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.
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Good win for the Wild tonight, hanging on to beat the Rangers, who are similarly desperate in the East, 2-1, in a tight-checking, in-your-face affair.
These are the type of games the Wild must win down the stretch. Wild wins 2-1. Phoenix loses 2-1, and now the Wild can feel a little more breathing room.
Coach Mike Yeo loved that both goals the Wild scored were “the kind of goals that you can score in the playoffs,” one off a hard forecheck by Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke to create Nino Niederreiter’s 12th goal of the season and the second in a net-crashing display by the Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville line.
Granlund attacked the net from the side and Talbot turned away three shots by Granlund and Pominville before Parise scored his 23rd goal (10th in the third period) and 46th career game winner 1:03 into the third.
From there, Darcy Kuemper was brilliant. In his 18th start in 19 games, he made 16 of his 29 saves in the third period to bounce back from a rare average game against the Oilers.
One of the subplots tonight was Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle.
The most impressive part of Granlund’s game the past two months has been his consistency. But like most young 20-somethings, we’ve seen large variance in performances from Niederreiter and Coyle. I thought both were real good against St. Louis, I thought both had tough games against Edmonton.
Tonight, Yeo felt Niederreiter was going early, so in the second period, Yeo popped Niederreiter up to the Matt Moulson-Mikko Koivu line and dropped Coyle to the Cooke-Brodziak line. From that point, Coyle was outstanding.
“The switch in lines kind of sparked Charlie,” Yeo said. “Whether he wanted to make a point or I’m not sure what it was, but from that point on , he was really moving his feet and attacking. Nino was a presence right from the start.”
Yeo said when he knows both players are going is when they’re engaged physically, and when that happens, “everything else falls into place.” That was the case for Niederreiter all game, Yeo said, and Coyle the last two periods.
Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin looked to have a tough start to the game, but they rebounded nicely and rebounded from a tough night Tuesday by being plus-2’s.
Granlund won 11 of 16 faceoffs and has now won 22 of 29 the past two games. The Wild won 40 of 69 tonight. There were a lot of stoppages tonight. The first two periods were tough to watch at times just because both teams checked really well and gave the other very little. These are the type of games the Wild will have to win down the stretch, Yeo said.
The Wild has played in six straight one-goal games. I joked on Twitter that the Wild is on fire because it now has points in three straight overall (1-0-2) and nine in a row at home (7-0-2). That’s called, fun with numbers, NHL-style.
Nice response from the Wild after Hastings’ Derek Stepan tied the score on a power play in the second. Brodziak has been in the penalty box three times in four games when the opposing team has scored a power-play goal, so he best cut that out. He took a delay of game penalty also with 3:20 left, which caused a frantic last few minutes.
So, the sky isn’t falling after all. The Wild closes its homestand Saturday against very scrappy and very desperate Columbus, which always plays the Wild well home and away, especially under former Wild coach Todd Richards.
The Wild’s now five points up on Dallas and six on Phoenix, which lost tonight to the Bruins, who have won seven in a row. The Wild opens a three-game trip in Boston on St. Patrick’s Day Monday. The Wild’s 6-0 all-time at Boston, but this Bruins team is a true Cup contender and plays a Western Conference brand of hockey.
That’s it for now. Check out the game story for all the quotes and stories from the game, including Mike Greenlay taking a stick to the face during the game. Yeo said Greenlay is day-to-day with an "upper-body injury."
Talk to you Friday from practice.
Afternoon from the X, where the Wild looks to get back on track and snap an 0-1-2 streak tonight against Benoit Pouliot, Dominic Moore and the New York Rangers.
GM Chuck Fletcher is back from the GM's meetings. I talked to him about the meetings and some of the tweaks the managers are recommending be made to the game, like long changes in overtime (teams switch sides like the second period) and instead of kicking cheating centers out of the circle, penalize them by making them move back 18 inches or so. The centers I talk to think this is ludicrous and will create major problems. Imagine losing a game in the last minute because another center was basically given a free faceoff win?
I'll write about the GM's meetings in my Sunday Insider.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Cam Talbot as the Rangers save Henrik Lundqvist for tomorrow’s game at Winnipeg.
Talbot made 24 saves against the Wild in a 4-1 win at MSG on Dec. 22. That game was the final straw for Zach Parise, who had to take the next 14 games off with a broken foot he was playing on.
Talbot is 11-5 in 18 appearances with a 1.75 goals-against average and .938 save percentage. So, not your normal backup goalie.
Kuemper has lost two in a row (one by shootout) and is trying to get back on track from a shaky outing against Edmonton. He and the Wild blew a 3-0 lead. The tying goal was one Kuemper definitely wishes had had back and then he gave up three goals on four shots in the shootout after entering the shootout 11 for 11 this season.
Coach Mike Yeo said that Kuemper has shown the ability the past 2 ½ months, whether it’s a win or lose, to put the previous game aside and show “renewed focus for the next match. So we’re anxious to see if he can do that again.”
Agitator Dan Carcillo will enter the Rangers’ lineup for pest Derek Dorsett. Justin Falk will be scratched. The former Wild D hasn't played since Dec. 29. Martin St. Louis is looking for his first goal as a Ranger. He has one assist in four games since asking out of Tampa.
Yeo will continue his third defense pair rotation and for the fourth straight game change it up. Nate Prosser comes out as Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard will be a pair.
“We said we were going through this rotation a couple times here and reevaluate it after that, so let’s go that way tonight,” Yeo said.
Asked the rationale as to why he doesn’t just pick six D and end it (I write it that way because it reminds me of one of my favorite Seinfeld lines when George Costanza was double-dipping the chip, From now on, when you take a chip, just take one dip and end it), Yeo said, “I don’t think that anybody deserves to just come out of the lineup and stay out of the lineup. We have to go by more than just a one game sample size. That’s the way we always do it here. Those guys played really good hockey for us for a long time. You look at how we counted on them when [Jared] Spurgeon was out of the lineup, how we counted on them when Marco [Scandella] was out of the lineup. Those guys not only got us through those [injuries] but really helped us take our game to another level, so they deserve the opportunity to not just be taken out of the lineup and not have a chance to get in there.”
I talked to Ryan Suter today about his ice time. He logged 34:12 against Edmonton, which surprised me in a game where the Wild was up 3-0 at one point. Obviously, the ice time was elevated by overtime and a 5-on-3 and 4-on-3. Also, Scandella had a real tough night, so perhaps the Wild was trying to limit his ice time in that game. Still, that was the sixth time he has topped 34 minutes this year and the 33rd time in 65 games he hit the 30-minute mark. He averages 2 minutes, 35 seconds per game more than any other NHL player. It just seems too much as the Wild are in a stretch where it plays 20 times in 37 nights.
Suter, of course, said it’s not and he means it. He wants to play that much and admits he tells assistant coach Rick Wilson that often. I’ll have his quotes in tomorrow’s paper.
Yeo did indicate today that 34:12 last game was too much and Jared Spurgeon playing a career-high 30:40 was too much, too.
“That’s a lot, and obviously we’ve got a lot of games coming up here,” Yeo said. “We have to make sure we’re monitoring that. Suts is accustomed to playing big minutes. I think last game was still a lot for him. Spurg generally is not going to play 30 minutes a night.”
Yeo indicated power-play personnel tweaks. My guess is the 5-on-4 units remain the same, but if it gets to a 5-on-3 or 4-on-3, Mikael Granlund will take the place of someone, maybe Mikko Koivu. The 5-on-4's, Granlund and Koivu have been separated.
Yeo expects a tough game tonight. Alain Vigneault coaches the Rangers, so expect to see the Canucks’ old system. That means lots of pressure, players in your face, defensemen jumping up in the play. Yeo said the Wild must be prepared to move the puck quickly and to make quick decisions.
Wild better get its act together now. Of the teams vying for a playoff spot, it has the toughest schedule in my opinion. After games against the Rangers and Columbus, Wild hits the road for eight of 10. Remember, the Wild has won 12 games all year on the road.
The Wild still has Boston, arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference, twice, Pittsburgh once (pummeled Minnesota in Pittsburgh before Christmas), St. Louis, who has beaten them eight in a row, twice, road games at Chicago and L.A.
Time get back to its winning ways.
Josh Harding, two days after he begun skating, put on the pads this morning and took shots and did puck-handling drills with goalie coach Bob Mason.
“It’s a great sign that he’s feeling much better and he’s focused and motivated to try to get back with us,” Yeo said. “So, it’s a great sign. With that said, we’re still a few steps away. It’s not like he’s a week away from rejoining us here, but it’s a good first step.”
Ilya Bryzgalov has a new vinyl wrap around his mask to bide time while his new one gets painted. Bryzgalov didn’t care, but team trainers didn’t like that the old vinyl looked pink rather than red.
Also, to answer a lot of questions, those custom shot blockers have been tried by every player. The only ones who are using them are Spurgeon, Prosser and Erik Haula.
The day after Tuesday's deflating 4-3 shootout loss to Edmonton, the Wild spent much of Wednesday's practice at Braemar Arena working on its power play. It also worked on something more nebulous but equally important: developing the chemistry that coach Mike Yeo said his team is struggling to find.
Since the personnel shift that occurred at the trade deadline--when the team shed fourth-liner Torrey Mitchell and gained forwards Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick--the Wild is 0-1-2, including Tuesday's clunker against one of the league's worst teams. Yeo said that rebuilding team chemistry with those new pieces will happen with repetition, and he has impressed upon his players that working toward that goal is critical.
Yeo did not make any changes to his line combinations in Wednesday's practice, though he said he would reevaluate that Thursday morning as the Wild prepares for Thursday night's home game against the New York Rangers. He did say that Darcy Kuemper will get the start in goal.
"When we made the trade, the first thing I said to the group was, 'We've got work to do now,''' Yeo said. "The work is not skating up and down the ice. It's not watching video. We do that stuff all the time. The work is building chemistry. The work is, you're almost starting from scratch again to build your team game.
"We've got different guys in different roles now, and different positions. So that’s our task. That’s up to us as coaches to make sure all our players have an understanding of what their role is, but also to players, the only way to build chemistry is to go out and do the things your teammates are expecting you to do, and know they're doing it for you. And that’s when it happens.
"The harder you work at it, the quicker it comes. The players know we have to keep working at it. We're not that far off.''
Forward Zach Parise--who was perturbed Tuesday by what he saw as a lack of energy and intensity as the Wild lost a three-goal lead--said he does not think chemistry is an issue. He described Tuesday's loss as "a weird game'' and "an off night,'' saying he does not think it is indicative of a problem.
"I don’t think there's a chemistry problem at all. That’s just my opinion,'' Parise said. "I thought we played a very good game against St. Louis. We had a lot of opportunities to win in Dallas. Then we played a bad game last night.
"Everyone wants to search for solutions. Really, we just played a bad game. That's it. That's why it's important to look at the big picture. I know when you lose a couple, it's easy to jump on things. In all reality, we're fine.''
The Wild spent time Wednesday working on 4-on-3 and 5-on-3 situations. They failed in both of those at two critical points of Tuesday's game, and Yeo said he liked the puck movement he saw in practice.
"We're still trying to build chemistry with those guys, the same way we are with our lines,'' he said. "When you add a couple new players, it obviously has an impact on line combinations, and there's going to be an adjustment there. Likewise with the power play, the more we can get out there and work these things in practice, just getting the reps and getting out there, knowing where guys are, knowing their tendencies, knowing where their sticks are going to be and reading off each other, it's going to help more and more.''
You’re all Wild fans (at least I assume since you read this blog), so you should be well accustomed to this by now.
For as long as I’ve covered this franchise at least (nine seasons), the Wild is absolutely incapable of doing things the easy way.
So there’s just no chance you really believed that when the Wild built a nine-point playoff lead on ninth place eight days ago that it was going to actually soar into the playoffs.
So naturally, the Wild blows two points in Dallas and then gets only two points in its next two games. Sunday was forgivable because it at least outchanced and arguably outplayed one of the best teams in the NHL.
But tonight wasn’t. There’s just no excuse to build a 3-0 lead at home and end up losing in a shootout to one of the worst teams in the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers. The Wild got what it deserved when it couldn’t pick up that extra point.
Up 3-1, the Wild managed one shot on a 1:24 5-on-3. Then, to start overtime, the Wild gained a 1:51 4-on-3 and couldn’t muster a shot.
Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu scored in the shootout, but three of four shooters beat Darcy Kuemper, who gave up a couple regrettable goals in the third, including the tying goal with 4:53 left to Jordan Eberle.
So, the Wild’s lead over Dallas is down to three and lead over Phoenix is down to four.
The Wild better figure out a way to salvage the rest of this homestand with the Rangers and Blue Jackets coming to town Thursday and
Friday Saturday because what’s staring the Wild in the face is eight out of 10 games on the road.
Coach Mike Yeo always says he doesn’t care about the teams behind him, that the race is how many points you need to get to make the playoffs. And that’s accurate. But right now, the Stars and Coyotes are flying and the Wild, a team that was on a 9-2-2 run only eight days ago, is 0-1-2 in its past three and coughing up 3-0 leads at home to the Oilers.
The momentum has turned south for the team you care about the is heading north for the other two teams.
The Wild’s chemistry has run afoul. Chuck Fletcher and Craig Leipold made moves at the deadline as a show of faith to the team. But the Wild’s responded by being winless in three since and the mojo that was there is now MIA.
The moves to bring in Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick caused two lines to change, Dany Heatley to drop to the fourth line and 12-goal scorer Justin Fontaine to be removed from the lineup. With seven healthy defensemen, Yeo has also tinkered with his third defense pair for three straight games. Koivu’s also trying to jump into a playoff race after not playing in two-plus months.
So right now the Wild is trying to find the right mix and the right chemistry and better do so fast.
But tonight’s loss wasn’t about cohesion. It was about an alarming amount of players lacking energy and urgency. It was about an alarming amount of players being completely off early. How many times in the first period did Wild players have pucks slide off their sticks or misconnect on passes?
“I thought we were a little bit lucky to be up 3-0. You could tell we weren’t on it right away,” Yeo said.
The one area where the Wild passed well was the power play. Unfortunately though, it didn’t shoot, and these were the big guns, the go-to guys.
On the two-man advantage, it was Parise, Koivu, Suter, Pominville and Moulson. On the 4-on-3, it was Parise, Koivu, Suter and Pominville.
Pominville said the 5-on-3 was easy to defend because with two lefties at top, the Oilers didn’t have to respect the one-timer.
I know most coaches have to defer to the big guns, the veterans, but it is a shame in a game like this that Mikael Granlund wasn’t used. He set up goals by Parise and Pominville in the first period on terrific passes and looked to be feeling it. Hey, if you’re going to pass all power play, you may as well use your best passer to actually set up a scoring chance.
“We’ll talk about these things for sure,” Yeo said. “In that situation, those guys are leaders on our team and high-skilled guys, so we wanted to give them the opportunity to put it away for us.”
Yeo pointed out how there were questions about not using Parise and Koivu in shootouts or at least fiddling with his shootout order and Parise and Koivu both scored back-to-back in the shootout tonight.
“Sometimes you have to be careful not to overreact and sometimes you have to make hard decisions,” Yeo said.
There were a couple quality efforts. One guy who had a ton of energy and was a constant threats shorthanded was Erik Haula. He also assisted on Jared Spurgeon’s goal. Maybe Haula should have gotten more ice time.
But the Wild just lacked urgency tonight and besides the momentum-killing 5-on-3, the Wild took three minor penalties – two by Charlie Coyle, one by Kyle Brodziak – in the second. The Oilers didn’t score, but it just gave the sense that they were back in the game. And then in the third, they eventually got back in the game.
The Oilers had nothing to lose and didn’t quit.
“We were trying to challenge the group with that,” Yeo said. “And I actually mean it as a compliment to Edmonton, where they don’t care if they win or lose right now. They’re just going to keep playing hard. We knew they were going to keep coming.
“We’ve got to be on our game, doesn’t matter who we play, and we weren’t.”
“This is one game. We can’t overreact. We didn’t lock it up, we weren’t tight enough, we weren’t strong enough, it was the back end of three in four, we have to find ways to win games where we’re not perfect.”
Read the gamer for some of the other quotes. Parise was pretty candid. That’s it for me.
Rachel Blount is actually covering Wednesday’s practice and I’ll be back with you Thursday. I am co-hosting Common’s show on KFAN from noon-3 live from the car show. We’ll be talking some hockey and NFL draft. Some of the hockey guests include Rangers play by play man Kenny Albert and the Wild’s Matt Cooke.
I’ll also try to line one of my reporter pals who covered the GM’s meetings.
Until this morning, I hadn't had a chance to talk with Wild rookie Erik Haula since his major penalty and game misconduct for charging Saturday night in Dallas.
Haula, the Wild's fastest player, gained speed coming into the offensive zone, blew by a defender, cut to the net and crashed hard into Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen.
Lehtonen's mask popped off, his head hit the crossbar and he sustained a concussion. He also emerged with blood on his head. Haula was assessed a major for charging and Stars stud Tyler Seguin scored the tying goal in an eventual win.
Replays did show Haula was tripped by Stars player Cody Eakin and Haula wasn't disciplined by the NHL.
Understandably frustrated Stars coach Lindy Ruff called it a "dirt play" by a "fourth-liner," although those of us who know Haula also know he's not your typical fourth-liner. It's just his current role as a first-year NHLer, but he's a past scoring star at the University of Minnesota with blinding speed, not a thug. Before that game, he had eight penalty minutes in 28 games.
Still, Ruff was frustrated just like Mike Yeo would have been if a Dallas player did that to Darcy Kuemper.
On the incident, Haula said, "After a play like that, when I go to the locker room, first I want to see it myself. I think it’s pretty clear that my intention is definitely not to run the goalie or anything like that. I think it’s self-explanatory. We’re up 3-2 and I’m going hard to the net, I’ve got a lot of speed, my foot gets tangled up with [Eakin], I basically fall forward. I’m trying to score a goal. That’s my main intention. It’s unfortunate when I go into the locker room and see that [Lehtonen’s] hurt. It’s not a good feeling ever. I wish all the best for him and hopefully a speedy recovery."
Was he worried he'd be suspended? "I wasn’t thinking about it. I was so nervous about the game. I didn’t feel too good about the penalty and then the team losing. I was really disappointed about that. Having a tight race like it is, the points are crucial. That was my only focus at that point. I knew that everything was going to take care of itself. If the league saw it as a dirty play, they would have suspended me. But I think that everyone can see – even if you want to or don’t want to look at it that close – that I do get tripped up and was kind of helpless (meaning he had nowhere to go)."
That's my feeling on the play. I don't think he had intent to run Lehtonen. Just look at the replay in real time. The kid was absolutely flying, he cuts to the net, tangles skates and next thing you know, he's at the crease with uncontrollable speed. He just ran out of room and had nowhere to go.
I also think it's a tough call for the ref there. It was a scary site seeing Lehtonen get crashed into. There's an obvious injury. If you don't see the trip or you think Haula could have still avoided Lehtonen, a major there is probably the right call. Like I said the other day, I do think the only thing that was in dispute is Trevor Daley probably should have gotten two for roughing, which would have made it essentially a 3-minute major.
Either way, Lehtonen is hurt and hopefully he gets better quickly. Thank goodness from Dallas' perspective that it traded for Tim Thomas three days before.
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