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.
Email Michael to talk about hockey.
Costly loss for the Wild tonight. Up 3-2 in the third on Kyle Brodziak’s go-ahead goal, the Wild handed two points to the team right on its tail.
The Wild nearly crashed Mike Modano's party and could have been seven points up on Dallas with a win. Now it’s three with St. Louis, which can take the top spot in the NHL with a win, on deck Sunday in Minnesota to open a four-game homestand. A win could have given the Wild an eight-point lead on Phoenix, too.
Matt Moulson was talking this morning about how excited he was to parachute right into a playoff race. After all, this is a guy that didn’t have a lot of meaningful games late in seasons on Long Island and certainly not in the past four months in Buffalo.
Tonight’s game had the intensity of two desperate teams fighting for a playoff spot and the Wild battled back twice from one-goal deficits.
But then after taking a 3-2 lead 1:23 into the third, the wheels came off. It started a minute after Brodziak’s goal when Matt Cooke took a tripping penalty. I still haven’t seen the replay because I was pounding on my keyboard, but the Twitterphere was screaming that it was a knee.
Regardless, the Wild killed the two minutes off and it appears Valeri Nichushkin escaped injury.
But two minutes after the kid, Haula, who scored his first career shortie on a great play in the first to tie the game at 1-1, generated speed again. But as he drove the net, he locked skates with Cody Eakin and bulled into goalie Kari Lehtonen.
Lehtonen was injured, leaving the game with blood on his face and what coach Lindy Ruff said afterward was a likely concussion. Haula got a major for charging and game misconduct.
Darcy Kuemper did a terrific job killing the major, but on Dallas’ ninth shot on the power play, Tyler Seguin, who had a hat trick two nights earlier against Vancouver, scored the tying goal for his third point of the night.
Four minutes later, Brodziak sent the puck up top to Clayton Stoner. Stoner quickly slid it to his left to Keith Ballard. The puck barely stayed in the zone. Too bad it didn’t leave because Ballard looked to shoot, then tried to slide it back to Stoner.
It happened way late in their shift, too, so they were gassed and basically dead meat when speedy Erik Cole picked it off. Kuemper was the only hope to save Ballard’s bacon, but Cole scored the eventual winner with 4:49 left.
To Ballard’s credit, he was standing in the locker room just waiting for the buzzards.
“Bad read on my part. It was pretty obvious what I was looking to do. I don’t know if I telegraphed it, but I misjudged how high he was. Split-second decision. Bad feeling. Tough way to lose a game.”
He continued, “It’s not the first time I’ve done that. Every guy in this room has done that. It’s not the last time it’s going to happen. Do something like that, you can really talk yourself into you played a real bad game. I looked at my game a lot different than that. I’m not going to judge my entire game based on one shift. It was a tough mistake and it stinks, but you move on.”
We’ll see if he plays against St. Louis. The Wild has seven healthy defenseman and coach Mike Yeo made the questionable decision to scratch Nate Prosser, who has been nothing but consistent for two months (plus-9 in the past 20 games). I’ve got to think Prosser slides back in.
But tonight, Yeo said the Ballard mistake was bound to cost them eventually. He said the Wild gave up way too many odd-man rushes, and frankly, even the Wild’s most reliable players were playing the puck like a grenade. Normally reliable Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon each had tough nights.
Moulson had five shots, an assist on Charlie Coyle’s goal to snap a 15-game drought (actually had no goals in 25 of his past 26 games) and drew two penalties. Moulson said he has to bury his chances though.
Unfortunately the Haula penalty put a damper on what would have been an awesome story line with his shortie. It was so fitting because Saturday morning, Haula, who led the University of Minnesota in scoring the past two years, and I were talking about the pride he’s taking in his fourth line and penalty kill duties, saying, “I love my role on this team. I've accepted it.”
On the Haula penalty, Yeo said, “I’m not sure what else a player can do. You’re trying to score a goal. Unless you want the player not to try to score a goal. I feel bad for the goalie. He got hurt. But if you watch the replay, he’s trying to make a play to score a goal, he gets tripped up a little bit, there’s really nowhere for him to go. I would say it’s incidental.”
But Yeo stopped short and said he’s not about to complain about that call, saying, “We did enough things in this game to shoot ourselves in the foot. … Just not enough of a 60-minute focus.”
OK, I’ve got to get out of here. It’s midnight, and with the clocks moving ahead, my 4 a.m. wakeup is coming in, what’s that, three hours????
You have to hand it to the Wild. It just keeps on winning and now enters a four-day break in its schedule with a nine-point lead in the playoff race thanks to Monday’s 3-2 win over Calgary.
But as Mike Yeo pointed out afterward, we often talk about a “cushion,” but a “cushion” really does mean squat.
Right now, the eighth-place team (Dallas, the Wild’s opponent Saturday in the Big D) is on pace for 91.4 points. So it doesn’t matter how many points the Wild’s up on ninth. The Wild has 74 points. It needs to keep heading north until it passes that 92-point threshold and preferably more so it can make the playoffs for the second year in a row.
Good win tonight because the Wild really had to grind it out in a pretty sloppy, choppy game. Yeo said he expected it after two games on the road, an emotional win in Vancouver, the Wild’s first home game in a month and the fact that chemistry would be messed with a bit with Mikko Koivu and Marco Scandella’s return fiddling with the forward pairs and defense pairs.
“But our guys fought through it. That was a big win for our guys,” Yeo said.
Kyle Brodziak “finally found a way to put one in,” he said jokingly of his fifth goal of the season after Matt Cooke forechecked a frozen goalie, Reto Berra, into a turnover. Then, in the third, Jared Spurgeon and Zach Parise scored goals. Parise’s would become the winner.
Darcy Kuemper made his 15th consecutive start and won his fifth in a row. His 11th win ties Josh Harding for the team’s rookie record. He has given up six goals in his past five starts (three in three since the Olympic break) and is 11-2-2 since Jan. 7 with a 2.02 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.
Tonight, his parents saw him play live in the NHL for the second time (both against Calgary) and saw him win for the first time. The kid keeps on trucking, which has to make Chuck Fletcher feel much more comfortable heading into Wednesday’s 2 p.m. trade deadline.
I still believe the Wild acquires a goalie though because of Niklas Backstrom’s abdominal issue, and the Wild continues to talk to other teams, especially Buffalo about Jaroslav Halak. That seems the likeliest scenario.
Fletcher has been on the phone a lot lately, and sources say he has talked with the Sabres often.
It’s that time of year.
Koivu returned to the lineup. Like the team, his line with Dany Heatley and Charlie Coyle had good shifts and tougher shifts. One picked-off clear by Koivu led to one goal, but he looked good on a second-period power play and should continue to get better, he said.
He’s a big guy, and as Wes Walz always said, it’s harder for bigger players to get back in the swing of things, especially with the league so ramped up. Tonight was Koivu’s first game in eight weeks.
“I was more nervous than I even told you guys,” Koivu said. “I missed a long time. I wasn’t sure how it was going to react in a game. I thought that after the first couple shifts, I got more comfortable and I thought that power play helped me a lot when we got the puck more and I was moving the puck more. Overall, pretty solid. The things I wanted to be strong, I was pretty strong I thought. So yeah, overall pretty happy. That was the first step. Now I just need to work in practice and get more games under my belt and I’m sure it’ll get better.”
He did say his ankle did feel discomfort toward the end of periods and on the bench, but doctors tell him that’s normal and it’ll continue to improve.
Weird, ugly games at times.
There’s something about these two teams that often produce the ugliest games, and much of Monday’s game looked like it was a game of shinny hockey played with a tennis ball.
Players on both teams misconnected on passes, swung and missed on shots, blew wide-open nets and overskated pucks routinely. The amount of pucks that simply stopped short and were whiffed on by players was remarkable.
It was the first NHL game at the X in almost a month and players complained Monday morning that the ice was sticky, perhaps because of the state wrestling tournament and Luke Bryan concert being on top of the ice the past week.
“Even this morning you could tell in the pregame skate, it seemed a little slow,” Parise said of the ice. “I know a couple times on me personally, it just stopped or just bounced.”
But the Wild got through it.
Now the Wild has four days off. It’ll have a skills practice Tuesday, have the day off Wednesday (trade deadline) and then get back at it for two hard practices Thursday and Friday before playing in Dallas in Saturday. As you know, the Wild rarely has success in Dallas (one win in its past 19 visits, I believe).
That starts a stretch of 20 games in the final 37 days of the regular season.
“This is an opportunity,” Cooke said of the break this week. “This is our last real practice time before we’re in the playoffs. We’re going to have to work and be ready to continue what we’ve built here in the last little while.”
--Season-high five wins in a row overall, six in a row at home.
--The Wild is 9-2-2 in its past 13 and 14-4-2 in 2014.
--Mikael Granlund had two assists and his brother, Markus, recorded his first NHL point. Mikael has 20 points in his past 25 games.
--Zach Parise’s goal was his 21st and 45th career game-winner. He has six goals and 12 points in his past eight games
The Wild will sleep tight tonight on its four-hour charter back to Minnesota, one that’s supposed to land close to 5 a.m.
In a taxing, taxing game, its second in 24 hours, the Wild hung on for a 2-1 shootout win over the Vancouver Canucks tonight to gain a seven-point edge on a playoff spot.
Zach Parise scored the lone goal (his 20th through Dany Heatley’s screen, and 11th on the power play, which is tied for third in the NHL) in regulation – lone goal because referee Brad Meier thought he saw something that didn’t occur and wiped out a Keith Ballard equalizer earlier. And Darcy Kuemper, playing for the second time in two nights after shutting out Edmonton, made 30 saves and wasn’t beaten by one Canucks shooter in a seven-round shootout.
Justin Fontaine, in the seventh round and on his first NHL shootout attempt, beat Eddie Lack for the shootout winner.
Kuemper, who has started 14 in a row, is now 10-2-2 in his past 15 starts with a 1.94 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in that stretch. He’s showing zero signs of cracking and tonight won the Wild a game. The Wild battled hard and deserved what it got, but Kuemper was playing behind a very tired team the last half of the game and stole one, maybe two points.
So if you’re Chuck Fletcher, what do you do? If it were me, I’d ride out Kuemper but go out and get some insurance because of Josh Harding’s absence and Niklas Backstrom’s abdominal issue.
Lots of rumors out there tonight that Buffalo will try to flip Jaroslav Halak, whom it acquired from St. Louis today in a package for Ryan Miller, to Minnesota. There’s no doubt Fletcher’s good buddy Tim Murray will try. The impression I got internally though today from the organization is it has little interest in Halak.
The Wild has inquired about Cam Ward and Martin Brodeur and has had Ilya Bryzgalov offered to them. There’s also Tim Thomas.
It’ll be interesting to see how Fletcher proceeds because while the Wild needs another goalie as insurance, but how do you not continue to go with Kuemper as the No. 1?
Huge PK by the Wild, which hasn’t allowed a power-play goal in six consecutive games, in overtime. Kyle Brodziak, Nate Prosser and Matt Cooke were the men on the ice. The three gents did a terrific job keeping Vancouver to the outside and staying in lanes. Cooke and Prosser blocked shots and Kuemper made one save. That also helped get the Wild the extra point.
The big controversy of the game came in the first when Meier, despite staring at the crease from 15 feet away, somehow thought Erik Haula made incidental contact with Eddie Lack. He waved off Keith Ballard’s goal. Replays showed there was zero contact, and ref supervisor Mick McGeough, in attendance, told me during the first intermission, “In my estimation, I think the goal should have counted. It was a good screen by [Haula]. He wasn’t in the blue when the puck entered the net, so it met the criteria for a good goal.”
Haula said, “I think [Meier] made a mistake and he was confident he made the right call. All the coaches said it wasn’t even close. I never touched the goalie. All that matters is we got two points though.”
Gutsy effort by the Wild to hang on tonight. Yeo loved the work ethic and the mental toughness to overcome a shortie and disallowed goal. Everybody worked their butt off.
That’s it for me. I'll be on KFAN at 10:20 a.m. Saturday.
The Wild has the day off Saturday. Barring news, talk Sunday.
Darcy Kuemper continues to do everything he can to alleviate any concerns the suits upstairs may have with the Wild’s goaltending down the stretch.
We’ve learned the last two months the rookie’s feeling confident when he flashes the leather after a big save. That’s what he did after gloving down Mike Richards’ shootout attempt in a 39-save victory at L.A. – the game that started this remarkable run from the Sunshine Kid – and that’s what he did on a Taylor Hall blast in the second period tonight.
It wasn’t as pronounced. But look closely, and it was clear as day to see.
Kuemper made 21 saves for his second career shutout during the Wild’s 3-0 blanking of the Oilers.
Check out the gamer for the details, but the Wild defended well, took hits to make plays and got the puck north for the majority of the game. Kuemper didn’t have to make a bunch of huge saves, but his biggest on Jordan Eberle in the second – a point-blank one-timer to his right – preserved a 1-0 lead.
Shortly after, Erik Haula set up Stephane Veilleux for the Wild’s second goal.
The Wild’s now five up on Dallas for the top wildcard spot and six up on 10th-place Vancouver, Friday’s opponent. Coach Mike Yeo said Kuemper will start that game. He is 9-2-2 in his past 14 starts with a 2.02 goals-against average and .933 save percentage.
Mikael Granlund, whom Yeo said this morning has a chance to do something special these final 22 games, scored two minutes into the game off a nice feed from Zach Parise. He did get banged up twice, once when he took a puck to the left cheek, the other when he was checked by Nick Schultz and looked to fall into another Oiler. Athletic therapist Don Fuller worked on him a bunch after that shift and was with him in the locker room after.
Granlund said afterward cunningly that he didn’t know what I was talking about and he’s OK.
Two guys also banged up tonight?
Nate Prosser and Clayton Stoner.
Prosser, 12 seconds into his first shift and 54 seconds into the game, was hit from behind by Blaine’s Matt Hendricks, who was a physical menace all game. Somehow no penalty was called on the blatant boarding major. Kyle Brodziak immediately challenged him thought, which resulted in a 4-on-4 that led to Granlund's goal. So it worked out.
Prosser said he got his “bell rung” and took stitches to the chin, but while he was lost for the rest of the first period, he returned to start the second and had an assist on Veilleux's goal.
“I knew he was coming,” said Prosser, whose wife is days from giving birth to their second child. “I knew it was Hendricks and he finishes his hits. But I’m digging the puck out. I expect a little rubout or something, but he full-fledged put me into the glass.”
Clayton Stoner’s injury was, as Yeo said, “gruesome” looking. While either grabbing the jersey of Luke Gazdic in a fight or having his finger punched by Gazdic as he reached (Stoner didn’t know), Stoner’s left ring finger dislocated. Screen captures on Twitter (check out @randball) showed his finger facing east.
I would have been lost for weeks. Stoner returned in the third after doctors got the finger back in place and he told them to tape his ring finger to his middle finger for support.
“Probably looked worse than it felt,” said Stoner. “I’ve had problems with this finger for three weeks, so I think the tendons are weak and it came out easier than it should of.”
We’ll see if Stoner can play Friday in Vancouver, his home province team so to speak. If he can’t, the Wild has Marco Scandella waiting in the wings. If he can’t play, the Wild has Steve Kampfer or will need to helicopter in Jon Blum.
Keith Ballard, who returns to Vancouver, his former team, for the first time since signing a two-year deal with Minnesota last summer, was plus-3 and was great. His drive to the net helped lead to Granlund’s goal.
I thought Jared Spurgeon had a great game. Assist, three blocked shots for the Edmonton native. Charlie Coyle was good defensively and offensively. Dany Heatley scored a goal in front of the fans who just love him so.
Lots of good efforts from Wild players. Now on to Vancouver for a big game Friday. I’m staring a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call in the face. Talk to you from one of the best stops in the league Friday.
Now you know why coach Mike Yeo says Nino Niederreiter has a “silly hard shot.”
Very impressive final two games before the Olympic break for the Swiss winger, who tonight in a 3-2 victory over Nashville scored his first career overtime winner.
He also assisted on Jonas Brodin’s goal and this came two nights after scoring the Wild’s first goal in a 2-1 win over Tampa Bay.
The Wild, now sixth in the West but still in the first wildcard position because that’s how it worked (see postgame blog against Tampa Bay if you’re confused), is seven points up on ninth-place Phoenix and six up on Vancouver, which sits in the second wildcard spot.
The Wild, which had lost six in a row at the turn of the New Year and looked like it was about to roll over and die with guys like Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jared Spurgeon and Josh Harding sidelined, entered the Olympic break on an 11-4-2 run.
“We’re going the right direction. There’s still a lot of room to get better at though,” said Parise, who scored his 19th goal and 10th on the power play tonight.
The team is now off for 20 days. The five Olympians (maybe four if we learn Friday Koivu has to pull out) will leave for Sochi on Sunday. The non-Olympians will begin practicing again Feb. 19.
Erik Haula and Johan Gustafsson were reassigned after the game. Darcy Kuemper can’t go down because he’s above the 16 games in the team’s final 20 games before the break threshold. Plus, I don’t think he should have his health risked anyway because the Wild will undoubtedly need him after the break.
The one news that did come after the game is now we know why I started to hear yesterday that Jason Zucker wasn’t being reassigned to Iowa. Yeo said after the game that he will have a “minor procedure” and should be ready to rejoin the team after the break.
Read the game story for all the details. Niederreiter turned inside on and shot in between the legs of Swiss pal Roman Josi for the winner. Josi will be Niederreiter’s Olympic roommate, which should be … challenging now.
Very solid last two games for the Wild to enter the break on a winning note after consecutive road losses to end the last trip.
“Really good solid overall couple games for us,” Jason Pominville said.
Kuemper had the yips and looked a little rusty tonight. He said like a wide receiver in football, on Craig Smith’s first of two goals tonight, he was deciding what he was going to do with the puck before he swallowed it. Because of that, he said he dropped the puck.
But he said his teammates played a heck of a game in front of him (outshot Nashville 36-18) and that first goal didn’t faze them. He joked that the three hit pucks by Nashville just happened because he had the angle taken away.
“A little bit of puck luck goes a long way,” he said.
Impressive last five weeks for the Wild.
But Yeo said he wants the Wild to keep climbing and not worry about its cushion, saying, “we haven’t done anything yet. We’ve put ourselves in a good position, but there’s a lot of work to do here still.”
Yeo joked that six weeks ago, when his job was on the line, was a “piece of cake, slept like a baby.” For me personally, all I wanted was for our players to look at me and say he has confidence, we should have confidence. I believed in the group.”
Happy Olympic break everybody. I’ll be back Friday if there’s Koivu news. Remember, there’s an Olympic trade freeze Friday at 2 p.m. until Feb. 23, so there should be little news throughout the Olympic break.
Enjoy the Olympics.
|Vikings (33)||Gophers injuries (2)|
|Gophers on TV (1)||Gophers coaches (2)|
|Gophers players (7)||Gophers game day (6)|
|Gophers postgame (12)||Gophers awards and honors (1)|
|Gophers post season (1)||St. Cloud State (1)|
|Wild news (464)||Bears (5)|
|Lions (1)||Packers (2)|
|Super Bowl (6)||Vikings fans (3)|
|Ex-players (1)||Injury report (1)|
|On the road (181)||Rookies (36)|
|Roster moves (14)||Vikings draft (91)|
|Vikings trade talk (3)||Fighting (3)|
|Stanley Cup (28)||Wild coaching (32)|
|Wild game coverage (387)||Wild management (15)|
|Wild off-season news (421)||Wild player moves (125)|
|Wild practice (331)||Wild pregame skate (346)|
|Wild trade news (37)||Wild training camp (121)|
|Adrian Peterson (4)||Ben Leber (1)|
|Bernard Berrian (1)||Brad Childress (3)|
|Brett Favre (5)||Jared Allen (2)|
|Leslie Frazier (1)||Brad Childress (3)|
|Leslie Frazier (1)||NHL news (1)|
|2010 Winter Games (5)||Olympic hockey (27)|
|Olympic luge (3)||Olympic ski jumping (2)|
|Olympic skiing (2)||NHL draft (7)|
|Gophers sports (3)||Gophers (38)|