Oodles and oodles of news heading into tonight’s Wild-Nashville Predators game, and I’ll be on Fox Sports North tonight during the pregame show and first intermission to talk about much of it and let you know what I’m thinking in terms of my end of year awards voting.
The Wild, two days after clinching a playoff berth in Chicago, will be without its top-3 leading goal scorers tonight as it tries to tie the NHL record with a 12th consecutive road win.
Zach Parise, Nino Niederreiter and Thomas Vanek, who have scored 77 of the Wild’s 221 goals (34.8 percent), won’t play. They all have nagging injuries, but the plan is for them to play in Saturday’s finale at St. Louis. Niederreiter has the foot injury, Vanek had the groin a month ago that he has been playing through and really struggled with his skating against the Blackhawks and Parise joked that he was “under the weather.”
“I guess it’s a good luxury to have, but at the same time you want to make sure you’re staying sharp and game ready,” Parise said. “I’m sure we’ll all be in the lineup Saturday.”
On what’s ailing him, Parise said, who has a team-leading 32 goals, said, “There’s been a lot of hard games lately. Everyone’s, I’m sure, got some bumps and bruises.”
“Maintenance day,” he said, smiling. “Of course I want to play. I was fully planning on playing, but in the long run, it’s probably better not to right now.”
Justin Fontaine and Sean Bergenheim weren’t supposed to play, but after line rushes, they were informed they would be playing and Parise and Niederreiter would sit. Niederreiter huddled on the ice after practice with coach Mike Yeo and athletic therapist Don Fuller, and it was decided he wouldn’t play.
He was very much visibly hurting in Chicago after being nailed by a Matt Dumba slapper late in Monday’s loss to Winnipeg.
“I just had to battle through,” Niederreiter said. “I had a couple good looks with Charlie and Schroeds. But when you’re not 100 percent, you go into battles differently and skating-wise, sometimes you change your skating and push more off your other leg.
“I could have played tonight, but they gave me the day off. As a player, you want to play. But we clinched the playoffs, so this is the safer side and I’ll be ready for St. Louis.”
Matt Cooke will return after missing 31 games with a sports hernia. He missed 22 games earlier this season with a hip injury. So he has only played 27 games.
He’s excited to play and “I’m just excited to get out there and help. I feel conditioning-wise I’m there. Game speed stuff, I don’t really have a choice, I’ve got to go out and play my game and get up to speed as quick as I can.”
Same defensemen, although Yeo made clear that Saturday’s lineup may look very much like the lineup they plan to start the playoffs with and Nate Prosser is expected back in.
However, he also said that the lineup they use in the playoffs could depend on the opponent. There are scenarios for the Wild to face St. Louis, Nashville, Anaheim or Chicago and “Certain players may be a better fit against certain opponents.”
Very interesting though tonight that Erik Haula doesn’t draw in, especially inside an arena where he had a great game in back in February. He is deep in the doghouse again, it appears.
Niklas Backstrom will back up Darcy Kuemper tonight.
Joked Yeo, “Devan Dubnyk is a healthy scratch tonight. I didn’t like that last goal in Chicago.”
In all seriousness, Yeo, in explaining why he won’t dress, said, “I think a night mentally completely off will be good for him.”
Why Kuemper tonight instead of Saturday? “To play Duby today, it would be three games in four days and I don’t think that makes a lot of sense right now [with a playoff berth clinched] and if we would play him today and not Saturday, that’s too long in between games.”
He means there that if he played today and not Saturday, that would be six or seven days without a game for Dubnyk depending on whether the Wild opens the playoffs Wednesday or Thursday.
On if he’s worried that the Blues could crash the net and take liberties with Dubnyk if there’s a chance the Wild is their first-round opponent, Yeo said, “You can’t operate like that right now. You can’t make decisions based on fear. You’ve got to make decisions on what’s best for the group. … Obviously I don’t think that any team that we’re playing is going to want to have suspensions going into the start of the playoffs either.”
On Kuemper making his first start since Jan. 6, Yeo said, “He’s been working hard. There was a time there where there was an awful lot of pressure on both of our goalies and with that our team I don’t think was playing our best game in front of them. Our game in front of our goaltenders has been better and hopefully we give him a good chance to succeed tonight. My message to Darcy was plain and simple: none of us really know what to expect. He looks really good in practice and we’re all hopeful he can come in and play a great game. What I want to see is him not focused on the score, just going out there and battling on every shot right now and hopefully as the game’s going on getting stronger through his game.”
Yeo insists there are so many scenarios, he has spent very little time thinking about which opponent the Wild may get in the first round.
Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said the same thing.
Kuemper said, “I’m definitely excited.”
He was told after the Chicago game that it was probable he’d start tonight, “so I had a few days to prepare here.”
There will be inevitable rust. He hasn’t played since Jan. 20 in the NHL or started since Jan. 6, so chillax if he struggles. But they want to give him a game in case he’s needed in the playoffs.
“You’ve just got to be excited and ready to compete and give yourself a chance to make saves,” Kuemper said.
Watching Dubnyk, Kuemper said, “I’ve learned tons. It’s been tough in the sense you want to be out there playing. The team’s been doing awesome and been on quite the run here. It’s a fun thing to be a part of even if I’m not playing.”
It would not shock me if this is the last we see of Backstrom in a Wild uniform tonight. I just don’t think alternating goalies in the playoffs will be Yeo’s plan, and as I have assumed for months, Backstrom will be moved this summer, whether it’s via trade or buyout.
I’ll have a funny Matt Cullen note in Friday’s paper, too, and check out my Sunday column this week on whom I plan to vote for with my awards balloting.
That’s it for now.