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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Darcy Kuemper vs. Sergei Bobrovsky tonight at the X when the Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets face off at 7. The Wild looks to salvage its homestand (1-0-2) before hitting the road for three tomorrow.
I’ll be on Fox Sports North during the pregame show and first intermission.
The Wild’s third D pair rotation continues. The pattern has been two games in, one off.
So Nate Prosser gets in for Keith Ballard tonight. If the pattern holds, Clayton Stoner won’t play in Boston and Ballard will.
Same Wild lines tonight that finished the Rangers game:
Justin Fontaine will be scratched for the fifth consecutive game, and whether you agree or not, if you read Rachel Blount’s notebook today on www.startribune.com/wild, coach Mike Yeo addressed the Fontaine situation.
Very optional skate this morning for the Wild. Actually, it was a directional skate, Yeo called, it. In other words, the players the Wild wanted skating were told to skate and others were told to stay off the ice. Those were all the top-minute guys, so the top-9 forwards and top-4 defensemen were told not to skate.
Yeo said the Wild tried to get something out of Friday’s practice, but he wants players full of energy tonight.
Yeo expects tonight’s game will be similar to Thursday’s Rangers game. The Blue Jackets are playing very well. They’re 5-1-1 this month and coach Todd Richards is running four lines. Columbus’ fourth line is averaging about 12 minutes a night, and they’re a hard-checking, hard-working team.
So Yeo expects both teams will have to “fight for space.”
I asked Yeo about the Wild’s speed today. Since the March 5 trade for Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick, the Wild just doesn’t seem as fast to me. A lot has to do with the trade of Torrey Mitchell, the removal of Fontaine from the lineup, the addition of Moulson, who’s not the fastest skater, and Mikko Koivu’s return to the lineup. He’s still getting up to speed after two months off with an ankle injury.
But Yeo said there won’t be too many faster opponents than the Rangers and “we didn’t feel slow in that game.” He said at times the Wild weren’t pressuring well enough, and the coaches showed video of that. He said that was more off the forecheck and going in straight lines, but “we weren’t losing foot races.”
“I think we have a nice mix right now of size and speed. You can’t be too small, you can’t be too slow. I think we have a little bit of everything.”
Speaking of speed, injured Jason Zucker is back skating again before practices and “hopefully we start progressing him along,” Yeo said.
I think Rachel blogged yesterday, but our blog platform was down and I don’t think it ever published.
Yesterday, I asked Yeo a question I keep getting about why the Wild doesn’t maybe move Erik Haula into a third-line role and Kyle Brodziak to the fourth. Brodziak, by the way, has taken four minors in the past four games and Yeo said Brodziak has to cut that out. He’s one of the Wild’s best penalty killers, which may be part of the reason the Wild gave up power-play goals on three of those four minors by Brodziak.
As for Haula, a rookie, Yeo said, “We’ve done a pretty good job handling him. As far as his development, he’s improved, we’ve increased his role and responsibilities (like penalty killing). And we haven’t done it too quickly. We haven’t pushed him into a position where he might not be ready for. We have moved him up a couple times here and there and we will use him in this next stretch. We’ll gauge it game by game. It’s something, you’ve just got to keep earning it.”
In other words, be patient. Haula’s time will come.
Talk to you tonight. Judging by the Jackets’ skate, Fedor Tyutin will return for the first time since hurting his ankle in the Olympics. Former Wild defenseman Nick Schultz, acquired from Edmonton, looks to be the scratch. His wife and son actually came in for the game from Edmonton.
Afternoon from the X, where the Wild looks to get back on track and snap an 0-1-2 streak tonight against Benoit Pouliot, Dominic Moore and the New York Rangers.
GM Chuck Fletcher is back from the GM's meetings. I talked to him about the meetings and some of the tweaks the managers are recommending be made to the game, like long changes in overtime (teams switch sides like the second period) and instead of kicking cheating centers out of the circle, penalize them by making them move back 18 inches or so. The centers I talk to think this is ludicrous and will create major problems. Imagine losing a game in the last minute because another center was basically given a free faceoff win?
I'll write about the GM's meetings in my Sunday Insider.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Cam Talbot as the Rangers save Henrik Lundqvist for tomorrow’s game at Winnipeg.
Talbot made 24 saves against the Wild in a 4-1 win at MSG on Dec. 22. That game was the final straw for Zach Parise, who had to take the next 14 games off with a broken foot he was playing on.
Talbot is 11-5 in 18 appearances with a 1.75 goals-against average and .938 save percentage. So, not your normal backup goalie.
Kuemper has lost two in a row (one by shootout) and is trying to get back on track from a shaky outing against Edmonton. He and the Wild blew a 3-0 lead. The tying goal was one Kuemper definitely wishes had had back and then he gave up three goals on four shots in the shootout after entering the shootout 11 for 11 this season.
Coach Mike Yeo said that Kuemper has shown the ability the past 2 ½ months, whether it’s a win or lose, to put the previous game aside and show “renewed focus for the next match. So we’re anxious to see if he can do that again.”
Agitator Dan Carcillo will enter the Rangers’ lineup for pest Derek Dorsett. Justin Falk will be scratched. The former Wild D hasn't played since Dec. 29. Martin St. Louis is looking for his first goal as a Ranger. He has one assist in four games since asking out of Tampa.
Yeo will continue his third defense pair rotation and for the fourth straight game change it up. Nate Prosser comes out as Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard will be a pair.
“We said we were going through this rotation a couple times here and reevaluate it after that, so let’s go that way tonight,” Yeo said.
Asked the rationale as to why he doesn’t just pick six D and end it (I write it that way because it reminds me of one of my favorite Seinfeld lines when George Costanza was double-dipping the chip, From now on, when you take a chip, just take one dip and end it), Yeo said, “I don’t think that anybody deserves to just come out of the lineup and stay out of the lineup. We have to go by more than just a one game sample size. That’s the way we always do it here. Those guys played really good hockey for us for a long time. You look at how we counted on them when [Jared] Spurgeon was out of the lineup, how we counted on them when Marco [Scandella] was out of the lineup. Those guys not only got us through those [injuries] but really helped us take our game to another level, so they deserve the opportunity to not just be taken out of the lineup and not have a chance to get in there.”
I talked to Ryan Suter today about his ice time. He logged 34:12 against Edmonton, which surprised me in a game where the Wild was up 3-0 at one point. Obviously, the ice time was elevated by overtime and a 5-on-3 and 4-on-3. Also, Scandella had a real tough night, so perhaps the Wild was trying to limit his ice time in that game. Still, that was the sixth time he has topped 34 minutes this year and the 33rd time in 65 games he hit the 30-minute mark. He averages 2 minutes, 35 seconds per game more than any other NHL player. It just seems too much as the Wild are in a stretch where it plays 20 times in 37 nights.
Suter, of course, said it’s not and he means it. He wants to play that much and admits he tells assistant coach Rick Wilson that often. I’ll have his quotes in tomorrow’s paper.
Yeo did indicate today that 34:12 last game was too much and Jared Spurgeon playing a career-high 30:40 was too much, too.
“That’s a lot, and obviously we’ve got a lot of games coming up here,” Yeo said. “We have to make sure we’re monitoring that. Suts is accustomed to playing big minutes. I think last game was still a lot for him. Spurg generally is not going to play 30 minutes a night.”
Yeo indicated power-play personnel tweaks. My guess is the 5-on-4 units remain the same, but if it gets to a 5-on-3 or 4-on-3, Mikael Granlund will take the place of someone, maybe Mikko Koivu. The 5-on-4's, Granlund and Koivu have been separated.
Yeo expects a tough game tonight. Alain Vigneault coaches the Rangers, so expect to see the Canucks’ old system. That means lots of pressure, players in your face, defensemen jumping up in the play. Yeo said the Wild must be prepared to move the puck quickly and to make quick decisions.
Wild better get its act together now. Of the teams vying for a playoff spot, it has the toughest schedule in my opinion. After games against the Rangers and Columbus, Wild hits the road for eight of 10. Remember, the Wild has won 12 games all year on the road.
The Wild still has Boston, arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference, twice, Pittsburgh once (pummeled Minnesota in Pittsburgh before Christmas), St. Louis, who has beaten them eight in a row, twice, road games at Chicago and L.A.
Time get back to its winning ways.
Josh Harding, two days after he begun skating, put on the pads this morning and took shots and did puck-handling drills with goalie coach Bob Mason.
“It’s a great sign that he’s feeling much better and he’s focused and motivated to try to get back with us,” Yeo said. “So, it’s a great sign. With that said, we’re still a few steps away. It’s not like he’s a week away from rejoining us here, but it’s a good first step.”
Ilya Bryzgalov has a new vinyl wrap around his mask to bide time while his new one gets painted. Bryzgalov didn’t care, but team trainers didn’t like that the old vinyl looked pink rather than red.
Also, to answer a lot of questions, those custom shot blockers have been tried by every player. The only ones who are using them are Spurgeon, Prosser and Erik Haula.
Josh Harding, who still technically leads the NHL with a 1.65 goals-against average and is second with a .933 save percentage, took the ice at Xcel Energy Center this morning for the first time since January.
Harding, who hasn’t started since Dec. 31 because of the effects of multiple sclerosis, has been feeling much better in recent days.
“I saw him this morning, and I can’t say that I have a plan right now,” coach Mike Yeo said. “The first step was just to see him at the rink and I know he was here last game and I had heard how much better he was doing. And when I got a chance to talk to him this morning, you could see it. You could see it in his face, you could see the relief. You could just see he’s in a much better place right now. I think it’s great. It’s great to have him around. The next step is getting him on the ice and talk more about what the plan is. We haven’t discussed that.”
Harding, indisputably the Wild’s first-half MVP with an 18-7-3 record, had an adjustment to his treatment after beating Vancouver on Dec. 17. He missed the Wild’s four-game road trip and returned to start two games Dec. 29 against the Islanders and Dec. 31 against the Blues.
He missed the next smattering of games, came back to practice, but then had to leave again because he wasn’t feeling well. He has missed the past 22 games.
Obviously, Harding taking the ice is a great sign, but obviously there’s a long road yet to getting back into a game. Still, outstanding news that Harding is feeling better.
Also, Niklas Backstrom, one week after being “shut down” by GM Chuck Fletcher, skated today in pads with Harding. Apparently, this is part of Backstrom’s treatment plan from a Toronto specialist.
So, is Backstrom shut down?
“I don’t know with Backy,” Yeo said, laughing. “We don’t want to shut him down because you never know, he might all of a sudden come back and feel great. We don’t have a plan there. I know that he’s still not feeling great, so he’s going out there and keeping sharp just in case he can come back.”
Darcy Kuemper vs. Viktor Fasth (Oilers debut and first game since Nov. 18) tonight against the Edmonton Oilers.
Clayton Stoner, Justin Fontaine and Mike Rupp will be scratched for Minnesota. Oscar Klefbom will make his NHL debut for Edmonton.
Matt Cooke will skate in his 1,000th game and I’ll return soon with his thoughts.
I will be hosting a live chat at startribune.com at 2 p.m.
The Wild looks to rebound from last night's 4-3 loss at Dallas tonight against the red-hot St. Louis Blues.
Wild wasted what would have been a valuable two points last night when it coughed up a 3-2 third-period lead. The Wild went from potentially gaining a seven-point lead on Dallas and an eight-point lead on Phoenix to a three-point lead on Dallas and a six-point lead on Phoenix.
This with St. Louis on deck, a team that can leapfrog Anaheim for the top spot in the NHL with a win tonight. This is the first of three meetings with the Blues in the Wild's final 19 games and a potential first-round matchup. If the Wild makes the playoffs, it appears as if St. Louis or Anaheim would be the opponent.
The Blues have won 14 in a row against the Central Division and are 17-0-1 within the division. The Blues are 2-0 against the Wild this season and have won the past seven meetings, outscoring Minnesota 22-8 during the win streak.
Ilya Bryzgalov will make his Wild debut tonight. With Edmonton, he was 5-8-5 this season with a 3.01 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. He is 6-11-1 all-time vs. St. Louis with a 3.22 goals-against average and .895 save percentage.
Brian Elliott will start for St. Louis. He is 15-5-2 this season with a 2.08 goals-against average and 5-0 all-time vs. the Wild with a 1.83 goals-against average.
Same forward lines for the Wild tonight. Defenseman Nate Prosser will get back in for the Wild and Keith Ballard will be scratched. Yeo said the turnover that led to Erik Cole's winning goal last night played "no relevance," that this was the plan.
Yeo isn't fibbing. Yeo did indicated yesterday morning that Prosser would play tonight and with the big, bad Blues in town and their group of forechecking forwards, Clayton Stoner, the Wild's most physical defenseman, was obviously going to play.
Haula wasn't disciplined by the NHL for his charging major. He was tripped up by Cody Eakin. Still, that's a hard call for the official. Haula bulldozed over Kari Lehtonen, there's an obvious injury. That's a major. If that happened to Darcy Kuemper, you'd want a major.
My only issue is after the collision, Haula was attacked by the Stars. That's usually an area where the ref would at least give Trevor Daley, the first one in, a roughing minor to essentially make it a three-minute major.
It didn't happen, and like Yeo said after the game, the Wild did more than enough in that game to shoot itself in the collective foot. Now, it must bounce back tonight against a motivated team.
Afternoon from American Airlines Center, where the Wild and Dallas Stars play tonight.
It’ll be Minnesota’s first game since Monday, so it’ll be interesting to see how quickly players can adjust to the speed from the outset. Different playing than in practice.
It’s Mike Modano Night here at the Hanger. I wrote about No. 9 in today’s paper, so check that out here. Virtually everybody who’s anybody from Dallas and Minnesota North Stars history will be in the sold-out barn as Modano’s No. 9 rises to the rafters. He’ll join Neal Broten (No. 7), Bill Goldsworthy (No. 8) and Bill Masterton (No. 19) with banners on the rafters. Broten’s in the house, as are members of the family of Goldsworthy and Masterton. The ceremony starts at 6 p.m. and will be live on Fox Sports North.
Wild’s excited to play again and players were loose this morning going into a big game against the team five points behind in the standings.
Ilya Bryzgalov, already a beauty among teammates, comically came out of the locker room and asked GM Chuck Fletcher if he were a forward or defenseman growing up, would Fletcher have drafted him. Fletcher said, “Probably not.” Bryzgalov was blown away: “6-3, 214 pounds, I’d probably be a 70- or 80-point guy.”
Said Erik Haula, who humorously had his stall between the two goalies at the morning skate, just said, “Bryz is a funny guy.”
Darcy Kuemper will make his 16th consecutive start tonight. He’s 11-2-2 since Jan. 7 with a 1.95 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. It’s no sure thing, coach Mike Yeo said, but there’s a “good chance” Bryzgalov will start his first game with the Wild on Sunday against the St. Louis Blues. The Wild has a 2 ½-hour flight home after the game, loses an hour because of the daylight savings change and the puck drop is less than 24 hours after the start of tonight’s game.
The Wild acquired another goalie to spell Kuemper as the Wild begins a crazy sprint to the finish of 20 games in 37 days. So it makes sense for Bryzgalov to start against the Blues.
First things first, tonight. The Wild has lost 18 of its past 19 games in Dallas (1-13-5). This is a house of horrors.
Matt Moulson has no clue about that. It was hysterical listening to him talk about how much confidence he has playing in Dallas. I’ve never heard a Wild player say that in my life.
But Moulson has seven goals and 10 points in eight career game against Dallas and seven points in four career games in Dallas, including a career-high four-goal game in Dec. 2011. His first game with the Sabres, last game with the Sabres and first game with the Wild will come against the Stars, so he says it’s “familiar.”
“It’s exciting to play against the team you’re battling with for position and to get into games that mean a lot,” Moulson said, a reference to the Sabres being out of it. “I had a little taste of that last year (with the Islanders) and it’ll be good to get back into it this year.”
Cody McCormick will also make his Wild debut, while Justin Fontaine and Nate Prosser are the scratches.
Prosser has become one of the Wild’s most efficient defensemen the past two months, so I was a little surprised he was scratched. He’s plus-8 in the past 19 games.
Said Yeo: “I mean it’s going to be tough every game. We’ve got seven guys who are healthy and who are playing well. That’s what I told (Clayton Stoner) last game. I didn’t want to just get in a situation where we just scratch one guy repeatedly. So, if we have to rotate things a little bit here, we have a lot of games coming up in a not a lot of time, so we’re going to need everybody healthy. We’re going to need everybody on top of our game. So we get (Stoner) back in and (Prosser) out tonight and then there’s obviously a good chance (Prosser) will get back in tomorrow. We’re not going to be in a situation where we just repeatedly sit somebody night after night. If everybody keeps performing the way that we have, then we’ll keep getting everybody in. We’ll make sure everybody stays on top of our game. Like I said, I think it’s something like 20 days in 37 days. There’s going to be plenty of opportunity for everybody there.”
On Fontaine being scratched, Yeo said it hurts him that he’s not on power play or penalty kill.
“I think more than anything else, I’m not disappointed with (Fontaine) but truth be told, Heater’s outperformed him in this last little bit. We’ve got a new guy that I want to get him in the lineup (McCormick). I want to blend his physical presence into our game, so it’s kind of that how’s you end up finding yourself out in that situation.”
On McCormick, Yeo said, “We have come into this building and not shown enough of a physical presence and I think he’s going to help us with that. That’s part of why Stonie’s in there too, but that said, I think it’s a good opportunity for him to start to get to understand our game, start to get familiar with our system and the players that he’s playing with, so yeah, we have to give him that chance for sure.”
On how he’ll decide which of his power-play units will go out first, “We’ve got two good units. Obviously, if a line’s out there, Mikko’s line’s out there for 30 seconds and they draw a penalty, the other line will go. But otherwise, it’ll be a bit of a rotation. It might be a bit of who’s going and who’s not. We got two units that we consider No. 1 units and so, right now it’s only about the team. This is not about individuals. This is not about anything other than our group and winning hockey games, and so if you’re splitting a power play and each group’s getting a minute, then there’s really no benefit to one group going out first. Quite often you could actually have the benefit of going out second because you’re not getting the top penalty killing unit off the hop too, so we’re just going to rotate it pretty much and whoever is going is going.”
On what scares him about Dallas, Yeo said, “What scares me about this hockey team or more so this game is I want to make sure we’re ready to go. The long layoff, for one thing, that’s why we focused on a lot of battle drills yesterday in practice and obviously we tried to stay sharp with our systems and making sure we’re practicing with pace, so we’re ready for that. But at the same time, you worry about a bit of a drop in your intensity and your focus when the game starts. But more than anything else, I want to see us come out and be aggressive, assertive with our game. Yeah, they’re playing well. I respect that and they’re a good team. That’s great, but so are we. So let’s make sure that when we drop the puck, we should be ready to fight. We know that they’re going to come at us but we got to be ready to go at them.”
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Rich Peverley
Erik Cole - Cody Eakin – Alex Chiasson
Antoine Roussel – Vernon Fiddler – Ryan Garbutt
Ray Whitney – Shawn Horcoff - Valeri Nichuskin
Alex Goligoski – Trevor Daley
Jordie Benn – Brenden Dillon
Kevin Connauton – Sergei Gonchar
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