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 Wild game coverage

Wild loses shootout but returns home with five points out of eight on road trip

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 4, 2014 - 12:28 AM

Disappointing, of course, not to get the extra point in a 3-2 shootout loss, but considering a week ago players like Ryan Suter and Zach Parise were talking like the Wild’s playoff hopes were in dire straits after back-to-back losses against Vancouver and St. Louis, getting five of the remaining six points on this road trip were huge and may have saved its season.

With five games left, the Wild’s five up on Dallas and Phoenix. Dallas has played one fewer game and lost tonight at Carolina. Four of the Wild’s remaining games are at home, which normally would be huge, but the Wild’s been lousy at home lately (very unWild-like 1-2-3 in its past six at the X) and three of the upcoming opponents are powerhouses Pittsburgh, Boston and St. Louis.

So as coach Mike Yeo said, after being road weary after playing eight of its past 10 games on the road, it’s time to refocus and reenergize these final five games.

Couple thoughts after tonight:

1. In the past two games, the Wild has taken three shots to the melon – two in L.A. by Jake Muzzin on Nino Niederreiter and Jason Pominville, one tonight when Brandon Bollig clocked Zach Parise from behind.

Niederreiter didn’t play tonight supposedly for precautionary reasons. Pominville appears fine and played tonight. Parise returned to the game, but he said after the game he had a “little headache, but I should be fine.”

The only penalties out of this? To Matt Moulson as he flew in to defend Pominville. Other than that, no response from the Wild. I know the Wild wants to win. I get that. But the head shots are alarming, especially because there’s no meat in the Wild lineup to stand up to these players and their indiscretions. Clayton Stoner’s hurt, and coach Mike Yeo has scratched Cody McCormick the past two games and Mike Rupp has played four times since Dec. 31. Brad Winchester’s in the minors.

The Wild feels Rupp’s skating is a big, big problem after offseason knee surgery. He says he feels better than he’s felt all year. Here's a story I wrote on him March 22. The fourth line is playing seven, eight, nine minutes anyway. Maybe it’s time to put Rupp into the lineup in a limited role, play him five or six minutes and on the times you don’t want to skate him a regular shift, you double-shift another winger.

Rupp’s agent Allan Walsh certainly thinks it’s time:

2. Erik Haula scored the tying goal with 1:54 left and had a team-high five shots. That second line though with Haula, Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson was struggling the first two periods and the third line didn’t have much going either, so late in the second, Yeo moved Haula to the third line with Matt Cooke and Justin Fontaine and Kyle Brodziak to the second.

Haula scored off Justin Fontaine’s pass and in a large part because Cooke drove the net, which forced the D to open up his legs. Haula fired it through.

If Mikael Granlund’s going to be out indefinitely, this is an issue. The Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle continues to click. Coyle scored again tonight, his fourth goal in seven games. So Yeo doesn’t want to take Coyle off that line. So he’s either got to give Haula another shot or use Brodziak there.

The line was actually much more a threat in the offensive zone after Brodziak moved there, but as you know, Brodziak is not a playmaker and he has two goals in the past 31 games, six in 77 this year.

In L.A., he had oodles of chances, but hit a crossbar and was stoned by Jonathan Quick. Tonight he hit a post and executed a perfect deke into an open net … until Duncan Keith stick-checked him from behind.

“There’s no reason why Brodzy can’t step up,” Yeo said. “This is a guy that’s scored in this league. And his game has been coming lately. That game in L.A. was one of his strongest games of the entire year.”

3. A good sign is getting points in games where you’re not at your best, and Yeo and a number players felt tonight wasn’t their best performance. I personally think they didn’t play that badly. I do think they’re tired. I know I am from all the travel. They’ve been on the road for much of the past 3 weeks and starting Saturday play another three games in four nights, including a road-home back-to-back at Winnipeg and vs. Boston.

But now’s the time they just have to suck it up and get some home wins. They’re 6-3-2 since the Olympic break on the road, but at home, they’ve been pedestrian at best. Time to get some wins.

No practice Friday. Talk to you Saturday.

Granlund, Niederreiter injured, but Wild rallies for yet another come-from-behind win

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 1, 2014 - 9:02 AM

UPDATE: No hearings for either Muzzin hit.

As I keep saying, pick your poison in the West. It’s hard to say the Wild would be lucky to face Anaheim in the first round of the playoffs, but hey, it’s arguably better than St. Louis, which has beaten Minnesota nine in a row.

But maybe it’s good if the Wild heads over to that Pacific bracket, which includes a potential first-round meeting between L.A. and San Jose. The Wild improved to 12-4-5 against the Pacific Division tonight by snapping the Kings’ six-game winning streak with a 3-2 win here at the Staples Center.

It was the Wild’s first two-game winning streak since that five-game winning streak (Feb. 4-March 3) heading into the March 5 deadline. Mike Yeo picked up his 100th victory as the Wild head coach. It was the Wild’s third straight victory in which it rallied from a third-period deficit.

Wild’s magic number is down to 10 and Phoenix plays Tuesday (vs. Winnipeg) and Wednesday (at Los Angeles) and Dallas plays Tuesday at Washington.

Wild’s now five up on Phoenix and six up on Dallas heading into Thursday’s game at Chicago.

The Wild lost two players in tonight’s game to potential head injuries.

Mikael Granlund was hurt late in the second period when he went in for his fifth hit of the night against Jarret Stoll. Granlund, who has a history of concussions (just this year he's taken hits from Connor Murphy, Nazem Kadri and I can't remember off the top of my head, but somebody in Ottawa), had a nasty red mark below his left eye after the game. Nino Niederreiter was hurt three shifts into his night when he was clobbered in the neutral zone by a high, hard hit from Jake Muzzin, who looked to get away with a head shot in the second on Jason Pominville.

Muzzin wasn’t penalized on either high hit. Niederreiter pinballed into Jeff Carter and left the game wobbly.

Yeo didn’t have updates on either after the game other than saying the standard “upper-body” injury line. The Wild has a travel day to Chicago on Tuesday, so injury updates on both are not expected until after practice Wednesday afternoon. If neither can play in Chicago, the Wild has Dany Heatley and Cody McCormick waiting in the wings.

Rookie Erik Haula got a chance to step up in place of Granlund and was elevated from the fourth to the second line with Matt Moulson and Pominville. Pominville set up Moulson’s tying goal against his brother-in-law Jonathan Quick. Haula also drew an assist.

If Granlund’s going to be out for awhile, Haula may have shown the coaches tonight that he can fill that void.

“It’s nice to play more,” Haula said. “It’s unfortunate what happened to Granny. I hope he has a speedy recovery. He’s an important player for our team, but it’s all about winning. I got a chance to step up. It’s a confidence booster for myself and it’s a process. It’s my first year pro, and it’s a process to get going. I’ve taken little steps as the year’s gone and hopefully I can keep taking more steps down the line here.”

Sixty-two seconds later, Mikko Koivu, who is hitting his stride bigtime lately with a six-game point streak and 12 points in his past eight games, one-timed Charlie Coyle’s pass off the wall for the eventual winner.

Zach Parise also scored his team-leading 28th goal and 13th on the power play (tied for 3rd in the NHL) and had an assist on the Koivu winner. The Wild is 18-3-2 when Parise scores and 11-1 when Koivu has at least two points this year. I’m doing a story on Koivu for Wednesday’s paper, which I recommend (although I haven’t written it yet, so maybe it’ll be awful, ha). But Koivu talked to me this morning about how much last year’s playoff weighed on him last offseason and how hard it was for him to return initially after ankle surgery. It was a frustrating time initially, but he really is started to play well. He won 14 of 22 draws tonight, too, had two big blocked shots and two takeaways.

Coyle was a beast, too, with two shots and six hits.

"He's stepping up," Yeo said. "That's what we need. This is a guy that we can't just say he’s a second-year guy. He's a real important part of our team. What he’s shown us lately, we’re going to keep pushing him."

Poor Kyle Brodziak had four shots tonight and eight attempted shots. Good game but still can't score. Matt Cooke had six hits. 

Moulson really impressed tonight. He scored his fifth goal as a Wild, but most notably stood up for Pominville on the Muzzin high hit. Amazingly, Muzzin didn’t get penalties on either high hit, but Moulson wound up taking the extra two by going after him.

“That stuff builds team chemistry,” Yeo said. “Whenever you see somebody who goes outside what’s normal for them and they’re doing it for the team, the way I saw our killers go out on that kill and then for [Moulson] to get that goal, I thought it was great.”

Ilya Bryzgalov made 18 saves and is now 4-0-2 with the Wild with a 2.16 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. With Darcy Kuemper hurt, it could be Bryzgalov’s net for a bit.

So, painful trip to L.A. as the Wild lost three players to injury (two in the game). But very impressive win by the Wild against a great hockey team and a completely healthy hockey team.

Again, doubtful we’ll get injury updates until after Wednesday’s practice. That will also be the first time we’ll get a chance to talk with newly-signed defenseman Christian Folin, who chose to come to Minnesota over more two-dozen NHL teams.

The 6-foot-3, mobile, hard-shooting, two-way, right-shot defenseman from Gothenburg, Sweden, agreed to terms on a two-year, $1.85 million entry-level contract that begins immediately. Folin, 23, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, will join the Wild on Tuesday night in Chicago, will practice Wednesday and can play in any of the final six regular-season games.

He is not playoff eligible because he’s a free agent signing after the trade deadline.

“Physically, you don’t normally have a young man coming out of college or junior that possess his physical attributes,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “We think he fits perfectly into our defense corps going forward. He’s what we need. We need a little more size, we need a guy that can shoot the puck and it’s hard to find right-shot defensemen.”

In helping lead the River Hawks to the Hockey East tournament title, Folin led UMass-Lowell defensemen with 20 points in 41 games. He scored 21 points in 38 games as a freshman. Prior to college, Folin played two seasons with the Austin (Minn.) Bruins of the North American Hockey League, scoring 41 points in 87 points.

The Wild had to burn a year of the contract. That’s what every team was offering. Basically, it means next year is his first real year of the deal and he becomes a restricted free agent next summer.

“He’s a physically mature man and he’s 23 years old,” said Fletcher. “He’s a very good skater. He’s got size and strength. Physically, we certainly feel he can make the jump right away. Whether he gets in or not will be up to the coaches, but at a minimum we’d like him to come in and practice and join the team and start to make that adjustment to the National Hockey League.”

Fletcher said scout Brian Hunter has been working hard on this for two years. The Wild invited Folin to last year’s summer camp, but he chose not to go to any.

“We’ve made our interest known for awhile,” Fletcher said. “It’s just really hard to find defensemen that possess his size, skating ability. He’s a right-shot defenseman, so there’s a lot of attributes there. It’s great when you can sign a guy like this. We traded our first-round pick last year, we traded two second-round picks over the next three years. We’re adding a real top asset to our group.

“We think he’s a good enough hockey player to play right away [this season]. I’m not saying where he’ll fit,” but Fletcher noted the Wild only has six healthy defensemen, although Keith Ballard may return Thursday, Clayton Stoner’s out for awhile, minor-leaguer Jon Landry’s out for awhile, “we just got [Steve] Kampfer back and [Matt] Dumba’s in junior. I’m excited to burn a year because we need the depth right now, we need more options.”

So, maybe Folin actually gets in a game or two before the end of the season. At the very least, he joins an impressive growing prospect pool of D that includes Olofsson, Dumba, Gunnarsson, Labbe, Seeler, Soucy, de Jong, Fletcher said.

As always, check out the game story on www.startribune.com/wild, the Kuemper injury story with some funny Andrew Brunette stuff and the notebook.

Gigantic comeback victory by the Wild in Phoenix

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: March 30, 2014 - 12:14 AM

To say this comeback win by the Wild was ginormous would be an understatement.

One week after coach Mike Yeo said the Wild was a “different team” and not in the midst of another late-season collapse, the Wild wasn’t giving anybody reason to believe otherwise.

The Stars walked into St. Louis two nights after the Wild was pummeled there and won 4-2 tonight. So if the Coyotes hung on to beat the Wild, the Wild would have fallen one point behind Phoenix with Dallas only a point behind the Wild.

Instead, the proverbial four-point game. The Wild got two third-period goals from Zach Parise and a winning goal by Jared Spurgeon to pull three up on Phoenix in the race for the top wildcard spot and stay four up on Dallas.

I’ll write more about this in my follow in Monday’s paper to advance the Kings game, but this came one night after Mikko Koivu, Parise and Ryan Suter called a players-only team meeting at the hotel to rally the troops. The idea came during a private captain’s breakfast Friday morning between Koivu, Parise and Suter.

The three then helped lead the Wild tonight. As always, read the game for all the details, but...

Koivu had three shots, two assists, the faceoff win that led to Parise’s tying goal and won 12 of 23 faceoffs. Plus-2. Koivu has nine assists in the past seven games.

Parise had two goals, passed his dad, J.P. in goals with 239, five shots, eight attempted shots, three hits and two blocked shots. Plus-2.

Suter was plus-3, had two shots and blocked two shots in 29:38 of ice time.

The Wild had 29 hits tonight, blocked 22 shots, held Phoenix to three shots in the third period and no shots during one 23-minute span and got 23 saves from Ilya Bryzgalov, who kept the deficit to 1-0 for almost 45 minutes. He made some huge saves in the second. Zero doubt Yeo now comes back with him in L.A.

I talked on the radio this morning how if the Wild gives up the first goal (good chance because Phoenix has scored first in 12 of 15 games this month), it can’t get dejected. In a very un-Dave Tippett-like way, the Coyotes have coughed up lead after lead this season, especially lately.

The Wild completely took over the game in the third period after a tough first period in which it spent most the time in its zone because it could hardly make a pass. But once the Wild started to get pucks deep, it was all Minnesota.

The Wild’s penalty kill, which has been horrible the past month, gave up a goal on its first chance to kill one after twice failing to clear. But Phoenix had three more chances and the Wild killed all three, gaining momentum from the last by tying the score 1:01 after killing a minor.

Mike Yeo did a good job shuffling his lines, reuniting his first two lines from earlier this year in large part because the Parise-Granlund-Pominville line not only dried up, it was on for a bunch of goals lately. Granlund was minus-5 in the two games leading into tonight.

So tonight, the Parise-Koivu-Coyle line had a ton of chances and tied the game. He started with Niederreiter-Granlund-Pominville, but Niederreiter had another up and down game, so Yeo made a clever move at one point by throwing Matt Cooke on the line during a stretch where the Wild was sustaining a ton of pressure with bigtime forechecks in the second.

Then, in the third, he tossed Matt Moulson back on the line and Moulson-Granlund-Pominville helped set up Spurgeon’s winner. Nice response by Spurgeon, who got a pep talk from Yeo this morning, to two turnovers in the past two games that led to goals.

The Wild has to keep it going though. It’s going to go down to the wire, there’s little doubt.

Yeo wants a “springboard,” saying, “We’ve had enough games where there’s been some bad feelings afterward. Let’s use this as hopefully one we can build something off.”

Slip-sliding Wild humbled, exposed in St. Louis

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: March 28, 2014 - 7:19 AM

EDITED, REVISED FRIDAY MORNING

Just 2 ½ weeks ago, the Wild took a moral victory from a home shootout loss against the St. Louis Blues, claiming it proved it could play with St. Louis, that it made a statement.

“I think [the Blues] thought they were going to take it to us physically, and our guys responded,” coach Mike Yeo said after that game. “I’ve seen this from our group a lot. When people try to play like that against us, usually we’re able to find another gear.”

It’s safe to say the Wild was brought back to reality Thursday. The Wild suffered its ninth straight loss to St. Louis (0-6-3) and after a strong start that didn't result in a goal, the game in St. Louis resembled most of Minnesota's games in St. Louis - a decisive beatdown from the Blues. The Wild has struggles in a number of arenas - Dallas, San Jose, Vancouver off the top of my head. But almost every time the Wild goes to St. Louis, the losses are painful. It's been 12 games now since a regulation win. 

The Wild has lost 9 of its past 12 games (3-5-4) since the trade deadline and this has the feel of a team very capable of blowing its season.

The Wild had a good start to tonight’s game, jumped out to an 8-1 shot lead, took five shots on its first power play, naturally couldn’t score and then boom, T.J. Oshie scored an easy one.

The Wild continued to play well, but then on a late double minor that was a gift because the refs missed what looked like an elbow by Cody McCormick on Kevin Shattenkick, the Wild not only didn’t register a shot in the entire four minutes of power-play time, Jared Spurgeon, for the second game in a row, coughed up the puck and Oshie scored a back-breaking shorthanded breakaway goal (the second of his three) in the waning seconds of the first.

It was the second time in two games Spurgeon “assisted” on the second goal of a game by the same player (David Booth) in the final seconds of a period. Talk about momentum-turning. The one against Vancouver wasn’t officially shorthanded, but it may as well have been.

As disconcerting as Spurgeon’s gaffe was the play of Dany Heatley before the turnover.

Mike Yeo, who has to know he will undoubtedly go down with this ship if the Wild misses the playoffs, continues to let Heatley play and play and play. Heatley has no goals since Feb. 27, 12 in 74 games and is a team-worst minus-18. He was on for both first-period goals Thursday. He is a minus-7 the past five games. But Yeo continues to put him in the lineup despite the fact that he’s not able to function in a third- or fourth-line (four shots in the past 11 games).

But he plays him because he can paint it like he’s a power-play contributor (more PPG’s than anybody in the league since 2001). But not only has Heatley not had a power-play goal since Feb. 1 or a power-play assist since Feb. 6, tonight he twice didn’t get the puck deep on entries. The first time, he didn’t catch Ryan Suter’s pass, the second he turned it over. Moments later, Spurgeon gave the puck to Oshie.

Yeo keeps saying that if Heatley’s not going to score, he’s got to be responsible defensively, get in on the forecheck, be physical because he’s a big body, be strong on pucks (he wasn’t on this particular power-play shift). This is not Dany Heatley’s game. He cannot function in a third- or fourth-line role, and as much as it pains me to say because I like Heatley and I’ve long admired him as a player (I used to watch him light up opponents in Atlanta as a writer in the Southeast Division), he’s not the Dany Heatley he used to be.

So, at some point, Yeo’s got to pull him from the lineup. And Yeo did make it sound before the game that it is coming. After the game, Yeo didn’t want to talk about individuals and said it was a “team loss.”

Here's the thing: Phoenix just pulled off five of six points on its road trip, including consecutive wins at Pittsburgh and New Jersey with a backup goalie in net. Dave Tippett, Yeo's mentor, scratched veterans with long pedigrees - Mike Ribeiro and Derek Morris - in those 2 wins. Sometimes as a coach, you have to make difficult decisions with veterans. My guess is Yeo is worried if Heatley handles it poorly and it becomes a soap opera. Heatley is a proud vet, a popular teammate and nobody wants to embarrass him at this stage of his career. But guess what? The Wild has lost nine of 12 and its season is on fragile footing. 

The Wild, since the trade deadline, looks like a slow team for many reasons, so it’s time to get Justin Fontaine back into the lineup. Fontaine scored a hat trick last time the Wild went to Phoenix, so put him in there. And maybe get Stephane Veilleux and his speed and energy into the lineup. McCormick did suffer a bad cut over his left eye and missed the second half of the game after the Shattenkirk, Max Lapierre (Alex Burrows Jr.) retaliation).

But the Heatley turnovers were unsettling because the Wild talks on and on about getting pucks deep and going to work.

Even Zach Parise said after tonight’s game of the Blues, “They’re very disciplined. They don’t turn the puck over at the blue line. I mean, every time they’re making our D go behind and get it and they’re finishing them every single time. They’re very disciplined like that. They wear you down.”

Parise’s eyes were looking right at me when he said this. This was a subtle message that the Wild has not been committed to doing the same, and that’s something Yeo has been preaching.

The Wild’s power play was 0 for 6. It gave up a shortie and another two power-play goals. If you’re counting at home, that’s 11 power-play goals on 31 chances in the past 12 games.

“Our special teams have been terrible,” Suter said. “We have to figure that out, or we’re not even going to make the playoffs.”

The Wild is now one point up on Phoenix going into Saturday’s clash. The Wild is six up on Dallas and the Stars have two games in hand and a much easier schedule than Minnesota down the stretch.

This is not trending the right way.

The Wild, believe it or not, has no practice Friday even though it has not had a full practice since last Friday. Remember, even after Monday’s day off, Yeo gave eight big-minute players the day off.

Suter said Yeo’s done a great job giving guys a chance to recharge their batteries, but he almost wishes they could practice Friday in Phoenix just so the Wild players can get feeling good about themselves.

Unfortunately, there’s no ice at Glendale Arena. If I’m Yeo, I get these guys together for some team activity. I joked in the postgame maybe ball hockey. Hey, it worked for Canada in the Olympics (kidding).

The deal is the Wild needs to do something to relax, get rid of the tension and as Suter said feel good again. Because this team is walking on pins and needles right now. It is so palpable when you stroll through the locker room.

Tonight, the Blues sent a painful message to the Wild. If the Wild does make the playoffs and backs into the Blues, the Blues wanted to let them know how quick and painful that series could be.

There were unbelievable battles tonight, scrums, David Backes trash-talking Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper from the bench after Kuemper cross-checked him in front of the net.

“I haven't had a lot of rookie goalies with disrespect like that in front of the net,” Backes said. “That's where I've played a long time. When I feel disrespected, I'm going to stand my ground and see if there's any response. The result was our guys scored I think like three, four minutes after that. Schwartzy (Jaden) puts one in the top corner and that's enough talking for us. We'll keep playing and keep going and great job by our guys to respond.”

That’s it for me. I wrote about Darcy Kuemper in my game notebook, so please give that a read, and of course the game story for more details. I get why the Wild started Kuemper, and I think it was an organizational decision. BUT, as I wrote after the Vancouver game and said on the radio before the game, I didn't like the move. I would have given Kuemper a few mental days off to get his mind and body ready for the Phoenix game. The Wild was bound to lose in St. Louis game no matter how well it played and who was in goal. Now the Wild threw him to the wolves and his confidence may be further shaken. This kid has won twice in the past nine starts now, has allowed 3+ goals in six of eight starts now. 

I have a crazy travel day Friday and a wakeup call in 4 ½ hours, believe it or not. No practice Friday, so likely no blog as I work on my advance for the big Phoenix tilt.

Wild better figure out a way to get its game back. A “W” would be nice, too.

Shaky goaltending, scoring woes lead to another Wild home loss before critical road trip

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: March 26, 2014 - 11:22 PM

As they say in pro sports after a bad defeat, it’s a good thing the Wild can push this one aside and get right back at it the next night.

Unfortunately for Minnesota, the unenviable task of putting a 5-2 home defeat to Vancouver in the rear view mirror is by walking into one of the most intimidating arenas in the NHL and beating one of the most intimidating teams, the St. Louis Blues, on Thursday night.

Good luck with that.

The Wild has not only lost eight in a row to St. Louis (0-5-3), it is 3-6-2 in its past 11 at St. Louis. Those three wins? All shootout, meaning the Wild hasn’t won in regulation in St. Louis in 11 games since Oct. 20, 2007, having been outscored 34-19 in that stretch. In the past 11 visits, the Wild’s power play is 3 for 37 (8.1 percent).

And you thought I couldn’t make you feel worse after tonight.

Biggest concern after tonight?

Goaltending. We’ve seen signs lately of Darcy Kuemper of wilting. It’s not that he has been bad, but there have been bad, untimely goals, like the first one in Boston, those third-period ones to Edmonton, not holding a 2-0 shootout lead to Columbus.

Tonight, he gave up three goals on 12 shots through 40 minutes until getting the heave-ho by coach Mike Yeo. Now, it’s not like they were terrible goals.

The first, David Booth made something out of nothing by chipping a puck out of the zone, getting by Marco Scandella and then not only using Jon Blum as a screen, he used a charging Canucks player up the middle as a decoy and blew a shot through Blum’s legs.

But, Kuemper was in the middle of his crease, not on top. Second goal, he can’t be faulted. Came out of nowhere again when Jared Spurgeon “felt [the puck] roll over the heel of my stick too late.” Booth gobbled up the puck and blew it by Kuemper.

Then, third goal off a faceoff, Charlie Coyle was outmuscled to a loose puck by Zack Kassian and he blew it by Kuemper, who was blinded by a screen. Again though, Kuemper was in the middle of his crease instead of on top. I don’t proclaim to be a goalie expert, but Kuemper is 6-5. He’s challenging, and those pucks may hit him by default. Also, all three goals went glove hand.

Now, Kuemper wasn’t happy with his game obviously, but he says he still feels good about his game technically. He has won two times in the past eight starts and has given up three or more goals in five of his past seven starts. He says tonight was a bad game. He said the other games, after watching video, he felt good about his game, but it seemed every one there was just a bad bounce that was ending in his net.

But here’s the thing: the Wild doesn’t score enough to handle ordinary goaltending. That’s what made the job Kuemper did this second half and the job Josh Harding did the first half so impressive.

But, on the other hand, even though eight goals have somehow gotten by Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgalov in the past two games on only 35 shots, Yeo says there’s another level the Wild can get to defensively.

“I’m not saying we can’t be any better between the pipes, but there are some quality chances we’re giving up,” Yeo said.

The sigh in the soldout Xcel Energy Center, which turned to boos in the third, after Vancouver made it 3-1 was audible. At that point, the Wild trailed by 2 despite a 24-12 shot lead. At 2-1, it was 23-9.

Kuemper says he’s still confident, but he did look rattled after Kassian scored. Yeo said it’s up to the coaches to help rid that from Kuemper’s melon and Yeo reminded how earlier this season, Kuemper gave up eight goals at Colorado (pulled in that game, too) and Calgary. The Wild returned home and Yeo called this the “biggest challenge” of Kuemper’s season.

Kuemper responded by making 34 saves in a 2-1 win over Tampa Bay, the first of five wins in a row.

Of course, those came against Tampa Bay, Nashville, Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary.

The Wild now heads to St. Louis, Phoenix, L.A., Chicago and come home to play Pittsburgh. Gulp.

Yeo didn’t say whom the Wild will come back with – Kuemper or Bryzgalov – Thursday in St. Louis.

Honestly, I usually have a good gut feel. I honestly don’t know whom the coaching staff chooses.

Yeo talked like he wanted to see how Kuemper would respond, but to me, what if he gets shellacked again? What will his mental state be going into the mammoth Phoenix game on Saturday?

I still think if the Wild’s going anywhere, it’s going to have to be Kuemper who leads them there. I’d give Kuemper a few mental days off, come back with Bryzgalov in St. Louis and plan on Kuemper starting at Phoenix and Los Angeles, where he was so superb Jan. 7 in that shootout win. If for some reason Bryzgalov walks into St. Louis and performs incredibly, then maybe you change it up.

Goaltending isn’t the only issue, of course.

The Wild again had unbelievable chances tonight, but frustratingly offensive-challenge team managed two goals, and one of those was a meaningless goal by Nino Niederreiter, who was demoted to the fourth line, scored with the Wild trailing 5-1.

The Matt Moulson-Mikko Koivu-Coyle line buzzed the first two periods and got a Koivu to Coyle goal. Moulson was robbed a few times.

“We just couldn’t put the puck in the net,” Koivu said. “That’s the difference. When you fall behind like that, you just can’t get the momentum back for some reason. It’s a tough way to play the third especially. It’s tough to find a reason right now why we didn’t score. But we can’t allow five goals either. We have to be better in front of our goalie.”

The Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund (minus-3, with Marco Scandella)-Jason Pominville line couldn’t buy a goal either.

Parise had a tying goal robbed from the goal line on a power play in the second by Alex Edler.

“We’ve got to score. Our line in particular, we had some good chances, some good looks,” said Parise. “We have to be better, we have to score.”

This game did have a different feel than the overtime win in Detroit on Sunday, a game the Wild forechecked like no other game this season. The Wild is 1-2-3 in its past six, unacceptable for a team that’s supposed to be good at home.

Look at the first period tonight. The Wild was attempted all these fancy plays around the net, quite astonishing from a team that ranks 26th in the NHL in scoring.

“There’s no question that we’ve almost approached these [home] games with, I want to say a bit of an arrogance almost,” Yeo said. “We talk before the game about the need to establish momentum, to get pucks behind their defense early in the game and we come down pretty much three of the first four shifts and turn a puck over just inside their blue line [for] … odd-man rushes.

“We come into these games sort of just believing in the outcome. Part of that is good. But you better understand what it takes to make that happen.”

Yeo said that the urgency level from the Detroit game “slipped back.” Offensively, the team was missing that fight around the net.

“We have to have a mentality that we will not be denied,” Yeo said.

Tonight’s power play was terrible. It was 0 for 4, and the second Booth goal off the Spurgeon turnover came at the end of an ugly power play.

“Coming into a game like this, every power play is an opportunity to be a game changer,” Yeo said. ““We sort of went out there with the idea that we were just sort of going to grab the puck and make a couple plays and shoot it in an empty net.”

Also reflective of the urgency drop, Yeo said the Wild’s defensive game was poor after giving up 16 shots in Detroit.

He said the good news is “it’s hard to imagine we’d go into a game in St. Louis without the urgency level that we need.”

So, the Wild is six up on Dallas. The Stars have a game in hand. IF, the Wild loses at St. Louis and Phoenix wins in Jersey, the Coyotes will be one point back of the Wild going into Saturday’s clash in Glendale.

Is it getting tense in here, Zach? “No. I know you guys like to make them tense and create them tense. We feel kind of down on ourselves right now from that game, but we have to shift our mindset to [Thursday].”

Added Koivu, “We’ve got to move on and bounce back [Thursday]. Right now it’s frustrating, but the only way to get it back is play a good game [Thursday] night. Big challenge, but we’ve got to find a way to get better as a team.”

With a second of a back-to-back, availability Thursday will likely be before the game, so there may not be a pregame blog until we talk to Yeo and some players before. I’ve got to get home and pack.

Huge four-game trip coming up, to say the least. It's gut check time. The Wild, with seven of its nine final games against teams in playoff spots, have by far the hardest schedule between them, Dallas and Phoenix.

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