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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UPDATE: John Curry was recalled from Iowa and will start tonight. Niklas Backstrom was placed on IR (retroactive) with the stomach plague. He did skate this morning. Darcy Kuemper is sick, too, and will back up Curry.
Wild and Winnipeg Jets tonight at Xcel Energy Center as the Wild opens a critical home-and-home (completed Monday at the PEG). Morning from the arena’s press room. I’ll be on KFAN at 11:30 a.m. and I’m doing a Podcast today with columnist Jim Souhan at 3 p.m. on souhanunfiltered.com.
If you didn't read my state-of-the-team article with GM Chuck Fletcher today, here is the link (also see last blog for full transcript).
Wild’s eight back of Winnipeg for the top wildcard spot with three games in hand. Win both games in regulation somehow, and it’ll be four back with three games in hand. Lose both in regulation, and it’ll be 12 back with three games in hand.
The Jets, who have overcome a devastated top-4 all year long, are 8-1-4 in their past 13 overall, 4-0-3 in their past seven on the road and are 10-4-4 on the road this season. They did lose in overtime at Minnesota on Nov. 16.
The Wild is 5-6-3 in its past 14 overall and 2-3-3 in its past eight at home. The Wild is 11-4-3 all-time vs. the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers and 5-2-1 since Atlanta’s move to Winnipeg. The Wild is 3-0-1 at home against the Jets.
Coach Mike Yeo met with the team prior to this morning’s skate. Nino Niederreiter said the message was simple: “We have to start a new chapter. It’s not the end of the story. That’s the main thing. It was a chapter. We passed it. We just have to look forward. We have 50 games left. We just have to make sure we leave it all out there to make sure we get a playoff spot.”
The norovirus (not kidding) that’s been hammering Wild players the past three weeks. It’s now hit Jason Zucker. “It’s his turn,” Yeo said with defeated sarcasm.
Darcy Kuemper will start in goal. The first game after the break is usually hairy, and as we know, the Wild and Kuemper haven’t played well for awhile. Remember, both teams haven’t been allowed to practice or play the past three games (the Jets flew here this morning).
Last year in the first game after the break, the Jets had a 4-3 lead after one period against the Wild en route to a 6-4 win. Sloppy game, to say the least, particularly by the goalies.
Asked if Kuemper may have taken shots during the break, Yeo said he didn’t ask and hoped not.
“I actually hope that he turned his brain completely off, to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “That’s what our entire group needed. Sometimes mentally, just to step away, that’s the best thing that can happen.”
Kuemper has an .860 save percentage and 4.23 goals-against average in his past seven appearances (23 goals against).
As for the team, “First game back, the biggest challenge is finding your execution level, finding your timing, conditioning. I find that the guys are a little bit heavy, a little bit more winded as the game goes on. But I think more than anything else, it’s the details, the challenges of finding the details in the game.”
On the Wild’s struggles and lack of confidence recently, Yeo said, “We can’t just snap our fingers and make it reappear. I think that’s the main thing that we have to understand. There’s going to be some work involved. Every game is big for us because it’s another opportunity to move closer to the way that our game should look, and once we get our game looking the way it should look, then results will follow that. there’s no better time to start than right now. You look at this game tonight, this is a team that occupies a spot that we want to get. This is a team that we want them to know that we’re coming for them.”
He said the past 14 games are irrelevant as far as he’s concerned.
“What matters is what’s in front of us,” Yeo said. “At the end of the year, there will be a story. The story has not been written yet. There’s been a couple chapters in the story, but we get to decide how it plays out still.”
Yeo is scratching Nate Prosser and Christian Folin tonight for … Justin Falk and Stu Bickel. It’ll be Bickel’s sixth game and second on the blue line (he played there at Arizona when Jared Spurgeon got the norovirus).
Why Falk and Bickel? “That’s what we thought we needed for tonight,” Yeo said. “Big, physical pair against a physical team.”
I asked Yeo if the Wild needs to trade for a defenseman immediately with a string of games where clearly there’s not a lot of confidence in the third pair when they’re playing six, seven, eight minutes a night.
“I’m not going to sit here and say they’re only going to play six, seven minutes tonight. We’ll see what they bring tonight,” Yeo said. “I’m definitely not going to say that we need anything right now. We’re very confident and comfortable with our group. There’s no question that we need to find a little bit more consistency, and some of that will lend itself to having a little bit more of a consistent lineup, but we are very confident with the group that we have.”
Happy Festivus everybody. If you’re not a Seinfeld fan, google it. Wild fans are celebrating by pelting me on Twitter with their grievances.
I’ll be on Fox Sports North++++++++++++++ during tonight’s pregame show around 5:45 p.m. and the first intermission around 6:35 p.m. I’ll also be live in studio on KFAN with Paul Allen at 9 a.m. Wednesday and I am filling in for Dan Barreiro from 3-6:30 p.m. on KFAN on Friday.
Lots of guests, including maybe Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, Fox Sports North’s Anthony LaPanta and Fox 9’s Dawn Mitchell to talk all things sports. In fact, I’m also doing Dawn’s show, Fox 9 Sports Now, later that night at 10:15 p.m.
I also may be doing a Podcast with Jim Souhan on Friday, so I’ll hit the multi-media foursome – newspaper, Podcast, radio and TV. #overexposed.
Wild vs. Claude Giroux, Jake Voracek, Nick Schultz (Wild’s all-time games played leader who has resurrected his career this season as by all accounts Philly’s most consistent defenseman) Philadelphia Flyers tonight as the Wild hopes to avoid sputtering (well, more than it has already) into the Christmas break. The Wild is 5-5-3 in its past 13 and 2-2-3 in its past seven at home. The Flyers have won the first two games (11 goals) in an eight-game road trip (like many Flyers trips, they return home a couple times during the roadie).
Niklas Backstrom vs. Ray Emery tonight. I thought coach Mike Yeo may come back with Darcy Kuemper only because Kuemper stole a win in Philly with 37 saves last month and because Backstrom is 1-4 all-time vs. the Flyers with a 3.58 goals-against average and .872 save percentage.
But Kuemper has been yanked in four of his past five home starts (I did a story on the poor play of the goalies today. Here is that link), so Yeo wants Kuemper to reset during the Christmas break “shut the brain off for a couple days, not think about hockey, get away from the rink and get recharged and excited to come back).
In fact, Yeo is also scratching center Erik Haula (3 goals, 1 assist this season, 1 goal in the past 15 games and minus-5), Justin Fontaine (1 goal in the past 13 games) and Nate Prosser (team-worst minus-9 averaging 13:26 a game; no plus games in the past 15) for basically the same reason.
“It’s not like we’re quitting on these guys,” Yeo said. “It’s not like we don’t believe in them. It’s just a means to try to get them in the right mind frame and come back and be really good.
“For the guys that aren’t in, a lot of guys are trying to do the right thing, a lot of guys hearts are in the right place, but focus-wise and mindset-wise, this is where I think the break can come in great use as far as just hitting the reset button and allowing ourselves to take a bit of a deep breath here and remember those little things that make us successful.”
Mikael Granlund, who missed last game with a stomach bug, looks like he’ll return and slide back into that top line with Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek. Surprises me a little. Charlie Coyle has been better the past four games (especially last game between Parise and Vanek) and Granlund, who looked sluggish this morning, has a disappointing two multi-point games out of 31 as the Wild’s No. 1 center this year. TWO, playing mostly with Parise. Not good enough.
Stu Bickel will also draw in, which surprises me, too, because the Flyers are hardly a hard-nosed team anymore (9.1 penalty minutes per game compared to the Wild’s 9.7) and Zac Rinaldo isn’t playing.
Asked why he’s in, Yeo told me kiddingly, “Why not? Has anything else we’ve been doing worked lately?”
In seriousness, Yeo said, “I will say this: It’s been pretty comfortable for other teams to come into our building and if you’ve played the game, then you understand that’s part of the game. When there’s a thought or presence of you might get hit or it might be a tough, physical game, it’s a little bit more difficult to execute, you’re not quite as quick to go back and retrieve a puck, you’re not quite as willing to go to the hard areas.
“Quite often when you have a player like that in the lineup, it’s not just about him. It’s about what it does to the other group. We’ve seen that. We’ve won games when he’s been in the lineup (the Wild’s 4-0 with Bickel) and I think a big part of that is we have other guys who end up playing bigger because of that.”
Yeo had a long talk with Haula on the ice today. Fans were freaking on Twitter about Bickel playing for Haula, which, hey, I get, but sometimes kids need to take a step back and see the game from upstairs and not be entitled to just keep playing when they're struggling. And Haula has been struggling. Tonight is Haula's first turn this season to sit out a game.
“Of course it’s about offense, but it’s about winning,” Yeo said. “Offense comes by doing the right things and by taking care of the details. He contributed offensively for us last year, but he wasn’t our leading scorer. I think that expectations-wise, we have to be realistic. He’s not playing power play right now. He has the ability to create offense. We’ve seen his speed be a factor. We have to find a way to make it more of a factor again this year. But the way he earned his way into the lineup and how he was successful last year was the defensive part of his game. When you look at probably the best hockey he’s played in the Colorado series, he had one singular focus and that was to shut a very important line for the opposition down (Nathan MacKinnon). That was when he played his best hockey. He brings something different to the table than a lot of the other guys that we have and he’s a very valuable part to our group when he’s on top of that part of his game. So again this is just a good opportunity for us to hit the reset button. He’s a very big part of things going forward and a very big part of the second half of our season. Hopefully we’ll help him get ready for that.”
Haula said the Christmas break will allow him to “clear it all up here in the next couple days and just come back with a great attitude and put everything on the line and keep working hard and keep taking those little strides and not expect too much.”
Haula said the first couple months of the season was a “little bit of a disappointment in some ways. I think individually, there’s areas I can do better at. I definitely have more to offer the team. Also I think there are some areas I think I have done a pretty good job in (like penalty kill). I’ve got to let it go here and enjoy the couple days we have off and come back with a great attitude and let that first half go and finish strong.
“My game is to move my feet, play good defensively and win my battles and I want to focus on those areas a little more.”
Haula said Yeo told him at the start of the year that the second year is always harder than the first, especially “if you do have some kind of success, you expect more and set high expectations. I’ve tried my best to not think about stuff like that. At the start of the year it was going really well where I maybe wasn’t necessarily getting the results on the scoreboard, but I thought I was playing really well. The little things haven’t been what I really wanted it to be. I don’t think I’m a minus player. Defensively I think I can play against any one and that’s one area where I have to clean up.”
Fontaine needs to pick up his play, too. Just hasn't impressed in many games this year and certainly hasn't been anything close to the scoring threat he was last year.
I talked to Jared Spurgeon a little this morning. His game has taken a turn for the worse. He is minus-7 his past 11 games and he said, “I need to be better.”
UPDATE: Mikael Granlund is sick and will not play tonight vs Nashville. Justin Fontaine will take his place in the lineup. Charlie Coyle will play with Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek on the top line with Granlund as a late scratch.
It's official: Matt Cooke will rejoin the Wild lineup for tonight's game against Nashville at Xcel Energy Center, after missing 22 games because of a hip flexor injury. Ryan Carter will be back, too, healed from the shoulder injury that cost him three games. Darcy Kuemper, who missed his last start because of a stomach bug, will get the start in goal tonight.
The return of Cooke and Carter means the Wild has a completely healthy forward corps for the first time in weeks. Justin Fontaine, who hasn't registered a point in his past five games, will be scratched. Stu Bickel and defenseman Justin Falk also will sit out.
Cooke last played Oct. 28 at Boston. He said he's looking forward to everything, including the pregame meal. Coach Mike Yeo is excited to have Cooke and Carter back, too, with the Wild looking to play with more physicality and pressure against a Central Division foe that is 8-3 over its past 11 games.
"They bring something different to the table, something I think we've missed a little bit,'' Yeo said. "Just the board work, the presence on the forecheck, the finishing checks and making us a team that’s not fun to play against. These are things that will be valuable to us.''
Yeo did note that Cooke and Carter will have to be diligent early in the game as they shake off the rust. And with their return, other forwards will have to adapt to some shifting of roles. But he thinks Cooke's leadership and experience can help "refocus'' the Wild and settle it down when necessary, a quality Yeo said the team has particularly missed over the past month.
Nashville will be without winger James Neal, who is sick and didn't make the trip. (No, it's not the mumps.) That's a significant loss. Neal is second on the team in goals (11) and third in points (19), and he had two goals and three assists in his past six games. He's also among the league's most prolific shooters, with 106 shots on goal.
Yeo has been touting the importance of this game for two days. The Wild has not won consecutive games for a month, and after the players admitted their frustration at failing to gain any ground, they need a home victory against a strong Central Division rival to get their minds right. A loss would give them a three-game winless streak and prolong that funk.
"We recognize this is a big game,'' he said. "We don't need guys going out there trying to be heroes. We need guys going out there doing their jobs. When we have 20 guys doing that, then we like where we're at.''
Wild and Boston Bruins in about an hour.
Niklas Backstrom feels good enough to start his second game in two nights and former Boston University goalie John Curry was recalled to back him up. Ill-stricken Darcy Kuemper was kept away today and is still not feeling well, coach Mike Yeo said.
The Bruins’ goalie is unknown as of now. Niklas Svedberg was the only goalie to skate with the scratches this morning. Skilled forward David Krejci is expected to return from a lower-body injury.
Jared Spurgeon is expected to return tonight, meaning the Wild will have its top-4 defensemen in the same lineup for the fourth time in the past 23 games.
Yeo said Spurgeon is not quite 100 percent, but the Wild needs him.
The Wild hasn’t win back-to-back games since Nov. 16 and 20.
“It’s been a factor in us not being able to grab some traction,” Yeo said. “We haven’t won back-to-back games in a long time. I give our guys credit because we also haven’t lost back-to-back games in a long time (Nov. 8 and 11).”
(“Knock on wood,” Yeo said, laughing. “I’d like to make sure we keep that going.”)
“There’s been some good things, but there’s probably been more frustration than anything else right now, and I think a big part of that is that defensive group, what they mean to us in terms of our offense, in terms of our execution, helping to alleviate pressure, helping to get the puck up to our forwards and how they defend, their gap control. I think that’s been very noticeable since we haven’t had them all intact.”
The Wild has rallied in lots of game, but an example of this frustration may be the fact that often the Wild gives up a goal and that one goal seems to quickly become two or three in a row.
Yeo said, “We know that we need to win hockey games right now. When something bad happens in a game, when we’re strong, it doesn’t take us off our game, it doesn’t rattle us, it doesn’t carry over into the next shift.
“I think right now we’re so wrapped up in the result, when something happens, we get a little bit off the tracks, off the rails and then one bad shift turns into two or three or four. It took us a full period to recover from that last game.”
Defenseman Christian Folin will be scratched tonight. He had the one mistake that led to Jonathan Toews’ goal last night. He didn’t move the puck quick enough and Toews picked his pocket.
Yeo said, “In some ways we could say it’s not fair for him to come out. It was one game and I’m certainly not putting that on him and that game aside, I like what he’s brought lately. But this game tonight is all we’re focused on now, back-to-back games and we’re going left shot, right shot (that’s why Justin Falk stays in) and with the right shot, for this game tonight, we decided on Pross (Nate Prosser) just because of the veteran presence.”
I asked Yeo about Nino Niederreiter only logging four shifts and 2:35 of ice time after his penalty-shot goal last night.
Yeo said the two penalties that were taken late in the third both were taken on shifts that he was due to come up on and then he was scheduled to come up with the goalie out but some guys extended their shifts.
Yeo also said he planned to use Niederreiter if the game got to a shootout presumably for Jason Pominville. Similarly, if the Arizona shootout got to Round 3, Yeo said Jason Zucker, who scored on a breakaway that game, was next up.
Of the top-20 goal scorers in the NHL, Niederreiter, who is tied for ninth in the NHL with 14 goals, is last in average ice time per game (14:18).
I asked Yeo about that.
“Are we saying he’d have 30 right now [with more ice time]?” Yeo said. “You could argue that he might have a lot more or you might argue that we’re doing a pretty good job with him right now, too.”
Basically, and I’ll write more about this in the paper the next few days, Yeo said this is not unlike Zucker last year. The Wild’s trying to develop him and there are little details in his game that the Wild is trying to improve. He’s a team-worst minus-5 and the Wild is really trying to get him to play better defensively. He is playing in a checking line role because of his frame and ability to skate and because of the top-6 guys ahead of him, so for him to play against good offensive players, Yeo is trying to help him improve defensively so he can trust him more in critical situations.
That’s the gist of what Yeo said, at least.
CHICAGO – Hours ago, Darcy Kuemper lay on the ground between defensemen Marco Scandella and Christian Folin doing his normal stretch routine in preparation to start tonight’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
The goalie was bubbly and even shot the breeze, talking about the time he lost a personal-record 10 pounds of water weight during a start.
Well, something happened between 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. because Niklas Backstrom will get the surprise start tonight vs. Chicago.
There is a stomach bug going around the Wild that has caused Charlie Coyle to miss a recent practice and Jared Spurgeon his second game tonight. And, of course there’s the mumps, but it's not the mumps.
During coach Mike Yeo’s availability two hours before the game, Yeo confirmed that Kuemper was starting at the exact moment Backstrom walked out of the locker room to begin his pregame slow-walk routine when he’s the starter around the bowels of United Center. In hindsight, that was strange.
Then, after Backstrom led the Wild onto the ice, General Manager Chuck Fletcher wouldn’t disclose what was wrong with Kuemper other than to say he would back up.
But during warmups, Kuemper didn’t move from his spot near the red line until the very end when he skated to the crease and basically stood stationary so players had a target to shoot around.
Must be something around the United Center. Remember, two years ago, Backstrom aggravated an abdominal injury in warmups prior to Game 1 and Josh Harding, who had just returned from weeks away with complications from multiple sclerosis, had to start the series.
The Wild hosts the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, so Backstrom may have to start consecutive games. If Kuemper is unable to dress, John Curry and Johan Gustafsson have a game tonight in Iowa.
In other news, Yeo said before the game that Spurgeon, Ryan Carter and Matt Cooke all skates this morning. Yeo didn't know if Spurgeon would be able to play tomorrow. Carter (shoulder) and Cooke (hip) may return Saturday vs. Nashville.
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