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

Darcy Kuemper exits early again as the Wild rallies, then blows third-period lead to Anaheim

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 5, 2014 - 11:27 PM

Zach Parise could have come out after tonight’s 5-4 loss to Anaheim and said, “Told ya.”

Just kidding.

But ironically one game after the Wild’s leading scorer angered some by asking if booing fans would have preferred the Wild scored four power-play goals against Montreal but lost, the Wild’s power play nearly ripped the roof off Xcel Energy Center tonight when Mikko Koivu and Parise connected power-play goals 11 seconds apart in the second period.

Those power-play goals helped the Wild storm back from a 3-0 hole. Jonas Brodin tied the score at 3-3 late in the second period, then Justin Fontaine snapped a 15-game goal drought 2:07 into the third.

But Darcy Kuemper, pulled in two of his previous three home starts, made it 3 for 4 when he gave up the tying goal to Tim Jackman 90 seconds later, then the go-ahead goal and eventual winner to Matt Beleskey less than five minutes after that.

Now, to answer the question I received 100 times (guessing) on Twitter after the game, Josh Harding has played one minor-league game in 11 months. He is not ready. He is expected to play at Charlotte on Saturday and Monday after stopping 50 of 54 shots in a 5-4 shootout loss last Sunday at San Antonio, but it’s the Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom show right now for the time being.

It’ll be interesting to see if Yeo allows Kuemper the net Tuesday against the Islanders because Yeo did his absolute best to tiptoe around any Kuemper questions in the postgame. He has bounced back before, but he only has to keep bouncing back because he keeps having games like tonight.

When a reporter opened the presser by noting that Kuemper didn’t seem to give up any bad goals but didn’t seem to make the key save when the team needed him to, Yeo subtly noted that Kuemper probably would agree with that.

And he did. After the game, Kuemper said he didn’t feel like he was fighting the puck (which he wasn’t) and got beat with good shots. But he said he can’t be letting in five and said it was tough giving up that tying goal to Jackman after the Wild worked so hard to rally back from a 3-0 hole and take a one-goal lead.

It was the third time in four starts Kuemper was yanked at Xcel Energy Center, and in those starts he has a .755 save percentage and 5.37 goals-against average. But he said he feels it’s just a “coincidence,” that he didn’t really have a chance to do anything against Buffalo because he was out of the net on two goals on two shots so the Wild could change momentum, that tonight he felt fine and that only the L.A. game did he feel he was fighting it.

So he said, mentally he feels fine right now.

Tonight was only the Wild’s third regulation loss in the past 11 games. But it is three points back of Winnipeg, which keeps on winning somehow. So do teams like Nashville and Calgary, so the Wild best get on a real run because it seems in this conference, you don’t gain ground when you win but you surely lose ground when you lose.

A perfect example is how the Wild was 7-2-1 in its previous 10 and not for more than a few minutes did it get into the top-8 and it actually somehow dropped from ninth to 10.

Now it doesn’t play til Tuesday when the Isles come to St. Paul. After that, a key three-game road trip to San Jose, Arizona and Chicago.

The Wild’s response came after an awful first period in which Ryan Kesler and Jakob Silfverberg gave Anaheim, the top team in the Western Conference, a 2-0 lead despite losing leading goal scorer Corey Perry to a lower-body injury after a Keith Ballard hip check.

Some Ducks fans felt it was clipping because Ballard seemed to get Perry across or below the knee, which is the definition of clipping in the rulebook. There was no call.

But how bad was the opening 20 for the Wild?  When your only two scoring chances are provided by fourth-line wingers Ryan Carter (no points in the past nine games) and Justin Fontaine (no goals since Oct. 28 before Friday), it’s safe to say nobody was running well.

In fact, other than one shot by Koivu, nobody from the Wild’s first, second or third line or any of the six defensemen had a shot.

But then the Wild rallied and got jolted by the fans before taking a 4-3 lead. Parise didn’t feel like the Wild got complacent and celebrated too early after the Fontaine goal, but he wasn’t about to single out the goaltending either.

He said the Wild played a decent game after spotting the Ducks a 3-0 lead, and he did say that with a little tongue in cheek because he’s well aware the 3-0 deficit before the team started to find its game is unacceptable.

“We rallied back, but there’s no reason that any of us should have a good feeling about that. We lost the game,” Yeo said.

The one positive of the game was Koivu and Parise scoring 11 seconds apart on the power play, so the hope is the Wild can build off of that while keeping the other parts of its game firm.

But the Wild can’t afford Ryan Suter to be out long. Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella were each minus-3 tonight, and Spurgeon has had a run of tough games lately. He is minus-8 in his past five games. Nino Niederreiter was also minus-3 tonight and Thomas Vanek was minus-2.

Talk to you after Saturday’s practice.

Despite Wild's victory over Montreal, fans voice frustration over team's poor power play

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 3, 2014 - 10:41 PM

Good win for the Wild tonight … in spite of the power play that has taken on a life of its own.

I don’t know how the Wild’s going to break out of the power-play doldrums because it’s clear it’s in the collective head of players and it’s clear the hometown fans are fed up and ready to pounce. They proved that tonight by booing virtually every second of a five-minute major in the third period with the team up 2-0 and having had the puck virtually every moment of the first two periods against a fast, good-skating Eastern Conference finalist a year ago.

The boos with the team leading created an intense Twitter debate on my feed at least between fans watching as to whether that was appropriate or not. I’ll wimp out and not offer an opinion because I don’t have to pay for tickets and the people in the building do.

But I will say, as ineffective as the Wild power play has been this season, the hisses and whistles and angry boos seemed to help cripple that one because it was as bad as it has been all year. Just look at the replay if you don’t believe me. The puck was like a hot potato. Nobody wanted it. Player after player just kept throwing it away like, ‘Here, it’s your problem.’

Hey, these guys may be professionals, but thousands of people booing your every move, it’s not exactly simple to ignore it and make a play.

Not surprisingly, the Wild barely entered the zone and didn’t manage a shot just like a second-period, 58-second 5-on-3. But the fan frustration with the power play actually began on the first one. Fans up below me were booing with the first cleared puck.

This is a byproduct though of a quarter’s season’s worth of bad power plays that have absolutely cost the Wild games and is largely the reason why the team is once again clawing around the seventh, eighth, ninth spot in the West.

The power play went 0 for 5 and is now 7 for 78, which is 29th in the NHL.

Jason Pominville actually made the point that I joked about on Twitter. At least the Wild ate up another five minutes of the third and “didn’t give up much,” Pominville said. “Didn’t get much,” but bottom line, the Wild won thanks to Pominville’s second-period winning goal, his first goal in 11 games and second in 17 – both against Montreal.

On the power play, assistant coach Andrew Brunette’s thoughts on the frustrating power play were in Tuesday’s paper. If you didn’t read it, take a look on startribune.com/wild.

Coach Mike Yeo said, “It’s up to me to figure out how to deal with it, it’s up to me to correct it. This is not easy for our players to deal with right now.

“The fact of the matter is we win a big game against a good team without Suts (Ryan Suter) and we did a lot of good things, and you almost kind of leave the game not feeling great about it. I would say the last 10 games is somewhat similar. We’re 7-2-1 in our last 10 games and a lot of times you’re leaving the rink and you win the game” and don’t have a good feeling.

“Building momentum is a little tough right now.

“I’m not going to deny it, it’s the one thing that’s keeping us from being an elite team. But we’ve got the group to do it. We’ll figure it out. I definitely commend them for keeping their focus and winning games in spite of the way it’s gone.”

Yeo is right. The PK has been outstanding. The 5-on-5 play has been real good, although it’s take a little turn in the past 10 games despite the win. If the Wild could just get the power play to click, it’ll go on a run. On the other hand, if the Wild doesn’t figure out this power play problem, it will go nowhere and be in danger of missing the playoffs.

“Everyone’s frustrated. Fans are frustrated,” Yeo said. “But trust me, I’d be willing to bet they’re not as frustrated as we are. It would be very beneficial to everybody on our side, whether it’s points, whether it’s wins, we know this is something that has to get better. It will get better. It’s not going to come easily. But the fact of the matter is it’s about winning hockey games. Again, I give our guys credit. We found a way to win. We didn’t score on a 5-on-3, we didn’t score on a five-minute major and we still won a hockey game. To me there’s character involved in that.”

Zach Parise, who assisted on Pominville’s goal and now has nine points in the past eight games since returning from a concussion, on the fans booing the power play: “We won the game. It doesn’t matter. We won the game. I mean, you want us to score four power-play goals and lose? We won the game. We beat arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference, and that’s the most important thing.”

Pominville’s goal was his first since Nov. 8, and as Parise said, it’s funny the way it goes. Pominville has been snakebit bigtime and yet “he’s able to get one not even shooting, not even looking at the puck. That’s the way it goes sometimes.”

Parise also praised the job the defensemen did in Suter’s absence. I thought Jonas Brodin was outstanding tonight. Same with Marco Scandella.

Christian Folin, fresh up from Iowa, assisted on Pominville’s goal, was plus-2, had two shots and survived the hit from behind from Eric Tangradi. He drew the major with a cut above his left eyelid.

Pominville laughed about his goal. Luckily it was called good goal on the ice because Toronto didn’t find conclusive evidence that the puck didn’t deflect off Pominville’s stick below the crossbar. So if it was waved off, it would have been no goal like the Parise one in St. Louis last year.

Pominville even mimicked how he scored to his teammates at the bench during the long review. He could be seen laughing showing how he ducked and the puck hit the shaft of his stick that he held vertically.

“It’s weird the way it goes sometimes,” he said. “You’re going through a tough stretch and you get some good looks and can’t find a way, but then you get one of those. Hopefully I can build off that.”

Wild falls to Blues in shootout

Posted by: Kent Youngblood Updated: November 29, 2014 - 11:06 PM

(By Kent Youngblood)

As is so often the case with hockey players, after the game Ryan Suter stood up and took responsibility.

It was only 24 hours earlier that Suter, the Wild’s star defenseman, talked about the need to protect the puck. And yet it was his turnover here at Xcel Energy Center Saturday that led to David Backes’ game-tying goal. After a scoreless overtime, Vladimir Tarasenko’s shootout goal proved the winner in the Blues’ 3-2 victory.

This is a tired team. After the game coach Mike Yeo – who said he was happier about the way his team played than he was disappointed in not getting two points – talked about it.

“We talked about this before the game,” he said. “This has been a very tough stretch for us, travel-wise.’ And so, certainly, we laid it out there. If we were tired today, if we didn’t have our best effort…. There were plenty of opportunities for excuses. I’m pleased with the way that the guys didn’t let excuses creep in.’’

Yes, both teams were playing on the back end of back-to-backs. But the Wild has had a crazy stretch of schedule. They play at Philly, then go to Florida for two days. Then they come home for one game, then go back to Dallas to play on Thanksgiving.

Well, now they’ll get their rest. The Wild owe the players one more CBA-mandated day off, and it will come Sunday. Monday will be, as Yeo called it, a very optional practice, one that most of the team’s high-minutes player will be expected to miss. The Wild will have a full practice Tuesday, then play Montreal on Wednesday night. The team will have Anaheim at home Friday and end the homestand against the Islanders on the ninth.

Here are some nuggets from tonight’s game:

--St. Louis has only been out-shot in two games this season. Tonight’s 38 shots by the Wild were the second-most vs. the Blues.

--Zach Parise’s second-period goal was the 250th of his career and the 73rd on the power play. He had three shots, three hits and one blocked shot tonight.

--Mikko Koivu’s goal tonight was his first of the Month, his first since Oct. 30.

--Goaltender Niklas Backstrom was very good tonight. He made two big stops on shorthanded chances by the Blues late in the second period before Parise gave the Wild a 2-1 lead.

That’s about it for now. I can now return the beat into the capable hands of Mike Russo. Have a good night and a good rest of your weekend.

For the second time in 12 days, Marco Scandella scores OT winner after Wild blows 3-0 lead

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: November 29, 2014 - 12:46 AM

I don’t know how the Wild keeps giving up these 3-0 leads, but it certainly made for a quotable locker room after it survived tonight during a 5-4 overtime victory over the Dallas Stars.

For the third time this season, the Wild coughed up a 3-zip lead in what felt like were nanoseconds.

Last month at the Rangers, the Wild gave up five in the third to lose 5-4. Twelve days ago, the Wild gave up three in the third to go to overtime only to see Marco Scandella, fresh off the mumps, win it.

Scandella’s getting good at saving the Wild’s bacon after blown 3-0 leads. Amazingly less than two weeks after winning the Jets game, Scandella pulled it off again tonight with the OT winner off Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek assists.

It came after Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund built the Wild a 3-0 lead. But in the final 3:42 of the second period – and in a 3:31 span – Ales Hemsky, Tyler Seguin and Erik Cole – tied the score.

Coach Mike Yeo had a big choice between periods. One game after pulling Darcy Kuemper for a second consecutive home start, could Yeo trust Kuemper enough to chill the heck out and not get so rattled that he would disintegrate in the third period?

After all, Kuemper was playing well before the vanished lead, and the Hemsky goal came after a terrific move on Ryan Suter, the Seguin goal came after the Wild let the NHL’s leading goal scorer fly right off the gut off an odd-man rush and the Cole goal came through (maybe) a screen.

So in Yeo’s mind, this was not like his recent pulls when Kuemper was giving up bad goals left and right and fighting the puck.

But Yeo, after leaders Mikko Koivu and Suter went over to Kuemper between periods to give him a pep talk, boldly stayed with Kuemper and he responded by stopped 19 of 20 third-period shots (and so many great ones, including a game saver in the final minute on Antoine Roussel). Yes, he gave up the go-ahead goal to Alex Goligoski on yet another top-line odd-man rush after Niederreiter got tripped up on a breakaway. But after Yeo brought Kuemper to the bench with 2:01 left for an extra attacker, Vanek scored his biggest (and second) goal as a Wild with 1:52 left to force overtime.

Remember the Tampa game when Yeo said he may revisit which players he tosses out there in need of a tying goal late after Zach Parise, Vanek, Koivu, Jason Pominville, Suter and Granlund couldn’t get it done on a 6-on-4 power play? Well, Yeo put his trust in the same exact six on this 6-on-5, Parise won a puck battle and finally a puck came right to Vanek in his sweet spot. He didn’t miss his only shot of the game.

Vanek had a sense of humor about both his goals this season coming against Dallas: "I think we play them 2 more times, so hopefully I can get my total to 4. This is obviously not the start I wanted, but I can’t dwell on the last 20 games. It’s just about coming the next day and staying positive and just keep going.

“I feel like I’m making plays and I’m getting in the areas. I was lucky enough to get a puck to get a chance there, but I feel like I’m finding the open spots, just the puck’s not coming or it’s hitting a stick or it’s going in front of me or behind me. This time it was right on and gave me a chance.”

Vanek has been a lightning rod for criticism all year and certainly was in this game again as he turned pucks over early and waved at a puck at his feet as he went for a line change before Seguin’s second goal.

What’s frustrating about Vanek besides the giveaways and lack of shots is that when he decides to move his feet, he does what he did to Kyle Brodziak earlier this year (two goals) and what he did on Scandella’s winner. When he wants to skate, he skates, and he did on this play when he recognized a loose puck pop into the defensive-zone slot. He turned on the jets and took off on a 2-on-2 with Scandella. He then was smart enough to pull up at the blue line, take Jason Demers with him, wait for Parise, who assisted on his third goal of the night to set up the Scandella winner.

Vanek earlier in the game also made a terrific assist on Niederreiter’s team-leading 11th goal. Brodziak’s forecheck rushed a clear by a Dallas defender. Vanek picked it off along the wall and immediately found Niederreiter alone in the slot for the bang-bang goal.

I didn’t have the space to get into this on deadline in Saturday’s paper, but I’ll probably run with it Sunday.

Yeo said, “There are a number of things that we’re still working with him. I’m talking to Thomas regularly and talking to him this morning and we’re looking at video and we’re going to support him and we’re going to keep getting him through. This is a different conference he’s playing in. It’s a different team, a different structure and system and the way we play the game is very different than what he’s been doing for a lot of years, so it’s going to take some time. As long as we keep seeing the improvement, everything else will follow along with it. That’s the thing with his skill. As long as he’s doing all the little things and continuing to play the system the right way, it’ll put him in a great position for his skill to shine.”

On Vanek not showing a willingness at time to do those little things or skate, Yeo said, “The consistency is going to come, that’s our job as far as developing the habits. They’re not habits right now and we can talk about capabilities or abilities or whatever, but we have to form habits and that takes time. But we’re seeing some progress here and that’s the key.”

After the Niederreiter goal, Zucker scored his ninth, and he was laboring all game after sustaining what Yeo called a leg bruise and charleyhorse (Twitter docs tell me they’re two separate things, but that’s what Yeo said), so we’ll see if Zucker will be good to go in front of Niklas Backstrom and the Wild on Saturday when the team opens a four-game homestand.

Then, Parise and Pominville set up Granlund. Here’s something interesting, but 15 of the Wild’s 16 goals of the past six games have come from Parise, Scandella, Niederreiter and Zucker.

On the game, Yeo said, “A rollercoaster, yeah. Really liked our first period. Second period you could feel that we were coming out and we were definitely letting them be the aggressors. We were on our heels pretty much right from the first shift and I thought that all the things we were doing well in the first period as far as winning 1-on-1 battles, the detail, all the little things, it was starting to slip and then we scored the third goal, but there was never a point where I was feeling comfortable because we just weren’t going the right way.”

On why he stuck with Kuemper after two, Yeo said, “Yeah it’s what I talked about this morning (see previous blog). Listen, we all would love to just coast through and have things be great night after night. What’s real important is how you handle things when things don’t go well. This is twice now coming into this building he’s bounced back. But I think even more importantly, overcoming the adversity of that second period, for him the way he came out in the third period, have to be real impressed.”

On if he was worried Kuemper would crumble like the LA game or NYR game, “I think this was a different game first of all. It’s not like this was a game where he’s fighting the puck. He was in this game. He was engaged. He was seeing it and tracking it well and playing big in the net. You’re always probably a little bit worried about how are you going to deal with that, even if you’re playing a great game and things haven’t gone well. I just liked the way that he picked himself up after. This is why we left him in last game as well. These are things that you have to deal with. It’s not always going to go the right way. It’s not always going to go the way that you draw it up, but that can’t kill you. You have to be able to find a way and that’s what he did.”

Please read the gamer for Kuemper and Scandella quotes.

Suter and Parise talked a lot after the game about how the Wild needs to learn how to respond the right way after taking leads.

“Too many turnovers the last half of the second period,” Suter said. “We turned the puck over every time we were coming out of our end. We feel very fortunate to come out with two points.

“We’ve got to learn. We have to learn to make the right play. A lot of times we get up three goals, we let our guard down and try to do the extra stuff. That’s usually when it ends up costing us.”

Great game by Parise (three assists, two shots, seven attempts shots, four hits, three takeaways, plus-2) after talking this morning about video work Yeo did with his line to show bad habits that crept into their game.

Scandella was plus-3…Jonas Brodin was plus-2 in his return from the mumps after missing seven games.

Lastly, goalie Josh Harding is expected to make his first Iowa start Sunday at San Antonio. Due to complications with multiple sclerosis that sidelined him the second half last season and then a broken right foot sustained days before the Wild’s training camp, Harding hasn’t played since Dec. 31.

That’s it. I still have to do Wild Minute, get back to the hotel, and it's almost 12:30. Very early flight and I have to fly back to Minnesota via ATLANTA, so not updates via Twitter on the St. Louis game until the late afternoon (No morning skate anyway). Yeo will talk at 4:45 p.m. Saturday. Not positive yet whether myself or Kent Youngblood will be at the controls Saturday, but at the very least, I’ll go to the game to write the notebook, tweet and blog.

Wild postgame: An 'off night' all around

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: November 26, 2014 - 11:45 PM

There really isn't much more to say about the Wild's 4-0 stinker against Los Angeles on Wednesday. It does seem interesting in retrospect that coach Mike Yeo seemed so nervous about the game when he spoke after the Wild's morning skate. He promised the game would be neither easy nor fun if the Wild didn't mind the details, which were sorely lacking in a sorry performance.

Goaltender Darcy Kuemper didn't have any real explanation for his poor play. He never looked right, which was magnified as he constantly faced odd-man rushes during the one period he played. Kuemper gave up four goals on 10 shots, including one that trickled through his pads, and sat glumly on the end of the bench for the final 40 minutes as Nicklas Backstrom finished up.

"It was an off night for myself,'' said Kuemper, who had gone 3-1-0 with a 1.60 GAA and .949 save percentage in his previous four games."I was off a little bit tonight, and it cost me.

"I felt good this morning, I felt good in warmups. It was just one of those nights where it doesn't really go your way. It happens. You've just got to get over it.''

Yeo said he considered pulling Kuemper after the second goal, scored by Dustin Brown on a two-on-one. Brown had winger Justin Williams open on his right, but he chose to hold the puck and shoot. That was the one that dribbled through Kuemper's pads.

"I thought about (pulling Kuemper after that goal),'' Yeo said. "I regret not doing that now. Even the third goal (scored at 18:18 by Tyler Toffoli), I thought, 'Well, there's a minute-thirty (left in the period), let's give (Niklas Backstrom) a chance to have a bit of a stretch between periods.' I thought we could get through that.

"The list of regrets I have now is very long. But at some point, you have to battle through that stuff, too.''

The Wild was caught flat-footed throughout the first period, which seemed to disgust winger Zach Parise. "We gave up what, 15 odd-man rushes in the first period?'' he said. "They capitalized on them, and it got away from us after that.''

The Wild outshot the Kings 28-22, but goalie Martin Jones was strong--despite having played in a shootout loss the night before--and his teammates supported him well. The Wild frequently turned the puck over in the neutral zone, and the Kings were all over them in the offensive zone. At one point in the third, Nino Niederreiter--who led the Wild with six shots on goal--got the puck at close range with a good look at the net. The Kings' Trevor Lewis swooped in and lifted Niederreiter's stick to spoil one of the Wild's best chances.

The Wild also missed the net 18 times, were outhit 23-16, whiffed on some good opportunities and were sloppy with their passing.

Yeo said the Wild's performance was "not even close to the way we're supposed to play the game ... We actually came out with some good energy, but execution, details killed us.'' He added that he wished he would have "done some different things to try to alter our focus and our mindset before coming into this game,'' but he declined to elaborate. While Yeo thought the Wild played better later in the game, he said, "I'm not going to try to get any moral victories out of that.''

The Kings were delighted to end a streak of road futility that had begun to play on their minds. They had won once in nine road games before Wednesday.

"This is important, not just for the two points in the standings, but for our psyche,'' Williams said. "It was big getting the lead. Mentally, we were exactly where we needed to be. (The Wild) played us hard in LA (in a 2-1 Kings victory in October). We wanted to show them what we're all about.'' 

The Wild will not skate on Thanksgiving day before traveling to Dallas. "We've played well on the road, so I think we're going to have some confidence,'' Kuemper said. 

RACHEL BLOUNT

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