Stars coach Lindy Ruff used both goaltenders over the course of the regular season and both Niemi and Kari Lehtonen won 25 games as the Stars finished with the second-best record in the NHL.
“I think it’s gone as good, even a lot better than I expected,” Ruff said. “I’ve had two guys, I met with them before the start of the year, and I explained that this is going to be new to me, it’s going to be new to you guys, here’s how it’s going to take place. We really don’t have a set schedule, here’s the plan for it. It will deviate depending on how well you play, and who gets on a roll.”
Lehtonen started the first two games of this series, allowing just one goal as Dallas took a 2-0 lead. Minnesota won 5-3 on Monday, so now Ruff will turn to Niemi.
Niemi played well down the stretch in the regular season, winning three of his final four starts with a 1.76 goals-against average and .943 save percentage. This will be his first start since the regular-season finale on Apr. 9, when he stopped 28 of 30 shots in the 3-2 win over Nashville that helped secure the Central Division title and top seed in the Western Conference for the Stars.
Now, he’ll come in the middle of the first round series against the Wild, which he said isn’t an issue.
“I don’t think so,” Niemi said. “I think you just have to prepare yourself for one game at a time and see it as that.”
Defenseman Kris Russell, who missed Monday’s game due to illness, skated for a second straight day and could play tonight. Ruff said he’ll skate seven defensemen in warm-ups and make a decision then.
“He’s a possibility, yes,” Ruff said. “He’s feeling better, so he is a possibility, and if he feels he can play tonight when he gets here, there’s a good chance we will play him.”
Stars captain Jamie Benn, who missed Tuesday’s practice for a maintenance day, took part in the team’s optional skate Wednesday morning. Benn said he is fine.
“I’m good,” he said. “It’s just keeping with our routine and getting days off when I can. It’s not a big deal.”
Ruff said he will skate an extra forward in warm-ups as he decides on a lineup for tonight’s game.
Tyler Seguin remains out with an issue related to his Achilles injury. He is still in Dallas and listed as day to day.
All games in a playoffs series are important, but tonight’s game is pivotal. The Stars are either going to head home to Dallas in control of the series with a 3-1 lead, or it is going to be 2-2 and down to essentially a best-of-three.
“I know this sounds crazy, but this is the biggest game of the series, obviously, for both teams. For us, it’s push-back time,” Ruff said. “Let’s have fun with this. Let’s have fun. This is what we’ve played all year long, all the hard work, the grind, some of the tough losses. This is the fun time of year, have fun with this.”
The Wild are not expected to make any lineup changes for Wednesday’s game. They’ll go with the same lines and defense pairings that got them a 5-3 win Monday night. Devan Dubnyk, of course, will get the start in goal.
The Wild will look to take advantage of home ice and the home crowd for a second straight game to pull even in the series.
“Fans were awesome. They were revved up, and we certainly slowed them down real quick (falling behind early), but then they got behind us,” Wild coach John Torchetti said. “We’re going to need that tonight. They were revved up, and they just kept it going and I think the boys fed off it.”
The Wild gave updated conditions on injured forwards Zach Parise (upper body) and Thomas Vanek (upper body). Vanek is now day to day and Parise is week to week.
Who: Dallas Stars at Minnesota Wild
Where: Xcel Energy Center
When: 8:30 p.m.
TV: FOX Sports Southwest, NBCSN, SN360, TVA Sports
Radio: The Ticket 1310 AM/96.7 FM
Jamie Benn – Cody Eakin – Patrick Sharp
Mattias Janmark – Jason Spezza – Valeri Nichushkin
Antoine Roussel – Radek Faksa – Ales Hemsky
Colton Sceviour – Vernon Fiddler – Patrick Eaves
Alex Goligoski – John Klingberg
Johnny Oduya – Stephen Johns
Kris Russell – Jason Demers
Injured: Tyler Seguin (Achilles)
Scratched: Travis Moen, Jordie Benn, Jamie Oleksiak, Patrik Nemeth
Mikael Granlund – Mikko Koivu – David Jones
Nino Niederreiter – Erik Haula – Jason Pominville
Jason Zucker – Charlie Coyle – Justin Fontaine
Chris Porter – Zac Dalpe – Kurtis Gabriel
Ryan Suter – Jared Spurgeon
Jonas Brodin – Matt Dumba
Marco Scandella – Nate Prosser
Injured: Zach Parise (upper body), Thomas Vanek (upper body)
Scratched: Jarret Stoll, Ryan Carter, Jordan Schroeder, Mike Reilly
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.