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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Afternoon from the Sunshine State, where the Wild held a short, brisk practice today at the (former) Ice Palace. I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m. CT today.
Mike Yeo’s Wild visits Jon Cooper’s Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night for the first of a two-game father-son trip that continues to South Florida, where the Wild plays America’s team, the Florida Panthers.
Speaking of the Panthers, anybody notice Nick Bjugstad lately? What a trip to Cali. Two goals, two assists the other night in Anaheim, and last night he scored twice at San Jose plus the shootout deciding goal.
Thirty-four guests – dads, brothers, mentors, fathers-in-law – of Wild players, coaches and staff are here on the Gulf coast of Fla.
“Our challenge is to make sure that we’ve got our focus,” said Yeo, whose team is riding a four-game winning streak and defeated the Lightning, 7-2, at home 3 ½ weeks ago. “We want our players to enjoy their time with them, we want it to be a special trip. It’s a special trip if you win. I’ve been on a lot of these, and it’s a big difference when you get wins. But the challenge is the focus.”
As I mentioned yesterday, the Wild doesn’t have a history of winning on these types of trips. Maybe the dads should threaten to ground em or something.
Captain Mikko Koivu missed practice today because he’s still under the weather. Koivu only played 1:10 of the third period in Philadelphia and sat on the bench the rest of the third period. He stayed there in case the game went to a shootout apparently.
Koivu, Zach Parise and Brad Boyes each have 37 career shootout goals, the most in the NHL.
Watching the game over again last night before my 45-minute, uh, nap before my flight, he lacked energy almost all over the ice. On the one power-play turnover to start the third (he crossed a bad pass along the blue line to spoil the rest of the advantage), you could see the frustration as he turned to retreat.
Yeo said he saw Koivu at the hotel this morning and just told him to stay away today and rest up and hopefully he’ll be available Saturday.
Yeo said there’s a chance. “I’m definitely not ready to rule him out. Still no swollen jaws or anything like that, which is good. But still he’s under the weather.”
If Koivu can’t play tomorrow, we’ll see the lines at the morning skate. In practice today, Yeo just slotted Kyle Brodziak into Mikael Granlund’s spot and Granlund into Koivu’s, but that may have just been to not disrupt the other lines in case Koivu can play.
We shall see, but as of now, the Zach Parise-Granlund-Jason Pominville line has been reunited. After combining for the winning goal last night, Thomas Vanek-Charlie Coyle-Jason Zucker stayed intact today. Watching the game again, Coyle was as good as Yeo described afterward. And frankly, that confidence seemed to filter into today’s practice because ChAHlie was flying.
Zucker, who scored the first last-minute regulation go-ahead goal by the Wild since Marek Zidlicky scored one in Dec. 2009 against Columbus, also had a great game and I forgot to mention how impressive it was for him to beat out yet another icing and draw a penalty late in the second to draw that early third-period power play.
Interestingly, from the NHL, Zucker is the sixth player to tally a go-ahead goal in the final minute of regulation time this season, all of which have come on the road. The other late winners were scored by Montreal's Tomas Plekanec (19:17, Oct. 8 at TOR), Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf (19:36, Oct. 11 at DET), Colorado's Daniel Briere (19:59, Oct. 13 at BOS), Dallas' Tyler Seguin (19:57, Oct. 16 at PIT) and Columbus' Mark Letestu (19:39, Oct. 23 at SJ)
With Granlund back between Parise and Pominville, Brodziak centered Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine at least in practice and Erik Haula and Ryan Carter skated with Stu Bickel, who only played three shifts last night. But Yeo likes having the Bickel element in the lineup and then he can limit his shifts and alternate one of the forwards on that line during every rotation.
That line with Haula, Carter and a third forward had some real good shifts last night.
Really, not much more going on. Scandella continues to impress. He already has a career high four goals and Yeo talked today about how every year he just adds a new part to his game without losing the other parts. So slowly but surely, Scandella added the consistency, then being a force in the defensive game. Now he’s adding the offense. Yeo said he’ll continue to get more power-play time and “we’ll keep pushing him to grow. He’s showing that he’s becoming a heck of an NHL defenseman.”
That’s it. I should get writing for the paper. Doing something on the father-son trip tomorrow, mostly focusing on the Minnesotans.
Let's start with the latest from the Wild infirmary. Center Erik Haula skated in Wednesday's practice and said he has recovered from the charley horse he got in Sunday's victory over Winnipeg, clearing the way for him to play Thursday in Philadelphia. Defenseman Jonas Brodin is still on the shelf, though.
Coach Mike Yeo said Brodin--who is believed to have mumps--still is experiencing some symptoms, and Yeo doesn't want to risk infecting any other players. He left open the possibility that Brodin could join the trip when it moves on to games at Tampa Bay on Saturday and at Florida on Monday. But halting the spread of the illness is the top priority.
"If it's one, two, three games that we have to keep him away and make sure nobody else gets this, and make sure we completely get rid of it, then that's what we'll do,'' Yeo said. "We can't wait to get him back. He's such a huge part of our team. But that said, let's just make sure we end this (wave of illness) for good. Once he's symptom-free, we'll get him back with the group.''
Yeo decided to make an intriguing change in his forward corps. In Wednesday's practice, Charlie Coyle centered the third line, with Thomas Vanek on his left and Jason Zucker on his right.
Yeo hesitated to characterize his lines as a clear-cut first, second and third. The Vanek-Coyle-Zucker combo, he said, will not be expected to handle the usual third-line duties of shutting down opponents. He was looking for combinations that would give the Wild three scoring lines, and he also wanted to put Coyle in a spot that would maximize his abilities and give him a little more stability in the lineup.
The top three lines during Thursday's practice were Parise-Koivu-Pominville, Niederreiter-Granlund-Fontaine and Vanek-Coyle-Zucker. Yeo stressed that those combinations might last for one period or five games. The bottom line is that he likes the flexibility of his current roster, and he wants to experiment.
"(The Coyle line) have to be good checkers,'' Yeo said. "They have to be strong defensively. But obviously, we want that line to go out and create offense for us. We want three lines we can really count on to go out and bring offense to us, and we think that gives us the opportunity. We like the idea of (Coyle's) speed and skill with Thomas, and we wanted an offensive dynamic.
"We've never really given (Coyle) a chance to get settled. It seems like whenever we're moving Charlie, it's not because his game's not good enough. It's because we have to get somebody else going, or we have to give somebody else an element we thought they needed. You look at what he was able to do for (Mikael Granlund's) game a couple of games ago. He really helped (Granlund) get going again. So I think it's time for us to focus on Charlie a little bit here and give him a chance to get settled.''
You know things have taken a weird turn when you find out the NHL has an "infection control subcommittee.'' The league announced Friday that the group is monitoring the mumps outbreak that has hit the Wild, St. Louis and Anaheim. The Wild took more concrete precautions after Thursday's 6-3 victory over Buffalo, as team doctors offered mumps vaccinations to all who wanted them.
Coach Mike Yeo took a shot in the arm, after his team gave him a symbolic one with that much-needed win. He's still waiting for the booster he really wants: Zach Parise's return to the lineup. Parise won't go to Dallas for Saturday's game there, but Yeo said he hasn't been ruled out for Sunday's home game against Winnipeg.
The status of the latest apparent mumps victims, defensemen Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin, is murkier. There's no telling how long they might be out. And the illness played a part in the team's decision to recall defenseman Justin Falk on Friday and send rookie Christian Folin to Iowa. Yeo said Falk will add a left-handed shot to the blue line, which will be helpful against a pressing team like Dallas and aid the Wild's transition game. Folin, he said, was not the same after missing five games because of symptoms that appeared to be the mumps.
"After being sick, I didn't feel he was playing quite with the same pace and assertiveness,'' Yeo said. "And that's normal. You know that guys are starting to come back, and you start to think there might be a roster move made, and you start fearing that the next mistake might be the one that puts you down. For him to have an opportunity to play and not worry about making a mistake, I think that will be useful.''
Yeo said his other rookie defenseman, Matt Dumba, is sticking around largely because of his ability to play on the power play.
Going to Dallas presents a particular challenge for the Wild, which has won once in its past 20 games there since March 21, 2003. Yeo said that number of losses is "way too big'' and that the Wild needs to toughen up on the road. It has not played with the same confidence and urgency in road games this season, getting quickly derailed by mistakes far more often than it does at home.
It took the team half the season to get over that last year, Yeo said, and fixing that problem sooner is a point of emphasis. He urged his team to stop trying to be "too cute'' with its playmaking away from Xcel; its strength, he said, is the gritty type of offense it created in Thursday's victory, via a strong forecheck and a consistent attack on the net.
"Every game is important,'' Yeo said. "Teams around us are winning, and you go up against a division rival and it increases the importance. It increases the intensity of the games. The most important thing for me is I want to continue building our game.
"I thought we did something good last game, but the thing about building is that you have to follow it with work. What we did last night, it only means something if we build off of it. So we've got to get to work.''
The Wild held an optional practice Wednesday at Ridder Arena, with 14 skaters joining goalies Darcy Kuemper, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding on the ice. While the struggling Thomas Vanek and Mikko Koivu didn't participate, Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon did, though only Spurgeon has a good shot at playing Thursday against Buffalo.
Coach Mike Yeo said Parise, who has missed three games because of a concussion, is doubtful for the game. Depending on how Spurgeon felt after the practice, Yeo said, he could return to the lineup after missing five games. "I'm a little more hopeful that he can return,'' Yeo said.
Yeo added that there hasn't been a setback with Parise. The team is just being extra cautious with a player who looks more valuable by the minute, given how his team has collapsed without him in the lineup. "We just have to be smart about it,'' Yeo said. "We know what he adds to our lineup, but you just have to think of the big picture here. We have to make sure when we get him back that we're keeping him back for good.''
The WIld will make some lineup changes Thursday, Yeo said, though he didn't reveal them after the practice. Without Parise and the still-injured Matt Cooke, the team has only 11 forwards as of Wednesday afternoon, when it sent winger Stephane Veilleux and defenseman Jonathon Blum to Iowa. No word yet on a callup. Kuemper will start in goal.
Yeo said the WIld "isn't complete with its game'' right now as it tries to end a four-game losing streak. Among the problems he cited: being too soft in front of the net, trying to force plays and committing careless turnovers. He repeated that players are getting frustrated when they don't score early on, which leads them to press too hard in the second period, which leads to spending too much time and energy in their own zone. "A more complete focus on playing our game for 60 minutes will help us,'' he said.
When asked directly about the lack of production from Vanek and Koivu, Yeo declined to criticize them. Vanek has only one goal, scored on the power play, in 14 games. Koivu has two goals and one assist in the same span.
"It's on all of us,'' he said. "Obviously, those guys, that comes with the territory for sure. They're leaders, and they're expected to score. And there's going to be a lot of attention drawn to that. We have a number of people here who are capable of going out there and creating offense, whether it's helping those guys get on the scoresheet or whether it's getting on the scoresheet themselves. The bottom line is, we do it as a team.''
With a little sliver of time at home before resuming their road trip, the Wild practiced Monday morning at Ridder Arena--and nearly the full roster was on the ice. Winger Matt Cooke (lower body) was still out, but upper-body injury victims Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon both skated. The biggest surprise was seeing goalie Josh Harding, who broke his foot in September and practiced for the first time this season.
Parise, Spurgeon and Harding all will travel with the Wild to New Jersey for Tuesday's game, the last of a string of three on the road. Coach Mike Yeo said none of them will play, but he wanted all three to continue skating with the team as they move forward with their recoveries.
All were wearing red sweaters during practice, but none took it easy. The threesome participated in all drills, and each looked like they were well on the road to a return.
"I was happy to get the news they would be joining us for practice, and they looked good,'' Yeo said. "The bottom line is that we had to get through today. This was a big step. They looked good in practice.
"We'll talk some more with them, but we plan on bringing them on the road--not with the expectation they’ll play, but to give them a chance to hopefully get back sooner. So we'll let them skate with the group, and this is a good first step.''
The Wild did not allow the media to speak with Parise. Spurgeon said he resumed skating three days after his injury--which happened when the defenseman slid awkwardly into the boards during the Wild's shootout victory over San Jose on Oct. 30--and hasn't lost much conditioning. "I'm just waiting for everything to strengthen back up, and we'll go from there,'' he said.
Harding found out Sunday that he was cleared to practice. He said he felt good and has been working on his rehabilitation since shortly after breaking his foot.
"It was great seeing all the guys again and getting that competition back,'' Harding said. "Just challenging yourself to stop every shot, just going out there and doing your job. This was another step. Whatever I can do to help this team out, that's the next step.''
Yeo said he anticipates the near-return of Parise and Spurgeon will serve dual purposes. It will give the team an emotional lift, and it will be "a motivator'' to players who realize their roles could change when those two stars re-enter the lineup.
The biggest change Yeo wants to see in his team is more mental fortitude when things don't work in its favor. "We're not really that far off,'' he said. "There are stretches where we’re thought out very, very good. But the ability to stay with it for 60 minutes, we've got to be a little bit stronger between the ears. We've got to be a little bit tougher mentally.
"Things are not always going to go your way. The puck might not go in when you get chances, or the other team might get a bounce, might get a break and then score. That’s why you play a 60-minute hockey game.''
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