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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Posts about On the road

After two big home wins over the Avs, the Wild now must win on the road

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 25, 2014 - 1:14 AM

Nobody has won on the road in this series. The Wild knows that if it wants to advance to the second round and play the winner of Chicago-St. Louis, it must win one in Denver.

After the way the Wild played at home these past two games – the latest being tonight’s 2-1 victory in Game 4 to even the series, you know the Wild’s feeling confident heading back to Denver for Game 5 on Saturday night (8:30 p.m. CT).

And you know the young Avs are feeling the pressure now.

If you watched the 125 minutes, 8 seconds of hockey played in Games 3 and 4, you know the Wild played two of the most dominating 1-0 and 2-1 games ever played.

There was barely a minute of these two games that the Wild didn’t dictate or at least control. The Wild almost always had the puck. The Wild almost always won the battle or got to the loose puck first or spent time in Semyon Varlamov’s end.

The Avs wasted two dominating performances by Varlamov.

“You just have to keep shooting and getting traffic and making it tough on him,” Zach Parise said. “I like our chances if we’re throwing 35, 40 on him a night. We’ll get a few by him.”

Monday, Varly stopped 45 of 46, beaten on the last shot of the game by Mikael Granlund. Tonight, the Avs were outshot 32-12, 14-3 in the first period. Between Ryan O’Reilly’s goal with 6:35 left in the second on Colorado’s seventh shot of the game, the Avs went the next 14 minutes without a shot.

The 12 shots against were a franchise-record by the Wild in the playoffs.

Jared Spurgeon scored his first career playoff goal. Charlie Coyle, with his pops in the crowd, scored his third goal of the series, first career power-play playoff goal and first career winning goal in the playoffs. And Darcy Kuemper only had to make 11 saves for his second career playoff win. His biggest came in the final minute with the Avs on a 6-on-4 power play (extra attacker, Jonas Brodin in the box).

He denied O’Relly from point-blank range.

Most my gamer centers around the play of Granlund, who assisted on Spurgeon’s goal, drew three power plays, won 8 of 12 faceoffs and blocked three Erik Johnson shots in the final minute of the game, including one without his stick and one with four seconds left to even up the series 2-2.

"He’s one of those guys you want to have on your side," said buddy Erik Haula.

It says everything about the respect level that coach Mike Yeo has in Granlund that three nights ago, he’s scoring a highlight-reel goal in OT and tonight Yeo has him on the PK with a minute left to win a game.

This isn’t your garden-variety, smallish, perimeter playmaker. He doesn’t shy from physicality, traffic, the front of the net or oncoming shots from sharp-shooters.  

Great job by all the penalty killers in the end. First group was Haula-Mikko Koivu-Ryan Suter-Spurgeon; Second group was Granlund-Parise-Marco Scandella-Nate Prosser.

You’ve got to love the job Nino Niederreiter-Haula-Justin Fontaine did tonight. They were solid, especially Haula on the 4 for 4 PK that is now 13 for 14 in the series. Parise now has five assists in the series.

The Wild dominated this game so much, Patrick Roy broke up his top two lines by the end of the first.

Please read the game story on www.startribune.com/wild for more details and quotes, but (most quotes courtesy of Rachel Blount because I had to run back upstairs after working the Wild room and write) …

Yeo on the incredible crowd, who stood for a lot of this game and made noise with sustained energy throughout: “Obviously we’ve had some exciting games since I’ve been here in this building, but I’ve never heard anything like that tonight. That was fun.”

On Granlund’s blocks at the end: “This is sort of the attitude our whole group has. Everybody’s committed to playing a certain way. When you go out and you do that, then a different guy has that opportunity. A guy like that has an opportunity to create a great goal last game, but being out in a penalty killing situation like he was at the end of the game and knowing how important that is and knowing what his teammates need from him, that’s what we've seen from everybody. We want to get better as the playoffs go along. When you’re playing games like that and you get used to playing in moments like that when the game’s on the line and you have to execute or you have to make a play or you have to defend, whatever the situation calls for, and you have to do it when the stakes are that high, those are growing moments for your team and that’s what we have to look at. We saw a lot of that late in the season to help us get ready for the playoffs. And obviously it’s a new level now, so to continue to go out and do that hopefully these are growing moments.”

Yeo on the home games: “We were able to play a more complete game the last couple games. You can’t get rattled and that’s the tricky part right now when the stakes are so high. To be able to stay in the moment, to focus on our game and execute, the good part for me is that our habits, the structure in our game is so consistent from game to game to game that as long as we fall back on that we should be able to do that at that time.

On the Avs, Yeo said, “We still have an awful lot of respect. That’s still a very skilled group over there. It’s not a team that won the division by accident. This is a team that they’ve got a lot of very creative players and a lot of very skilled players. Whether its penalty kill or taking care of the puck or defending we have to make sure we respect that.

“We should feel good about tonight. We're 2-2 in the series, to be in this situation after being down 2-0 that’s obviously a really good thing, but at the same time we have to make sure that we continue to have that focus. The next challenge is the big one. We find ourselves now in a best of 3 and we like the way we're playing, but we can’t hang our hat on what we've done. Gotta make sure we're ready to go out and continue to take the fight to them.

“I feel like we're a better team in game 4 than we were in game 1. That’s the goal, we have to continue to get better.”

Patrick Roy:

“The way I’ve been all year, I’ve been very positive and I’m gonna continue to be today. I’m looking more at how our goaltender played, again very solid. I’m thinking that offensively, it's gonna come. I think our guys know that they gotta be better offensively, there’s no doubt about it.”

(young players nervous?) “It could be, but think about it, one power-play goal and we could have won game 3. Tonight one power play we might be still on the ice. When we get the type of performance we got from our goaltender, there’s no reason to not believe in ourself. Coming back home, we’re gonna have our fans. Offensively we're gonna need more from some of our forwards and they’re gonna have to chip in and be more involved.

“I honestly think the strategy is good. We just need to be involved. We just need to make those plays. Hey, it’s possible if you put a puck on net you're going to receive a body check, and you're gonna have to take those hits. And offensively we have enough talent to find ways to generate more chances and more shots on net than what we had today. In the start of the second period, Ii thought we had 2-3 good shots that missed the net. And these shots need to hit the net. Just look at O'reillys goal. It was in the middle of the net, went through the legs.

“These are the type of shots, we have to hit the net. We have to force their goalie to make the saves. And then our confidence is gonna come back. The thing I'll say is our execution is not quite there. We seem to rush on plays, we're not [being] patient with the puck and these are the things we're gonna have to do a little bit better.”

Duchene come to the rescue? “He won’t play game 5 for sure.”

Talk to you after Friday's availability and before my flight to Denver.

Matt Cooke to appear at NHL headquarters Wednesday afternoon

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 22, 2014 - 3:48 PM

Wild veteran left wing Matt Cooke will have an in-person hearing Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. ET at NHL headquarters in New York for his knee-on-knee hit that injured Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie in Game 3 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.

Barrie sustained an injury to his left medial collateral ligament and is expected to miss four to six weeks, Avs coach Patrick Roy said.

Cooke, who is unavailable for comment until later this week, faces a suspension that can exceed five games (criteria of in-person hearing). Any suspension can be appealed to Commissioner Gary Bettman after the fact. If Cooke is suspended six or more games, he has the right to appeal Bettman’s ruling to a neutral arbitrator.

Cooke, who was assessed a two-minute minor for kneeing, is expected to be represented by agent Pat Morris, an NHLPA representative and Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. The hearing will in front of former defenseman Stephane Quintal, who has taken Brendan Shanahan’s role on an interim basis since the discipline czar (so to speak) left for Toronto. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly is also part of the process.

Quintal and Roy, by the way, were teammates in Montreal briefly.

Since players don’t receive salaries in the playoffs, Cooke can only be fined, but he won’t lose salary that would come with a regular-season suspension.

It'll be interesting to see the eventual video explanation from the NHL because it's hard to see the difference between Cooke's knee and many in this NHL video showing the difference between suspension-worthy knees, non-suspension worthy knees and those worthy of just a fine. Chicago's Bryan Bickell had a similar knee against St. Louis' Vladimir Sobotka in Game 2 of that playoff series. But Bickell's name isn't Matt Cooke and Sobotka didn't suffer a serious injury.

Today was a day off for both teams, so subject to NHL media regulations for two days in between games, both the Wild and Avs made Mike Yeo and Roy available only.

At the very minimum, Cooke won’t play again in the first round. Yeo discussed this likelihood, how his suspension will affect the team and things did get testy when a Denver Post columnist tried to turn Yeo’s words upside down like the coach told Cooke to target Avs players.

From the start of this series, Yeo and Roy have made it clear that the gameplan is to finish checks on opposing top players. Before the series even started, Roy himself said the Avs had to make life difficult on players like Ryan Suter and Mikael Granlund and to make sure that if they’re going to play big minutes, the minutes better be hard minutes.

Yeo’s reaction on the Cooke in-person hearing: “Yeah, obviously things you don’t want to have happen. I think we all want to play good, physical, intense hockey. At the same time, I know that they want to do the same to us. Neither side wants to see anyone get hurt. Obviously on our part, we don’t want to see one of our players get suspended. Obviously not going to be sitting here and saying we’re in a great mood about any of that.”

How does it affect lineup? “Today’s a day off for players and the rest of the coaches. Obviously I’ve already started to think about that, but we’ll have a chance to get together in the morning and discuss it further.”

There are likely three options if one assumes Yeo’s not fiddling with Zach Parise-Granlund-Jason Pominville (I’ll bet my life on that one) and Matt Moulson-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle.

Cooke-Erik Haula-Justin Fontaine did an admirable job shutting down Gabriel Landeskog-Paul Stastny-Nathan MacKinnon on Monday. They went from 13 combined points in Games 1 and 2 to no points and seven shots in Game 3.

Haula and Fontaine will obviously stay, so the options would be Nino Niederreiter, Stephane Veilleux or Kyle Brodziak.

Veilleux could probably slide in seamlessly because he’s a left wing and let’s be honest, that’s his role. But my guess is Niederreiter goes there. Niederreiter has played third line for parts of this season, has the size and Yeo has talked a lot the second half about Niederreiter’s solid defensive wherewithal. Also, Yeo has said a few times recently that Niederreiter is much better on the left side than the right.

If Niederreiter moves up, either Veilleux would slide into the fourth line or Brodziak would. If that were the case, McCormick would likely move to wing with Dany Heatley, who played well Monday.

Yeo on how much Cooke meant to this team- “He’s an important player to our team, there’s no question. There’s a reason he was brought here and physicality is only a very small part of it really. It’s his leadership. It’s his experience. It’s his role as a penalty killer and a checking forward. So, certainly it’s a loss to our lineup. We’ve been a team that has been able to overcome injuries at different points of the season and at different positions. When you look at some of the guys that we have that are either on a fourth line, or even out of the lineup for that matter, these are guys that have played not only third line but even higher, second or even first-line roles at different situations during the year. So we have guys that we know are capable of coming in and filling that void, and obviously that’s going to be an important thing for our team to get adjusted to quickly.”

Was this the risk in signing Cooke? Like I told you on last night's blog, I can provide countless examples every game where Cooke has shown he's a different player than yesteryear. He normally errs on the side of caution whenever somebody's in a vulnerable position, doesn't have the puck or has a chance to be blown up. The stats and his off-ice video work have shown he has reformed (no major penalties since 2011, and ...

But let’s be honest, it was obvious that if Cooke ever crossed the line, the league would take his history (six previous suspensions) into count. So, again, was this the risk in signing Cooke?

“I don’t really want to get into that,” Yeo said. “Obviously, listen, I had the experience of working with Cookie when I was in Pittsburgh and there was a history before he came to Pittsburgh. And he was a real important part of our team, a real good person on and off the ice and helped our team win a championship. So, for me, I was looking at what he did then. I looked at, Chuck obviously as well, looked at the way that he’s been able to change his game since a couple of the things that happened, and that was kind of our focus.”

Does Cooke represent the league well? Yeo: “I’m not going to get into that. Listen, you’re asking me to sit here and criticize my player. I’m not going to do that. I don’t want to get into a whole laundry list of things trying to defend him. This is a situation that happened in the game last night and I believe the league is going to handle this. They always do and they’ve obviously looked at it very carefully.”

Cooke’s absence pretty big on that third line? Yeo: “First off, like I said, he was part of that matchup line. But I do believe that we have other guys that are capable of filling that void. Again, this is a tough loss for us, but I know that’s a tough loss for them and I’m sure they’re not going to sit around and feel sorry for themselves. They’re going to try to find guys that can fill the void, and that’s been a team that’s been able to overcome injuries this year, and we’ve been a team that’s been able to overcome injuries, and that’s part of what the playoffs is about, dealing with different types of adversities that come your way. So that’s the challenge.

“These are things that we’ll discuss. I thought that Fontaine was a nice complement to that line so I don’t expect to make any changes there, and obviously part of the reason that Haulzy was there was his speed. So you can expect to see that line stay the same. But where we go from there, I’m not exactly sure yet, and certainly we have a few ideas, but we’ll hammer that out a little bit more in the morning.”

Do your skill guys need to be more on guard?

Yeo: “Well, this is playoffs. They’ve said it themselves that they’re trying to target certain guys, and likewise we’re trying to target certain guys as far as playing physical, but no one wants to see anybody get hurt. That’s not their intention to hurt us. That’s not our intention to hurt them. But this is a fast, physical game, and you look around the league at playoff hockey, it’s hard-hitting. So I think that players are always aware of that. I know that our guys are always aware that a Cody McLeod or a Patrick Bordeleau is trying to get them every time they’re on the ice, and they’re ready for that, and likewise we have to make sure that we’re ready to play a hard, physical game as well.”

Denver Post columnist: So you wanted Cooke to target specific guys? Yeo: “Don’t get into this, alright? I know where you want to spin this. But listen, I want our players when somebody is in front of them to finish their check. That’s hockey. So if you think that I’m saying, ‘Go take him out.’ No, you’re wrong. There’s a lot more respect in this game than that and we have a lot more respect for the game than that. So what we say to our guys is if you have an opportunity to finish your check, finish your check. And that’s the same thing that I’m sure that they’re saying there, too.

What’s Cooke been like in the locker room? Yeo: "I would say that he’s been great for us. I’m not sure that he’s got a charging or a major or boarding penalty this year, I’m not sure. But more importantly he’s been an important leader to our group. We’ve got a lot of young kids on this team, and I think he’s done a real good job helping these kids become pros and helping these guys ride the ups and downs of the season. Certainly, in playoff time, if you look at the adversity that we faced in Game 1 and how things went in Game 2,  he was a guy that helped us regroup and get reset and refocused for this past game."

The unfortunate part of today is it was mostly a follow on the Cooke-Barrie incident, not Mikael Granlund’s overtime thrilling goal or Darcy Kuemper’s shutout. Kuemper will obviously start Game 4. Ryan Wilson will replace Barrie in Colorado’s lineup. More on that in Wednesday’s Star Tribune.

From Elias: Mikael Granlund's first NHL playoff goal earned the Wild a 1-0 overtime victory in Game 3 of its series against the Avalanche. Granlund is only the fifth NHL player in the last 75 years to score his first career playoff goal in a 1-0 overtime game. The others were Andrei Zyuzin (1998), Ruslan Fedotenko (2002), Niko Dimitrakos (2004) and Ryan O'Reilly (2010).

From Elias: Darcy Kuemper, making the first playoff start of his NHL career, recorded 22 saves in his 1-0 overtime victory against the Avalanche on Monday night. Kuemper is only the second goaltender in NHL history to post a 1-0 overtime win in his first postseason start. The first was the Red Wings' Normie Smith, whose first playoff start came in what is still the longest playoff game in NHL history, Detroit's 1-0 victory over the Montreal Maroons on March 24, 1936, which Smith won when Mud Bruneteau scored at the 16:30 mark of the sixth overtime period.

Here is a transcript of Roy from today (courtesy of colleague Rachel Blount):


--Regarding the Wild playing so well at home last night:
This conference is so good. Looking at one stat today, 0-11 on the road. Is that a surprise? No. This is how this conference is. You have to work hard to be part of the playoffs. You had to win big games. It was not an easy ride to be part of the playoffs. Every team had to be good at home, every team had to win big games along the way, every team had to bring their game to another level. That’s what (the Wild) did yesterday. They had great urgency. All the series right now are 2-1 for the team who started at home except for San Jose who plays the third game tonight.

--On the Granlund goal:
He made a super play on that goal. We don’t try to be overphysical with him. We didn’t get beat by a bad goal. We got beat by an outstanding play. He made a terrific play in the corner and even better to the front of the net. We have 2 guys in front of the net. He went through these guys. He deserves credit for that, for the quality of his play.

--Regarding the power play, particularly in Barrie's absence:
I'm not saying were gonna change a lot of things, but there's options. PA could go back to the point. The player we called up today, Joey Hishon, he's been playing really well on the power play in the minors, he's a guy that could also step in on the power play.

I think we're gonna simplify our power play. That's the first thing. We need to put more pucks on net, that’s the thing we haven’t done. We have to put pucks on net, have a bit more screen and we'll see what happens. This is how Suter scored his goal in Game 1, a wrister that deflected on us and went in the back of the net. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be pretty. It's put pucks on net and compete in front of the net. I thought yesterday our 5 on 5 game, this is what we didn’t do as well. We didn’t go to the net as much, working on rebounds and putting some shots on net. Our shots just didn’t get through and we're gonna have to do that.

Minny's playing well on the penalty killing. They're doing a good job putting some pressure on us. You see they're sending their two D into the corner, putting a lot of pressure on us. For some reason right now we just couldn’t find the opening, and create some scoring chances, and when we do have some chances, their goalies I thought made some good saves. Sometimes, it's just one power play and then things start clicking and that puts pressure on the other team. Jamie had a real good chance in the second period, if you score on that one after the Cooke penalty, I think that could have made them more on their heels. And that’s what were gonna have to do. For some reason when we’re skating, they're getting on their heels. Yesterday we didn’t skate as well and they responded well.

 --Ryan Wilson will take Barrie's spot in the lineup.
He's capable of being physical, finishing his checks. He's strong in front of the net, competing to protect the front of net. Obviously this is not the year he wanted to have. He's struggled with an injury. It’s a good opportunity for him now to take advantage of it.

--He wants to see how Hishon handles the pace of practice tomorrow. If he's satisfied that Hishon can make good decisions on the power play under pressure, he could play.
 

Wild returns to St. Paul reeling, down 2-0 to Colorado Avalanche

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 20, 2014 - 8:44 AM

The Wild may rue the day it coughed up Game 1. You only get so many kicks at the can when you outplay a better opponent, have them on the ropes and hand them the game.

Tonight’s Game 2 recipe against the Avs: good start by the Wild, massive defensive and neutral-zone breakdowns, another dominant night by Colorado’s first line and Darcy Kuemper’s first playoff appearance.

Ilya Bryzgalov was chased after allowing three goals on 14 shots through 31:59. Hardly all his fault. He was playing behind an exposed defense and coach Mike Yeo tried to change the momentum of the game. But Kuemper came in, stopped all 14 shots he saw and will almost certainly start Monday’s Game 3 after tonight’s 4-2 loss to the Avs.

Nathan MacKinnon, the 18-year-old star, scored his first career playoff goal and had three assists one game after having three assists in his playoff debut. He is the fourth player in NHL history with 3-plus points in each of his first two career playoff games (Odie Cleghorn, Newsy Lalonde, Bobby Smith).

MacKinnon’s seven points ties the NHL record for most points in the first two playoff games of an NHL career: Odie Cleghorn in 1918-19 and Barry Pederson with Boston in 1981-82. He is the second-youngest player to record four points in a playoff game at 18 years, 230 days…Pierre Turgeon was 18 years, 226 days when he had four points on April 10, 1988 vs. Boston. He is the third 18-year old in NHL history to record a four-point game in the postseason (Turgeon twice in 1988 and Trevor Linden in 1989).

“Obviously I still feel like a kid,” he said. “I’m only 18 still and I’m not trying to grow up too fast. I’m trying to enjoy this. I’m not the only young guy on the team.”

Paul Stastny, one game after scoring the tying goal with 13.4 seconds left and the OT winner, scored an empty-net goal and three assists and Gabriel Landeskog, the youngest captain in the NHL at age 21, scored two goals. So, 10 points by the top line.

MacKinnon and Stastny each have seven points in the series and Landeskog three goals – three giant reasons why the Wild flew home to Minnesota tonight down 2 games to none in this best-of-seven series. The Avalanche was a league-best 26-11-4 on the road this season. Teams that go up 2-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series hold an all-time record of 287-45 (86.4%).

Charlie Coyle gave the Wild a 1-0 lead 4:18 in with his second goal of the series. But 2:02 later, MacKinnon scored his first career playoff goal after a tremendous flash of speed. He took Stastny’s pass at center-ice and erupted like few other NHLers can.

Jared Spurgeon, who had a poor night, and Nate Prosser were put on their heels in a gigantic way, and once MacKinnon did a crossover and cut to his right, Spurgeon got tangled, toppled over and MacKinnon let loose a howitzer past Bryzgalov’s blocker.

In the second period, Jonas Brodin committed an offensive-zone turnover and Mikko Koivu got caught flat-footed in the neutral zone. With Brodin and Ryan Suter backing up as MacKinnon flew, MacKinnon dropped a pass to Landeskog for the snipe over Bryzgalov’s glove.

Landeskog’s second goal also came after Koivu was caught standing still in the neutral zone. MacKinnon flew past both times.

MacKinnon flew into the Wild end and wheeled easily around Spurgeon to create a 3-on-1 down low. Paul Stastny made a behind-the back pass to Landeskog, who buried his third goal of the series into an open net.

“Our forwards have to stop skating backward in the neutral zone,” Zach Parise said. “We get flat-footed, you try to jump at them and they go right around us. We have to stop doing that.”

Mikko Koivu was caught flat-footed in the neutral zone on Landeskog's two goals and Ole'ed in the neutral zone on MacKinnon's goal. Parise was late on the backcheck on both of Landeskog's goals. 

The Avalanche barely had the puck and barely got a sniff of the offensive zone in the first 10 minutes, but that turned in the last half. The Avalanche began to pressure, force some icings, won some draws and Bryzgalov responded with a number of clutch saves late to keep the Wild in the game.

But things imploded in the second. Bryzgalov has now allowed 16 goals in four games.

Remember, Avs coach Patrick Roy made clear before the series started that the Avs have “a lot of info” on Bryzgalov. Avs goalie coach Francois Allaire was Bryzgalov’s goalie coach once upon a time in Anaheim, and Avs backup Jean-Sebastien Giguere was the Ducks’ No. 1 at the time. First goal, blocker side. Second goal, upstairs again glove side.

Here’s the Bryzgalov Q and A postgame:

(What did you see from them and their top line) I don’t know what to say. What do you mean?

(Their top line scored 3 against you. What did you see from them?) They score goals on the rush ...

(Will you feel ready if they come back to you at some point?) All I can is practice and wait. I don’t know.

(You shared a quick moment with Kuemper in locker room. What did you tell him?) I just tell him great job.

(Concerned about your game?) What exactly do you mean?

(You’ve had some tough games here lately. Concern you at all) Not really. Not really.

Kuemper said, “Obviously for me to go in, something had to go wrong. Obviously we’d have to be down or a situation like that. But I was ready. That’s why I was back in the lineup because if they needed me, I was ready to go.”

(any rust?) “No, I’ve gotten a lot of practice time lately. The rust is gone and I feel on top of my game.”

(Just expect to start Monday) “Yeah, I’ll have to wait and hear but I hope so. This is playoff hockey. You want to play. I felt good so have to carry that over into the next game.”

Add about 15 seconds of pause before Bryz answered after each question and you'll imagine how fun that back and forth was. We may have seen the last of him. 

The Wild flipped struggling Spurgeon and Brodin on the first and second pairs. Brodin is so overmatched this season. His turnover led to the second goal and he's getting tossed around like a rag doll. MacKinnon springs away from him en route to Game 1 winner and just look at how he was outmuscled by MacKinnon on the empty-netter.

On Spurgeon, Yeo wouldn’t dissect him but said, “He’s a guy who’s bounced back continually. If he wasn’t at his best tonight, I’m confident he will be next game. That’s the kind of character he is, the kind of player he is. This is not about one guy. It’s about our team.”

 In the second period, Nino Niederreiter and Matt Moulson switched lines. In the third, Yeo reunited the Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville line and a Moulson-Koivu-Coyle line.

But the Wild better figure out a way to slow the Avs down in the neutral zone, defend better, or this thing will end soon.

Koivu, Suter and Parise, whom Yeo talked to on the bench after the game (Yeo said the message was between the coach and his captains), all said they’re skating backwards too much, getting caught flat-footed, etc. The defensemen struggled, but Yeo said that’s because they’re making a lot of mistakes in front of them.

Yeo said it’s on the coaches to figure out a way to neutralize Colorado’s top line.

How does the Wild rebound?

“Part of it is being at home,” Yeo said. “Making things a little bit more uncomfortable for them. Part of it is being at home, getting matchups, we’ll be looking to get. And part of it is we still can be better in our game. We’ve been able to shut down really good players all year long. For me, I think you see we’re backing up a little bit too much as far as I’m concerned. I think we’re allowing them to build speed, so we’ve got to a better job with that.

“Part of it is being better in our system, being tighter in our system, being a little bit more in their face when they touch the puck. We’re giving time and space. We want to make sure we’re taking it away. Part of it is also angles. I think we got caught flat footed. That’s usually something we do a better job of.”

Again, how does the Wild rebound?

“You’ve got to get the next one,” Suter said. “That has to be the mindset. You can’t get frustrated. We didn’t play the way we were capable. They played well. They played really well. We can be better.”

Yeo said, “We should get excited about that opportunity to play in front of our fans. Our building is going to be rocking. They did what they were supposed to do. We’ve got to go take care of our business.”

Wild's building will be rocking all right. "SHOOOOOT!"  

Discouraging two games in Denver. Again a reminder how the Avs catapulted past the Wild from a young talent standpoint by stinking for a few years. They're doing this without Matt Duchene. I'm not sure how the Wild catches up. By signing another 30-something free agent? The Wild's certainly proved it's not big enough or fast enough or skilled enough. 

That's it. Very, very early flight so I can get back for availability. Talk to you Sunday.

Wild can clinch playoff spot tonight + "Let's Go Blues! Let's Go Blues!"

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 8, 2014 - 12:23 PM

Good morning from Chateau Rousseau, where I'm making a quick pitstop between my return flight to MSP and the Wild's later-than-normal optional morning skate.

When you're the home team and you played the night before, you have the option to move your skate to the normal 11:30 a.m. visitors' time and the visitors takes the 10:30 slot.

That's what coach Mike Yeo opted this morning.

I interrupt the Vancouver Canucks' implosion to remind you that the Wild is THIS CLOSE to a playoff spot.

If you look at the standings, they're basically clinched now because it would be almost impossible for Phoenix to catch Minnesota based on the goal differential tiebreaker (+2 for Minnesota; -12 for Phoenix) IF the Wild went 0-3 and the Coyotes went 4-0 (no shootout wins).

But, the Wild hopes to make it official tonight. Here's how it can happen:

The Wild would clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs if they get at least one point against the Bruins OR if Coyotes lose to the Blue Jackets in any fashion or defeat the Blue Jackets in a shootout OR if the Stars lose to the Predators in any fashion.

The Wild's magic number for the top wildcard spot is two points, so a win against Boston will get it done. The Wild's already gotten a huge break because Jarome Iginla, the all-time leading scorer against Minnesota, is out. That means the Wild isn't already trailing 1-0.

A Stars loss and a Coyotes loss would get it done, too, I believe.

If you haven't paid attention, the Blues are in a bigtime slump right now (Anaheim has pulled within one point) and are putting themselves in a position where they may fall to the second seed and ... face the Wild.

Gulp.

If the Wild clinches the top wildcard spot tonight, a win over St. Louis on Thursday could very well "aid" in the Wild ending up playing St. Louis in the first round.

Gulp.

Maybe that's the night coach Mike Yeo may want to opt "resting" some of his big guys. wink

As I always say, it's pick your poison in the West. But as I have also said often, the Blues would not be a good first-round matchup for the Wild. They've beaten the Wild nine in a row and I wasn't yet balding the last time the Wild won in regulation in St. Louis.

You know how the cliche "must-win" is thrown around by writers all too often?

Has there ever been one who called a game a "must-lose?" I kid, I kid (or am I?)

Of course, there's such things as bad karma and fate, and most times you try to manipulate situations, it winds up biting you in the rear.

(In full selfish disclosure: I deserve to go to California crying)

Of course, with the Avs surging, the Blues are also putting themselves in a position where maybe Colorado passes them and maybe the Wild faces the Avs. Colorado's four back, so that's still sorta unlikely.

The Wild and the NHL-leading Bruins, who are 16-1-2 in their past 19 overall and 13-1-4 in their past 18 on the road, tonight.

Ilya Bryzgalov in the cage.

From the NHL PR email this morning:

BRYZGALOV, WILD POST SECOND STRAIGHT SHUTOUT
Ilya Bryzgalov made 24 saves to pick up his second consecutive shutout and help the Wild extend their point streak to five games (4-0-1).
 
* With the win, the Wild (41-26-12, 94 points) moved seven points ahead of the idle Stars (38-29-11, 87 points) for the first Wild Card spot in the Western Conference.
 
* Bryzgalov extended his shutout streak to 142:15 following a 4-0 victory over the Penguins on Saturday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first Wild goaltender to record consecutive shutouts since Jan. 4-6, 2009, when Niklas Backstrom did so against the Avalanche and Bruins, respectively.
 
* This marks the third time Bryzgalov has earned back-to-back shutouts in his NHL career – he posted three consecutive shutouts for the Flyers March 8-13, 2012, and two straight blank sheets for the Coyotes Feb. 5-7, 2011.
 
* Bryzgalov improved to 8-0-5 with a 1.65 goals-against average and .936 save percentage in his last 13 starts, including a 6-0-3 mark with a 1.52 goals-against average, .935 save percentage and three shutouts in nine starts since joining the Wild. Elias says he is the first goaltender in Wild history to earn at least one point in each of his first nine starts with the team.
 
* Charlie Coyle potted the lone goal to extend his point streak to four games (2-3—5). He has recorded at least one point in eight of his past nine games, totaling 5-5—10.

OK, that's it for me. No changes to Wild lineup. Injured defensemen Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard did skate this morning.
 

"Il-ya, Il-ya, Il-ya" leads Wild to the brink of the playoffs

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 7, 2014 - 11:18 PM

For some reason the Wild hasn’t been successful in the front end of back-to-backs (3-9 before tonight’s 1-0 win at Winnipeg; eighth shutout by the Wild to tie a team record), so defenseman Ryan Suter said this was kind of a “trap game” tonight with the hard-working Jets out of the playoff hunt, the Wild so close to clinching a playoff spot and the Boston Bruins, the top team in the NHL, waiting for the Wild in Minnesota for Tuesday night’s game.

But the Wild grinded it out. Its execution wasn’t good all night long offensively, but man, the Wild worked hard and defended well. Players sure had to with as much time as they spent in their own zone.

“That was the definition of grinding it out,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We battled hard. Structure-wise, we were good. Penalty kill was huge (4 for 4). The play of our defensemen in particular, really impressed.”

You have to give Yeo and his staff credit (I know, I know, players win games and coaches lose games).

Obviously, the four goalies who have been No. 1 this season for the Wild (Nik Backstrom, Josh Harding, Darcy Kuemper and now Ilya Bryzgalov) deserve credit, but this could have blown up at any time along the way if not for the Wild’s impressive defensive structure and Yeo’s system.

The Wild’s goalies are rarely peppered and when the Wild most needed it, it has gotten back to a defensive structure that has allowed 26 or fewer shots in the past eight games.

“This team right now, we’re going good places,” said defenseman Jon Blum, who had his best game since his callup. “We’re focused on defense first and you can see that. Whenever they get that big chance, Bryz makes that big save for us. We’re feeding off that.”

“Bryz” tonight made 24 saves for his second consecutive shutout. He’ll start against Boston and carry a shutout streak of 142 minutes, 15 seconds into a game against a team that is 13-1-4 in its past 18 on the road and 16-1-2 in the past 19 overall.

The Wild’s magic number is one point. Its magic number for the top wildcard spot is two.

Tuesday’s clinching scenarios:

-- Wild win or overtime/shootout loss

--Phoenix loss of any kind

--Phoenix shootout win

To not make the playoffs, the Wild would have to go 0-3 and the Coyotes would have to go 4-0 (no shootout wins) and then make up what would seem to be an insurmountable goal differential tiebreaker (plus-2 for Minnesota, minus-12 for Phoenix).

Six or seven games ago, it looked like the Wild was on its way to being toast. Now it’s 4-0-1 in its past five and closed its regular-season road schedule with a 17-17-7 record (7-3-2 since the Olympic break). Remember, before the Olympic break, the Wild was one of the worst road teams in the NHL.

“We went into a lot of tough buildings and I give our guys credit for the way they battled on the road,” Yeo said.

“It’ crazy how fast it can turn around,” said Charlie Coyle, who scored the winning goal 65 seconds into the second period on an even-strength goal that was basically a power-play goal. “Things aren’t going your way and you lose a game, it feels like the end of the world and when you win you’re on top of the world. You have to stay even-keeled.”

Coyle has 10 points in the past nine games and five goals. Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu set up his goal, and the line now has eight goals and 21 points in five games and a period since Yeo reunited them in the third period of that loss in St. Louis.

“I tried to find the open ice there and let those guys make plays,” Coyle said.

Bryzgalov is 6-0-3 in 10 appearances and nine starts with a 1.67 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and three shutouts. He’s been great and had some good quotes you can read in the game story. Also, check out the stuff about the Jets fans (see below) taunting him. Funny stuff.

“Very calm in the net, making a lot of very tough saves look easy,” Yeo said of Bryz.

What Yeo liked most about tonight was the battle level and defensive structure. Suter and Jared Spurgeon were solid all night yet again. Jon Blum may have played his best game with the Wild.

“All night our execution wasn’t very good. We know that,” Yeo said. “But you can win games where you’re not completely at your best” when you defend well and you’re structured and work hard.

The Wild’s penalty kill was 4 for 4 and is now 9 for 9 in the past four games after giving up 12 goals on 35 chances in the previous 13 games.

“That’s how it works,” Suter said. “You give up a couple cheesy ones and it turns around. It’s funny how the game works. It’s just like scoring goals. You don’t score goals all year and you get a hat trick. I mean, who would have thought (referring to his hattie back in January against Washington that helped turn the season around). That’s how the game is. Now I can’t buy one.

“Uh, uh, PK, back on point. Hopefully now we’re going up.”

This doesn’t read as funny as Suter sounded. He just went on a little tangent and then, … back to the penalty kill.

“Come playoff time, it’s got to be good,” Matt Cooke said of the PK. “Our whole game has to be good. We know we have right the system, we know we have the right components in this room. We have three games left to build.”

That’s it for me. Early flight home. Doubtful Wild has a skate in the morning, but if it does, I’ll blog afterward. Otherwise, talk to you pregame.

Check out the gamer, John Curry feature and Nino Niederreiter notebook in the paper Tuesday.

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