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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Both goalies sick, and a late penalty had the Wild fuming after its comeback fell short in Chicago

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: December 17, 2014 - 12:37 AM

Well, the star got the call.

Many in the Wild dressing room was spitting mad after tonight’s 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild rallied from 3-1 down in the third to tie the mighty Hawks, then superstar Patrick Kane got the benefit of a referee’s call on what the Wild felt was a ticky-tack penalty that should not have been called that late in a tie game.

In a game where Brent Seabrook got away with a blatant elbow on Justin Fontaine that basically caused the Wild to be short a man when Seabrook scored the tying goal in the second, in a game where there was reaching and hooks uncalled all game long, Erik Haula was called for hooking Kane at the blue line with 4:35 left in a 3-3 game.

Kane, one of the game’s great puck-handlers, lost the puck out of the zone, then motioned exasperatedly.

Referee Dan O’Rourke’s arm went straight up.

The Blackhawks were given a power play, and proving you’ve got to be good to be lucky, Kane intended a pass for Patrick Sharp and instead the puck caromed past Niklas Backstrom off Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin’s skate with 3:28 left for the winning goal.

“I thought they played well, but getting that power play with 4-5 minutes left there was nice and were able to bounce one in there,” said Seabrook. “It was a lucky one, but we’ll take it.”

Coach Mike Yeo let O’Rourke have it on the bench, both after the call and after the loss. Then, in the postgame, Yeo was still hot about the call.

“That time in a hockey game in a tie game, a one-handed hook on a dead play, pretty frustrating,” Yeo said.

Haula agreed.

“I don’t agree with his call at all,” Haula said. “It’s four minutes left and he decides to decide a good hockey game with a weak penalty like that. I’m definitely not happy about it.”

Haula said it stings even more because the Wild rallied from 3-1 down in the third on Nino Niederreiter’s penalty-shot goal (same move he tried in Dallas but couldn’t score on, he said; team-leading 14th in 29 games after a career-high 14 goals in 81 games last season) and Marco Scandella’s blast 2:50 apart.

“To come out and put it out on the line and overall play a great hockey game and it comes down to that, it’s frustrating,” Haula said.

More on the game in a moment, but the Wild has a goaltending problem on its hand.

Darcy Kuemper was supposed to start tonight’s game. After Niklas Backstrom arrived around 5:15, he was told to get ready because Kuemper had the same stomach issue that has sidelined Jared Spurgeon the past two games and Charlie Coyle from a recent practice.

Well, guess what? Backstrom got the same stomach bug in the first period. But knowing the Wild had nobody to put in to replace him, Backstrom battled through the rest of the game, Yeo said.

The Wild frantically called Iowa and John Curry was pulled by coach John Torchetti with a 3-1 lead after two periods in an eventual win over Rockford.

Kuemper still looked awful after the game. Backstrom was at least upright and drinks lots of colored liquids. But it’ll be interesting to see who starts for the Wild when it hosts Boston on Wednesday.

Remember, Josh Harding is back in Minnesota seeing specialists because of complications with multiple sclerosis. He was hospitalized two weekends ago in Charlotte for dehydration that occurred during a game.

So depending on how Kuemper and Backstrom are feeling, Curry, the former Boston University goalie, could make his second start. There’s also Johan Gustafsson, who relieved Curry tonight. Obviously who starts depends completely on the health of Kuemper and Backstrom.

Originally, Kuemper was supposed to start tonight and Backstrom against Boston. He’s 5-0-1 all-time vs. the Bruins.

Kuemper must have gotten sick in the afternoon.

After the Wild’s morning skate, Kuemper seemed perfectly healthy as he did his normal pregame stretching on the locker-room carpet and joked about the time he lost a “personal-record 10 pounds of water weight” during a start.

In fact, during Yeo’s availability two hours before the game, Yeo confirmed Kuemper would start at the exact moment Backstrom walked out of the locker room to begin his pregame “turtle trot” (super-slow walk) routine he does only when he starts.

In hindsight, that was the giveaway something was amiss. GM Chuck Fletcher wouldn’t say before the game that anything was wrong with Kuemper, largely because he didn’t want the Blackhawks to know the team was potentially without a backup. As it turns out, it wasn’t Andrew Shaw running Backstrom or something. It was the stomach flu that Backstrom had to fight through.

The Wild played a solid first period, took a 1-0 lead on a great Mikael Granlund to Thomas Vanek goal. But then, after Seabrook tied the game, it turned. The Wild stood around the rest of the period and watched the Blackhawks skate and gave them time and space to do whatever they pleased in the Wild end. The Wild went nine minutes without a shot at one point and Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews gave Chicago a 3-1 lead.

But the Wild was outstanding in the third to tie the game before the Blackhawks won it.

In the end, guys like Scandella, Niederreiter and Backstrom said it was the horrible second period that cost the Wild the game, not the Haula penalty and fluky goal Kane scored.

Backstrom noted how the Wild did everything right in the first and third periods, from getting pucks deep to pressuring the Blackhawks everywhere to not turning pucks over at each blue line. That all changed in the second and he said until the Wild, including himself he said, is able to do all the small details right for 60 minutes, it won’t be able to beat the Blackhawks, etc.

The Wild is now 0-5-1 against Anaheim, Chicago, L.A. and St. Louis. Chicago, Nashville, St  Louis and Winnipeg, all of Minnesota in the Central, all got two points tonight. Not good for a Wild team out of the playoff picture.

“You just have to find a way to be better so it’s not going to be about one call or one bounce,” Backstrom said. “Look at that team, they’re doing all the small things every night. That’s why they’re always on the top of the standings. It’s always a challenge to play against them. We want to measure and learn from them so next time we can be better.”

Niklas Backstrom gets surprise start tonight at Chicago

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news, Wild pregame skate Updated: December 16, 2014 - 7:41 PM

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.

Brett Sutter to make Wild debut, Darcy Kuemper to start vs. the Keithless Blackhawks

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild pregame skate Updated: December 16, 2014 - 12:52 PM

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.

Matt Cooke returns to practice for Wild

Posted by: Kent Youngblood under Wild news Updated: December 15, 2014 - 12:57 PM

It didn’t take Matt Cooke long to make his presence felt. Out the past 20 games with a hip flexor injury, Cooke finally returned to Wild practice at Xcel Energy Center Monday. He won’t travel to Chicago for Tuesday’s game, he won’t play Wednesday vs. Boston. But he could return Saturday vs. Nashville.

But he was very much his old self today. He was squirting water bottles. He hit Mikko Koivu a little too hard at one point, angering the Wild captain. After practice was over, Cooke comically tried to go over to Koivu and give him a hug.

Not well received.

“I feel great,” Cooke said. “It’s been a long process, a lot longer than anybody would have liked, especially myself. But I had to make sure it was right before I got back with the team. Today it felt awesome to get back with the guys.”

Wild coach Mike Yeo indicated Saturday was the earliest Cooke might return. Cooke, who had more than a dozen individual skates under his belt before this practice, pushed himself hard Monday. Now he has to see how the hip feels tomorrow. And then there is the need to get his conditioning back a bit before returning to action.

But Monday he took a big step. Cooke played in pain for a while before ultimately shutting it down. But Monday he said he was symptom-free.

Yeo, meanwhile, is eager to get the gritty play Cooke is known for back in the Wild lineup.

“He’s an important player for us,” Yeo said. “He’ll bring energy and leadership to the group. What we’ve missed in particular is his board work.’’

Yeo said Cooke’s work along the boards on the breakout has been missed, as has his one-on-one battling in the offensive zone.

Here are some other nuggets from today’s practice:

--Ryan Carter and Keith Ballard were put on IR today by the Wild, which also recalled forward Brett Sutter from Iowa of the AHL. Ballard has been out since suffering a concussion and facial fractures after getting hit into the boards by Islanders winger Matt Martin Dec. 9. Carter, according to Yeo, sustained an upper body injury in San Jose against the Sharks and didn’t play Saturday in Phoenix. Yeo said he had hoped Carter would be back at practice today, but was still feeling some discomfort. But Yeo said he didn’t think Carter would be out long; Carter is eligible to come off IR after Wednesday’s game.

--Sutter, meanwhile, is being counted on by Yeo to provide some of the physical play Carter is known for.

--Defenseman Jared Spurgeon was sent home sick today. Spurgeon, who didn’t play Saturday, won’t play in Chicago. But Yeo is hoping he’ll have Spurgeon back, perhaps, Wednesday against Boston.

--But defenseman Marco Scandella is back after serving a two-game suspension for an illegal check to the head to Islanders forward Brock Nelson. And his return couldn’t come at a better time, given the one-two punch of Chicago and Boston coming up Tuesday and Wednesday. Yeo joked after practice that he finally has three quarters of his top four defensemen ready to go in Ryan Suter, Scandella and Jonas Brodin. Spurgeon, of course, would be the fourth.

--Mikael Granlund did not practice today. But Yeo said he was a maintenance day and that he expects Granlund to be in the lineup in Chicago.

--Suter was named the NHL’s second star of the week after picking up five assists in three games after returning from the mumps.

That’s about it for now. Russo will be with the team tomorrow in Chicago. 

Brett Sutter recalled, Keith Ballard and Ryan Carter put on IR

Posted by: Kent Youngblood under Wild news Updated: December 15, 2014 - 10:36 AM

Greetings from Xcel Energy Center. Kent Youngblood here, filling in for the day for Mr. Russo, who is off in search of the perfect cup of coffee.

The Wild's practice has just begun. Matt Cooke, who has missed 20 games with a hip flexor injury, is back on the ice. It appears Jared Spurgeon, who was sick in Arizone, is still ailing. 

Meanwhile, the Wild announced a couple of moves this morning. The team has recalled forward Brett Sutter from the Iowa Wild and has placed defenseman Keith Ballard and forward Ryan Carter on injured reserve, both with upper body injuries.

We all know that Ballard has been out with a concussion and facial fractures after being hit into the boards by New York Islanders winger Matt Martin Dec. 9. I will ask coach Yeo after practice when Ryan Carter was hurt. 

Sutter has 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 26 games in Iowa this season. He has two goals and five assists in 54 career NHL games.

That's about it for now. I'll get back to you after practice is over. 

defenseman Keith Ballard will be out indefinitely with a concussion and multiple facial fractures after being hit into the boards by New York Islanders left wing Matt Martin on Tuesday.

He had been taken taken

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