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.
Also find Russo on Facebook.
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Afternoon from beautiful Southern California, where it’s sunny with a slight chill in the air.
I’m thinking of putting on a wind breaker.
Wild vs. the red-hot Ducks tonight. Anaheim is 11-0-2 at home.
The Wild had a good, crisp skate this morning, but who knows what that means.
“We recognize the importance of this game and getting this road trip started off the right way,” coach Mike Yeo said. “I feel good that our guys are going to be ready to battle hard tonight.”
The Wild has lost three in a row on the road, having been shut out in two. The Wild has allowed the first goal in six consecutive road games.
“Start the game on time,” Yeo said of what he wants tonight. “And that means your battle level, being ready to skate, being ready to work, having the mindset that we want to get to our game and how you do that. That’s executing the right way, playing a certain way with the puck that helps us get to our game and hurts them getting to theirs.”
Josh Harding vs. Jonas Hiller tonight.
The Wild lines are what I indicated in today’s newspaper, meaning Jason Zucker to the second line with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley to the fourth line with Zenon Konopka and Justin Fontaine. Mike Rupp and Nate Prosser are the lone healthy scratches as Matt Dumba, who had been away from the team for family reasons, was officially assigned to Team Canada today.
That means the Wild’s roster now stands at 22 players and the Wild loses Dumba’s cap hit for at least until it makes the decision to bring him back or not.
I talked with Saku Koivu today about his little bro. Last month I wrote a story about how Team Finland says either Mikko Koivu or Saku Koivu will be Finland’s captain in February’s Winter Olympics. Mikko endorses Saku. Today, basically, Saku endorsed Mikko.
It’s just your good old-fashioned brotherly fight. It’s amazing talking to Saku because despite being way, way older than Mikko (39 vs. 30), the mannerisms and facial expressions between the two are almost identical.
Teemu Selanne also says it’s Mikko’s time and Mikko’s team.
I’ll write more about the Koivus in Thursday’s paper.
Speaking of the ageless wonder and future Hall of Famer who still swears this year’s his swan song, Selanne says the Ducks, “There’s no weaknesses. Right now we’re just playing with a lot of confidence, and even with a lot of injuries. Even last year, all the success we had was using our depth. We have a lot of depth on our team. Everybody’s doing their job. That’s what it takes. You always reminded that you’re only as good as your weakest link and we don’t really have weak links right now. That’s a good sign, but there’s still levels we can reach. We want to keep pushing ourselves.”
I’ll also have some Selanne gold on teammate Corey Perry either Thursday or Sunday. Remember, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher was in Anaheim’s front office when the Ducks traded two seconds to Dallas to get an extra first to take Perry in 2003 at 28th overall. Same draft the Ducks drafted Ryan Getzlaf. Completely transformed this franchise.
I’ll also have some stuff on Kyle Brodziak in Thursday. He plays his 500th game tonight and coach Mike Yeo is very happy with Brodziak’s season after a down year last year. Obviously, Brodziak’s not scoring goals (20 games without one; and if you expect him to score goals, you're always going to be disappointed), but he’s been on a third line that has been solid all year defensively. Remember, there was a stretch where Brodziak and Cooke were on the ice for two goals against at even-strength in a 12-game stretch.
I’ll be on KFAN at 4:15 p.m. CT.
This is one of those games where I don’t know where to start, so instead of trying to formulate something structured, I’m just going to go in order of what comes to my mind.
Scary concept, I know, the way my cloudy mind works.
First, the particulars. Wild won, 5-3, against the Chicago Blackhawks, the model team in the NHL, winners of two Cups in four years, a team that didn’t have a regulation loss this season and had points in six straight at home. In fact, it hadn’t lost in regulation in 15 games at the United Center, spoiling their awesome fans.
The Wild has won three in a row for the second time this year and now returns home to complete the home-and-home vs. the Blackhawks. Minnesota is 4-0-2 at the X, including four wins in a row. Before tonight, the Wild was 1-3-1 on the road with seven goals total. So, a little math here, but the Wild scored two fewer goals tonight than it did in five previous road games.
My teachers at Old Bethpage Grade School would be so proud of me!!!
Before I continue, I apologize for not topping our hoops writer Jerry Zgoda’s bubble bath Wolves report with my own Wild Minute from the sauna or something, but make sure to watch Sunday’s Wild Minute with assistant to the GM Jim Mill, where I insult Blackhawks legendary anthem singer, Jim Cornelison.
Jason Pominville, in his 600th game, scored two goals for his 19th 2-goal game. He also scored the winning goal for his 23rd career winner. He also had six shots. He also buried two pretty Mikael Granlund feeds, giving Granlund three “sick” assists on the Russo “sick-assist” meter in two games. Granlund now has seven apples – one more than he had all of last season. I’ll tell you what: When Granlund learns how to bury the puck himself, he’s going to be a “sick” player. And, while that may not come consistently this season, it will come. His hands, skill and vision are too good for it not to come eventually. He just keeps getting better in every facet of the ice, and he’s so responsible defensively. His “compete,” as Todd Richards used to say, is impressive as well.
Zach Parise scored his sixth goal of the season and fourth on the power play. The Wild’s power play, which ranks fifth in the NHL, has scored in nine of 12 games. Kyle Brodziak scored 1:01 into the second. Justin Fontaine put the Wild up 5-2 before the Blackhawks scored late.
I wrote most my gamer on Niklas Backstrom, who made 33 saves and was downright awesome.
Backstrom was tested immediately, robbing Marian Hossa 21 seconds in when the star two-way forward got every ounce of a Jonathan Toews rebound. Later, Backstrom kicked out his left pad and denied Hossa again.
But his best save came 31 seconds after Parise scored. Patrick Sharp wheeled into the Wild zone to create a break. Coming from Backstrom’s right, Sharp crossed the entire goalmouth and tried to bury the puck inside the post to the left of Backstrom.
He patiently stayed with Sharp the whole way and gloved down the primo chance. Backstrom denied Sharp seven times, and they were almost all Grade A chances.
As coach Mike Yeo said, it was “great to see.” And when he said, “great,” he stressed great, as in, “GREAT!!!” to see. And you know that’s because Backstrom had a slow start to this season even before straining his right knee Oct. 8 and after Friday’s practice said he wasn’t 100 percent from his most recent injury as well as offseason abdominal surgery.
So this was big, and Backstrom’s teammates gave him props and props and more props. Backstrom, like he usually is after a win or loss, brushed everything off as no big deal, saying there was no pressure after seeing Josh Harding give up eight goals in nine games before he was hurt.
When you play against Chicago, you need your goaltender to make big saves at big times, and Backstrom did that over and over again tonight. Good to see from the true pro.
-- Marco Scandella and Nate Prosser were quite the pair tonight, and I disregard the late Scandella penalty and late Prosser mishap that resulted in Chicago scoring a meaningless goal in the last minute. When you play against Chicago, the Hawks are going to get their chances, and there were several tonight.
But Scandella and Prosser were always a safe pair for Rick Wilson to send over the boards. They were each plus-2. Scandella assisted on Brodziak’s goal and drew the Hossa penalty that led to Parise’s goal. And Prosser was just a rock and assisted on Fontaine’s goal. He was chippy, got into faces and was tough in front of the net. He made good first passes, and it’s just so impressive that a guy can be scratched almost every night and he just steps into the lineup and plays this way. You know it has to be frustrating for Prosser to be scratched all the time. Yet, he never shows that frustration publicly. He just shows up with a smile on his face and works his tail off while waiting for Yeo to write his number on the lineup sheet. It’s why his teammates respect him so much,
-- 5-on-3. Gawd awful. This is two games out of four now that the Parise-Suter-Pominville-Dany Heatley-Mikko Koivu fivesome couldn’t score on a long 5-on-3. Only two shots. Yeo says the Wild’s got to figure it out. I’m not fond of three lefties down low. I wish they’d go with a setup of Koivu in the middle, Pominville and Parise on the sides and Suter and Jared Spurgeon up top. The best 5-on-3’s work it low and score off goalmouth passes. If you have Pominville on the left side of the cage and Parise on the right, I think the Wild will get its chances. The Wild practiced 5-on-3’s a lot in camp and Parise to Pominville was a constant goal in that setup.
Yeo says it’s not the personnel, it’s the execution.
The power play did get this game rolling though five seconds into the first PP.
-- PK, much better tonight. Killed 6 of 7 and all the big ones in big spots.
“Starts with Backy,” Yeo said. “But I just like the way we were on our toes, were aggressive, we had good sticks, good reads. This is a game that our guys should feel good about.”
-- Big props to referee Kelly Sutherland. I’ve always been fans of Sutherland and tonight’s ref sidekick Chris Rooney, but Sutherland was real good tonight in one area.
After an eight-minute review that could have been accompanied by the Jeopardy theme music, he basically conducted a press conference on the ice over the PA system to explain why Andrew Shaw’s goal was disallowed. Video review determined that Shaw's stick was above the height of the crossbar when he deflected Jeremy Morin’s shot. The puck then deflected off defenseman Clayton Stoner and into the net. According to Rule 80.3 "When an attacking player causes the puck to enter the opponent's goal by contacting the puck above the height of the crossbar, either directly or deflected off any player or official, the goal shall not be allowed"
Sutherland explained that since Stoner never “regained possession” for the Wild, Shaw’s touch was illegal and thus the goal was.
-- Suter, 2 assists (great one where he does what so few Wild d-men have done throughout history; WALK THE BLUE LINE and shoot en route to the Parise tally). He logged 26:58 (slacker) but still has led all Wild and opposing skaters in ice time in all 12 Wild games this season).
-- Career-best plus-2’s for Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Prosser. Granlund, Pominville and Scandella also plus-2’s.
-- Wild blocked 19 shots tonight.
-- Heatley looked better tonight. He had a great shift with Niederreiter and Granlund in the first period and won a puck race to help set up the Brodziak goal even though he didn’t get an assist on it.
-- Tough night for the fourth line, which was minus-2.
-- Yeo says the Wild will need to be better Monday, and he was impressed with a lot of things tonight.
That’s it for me. Obviously, please read the gamer, notebook and Sunday Insider, too, on www.startribune.com/wild. I’ve got a 7 a.m. flight back to MSP. Talk to you after Sunday’s practice.
The Wild’s winless in the first three games to start a season (0-1-2) for the first time since its inaugural season in 2000 and the collars are only going to get tighter if the Wild doesn’t find a way – and quickly – to get that first ‘W.’
Next up two home games against divisional foes Winnipeg and Dallas before four in a row on the road at Buffalo, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Florida.
Only three winless teams in the NHL are Buffalo, New Jersey and Minnesota.
Yet again tonight, the Wild severely outchanced an opponent at times, especially 5-on-5, where Nashville generated little. But yet again tonight, the Wild couldn’t finish and thus couldn’t win, losing 3-2 in the Preds' home opener.
What’s more, Niklas Backstrom got hurt.
In an awkward play, left-shot D Keith Ballard, playing his unnatural side (the right), had to play Justin Fontaine’s bank pass off the side wall with his backhand. He had trouble and thus fanned on his dump-in or shot attempt. Eric Nystrom – yes, that Eric Nystrom – flew into the neutral zone and got into a foot race with a backchecking Ballard.
Ballard said he poked Nystrom’s stick and Nystrom toe-picked into Backstrom. Regardless how it happened, Nystrom crashed hard into Backstrom and Backstrom’s momentum sent him flying backward into the goal post. The back of his right leg took the brunt of the collision.
He has another lower-body injury, but coach Mike Yeo said he didn’t know the severity and Backstrom would be reevaluated Wednesday in Minnesota. We weren’t able to talk to Backstrom postgame, but he was limping visibly on the right side.
Backstrom, who had given up six goals and another two in a shootout in his first two games, almost had the night off, too. Yeo said Backstrom’s previous 4-1-1 career record in Nashville with a 1.93 goals against average was the deciding factor in starting him.
Unenviably, Josh Harding had to come on before a penalty shot and Nystrom sent the perfect shot for the eventual winner – a 3-1 lead.
Remember, Nystrom signed a three-year free-agent deal with the Wild back in the day. In Year 2 – after a tough Year 1 – the Wild put him through waivers and sent him to Houston. It called him up in re-entry but Dallas, which ended up needing his full salary to get to the cap floor, didn’t take him at 50%. The Wild ended up trading Nystrom to the Stars for nothing just to take the final two years of his contract.
“Felt pretty good to get a game-winner, especially against Minnesota,” Nystrom said. “That’s a team that I kind of had some unfortunate circumstance with and wasn’t particularly happy with the way I got treated there but what better way to score a game-winning goal and help the team win.”
For the third game in a row, the Wild again felt it deserved better after the game, and it’s hard to argue. But as Yeo said, bottom line, the Wild hasn’t found a way to win.
The first line is the only line consistently generating chances. The second line just hasn’t been a threat, and the common denominator on that line has been Dany Heatley.
“I can’t argue with that,” Yeo said. “We’ll have to look at his game and see going forward what we need to do going into our next game.”
The Wild’s got to figure out where to best use Heatley. He’s just not moving well and he hasn’t been a threat. Maybe the Wild goes with an all kid line with Jason Zucker, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter. Or maybe, dare I say, they send Zucker, who wasn't good, down, keep Carson McMillan and go with Nino-Granlund-Heatley, a Cooke-Brodziak-Mitchell line and Fontaine-Konopka-McMillan line? Either way, the Wild's got to find a way to utilize Heatley.
Harding was good tonight. He battled through and sadly had to take the loss even though he only gave up the penalty-shot goal. They’ll need him to keep being good if Backstrom will be out for awhile. Darcy Kuemper should probably start packing though for Minnesota.
The Wild had a 1-0 lead on Zach Parise’s power-play goal, but Kyle Brodziak and Mikko Koivu took successive penalties, and the Preds got a 1:39 5-on-3 with three Wild centers in the box. They scored 39 secs apart on Backstrom and the game turned quickly and shockingly.
But the Wild battled after Nystrom made it 3-1. Jared Spurgeon scored a power-play goal, but after Harding was also run by Rich Clune in a hold-your-breath moment with no other goalie on the Wild bench, the Wild’s power-play couldn’t muster up another goal.
Pekka Rinne was good, but as Yeo said, the Wild can’t keep crediting opposing goalies. It’s time for the Wild to “make a play,” Yeo said.
In three games, the Wild has scored five power-play goals (Good) but given up four power-play goals (Bad).
“Even tonight I think we played well,” said Koivu, who was echoed by Yeo and Ryan Suter. “But obviously it’s not enough. We have to find a way, push more and get that first win and build the confidence from there.”
Collars are tightening though. Anxiety will infiltrate this locker room if wins don’t start coming, yes, even though it is a long season. Fans tweeting me are already freaking and calling for heads.
“We’re three games in,” Yeo said. “We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve done some good things, but bottom line is, we don’t have a win yet. But it’s only three games.”
Rachel Blount is covering Wednesday's practice. Follow her on Twitter at @blountstrib for updates.
Wild with 1st 7 goal outing since 8-4 W 4/10/09 vs NSH. Last time w 7 on road was 11/16/06 in SO win at NSH...
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