelsea Pier in Manhattan and maybe play Sunday against the Rangers.
“It’s a long season,” Yeo said.
Matt Cooke was Mr. Popular this morning. He spoke for 10 minutes with about 20 reporters around him in front of his stall as he preps to return to Pittsburgh for the first time since signing a three-year deal with the Wild.
He joked that he hopes he’s not booed, but if he is, “it wouldn’t be the first time and probably won’t be the last.”
He won’t be booed. As far as I can tell, he was loved here by Pens fans. He joked that he’s changed his ways, so he won’t try to push any buttons in the smack-talking department tonight with his old mates. Asked if he’d also avoid any practical jokes before the game for his old mates, the renowned jokester said, “I didn’t say that.”
“I’ll forever be thankful for the support I had here, from ownership, management, the coaching staff, players, media, fans, everybody,” Cooke said. “That’ll never change. But that doesn’t mean I don’t go out and not try tonight to hand over a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.”
As for Josh Harding missing at least a week to make some “minor adjustments” to his treatment protocol for multiple sclerosis, Yeo said he knew about this for a few days, but they didn’t feel the need to talk about it and create any kind of distraction going into the Vancouver game Tuesday.
“He feels great. He wants to make sure everybody understands that, that this is just a minor thing and he’ll be able to rejoin us after Christmas,” Yeo said.
This is now a big opportunity for Niklas Backstrom to get into a rhythm for the first time this season. The way Harding has played all year has meant Backstrom only gets one game every blue moon. This is a veteran used to playing every day, so it clearly has been a difficult adjustment.
“We’re really confident in him,” Yeo said. “He’s played some great hockey for us. This might end up being a great positive for us where we get him right on top of his game again.”
Yeo did say that the Wild potentially flips Johan Gustafsson and Darcy Kuemper this weekend. Kuemper is considered the Wild’s No. 3 and is apparently playing better in Iowa after a slow start to his year and two very rough outings in the NHL this year.
Even if Kuemper is called up to back up Backstrom Sunday in New York, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s starting Monday in Philly. That will have to do with how Backstrom is playing, how much work he faces in New York, what time the team arrives in Philadelphia (the Wild is taking a chartered train after the Rangers game).
But if there’s a chance Kuemper’s going to start Monday, my guess is he has to come up prior to Sunday so he’s got some time to get comfortable. Remember, his lone start in Toronto when he gave up three goals on seven shots, the team flew him in on the day of the Buffalo game to back up and then start the next night. I can’t imagine the Wild would be foolish enough to do that again. So if this switch happens, I think Kuemper comes to New York on Saturday.
The Wild’s not giving up on Kuemper based on two nervous outings – one replacing Harding in the middle of arguably the Wild’s worst road performance of the season (6-2 in Montreal). So it wouldn’t shock me if he gets the call.
Yeo expects Jason Pominville to be “geared up” tonight. Remember, he wants to represent the U.S. at the Olympics and the U.S. coach is Bylsma. The associate GM is Pens GM Ray Shero.
Pominville says he won’t be focused on that, but he did say he still really wants to force them into making a tough decision. He is on the long list, meaning he is in the anti-doping program and has been drug tested throughout the season in case the U.S. chooses him.
Lastly, before I return after tonight's game, here's a pic of Team Canada assistant captain Matt Dumba.
Congrats to NJT leadership group. Captain Scott Laughton and assistants Matt Dumba, Jonathan Drouin. pic.twitter.com/dG9wFM7QoH— Scott Salmond (@SAMMYSAYS2010) December 19, 2013