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.
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Wild and Flyers tonight at Wells Fargo Center on NBC Sports Network as both teams look to head into the NHL's holiday hiatus on a high. Dave Strader upstairs, Pierre McGuire between the benches.
The Flyers will be looking for their first nine-game home winning streak since 2005. During their eight-game home winning streak, they have outscored their opponents 32-15. Guys like Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek are running hot.
The Wild has lost seven of its last eight road games (1-6-1) with eight goals in that span and have no regulation road wins since Nov. 20. They did manage to score first for the first time in 11 road games last night at the Garden, so they’ve got that going for them.
Niklas Backstrom vs. Steve Mason tonight.
The Wild reassigned Erik Haula this morning and recalled the red-headed wonder, Stephane Veilleux.
Why would the lowest-scoring team in the Western Conference do that?
“Penalty killer, energy, emotion, physical,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We always like when Steph’s in our lineup because we know what we’re going to get with him. I think it’s important to have a fourth line that’s bringing that speed, that identity.”
Haula is not a fourth-liner and shouldn’t be. Yeo talked about after New York’s second goal last night, he put his fourth line out to get a momentum shift. Instead, there was a turnover and they were pinned in their zone.
“It would be useful,” Yeo said, to have a fourth line that can get the puck deep, get the momentum back and “help us get back to our game.” Veilleux can provide that, Yeo said.
My guess is Zenon Konopka comes back into the lineup and centers Veilleux and Torrey Mitchell.
The other three lines, Yeo said, he’s keeping a surprise.
He did say there will be some changes. I didn’t get the impression Yeo will split Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu today.
Parise’s a minus-5 on the trip, Koivu a minus-4. They have no points. I think with Mikael Granlund back in the lineup, it’s worth trying. I think it’s just too easy to load up on Koivu and Parise together on the road, but Yeo said the Granlund-Jason Pominville tandem is a “pretty difficult tandem to deal with as well. We do believe ti have those guys situated like that we do have more than one line to concentrate on.”
But why doesn’t he ever split Parise and Koivu?
“Mikko is a skilled player and needs skilled players with him,” Yeo said. “He needs guys, you look around the league, we’re not the only team to do that. I don’t want to start naming off centermen, but first-line centermen generally are going to play with first-line wingers. Skilled players need to play with skilled players. That’s what it comes down to.”
Again though, if you consider Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle skilled, I don’t see why Koivu in the middle can’t be experimented with. The Wild is too one and done offensively. Get the puck in, try to win the battle and leave the zone when it doesn’t. If they do with the cycle battle, it usually results in one shot and out of the zone.
I like the size of a Niederreiter-Koivu-Coyle line on the cycle and the speed and plays a Parise-Granlund-Pominville line could bring. We’ll see.
Clayton Stoner will miss tonight’s game with a lower-body injury. Nate Prosser will play for the first time in 14 games (Nov. 25).
Yeo said, “He’s such a great pro. He’s done this. It’s not an easy job, a lot of guys can’t do it,” but he just wants Prosser to come in and “be effective in his game, provide a spark,” compete hard and defend hard.”
Prosser said just that, that he plans to flip the switch at the opening faceoff and be tough to play against.
Team meeting this morning and the big topic was being mentally tougher than folding up its tents with one goal against or bad portions of game. Yeo watched last night’s game again and felt the Wild actually had a better first half of the game than it has in some time.
Talk to you tonight. The good folks at TSN report defenseman Matt Dumba won’t face a suspension for his kneeing major in yesterday’s world junior championships tune-up game.
Speaking of which:
NEW YORK (December 18, 2013) – NHL Network-U.S. and NHL.com will
offer fans in the United States the opportunity to watch live competition
from the 2014 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship
, Dec. 26-Jan. 5 from Malmo, Sweden. The IIHF World Junior Championship
features the top men's hockey players in the world under the age of 20 and
is one of the featured events on the world hockey calendar each year.
NHL Network-U.S. will broadcast 18 live contests from the 2014 IIHF
World Junior Championship, including every game from Team USA's group –
which features games against Canada, Czech Republic, Germany and Slovakia –
as well as the quarterfinals, semifinals, and bronze- and gold-medal games.
A complete schedule is below and available on www.nhlnetwork.com.
Steve Mears, co-host of NHL Network’s NHL Live, will provide the
play-by-play along with NCAA/junior hockey analyst Dave Starman. TV/radio
host Jill Savage will serve as the rink-side reporter.
NHL.com will provide a live stream of all Team USA tournament games
(available only in the U.S.) as well as the latest information from the
tournament, including news, recaps and select game highlights.
In 2013, the United States took home gold by defeating defending
champion Sweden, 3-1, in the final. That earned Team USA its third medal
from the last four IIHF World Junior Championships, to go with gold in 2010
and bronze in 2011.
2014 IIHF World Junior Championship NHL Network-U.S. Schedule
Dec. 26, 2013-Jan. 5, 2014 • Malmo, Sweden
|Date |Matchup |Time (Local/ET) |Live |
| | | |Streaming |
|Thurs., Dec. |Canada vs. Germany|1:30 p.m./7:30 | |
|26 |USA vs. Czech |a.m. |NHL.com |
| |Republic |5:30 p.m./11:30 | |
| | |a.m. | |
|Fri., Dec. 27|Slovakia vs. |3:00 p.m./9:00 | |
| |Germany |a.m. | |
|Sat., Dec. 28|USA vs. Slovakia |1:30 p.m./7:30 |NHL.com |
| |Canada vs. Czech |a.m. | |
| |Republic |5:30 p.m./11:30 | |
| | |a.m. | |
|Sun., Dec. 29|USA vs. Germany |3:00 p.m./9:00 |NHL.com |
| | |a.m. | |
|Mon., Dec. 30|Germany vs. Czech |1:30 p.m./7:30 |None |
| |Republic |a.m. | |
| |Canada vs. |5:30 p.m./11:30 | |
| |Slovakia |a.m. | |
|Tues., Dec. |Czech Republic vs.|1:30 p.m./7:30 | |
|31 |Slovakia |a.m. |NHL.com |
| |USA vs. Canada |5:30 p.m./11:30 | |
| | |a.m. | |
|Thurs., Jan. |Quarterfinal #1 |noon/6:00 a.m. |TBA |
|2 |Quarterfinal #2 |2:30 p.m./8:30 | |
| |Quarterfinal #3 |a.m. | |
| |Quarterfinal #4 |5:00 p.m./11:00 | |
| | |a.m. | |
| | |7:30 p.m./1:30 | |
| | |p.m. | |
|Fri., Jan. 3 |Semifinal #1 |3:00 p.m./9:00 |TBA |
| |Semifinal #2 |a.m. | |
| | |7:00 p.m./1:00 | |
| | |p.m. | |
|Sun., Jan. 5 |Bronze Medal Game |3:00 p.m./9:00 |TBA |
| |Gold Medal Game |a.m. | |
| | |7:00 p.m./1:00 | |
| | |p.m. | |
Afternoon from Pittsburgh, where the Wild and Penguins face off tonight at 6 p.m. CT.
If you get NHL Network, I’ll be on NHL Live at 5 p.m. CT, 6 p.m. ET, from the penalty box on the bald-spot cam at CONSOL Energy Center.
Penguins, despite being minus 10 guys that are hurt or suspended, just keep on winning. Just on their back end, they are missing Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Rob Scuderi and always-friendly Paul Martin, who walked by me on crutches wearing a full beard. Yet, the Pens have won five in a row and 10 of their past 11.
James Neal is expected to return from his five-game suspension tonight for kneeing Brad Marchand in the head. He’s not the first player who wanted to knee Marchand in the head, but he’s the first player to actually do it.
Sidney Crosby, who once upon a time starred at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, will play the Wild for the first time since the 2009-10 season. In five games vs. Minnesota, Sid the Not a Kid Anymore has three goals and four assists. He is riding an eight-game point streak and of course leads the NHL in scoring.
Crosby and Wild coach Mike Yeo had a great relationship when Yeo was Pittsburgh’s assistant for four years. Yeo called the prospect of coaching against Crosby “scary” tonight.
“I can’t say that I’m really looking forward to it,” Yeo said. “He’s a player, every time he steps on the ice he’s a threat and dangerous. It’s a great challenge, too. We pride ourselves on our defensive game. It’s a good opportunity to go out and prove we can do it against the elite.”
The Wild hasn’t lost in Pittsburgh since its first visit many, many years ago. It has won six in a row since and, in fact, the Wild is the only team Marc-Andre Fleury hasn’t beaten. He is 0-5 against the Wild with a 3.76 goals-against average and .853 save percentage.
The Pens didn’t have a morning skate, but Fleury played in Pittsburgh’s 8 p.m. game against the Rangers in New Yawk last night, so the guess is backup Jeff Zatkoff, 26, will make his seventh career start. He is 5-2 in seven appearances with a 2.53 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. He’s a product of the L.A. Kings system and signed a free agent in 2012.
We should find out for sure during Dan Bylsma’s 5 p.m. availability.
Good opportunity to play the backup because the Wild hasn’t exactly lit up anybody. Twenty goals scored in the past 13 games and the team is 6-8-3 on the road with three regulation wins – and none since Nov. 20 at Ottawa.
Mikael Granlund won’t play tonight. He was clearly disappointed on the ice when Yeo talked to him this morning. But with no practice yesterday, the Wild wants to put Granlund is a good spot and not rush him back, so he’ll get two battling practices Friday in Pittsburgh and Saturday at Chelsea Pier in Manhattan and maybe play Sunday against the Rangers.
“It’s a long season,” Yeo said.
Matt Cooke was Mr. Popular this morning. He spoke for 10 minutes with about 20 reporters around him in front of his stall as he preps to return to Pittsburgh for the first time since signing a three-year deal with the Wild.
He joked that he hopes he’s not booed, but if he is, “it wouldn’t be the first time and probably won’t be the last.”
He won’t be booed. As far as I can tell, he was loved here by Pens fans. He joked that he’s changed his ways, so he won’t try to push any buttons in the smack-talking department tonight with his old mates. Asked if he’d also avoid any practical jokes before the game for his old mates, the renowned jokester said, “I didn’t say that.”
“I’ll forever be thankful for the support I had here, from ownership, management, the coaching staff, players, media, fans, everybody,” Cooke said. “That’ll never change. But that doesn’t mean I don’t go out and not try tonight to hand over a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.”
As for Josh Harding missing at least a week to make some “minor adjustments” to his treatment protocol for multiple sclerosis, Yeo said he knew about this for a few days, but they didn’t feel the need to talk about it and create any kind of distraction going into the Vancouver game Tuesday.
“He feels great. He wants to make sure everybody understands that, that this is just a minor thing and he’ll be able to rejoin us after Christmas,” Yeo said.
This is now a big opportunity for Niklas Backstrom to get into a rhythm for the first time this season. The way Harding has played all year has meant Backstrom only gets one game every blue moon. This is a veteran used to playing every day, so it clearly has been a difficult adjustment.
“We’re really confident in him,” Yeo said. “He’s played some great hockey for us. This might end up being a great positive for us where we get him right on top of his game again.”
Yeo did say that the Wild potentially flips Johan Gustafsson and Darcy Kuemper this weekend. Kuemper is considered the Wild’s No. 3 and is apparently playing better in Iowa after a slow start to his year and two very rough outings in the NHL this year.
Even if Kuemper is called up to back up Backstrom Sunday in New York, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s starting Monday in Philly. That will have to do with how Backstrom is playing, how much work he faces in New York, what time the team arrives in Philadelphia (the Wild is taking a chartered train after the Rangers game).
But if there’s a chance Kuemper’s going to start Monday, my guess is he has to come up prior to Sunday so he’s got some time to get comfortable. Remember, his lone start in Toronto when he gave up three goals on seven shots, the team flew him in on the day of the Buffalo game to back up and then start the next night. I can’t imagine the Wild would be foolish enough to do that again. So if this switch happens, I think Kuemper comes to New York on Saturday.
The Wild’s not giving up on Kuemper based on two nervous outings – one replacing Harding in the middle of arguably the Wild’s worst road performance of the season (6-2 in Montreal). So it wouldn’t shock me if he gets the call.
Yeo expects Jason Pominville to be “geared up” tonight. Remember, he wants to represent the U.S. at the Olympics and the U.S. coach is Bylsma. The associate GM is Pens GM Ray Shero.
Pominville says he won’t be focused on that, but he did say he still really wants to force them into making a tough decision. He is on the long list, meaning he is in the anti-doping program and has been drug tested throughout the season in case the U.S. chooses him.
Lastly, before I return after tonight's game, here's a pic of Team Canada assistant captain Matt Dumba.
Congrats to NJT leadership group. Captain Scott Laughton and assistants Matt Dumba, Jonathan Drouin. pic.twitter.com/dG9wFM7QoH— Scott Salmond (@SAMMYSAYS2010) December 19, 2013
Afternoon from beautiful Southern California, where it’s sunny with a slight chill in the air.
I’m thinking of putting on a wind breaker.
Wild vs. the red-hot Ducks tonight. Anaheim is 11-0-2 at home.
The Wild had a good, crisp skate this morning, but who knows what that means.
“We recognize the importance of this game and getting this road trip started off the right way,” coach Mike Yeo said. “I feel good that our guys are going to be ready to battle hard tonight.”
The Wild has lost three in a row on the road, having been shut out in two. The Wild has allowed the first goal in six consecutive road games.
“Start the game on time,” Yeo said of what he wants tonight. “And that means your battle level, being ready to skate, being ready to work, having the mindset that we want to get to our game and how you do that. That’s executing the right way, playing a certain way with the puck that helps us get to our game and hurts them getting to theirs.”
Josh Harding vs. Jonas Hiller tonight.
The Wild lines are what I indicated in today’s newspaper, meaning Jason Zucker to the second line with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley to the fourth line with Zenon Konopka and Justin Fontaine. Mike Rupp and Nate Prosser are the lone healthy scratches as Matt Dumba, who had been away from the team for family reasons, was officially assigned to Team Canada today.
That means the Wild’s roster now stands at 22 players and the Wild loses Dumba’s cap hit for at least until it makes the decision to bring him back or not.
I talked with Saku Koivu today about his little bro. Last month I wrote a story about how Team Finland says either Mikko Koivu or Saku Koivu will be Finland’s captain in February’s Winter Olympics. Mikko endorses Saku. Today, basically, Saku endorsed Mikko.
It’s just your good old-fashioned brotherly fight. It’s amazing talking to Saku because despite being way, way older than Mikko (39 vs. 30), the mannerisms and facial expressions between the two are almost identical.
Teemu Selanne also says it’s Mikko’s time and Mikko’s team.
I’ll write more about the Koivus in Thursday’s paper.
Speaking of the ageless wonder and future Hall of Famer who still swears this year’s his swan song, Selanne says the Ducks, “There’s no weaknesses. Right now we’re just playing with a lot of confidence, and even with a lot of injuries. Even last year, all the success we had was using our depth. We have a lot of depth on our team. Everybody’s doing their job. That’s what it takes. You always reminded that you’re only as good as your weakest link and we don’t really have weak links right now. That’s a good sign, but there’s still levels we can reach. We want to keep pushing ourselves.”
I’ll also have some Selanne gold on teammate Corey Perry either Thursday or Sunday. Remember, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher was in Anaheim’s front office when the Ducks traded two seconds to Dallas to get an extra first to take Perry in 2003 at 28th overall. Same draft the Ducks drafted Ryan Getzlaf. Completely transformed this franchise.
I’ll also have some stuff on Kyle Brodziak in Thursday. He plays his 500th game tonight and coach Mike Yeo is very happy with Brodziak’s season after a down year last year. Obviously, Brodziak’s not scoring goals (20 games without one; and if you expect him to score goals, you're always going to be disappointed), but he’s been on a third line that has been solid all year defensively. Remember, there was a stretch where Brodziak and Cooke were on the ice for two goals against at even-strength in a 12-game stretch.
I’ll be on KFAN at 4:15 p.m. CT.
This is one of those games where I don’t know where to start, so instead of trying to formulate something structured, I’m just going to go in order of what comes to my mind.
Scary concept, I know, the way my cloudy mind works.
First, the particulars. Wild won, 5-3, against the Chicago Blackhawks, the model team in the NHL, winners of two Cups in four years, a team that didn’t have a regulation loss this season and had points in six straight at home. In fact, it hadn’t lost in regulation in 15 games at the United Center, spoiling their awesome fans.
The Wild has won three in a row for the second time this year and now returns home to complete the home-and-home vs. the Blackhawks. Minnesota is 4-0-2 at the X, including four wins in a row. Before tonight, the Wild was 1-3-1 on the road with seven goals total. So, a little math here, but the Wild scored two fewer goals tonight than it did in five previous road games.
My teachers at Old Bethpage Grade School would be so proud of me!!!
Before I continue, I apologize for not topping our hoops writer Jerry Zgoda’s bubble bath Wolves report with my own Wild Minute from the sauna or something, but make sure to watch Sunday’s Wild Minute with assistant to the GM Jim Mill, where I insult Blackhawks legendary anthem singer, Jim Cornelison.
Jason Pominville, in his 600th game, scored two goals for his 19th 2-goal game. He also scored the winning goal for his 23rd career winner. He also had six shots. He also buried two pretty Mikael Granlund feeds, giving Granlund three “sick” assists on the Russo “sick-assist” meter in two games. Granlund now has seven apples – one more than he had all of last season. I’ll tell you what: When Granlund learns how to bury the puck himself, he’s going to be a “sick” player. And, while that may not come consistently this season, it will come. His hands, skill and vision are too good for it not to come eventually. He just keeps getting better in every facet of the ice, and he’s so responsible defensively. His “compete,” as Todd Richards used to say, is impressive as well.
Zach Parise scored his sixth goal of the season and fourth on the power play. The Wild’s power play, which ranks fifth in the NHL, has scored in nine of 12 games. Kyle Brodziak scored 1:01 into the second. Justin Fontaine put the Wild up 5-2 before the Blackhawks scored late.
I wrote most my gamer on Niklas Backstrom, who made 33 saves and was downright awesome.
Backstrom was tested immediately, robbing Marian Hossa 21 seconds in when the star two-way forward got every ounce of a Jonathan Toews rebound. Later, Backstrom kicked out his left pad and denied Hossa again.
But his best save came 31 seconds after Parise scored. Patrick Sharp wheeled into the Wild zone to create a break. Coming from Backstrom’s right, Sharp crossed the entire goalmouth and tried to bury the puck inside the post to the left of Backstrom.
He patiently stayed with Sharp the whole way and gloved down the primo chance. Backstrom denied Sharp seven times, and they were almost all Grade A chances.
As coach Mike Yeo said, it was “great to see.” And when he said, “great,” he stressed great, as in, “GREAT!!!” to see. And you know that’s because Backstrom had a slow start to this season even before straining his right knee Oct. 8 and after Friday’s practice said he wasn’t 100 percent from his most recent injury as well as offseason abdominal surgery.
So this was big, and Backstrom’s teammates gave him props and props and more props. Backstrom, like he usually is after a win or loss, brushed everything off as no big deal, saying there was no pressure after seeing Josh Harding give up eight goals in nine games before he was hurt.
When you play against Chicago, you need your goaltender to make big saves at big times, and Backstrom did that over and over again tonight. Good to see from the true pro.
-- Marco Scandella and Nate Prosser were quite the pair tonight, and I disregard the late Scandella penalty and late Prosser mishap that resulted in Chicago scoring a meaningless goal in the last minute. When you play against Chicago, the Hawks are going to get their chances, and there were several tonight.
But Scandella and Prosser were always a safe pair for Rick Wilson to send over the boards. They were each plus-2. Scandella assisted on Brodziak’s goal and drew the Hossa penalty that led to Parise’s goal. And Prosser was just a rock and assisted on Fontaine’s goal. He was chippy, got into faces and was tough in front of the net. He made good first passes, and it’s just so impressive that a guy can be scratched almost every night and he just steps into the lineup and plays this way. You know it has to be frustrating for Prosser to be scratched all the time. Yet, he never shows that frustration publicly. He just shows up with a smile on his face and works his tail off while waiting for Yeo to write his number on the lineup sheet. It’s why his teammates respect him so much,
-- 5-on-3. Gawd awful. This is two games out of four now that the Parise-Suter-Pominville-Dany Heatley-Mikko Koivu fivesome couldn’t score on a long 5-on-3. Only two shots. Yeo says the Wild’s got to figure it out. I’m not fond of three lefties down low. I wish they’d go with a setup of Koivu in the middle, Pominville and Parise on the sides and Suter and Jared Spurgeon up top. The best 5-on-3’s work it low and score off goalmouth passes. If you have Pominville on the left side of the cage and Parise on the right, I think the Wild will get its chances. The Wild practiced 5-on-3’s a lot in camp and Parise to Pominville was a constant goal in that setup.
Yeo says it’s not the personnel, it’s the execution.
The power play did get this game rolling though five seconds into the first PP.
-- PK, much better tonight. Killed 6 of 7 and all the big ones in big spots.
“Starts with Backy,” Yeo said. “But I just like the way we were on our toes, were aggressive, we had good sticks, good reads. This is a game that our guys should feel good about.”
-- Big props to referee Kelly Sutherland. I’ve always been fans of Sutherland and tonight’s ref sidekick Chris Rooney, but Sutherland was real good tonight in one area.
After an eight-minute review that could have been accompanied by the Jeopardy theme music, he basically conducted a press conference on the ice over the PA system to explain why Andrew Shaw’s goal was disallowed. Video review determined that Shaw's stick was above the height of the crossbar when he deflected Jeremy Morin’s shot. The puck then deflected off defenseman Clayton Stoner and into the net. According to Rule 80.3 "When an attacking player causes the puck to enter the opponent's goal by contacting the puck above the height of the crossbar, either directly or deflected off any player or official, the goal shall not be allowed"
Sutherland explained that since Stoner never “regained possession” for the Wild, Shaw’s touch was illegal and thus the goal was.
-- Suter, 2 assists (great one where he does what so few Wild d-men have done throughout history; WALK THE BLUE LINE and shoot en route to the Parise tally). He logged 26:58 (slacker) but still has led all Wild and opposing skaters in ice time in all 12 Wild games this season).
-- Career-best plus-2’s for Granlund, Nino Niederreiter and Prosser. Granlund, Pominville and Scandella also plus-2’s.
-- Wild blocked 19 shots tonight.
-- Heatley looked better tonight. He had a great shift with Niederreiter and Granlund in the first period and won a puck race to help set up the Brodziak goal even though he didn’t get an assist on it.
-- Tough night for the fourth line, which was minus-2.
-- Yeo says the Wild will need to be better Monday, and he was impressed with a lot of things tonight.
That’s it for me. Obviously, please read the gamer, notebook and Sunday Insider, too, on www.startribune.com/wild. I’ve got a 7 a.m. flight back to MSP. Talk to you after Sunday’s practice.
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