Weekend preview: Wild-Wings doubleheader, Blues invade Pennsylvania

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A quick look ahead at some of the narratives at play this weekend…

Detroit and Minnesota go back-to-back

Two teams in the thick of their respective playoff chases will square off twice this weekend — the Wings will take on the Wild in Minnesota on Saturday, then host ’em at the Joe on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Improbably, Detroit has rallied to win three of its last four and move within one point of the Rangers for the final wild card spot in the East. The rally is improbable given their rash of injuries — in Thursday’s 5-4 OT victory over Pittsburgh, the Wings were without the services of (deep breath) Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Stephen Weiss, Justin Abdelkader, Joakim Andersson, Dan Cleary, Jonathan Ericsson, Tomas Jurco, Darren Helm and Mikael Samuelsson (phew).

Minnesota, meanwhile, is trending in the opposite direction — the Wild have lost six of eight, though did manage to accumulate eight points over that stretch. That’s left them with 83 going into the weekend, good enough to hold the first of two wild card spots in the Western Conference.

St. Louis to take on Philly, Pittsburgh

The Keystone State will get a good look at the NHL’s No. 1 team this weekend, as the Blues — first in the league with 101 points — take on the Flyers in Philadelphia on Saturday, then face the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Boasting an 8-1-1 record since acquiring Ryan Miller and Steve Ott at the NHL trade deadline, St. Louis has looked like a legit Cup contender in recent weeks, but did suffer a setback on Wednesday with a disappointing 4-0 loss in Chicago (y’know, the reigning Cup champ.) With that it mind, the Blues will head into this weekend looking to rebound from the Chicago loss and test itself against two of the East’s most talented teams — Pittsburgh sits atop the Atlantic Division with 45 wins and 95 points while Philly remains one of the hottest teams in the league, going 7-2-1 over its last 10 games.

Kesler calls Game 6 loss to Nashville the ‘toughest’ of his career

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Ryan Kesler has lost some big games in his career.

He was on the United States team that lost to Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

He was on the Vancouver Canucks team that lost to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

But apparently neither of those losses were as bad as the one his Anaheim Ducks experienced on Monday.

“This was the toughest loss of my career,” Kesler said of losing Game 6 of the Western Conference Final to Nashville. “This stings. It still stings. We left everything out there.”

Kesler had a particularly tough game, finishing minus-4 in the 6-3 loss. In the series, he only had one assist, failing to score on any of his 19 shots.

At 32 years old, Kesler is running out of time to win his first Stanley Cup.

And perhaps that’s why this latest loss was especially tough for him. The Ducks had a great chance to eliminate the Predators once Ryan Johansen was lost for the series, and then they would’ve faced either Pittsburgh minus Kris Letang or the underdog Ottawa Senators.

That’s gonna sting every time.

Related: Johansen wishes he was there to shake Kesler’s hand after Predators won

Fisher returns to Preds practice, but still not cleared

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Given the injuries Nashville’s sustained at center this postseason, Mike Fisher‘s presence at today’s practice was a welcome sight — regardless of his availability for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

“I feel pretty good,” Fisher told NHL.com after practicing for the first time since May 18. “I skated a few days here. Still not cleared, but it felt good to get out there with the guys.”

Fisher was knocked out of the Western Conference Final in Game 4, after taking a Josh Manson knee to the head. That, combined with the loss of Ryan Johansen to season-ending thigh surgery, whittled Nashville’s center depth down to Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissions, Vern Fiddler and Frederick Gaudreau.

Even though Fisher is pointless through 14 playoff games, his return would still be massive. In addition to serving as team captain, he was averaging just under 17 minutes per night prior to getting hurt, while winning 52 percent of his faceoffs.

He said his undisclosed injury feels “a lot better than it was a few days ago,” adding that his goal is to return for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday.

Fisher took minimal contact at today’s skate, and worked on a line with James Neal and Harry Zolnierczyk.

Swedes have shown well in the Stanley Cup Playoffs

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Filip Forsberg is having quite the spring for the Nashville Predators, setting franchise records with his eight goals and 15 points. He’s tied the team mark with at least a point in seven straight games.

Pontus Aberg scored the game-winning goal to put Nashville up 3-2 in the Western Conference finals, while defenseman Mattias Ekholm, has been smothering top lines all postseason. Viktor Arvidsson has 10 points, and his plus-13 rating ties him with Anaheim’s Rickard Rakell for second-best this postseason — behind Forsberg (plus-17).

All five of these players are Swedish. It has been a sweet postseason for players from a nation whose players once were derided for being soft and not able to handle the rigors of the NHL. In all, general manager David Poile has six Swedes on Nashville’s playoff roster as the Predators reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their 19-year history.

“I must admit we haven’t gone out of the way necessarily to get them to this point, but I’m thinking maybe we should,” Poile said. “They’ve certainly been key parts of our team.”

The Predators have lots of company in mining Sweden for talent. Defenseman Erik Karlsson is one of four Swedes playing for Ottawa in the Eastern Conference finals, while former Nashville forward Patric Hornqvist is one of three for the Pittsburgh Penguins. A check of NHL rosters shows 79 skaters and 10 goalies from Sweden played during the regular season, with 40 appearing in at least one playoff game.

Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle said Sweden has become a hockey power for a small country. Teammates with Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom in 1976 in Toronto, Carlyle saw the abuse directed at both.

“That was a little bit more barbaric or archaic times of hockey,” Carlyle said. “But that’s how much the game has grown, and it has become a world-class game. And these players are world-class players and now you’re looking at their contribution and the numbers that are in the NHL, it’s all a tribute back to those two players.”

Because of the time zone difference, Rakell said, it was pretty tough to watch NHL games when he was growing up. The best chance to watch hockey stars came during national team tournaments in Europe. Rakell, now 24, started watching more of the NHL when he got to junior hockey, though he also had a favorite.

“I was growing up in the same hometown as Mats Sundin, and he was pretty big in that small town I grew up in,” Rakell said of the 13-year NHL center. “So he was one of the guys I was looking up to and watching highlight videos.”

Pittsburgh forward Carl Hagelin said Thursday that it’s a very good time to be a Swedish hockey player, noting Sweden beat Canada 2-1 in a shootout Monday for the world hockey championship . Each NHL team seems have two or three Swedes on the roster.

Yes, they do keep track of their countrymen during the regular season. In the playoffs, all friendships are put aside.

“In the playoffs, you just play to win games,” Hagelin said.

Hagelin estimated a third of Sweden watched the world championship. Thanks to the internet and social media, it’s much easier to watch the NHL these days.

“There’s a lot of people watching us back home,” Aberg said.

Penguins forward Oskar Sundqvist agreed: “I know a lot of my friends stay up basically the whole night and watch games. I think it’s growing every day in Sweden, and it’s just getting bigger and bigger.”

Swedish hockey has become so strong that Carlyle said NHL scouts are visiting the country regularly. Making the jump to playing in North America has its challenges for young players. Pittsburgh drafted Sundqvist in 2012 when he was 19, and he stayed in Sweden for two full seasons before making his NHL debut last season. He spent much of this season at the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and now is 23.

“It’s not like you’ve got a one-hour car drive and get home with mom and dad,” Sundqvist said. “I have a lot to thank Pittsburgh for letting me stay in Sweden one more year and prepare to get ready for everything that is over here.”

A Swedish teammate means being able to relax and talk with each other in the same language. It’s also a little easier to get tips on what to do and not do to ensure a long stay in the NHL.

“Everybody wants to play here and everybody wants to make the best out of it if you ever get the chance,” Rakell said.

Blue Jackets sign USHL’s goalie of the year

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The Columbus Blue Jackets have signed goalie Matiss Kivlenieks to a three-year entry-level contract.

Kivlenieks was an undrafted free agent that a number of NHL teams were hoping to sign after his sterling season in the USHL.

The 20-year-old was originally planning to attend Minnesota State University next season, but he’s a professional now so that plan has changed.

From the press release:

Kivlenieks, 20, went 36-7-4-2 with a 1.85 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and five shutouts in 49 games to help the Sioux City Musketeers capture the 2016-17 Anderson Cup as the league’s regular season champions. He was named the USHL’s Player of the Year and Goaltender of the Year and to the First All-Star Team after leading the league in wins, GAA, SV%, shutouts (tied) and finishing second in minutes played (2,991).  

Next season, Sergei Bobrovsky will be the starter for Columbus, likely backed up by either Anton Forsberg or Joonas Korpisalo.

But Kivlenieks may get the chance to be other goalie in the AHL, behind either Forsberg or Korpisalo.

The Blue Jackets also have 23-year-old goalie Oscar Dansk in the system; however, he struggled last year (.903) in the Swedish league.

Related: Jackets loan Dansk to Swedish club