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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Now you know why coach Mike Yeo says Nino Niederreiter has a “silly hard shot.”
Very impressive final two games before the Olympic break for the Swiss winger, who tonight in a 3-2 victory over Nashville scored his first career overtime winner.
He also assisted on Jonas Brodin’s goal and this came two nights after scoring the Wild’s first goal in a 2-1 win over Tampa Bay.
The Wild, now sixth in the West but still in the first wildcard position because that’s how it worked (see postgame blog against Tampa Bay if you’re confused), is seven points up on ninth-place Phoenix and six up on Vancouver, which sits in the second wildcard spot.
The Wild, which had lost six in a row at the turn of the New Year and looked like it was about to roll over and die with guys like Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Jared Spurgeon and Josh Harding sidelined, entered the Olympic break on an 11-4-2 run.
“We’re going the right direction. There’s still a lot of room to get better at though,” said Parise, who scored his 19th goal and 10th on the power play tonight.
The team is now off for 20 days. The five Olympians (maybe four if we learn Friday Koivu has to pull out) will leave for Sochi on Sunday. The non-Olympians will begin practicing again Feb. 19.
Erik Haula and Johan Gustafsson were reassigned after the game. Darcy Kuemper can’t go down because he’s above the 16 games in the team’s final 20 games before the break threshold. Plus, I don’t think he should have his health risked anyway because the Wild will undoubtedly need him after the break.
The one news that did come after the game is now we know why I started to hear yesterday that Jason Zucker wasn’t being reassigned to Iowa. Yeo said after the game that he will have a “minor procedure” and should be ready to rejoin the team after the break.
Read the game story for all the details. Niederreiter turned inside on and shot in between the legs of Swiss pal Roman Josi for the winner. Josi will be Niederreiter’s Olympic roommate, which should be … challenging now.
Very solid last two games for the Wild to enter the break on a winning note after consecutive road losses to end the last trip.
“Really good solid overall couple games for us,” Jason Pominville said.
Kuemper had the yips and looked a little rusty tonight. He said like a wide receiver in football, on Craig Smith’s first of two goals tonight, he was deciding what he was going to do with the puck before he swallowed it. Because of that, he said he dropped the puck.
But he said his teammates played a heck of a game in front of him (outshot Nashville 36-18) and that first goal didn’t faze them. He joked that the three hit pucks by Nashville just happened because he had the angle taken away.
“A little bit of puck luck goes a long way,” he said.
Impressive last five weeks for the Wild.
But Yeo said he wants the Wild to keep climbing and not worry about its cushion, saying, “we haven’t done anything yet. We’ve put ourselves in a good position, but there’s a lot of work to do here still.”
Yeo joked that six weeks ago, when his job was on the line, was a “piece of cake, slept like a baby.” For me personally, all I wanted was for our players to look at me and say he has confidence, we should have confidence. I believed in the group.”
Happy Olympic break everybody. I’ll be back Friday if there’s Koivu news. Remember, there’s an Olympic trade freeze Friday at 2 p.m. until Feb. 23, so there should be little news throughout the Olympic break.
Enjoy the Olympics.
Good win for the Wild tonight because after consecutive slow starts out of the gate, particularly in the second period in Denver and Calgary, the Wild started well tonight, defended well for the most part, generated chances against a good Tampa Bay Lightning team and wound up edging them for a 2-1 win.
The Wild moved to sixth in the Western Conference, but that means absolutely nothing in the new playoff format. The top three teams in each division make the playoffs, the next two teams with the most points earn wildcard spots.
So with Chicago, St. Louis and Colorado way ahead of the Wild, the Wild’s all but locked in a wildcard spot unless one of the three Central Division teams north of them tank. The Avs are 10 points up on Minnesota.
So, currently, the Wild resides in the first of two wild card spots with 24 games left this season. Vancouver, which is four points behind Minnesota, and Phoenix, which is five points behind Minnesota, both lost, so the Wild gained ground on each.
Dallas and scorching-hot Winnipeg both won and are each six points behind the Wild, which has 67 points in 58 games.
The big concern after tonight’s game is how serious Marco Scandella’s apparent knee injury is. He was lost 2:01 into the game and 55 seconds into his night when he crossed the offensive blue line, collided with Tyler Johnson and did the splits. His knees bent awkwardly, and it looked like his right knee was seriously hurt.
Coach Mike Yeo called it a lower-body injury, said he’s doubtful for Thursday and said he would have more of an update after Wednesday’s practice. Hopefully it’s not too long-term because Yeo indicated that maybe the 20-day Olympic break will help heal whatever’s wrong with him. If it is serious, this could be a significant loss because Scandella's been playing well.
Clayton Stoner will surely play Thursday in the final game before the Olympic break against Nashville.
The good news is Jared Spurgeon returned from a foot injury tonight and despite missing 14 games didn’t miss a beat. He assisted on goals by Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley.
Heatley had a solid game. He made plays, set up Jason Zucker for a breakaway and scored his 11th goal. Yeo was real happy with Niederreiter’s game. He scored for the first time since the tying goal in the third period and shootout winner Jan. 7 in L.A. That was a 12-game drought.
Besides the goal, Yeo said, “[Niederreiter] played a very strong game as far as I’m concerned. His puck strength was outstanding. We stressed the last couple games spending more time in the offensive zone, and he did a great job on the wall in the D-zone and more so in offensive zone, the way he managed the puck and the way he held onto it [was impressive].”
Darcy Kuemper was also impressive with 34 saves, a nice bounceback after giving up eight goals in his past two starts. He came up big late and was helped out by his handy post when Tyler Johnson clanked it with 39 seconds left.
The Lightning pressed late bigtime, but the Wild held on.
Yeo had Erik Haula on the ice with two minutes left and Yeo called this easiest one of his best games. He said when he plays like tonight, he has a “ton of confidence in him.”
As I’ve written, Zucker and Haula will spend the Olympic break playing in Iowa. I’ll be interested to see what the Wild does if Mikko Koivu as expected plays in the Wild’s first game after the break Feb. 27 in Edmonton.
Maybe the Wild would consider bringing Haula back and going Mikael Granlund, Koivu, Charlie Coyle and Haula 1, 2, 3, 4 at center and move Kyle Brodziak to the right wing. The other option is Granlund, Koivu, Kyle Brodziak and Haula, and moving Coyle back to right wing.
But Haula is very useful with his speed and on the penalty kill. Tonight, he used his lightning speed to create a heck of a shorthanded chance for himself.
Keith Ballard had three hits. Nate Prosser blocked three shots. Zach Parise had six shots and three takeaways. Mikael Granlund had a couple awesome shifts. Jason Zucker makes a great pass for Spurgeon on the first goal and got the puck up ice on transition to Spurgeon for the second goal.
Overall, very good game from the Wild, a tough game in which it played 58 minutes with five defensemen. The Wild’s D were great and the forwards were terrific defensively with back pressure all game. They were also better taking care of the puck than they have been the past few games.
Suter logged 34:31, but he had a great line afterward, saying, “I had the shanks all game. I couldn’t make a pass coming out of our end, couldn’t make a pass through the neutral zone. I felt like Roy McAvoy out there.”
That’s a Tin Cup reference, a good move with Kevin Costner and Rene Russo.
Spurgeon, always overshadowed and often underrated, had a good line after the game about the fact that nobody bothered asking him questions the past month because so many bigger names – Mikko Koivu, Parise, Josh Harding – were sidelined.
“It was sort of nice. Well, not nice, but I didn’t have to answer any questions,” he joked.
“It was a fast game. Quick skating team. It was fun out there. It was sort of a playoff atmosphere. We know they’ve been rolling, so it’s a big win for us,” Spurgeon continued.
It was a fun game to watch. Tampa’s a fast team that goes north-south quickly. So there was a lot of counterattacks by both teams tonight and plenty of Grade A chances. The Wild could have easily blown this game open in the first two periods. They had some dynamite chances, especially in the second.
“I liked the way our guys came into this game, their preparation,” Yeo said. “You could tell that they had the right focus defensively and execution wise. We did generate a lot of chances, but the way we were generating them, I was real happy.”
That’s it for me. Talk to you after Wednesday’s practice.
Only the Wild can strut into Anaheim, come away with its most impressive win in the year and wind up turning the same road trip into the feeling of such disappointment.
But that was the feeling in the locker room after tonight’s 4-3 overtime loss to Calgary. The Wild returned to Minnesota following a 1-1-2 road trip, which is better than the 1-2-1 trip it came so close to being.
Still, player after player called it a disappointment.
Evening from the Saddledome.
Here is my Sunday column on an early look at Chuck Fletcher's thinking heading into the trade deadline.
The Wild battled back from a 3-1 deficit to get a point, but for the second consecutive game, it followed a horrible second period with a strong third period. Unlike Colorado on Thursday, the Wild at least forced overtime this time before Mikael Backlund’s winner 2:25 into the extra session.
In Colorado, the Wild gave up 18 shots in the second period and three goals. Tonight, another 18 shots and one, taking three penalties in an 11-minute span as Calgary took a 2-1 lead after Matt Cooke previously tied the score with his 15th career shortie.
The Wild was undisciplined, generated few scoring chances, was soft on pucks, threw pucks away and was sloppy in the first 40. Nineteen seconds into the third, the Wild drew a holding penalty with a chance to tie.
Instead, it gave up a shorthanded goal. That seemed to wake the Wild up because it was all Minnesota the rest of the period. At one point, the Wild was being outshot 26-10. The final shots were 32-23 as Dany Heatley and Keith Ballard scored 5:55 apart late in the third.
Coach Mike Yeo said, “Defensively we were OK, but offensively we very much on the perimeter and not gritty enough, not dirty enough. Took us to get down 3-1 to really start to develop that mentality.”
Yeo was happy with the way the Wild battled back, but he said the Wild has to rectify the second periods of the past two games.
“This hasn’t been a trend lately. It’s been the last two games and we have to fix it,” he said.
Early in the game, Yeo said the Wild wasn’t committed enough to playing a heavy game, getting to the middle and battling.
“We were looking for easier stuff instead of harder stuff,” Yeo said. “Every time we got the puck in the offensive zone, we threw it away, gave it to them and broke it out for them. When we’re playing well, we’re strong on that puck, we’re controlling the puck in the offensive zone, moving our feet. I didn’t see any of that early in the game.”
Calgary’s first goal, with two guys deep, Jason Zucker threw it away. Calgary’s third, the shortie, Ryan Suter tripped or was tripped (never saw a replay) and a 3-on-1 was triggered.
This was one of those games where the kids had trouble, weren’t strong on the puck. Charlie Coyle took two penalties and had one shot, although he made a great move and Karri Ramo robbed him. Nino Niederreiter didn’t get a shot off on three good lucks. Zucker worked his tail off but was bounced off the puck over and over and was minus-2.
After so much was made about putting together Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville, Parise and Pominville were minus-2 and Granlund was minus-3. Kyle Brodziak, struggling mightily in the faceoff circle lately, lost 13 of 16.
On the winning goal, there was a total breakdown between Ballard, Pominville, Granlund and Marco Scandella.
“Me and Granny (he meant Pominville) were in the corner, on the side boards with two of their guys,” Ballard said. “I think he thought I was going to go, he thought I was going to go. Neither one of us went fast enough.” Scandella then took himself out of the play by sliding, Granlund lost Sean Monahan and Pominville was defending the middle of the ice rather than Backlund.
The bad news is Phoenix beat Pittsburgh tonight and Dallas beat Anaheim. The Wild is going for one of the last two wildcard spots. There’s just no chance they’re going to catch St. Louis, Chicago or Colorado, so Phoenix, Dallas, Vancouver and maybe LA will be the teams to watch the rest of the year.
Wild’s still in 7th, two up on Vancouver and three up on Phoenix. Two home games before the break, starting Tuesday against the Lightning.
“We’ve got to take the points right now,” Heatley said. “It was a tough trip, a lot of travel, some good teams, We’ll take four points, but really would have liked six, I think.”
The Wild has Sunday off. I’d assume Stephane Veilleux at least will be Iowa bound soon. Talk to you Monday.
The good news for the Wild tonight is Phoenix lost at home to Buffalo and Dallas lost in overtime to New Jersey, so the damage of a 5-4 loss wasn’t overly detrimental.
One game after its most impressive win of the season by handing Anaheim only its second home regulation loss, the Wild fell behind 4-1 in Denver before seeing its comeback fall short.
The Wild just didn’t execute in the first two periods, taking three minors in a 5 ½ minute span of the first and seeing that momentum filter into the second.
The Wild gave up three goals in the second – a softie by John Mitchell, a soft play along the wall that resulted in Paul Stastny’s tally (he looked offsides on replays) and a Maxime Talbot goal when he smacked the stick of the posterchild for scrutiny Kyle Brodziak, who was slow to move the puck out of harm’s way and thus basically scored an own goal.
That ended Darcy Kuemper’s night. Well, sorta. He was going to get pulled, but Niklas Backstrom’s mask was in the locker room, and when he didn’t retrieve it fast enough for the ref’s liking, the ensuing faceoff occurred. Finally, at the next stoppage, Backstrom replaced Kuemper.
Before Zach Parise was injured, many fans and media members had been clamoring for Yeo to try Parise with Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville. In Anaheim, on the power play and a few even-strength shifts, the chemistry was there.
Yeo didn’t start them together tonight, but he ended them together, uniting them in the third period. They were fantastic, generating sustained pressure and scoring chances every shift.
Parise followed his 3-point night and winning goal in Anaheim with two goals, two assists and nine shots tonight. Granlund had a goal and two assists, 12 faceoff wins and logged 22 minutes and Pominville had a goal and assist. He scored with 2:14 left -- 11 seconds after Nathan MacKinnon’s breakaway goal by Backstrom, which actually gave Backstrom the loss despite Kuemper giving up four goals.
So that MacKinnon goal was a killer.
The trio will obviously stay together in Calgary. The question is whether Yeo keeps them intact once Mikko Koivu returns. I talked about this on FSNorth during the first intermission even before the third-period display and I think it’s time Yeo tries separating Koivu and Parise, especially because Granlund is playing at such a high level.
Jonas Brodin had a real tough night. Soft on the puck all game, turnovers galore, a penalty, minus-2.
But Brodziak will continue to get the fan’s scorn. The trend tonight was not moving the puck quick enough. That happened on one wall play in the first period and led to a minute of frantic play.
His lack of finish continues to be aggravating. Nobody gets better looks at the goalie, in large part because he often does the right things without the puck. But once he gets that puck, he doesn’t bury it. In the first period, Ryan Suter and Matt Cooke made a couple nice plays on the PK that led to a Brodziak chance, but Semyon Varlamov made the save. It happened later in the third, too.
Brodziak and Cooke were minus-3. Justin Fontaine were minus-2. Yeo wasn’t thrilled with their game and especially Brodziak’s, but Yeo feels Brodziak has been playing good hockey lately.
Once Koivu comes back, the easiest thing to do will be to send Erik Haula down. But one wonders if Yeo would ever pull Brodziak for a game or two to give him a little jolt.
Yeo made clear he’ll return with the Parise-Granlund-Pominville line in Calgary. He ended tonight with Charlie Coyle playing with Dany Heatley and Fontaine and Nino Niederreiter skating with Haula and Cooke. Brodziak was demoted to the fourth line.
Kuemper will likely return to the net.
I’ll talk to you Friday, although I may have some travel issues getting out of Denver. Also, I am scheduled to land in Calgary after practice, so I’ll get Yeo and players at the team hotel afterward.
At noon CT, USA Hockey will announce which player of Parise, David Backes, Ryan Suter, Dustin Brown and Ryan Callahan will captain the Americans in Sochi. I’ll be in the air, but my editor will drop the news on the blog.
The Wild has today off, and they're heading to the beach. It will be back in action Tuesday night in Anaheim.
A 3-2 loss in overtime in San Jose was worth a point. Poor faceoff performance was the culprit ... read the game story here.
Staff writer Michael Russo has been away from the beat for a few days. His stepfather passed away in Atlanta after a long illness. Please keep the family in your thoughts and prayers.
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