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: 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.
The Wild completes its three-game roadie tonight at Chicago (7:30 p.m.) before opening a four-game homestand (separated by the NHL’s annual Christmas hiatus) tomorrow night against the Boston Bruins.
The Wild is 3-5-1 in its past nine regular-season games at Chicago but 0-6 at Chicago in the past two postseasons.
The Wild is 6-0-1 against the Central Division, but it has yet to play the Blackhawks or Nashville, which comes to town Saturday. The Wild is 0-4-1 against powerhouses Anaheim, Los Angeles and St. Louis and as Zach Parise said to me in a Dec. 7 story here, it’s time for the Wild to join the top tier.
“We’ve got to start beating some of these teams,” Parise said.
Afternoon from the United Center, where the Wild just had an optional skate. If you didn't see my feature today, I did a story on the Wild's emergency medical action plan, which you may have witnessed one week ago when Keith Ballard was hit from behind. Here's that link.
If the Wild wins tonight, it'll be 8-8 on the road. Remember, this is a team that began the season 2-6 on the road. It's a good sign that the Wild is winning games on the road because one must assume it'll start to improve its home play again. The Wild is 2-2-1 in its past five at home after starting the season 7-1 at home.
Minnesota catches a big break tonight because coach Joel Quenneville says Duncan Keith, who ranks sixth in the NHL in average ice time per game (25:53), will miss the game because he is sick. Keith has 18 points and is plus-10 and scrambles up the Blackhawks’ blue line to potentially Tim Erixon-Brent Seabrook; Johnny Oduya-Niklas Hjalmarsson; David Rundblad-Michal Rozsival.
Coach Q said he “didn’t know” when asked if Keith has mumps-like symptoms. Hey, the Wild is in town, so be careful. Interesting story going around right now about Beau Bennett being out with the mumps and the fact he visited a children’s hospital recently. Here is a link.
The Wild, which has had five defensemen come down with the mumps, actually has player visits scheduled for a children’s hospital in the Twin Cities on Monday and has been talking to the hospital to see if it should go on as scheduled or be postponed.
Better be safe than sorry. The Wild hopes it’s beyond the whole mumps that seems to have begun with the St. Louis Blues (whether they’re willing to admit it or not, more than a dozen players, staff and, uh, media came down with mumps-like symptoms) and Wild. The Wild has taken all sorts of precautions from boosters (them and the Iowa Wild) a month ago to decontaminating its locker-room and equipment to making sure players use separate towels and water bottles.
As of now, the Wild still says Jared Spurgeon will miss his second game tonight due to a stomach ailment, but I’ll ask Mike Yeo again during his 5:30 availability tonight. Again, since the first seven games of the season, the Wild's top-4 of Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Spurgeon has played in the same game in three of 22 games.
Antti Raanta vs. Darcy Kuemper tonight. I was shooting the breeze with Kuemper this morning and we were talking about how much water weight goalies lose per NHL game. I knew I should have been a goalie. He told me his record in one game was losing 10 pounds!
You should see how much water Niklas Backstrom drinks between periods.
Speaking of Backstrom, the veteran will likely start tomorrow’s home game vs. Boston. Backstrom is 5-0-1 in six starts vs. the Bruins with a 1.32 goals-against average, .957 save percentage and two shutouts. Makes sense because his favorite colors are yellow and black.
(I’m making that up).
Mikael Granlund told me he is playing tonight after missing Monday’s practice.
Wearing No. 27, Brett Sutter will make his Wild debut for Ryan Carter, who is out with an upper-body injury. Sutter, whose father is Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter, will play his 55th NHL game over parts of seven seasons.
The former Calgary Flame and Carolina Hurricane will play his second game in Chicago, which is neat because his dad spent his entire NHL playing career for the Blackhawks and coached the Blackhawks. Brett Sutter lived in Chicago as a kid and grew up a big Blackhawks fan.
“My dad’s history playing here and coaching here, it’s exciting,” Sutter, 27, said. “They were kind of my childhood team growing up here, so it’s definitely neat. But at the same time, once you get out there, it’s just another game. You try to put that aside and just play.”
Sutter said he has been playing center in Iowa. He’ll play fourth-line wing likely with Erik Haula and Kyle Brodziak tonight as the Wild comes back with the same lines I assume from its Arizona win. Again, we’ll get Yeo at 5:30 and the Wild had an optional skate this morning.
He said it won’t make a difference what position he plays tonight.
“I’m just going to try to be a real hard-working player,” Sutter, the former Charlotte Checkers captain, said. “I’m going to win every battle I can and keep it real simple tonight and just play a heavy game, be physical and do what I can to help the team.”
Yup, he’s a Sutter Brother’s son.
We chatted with Sutter about the Iowa coaching change, too, and you can read about that in tomorrow’s paper.
Scandella returns from his two-game jail sentence tonight. He said he’s not a dirty player, but he has to learn from the two recent head shots.
Also, I talked to Mikko Koivu about his signature shootout move (which he did alter a little the other night) and I’ll have those quotes in tomorrow’s paper.
FYI, I’ll be doing another podcast with Star Tribune columnist live from the Local in Minneapolis at 3 p.m. Wednesday. You can listen to it live or after the fact on souhanunfiltered.com. This will be a weekly thing, by the way.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Alex Stalock tonight when the Wild visits the San Jose Sharks.
Stalock, the former UMD goalie and cousin of Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox, makes his first career start vs. his hometown Wild and will become the second Minnesota native to face the Wild in goal (Damian Rhodes, also from St. Paul, did it twice in 2001, the Wild said).
The Wild will be without suspended defenseman Marco Scandella, the Sharks without injured Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
On the Scandella two-game suspension, coach Mike Yeo said, “My opinion doesn’t mean a whole lot right now. I think I saw it a little bit differently than what they did, but it is what it is. We’ll have to get through it now.”
Scandella said, “It’s never fun to get suspensions and miss games, but I respect the league’s decision and I’m going to come back and be ready once I get back.”
I asked him if he thought this wouldn’t have resulted in anything had he not done something similar to T.J. Oshie so recently, and Scandella said he isn’t thinking about that.
“I’m not a dirty player and I don’t go out to injure anybody,” he said. “I’m going to forget about what happened, learn from what happened and move on from it.”
With two-left shot D out with Keith Ballard hurt and Scandella suspended, Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, who were real good together when Jonas Brodin had the mumps, will be back together. Brodin will move to the left side and be paired with Christian Folin and Justin Falk will be paired with Nate Prosser.
This is a big opportunity for Falk, who has played in the NHL, to get some games if he plays well. He has given the Wild some good games this season, Yeo said, and the Wild needs him to play a heavy game against two heavy teams, the Sharks and Saturday against the Coyotes.
GM Chuck Fletcher told me no trade is imminent, but with Ballard out long-term, he will just gauge the defense for awhile and see how Folin plays. The Wild also has Falk and Jon Blum, whom Fletcher said is playing better, down on the farm, as well as Matt Dumba. Ideally, the Wild would like to leave Dumba in Iowa working with John Torchetti, but there may come a point where the Wild has no choice but to call him back up.
Dumba is playing 30 minutes a night there and has two goals, one assist and is plus-7 in three games.
The Wild has played with its top-four of Suter, Brodin, Scandella and Spurgeon intact 10 times in 26 games this season, The four were together the first seven games, and then injuries, suspensions and the mumps has resulted in them playing together for only three of the past 20 games.
Fox Sports North’s Anthony LaPanta crunched the numbers.
The Wild is 6-3-1 with the four together, 9-7 with one or two out.
The Wild’s CORSI numbers with the top-4 together and without the top-4 together are dramatically different, and its goals for are 3.5 and goals against 2.2 with them. Without, the team’s goals for are 2.56 and goals against 2.69. The team’s goals differential is plus-13 with them and minus-2 without.
“It seems like every time we look like we’re getting there, something else happens,” Yeo said. “But every team deals with injuries, and suspensions in this case. This is not new to us. That’s for sure. But there’s no question I’d like to get into a situation where we can get those four guys going. It’s a big difference to our lineup. Defensively, that’s the first place you’re going to look when those guys are able to defend the way that they do and help us in terms of how quickly we defend and getting the puck back on our stick. But also the execution part of it, the offensive part of it, these guys are huge parts of our game.”
If you remember, those first seven games, the Wild’s D were a huge part of the attack and the Wild seemed to always have the puck.
In the first seven games, the Wild’s defensemen had five goals and 12 assists and were plus-26.
“It’s tough to get into rhythms, so hopefully when Scandy’s back we can kind of move on with it and get back to normal,” Suter said. “Maybe that is why we’ve been inconsistent, but good teams can play with everyone and so can good players.”
Kuemper gets back in the net. He has allowed 14 goals in his past four starts, pulled in two of those. If you don’t know why he’s started, I explained on yesterday’s blog, so check that out.
“Every game is a test for him and what you want to see is more consistency start to creep into his game,” Yeo said. “But you can’t fast-track the development of a player. Much depends on what’s happened to them and how they react to it and personality wise, maturity wise, I think he’s definitely grown in those areas. Now it’s just a matter of dealing with all the things that you have to deal with as a young goalie, both successes and failures.
“You can’t force feed that into a goalie.”
The Newsday’s Arthur Staple tweeted that Matt Martin and Ballard exchanged texts. By the way, I saw these MSG angles for the first time late yesterday.
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