Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.
Also find Russo on Facebook.
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The Wild lost 3-1 to the Colorado Avalanche for its third consecutive loss and fourth in six games.
After the game, the Wild and Avs raced to the airport to see who could take off first for Denver. If the race results went like tonight’s game, the Avs got a head start by a few miles, the Wild finally decided to push on the gas, nearly caught up and still ended up seeing Colorado’s taillights from the tarmac.
In fact, that’s been the way it’s gone for the Wild for six games now.
The Wild’s a shell of its former self – the team that got off to a 7-0-1 start this month and less than two weeks ago was 13-4-4. Now it’s 15-8-4 and sitting in eighth in the West.
After the game, the quotes were honest, starting with Zach Parise, who angrily sat in his locker tonight after returning from a foot injury that was supposed to keep him out for two to three weeks. Instead he missed one. Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville were minus-2 (includes empty-netter) with four shots and were part of a No. 1 power-play unit that managed one shot on a major tonight down 1-0.
“We played a soft hockey game,” Parise said, bristling. “We cheat. We turn the puck over … We turn away from everybody. We make it pretty easy for them, and that slows us down. We can’t get any speed generated because we keep backchecking.”
Dany Heatley, who scored his fourth goal in the past six games, agreed, saying, “I think it’s crept in a little bit. We’ve had some nights where we haven’t been as hard on the puck and as honest as a team as other nights and our goalies have bailed us out. Eventually that's going to catch up to you.”
The Wild has been scored on first in six straight games, has given up three straight 2-0 deficits and has been outshot 73-32 in the past six first periods.
“It seems to take us a 2-0 deficit to find the urgency level to be effective in the game,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We seem to think that we’re pretty good, that we don’t need to some of the things that brought us success, some of the things we need to do to be successful. Hopefully we’re taking a lesson, we’re taking notes.”
How does the Wild get it back? "Stop cheating," said Parise.
Tonight, Erik Haula made his NHL debut with Mikael Granlund sidelined with a concussion. He was real good other than one shift on the power play to start the second and his shift in the defensive zone on Nathan MacKinnon’s goal to give Colorado a 2-0 lead.
But on Minnesota’s late second-period goal, the former Gopher spun away from fellow former Gopger Erik Johnson and then was bumped to the ice by Johnson. From his knees, Haula astutely whipped the puck around the net for Nino Niederreiter.
Niederreiter raced around the boards and basically from the corner slid a goalmouth pass to a charging Heatley, who scored his sixth goal.
Haula’s speed was noticeable and he set up first-period golden scoring chances by Parise and Pominville. So we’ll see how he does Saturday in Denver.
Justin Fontaine was scratched for Haula because he’s not a center. It’ll be interesting to see what the Wild does in Denver because center Zenon Konopka sustained an eye injury tonight. He got hit by a puck in the first period and was taken to a hospital. Yeo doesn’t think it’s serious, but they didn’t pack his gear and he will miss Saturday’s game.
I asked Yeo if Fontaine will just slot into Konopka’s fourth-line center spot.
Yeo said, “The lineup is in flux. We have different guys going out there, playing with different people at different times. We’ve got to figure it out as coaches, figure it out matchup-wise, figure it out role and identity-wise, but more importantly, regardless of who you’re out there with, what’s your job, what are you supposed to do, what do we need from you? That’s what we need right now.”
The Wild’s power play was again a momentum-killing machine. It managed the one shot on the five-minute major and Josh Harding kept it at 1-0 because he robbed John Mitchell shorthanded. The power play is 3 for 29 the past 10 games.
“Right now we look slow and deliberate with everything we do, with the way we bring the puck up ice, to the way we play inside the zone,” Yeo said. “We get zone time and we can be in there for a minute and not get a shot, we just kind of move it around slowly. We don’t have an attack mentality right now. We have to change that.”
I wrote about this a few days ago, but to me the bigger indictment than the lack of success is the fact the Wild has drawn 29 power plays in the past 10 games. That’s 2.9 power plays a game (I’m good at math)! TWO POINT NINE POWER PLAYS PER GAME THE LAST 10 GAMES!
If that’s not an indicator that the Wild’s puck possession game has disappeared, nothing is. You draw penalties when you skate and forecheck. You don’t draw penalties when you backcheck all night. In the past eight games, it has 20 power plays (2.5) and three or fewer in each.
This is a huge, huge problem. That’s it for now. Early flight to Denver. Talk to you from Colorado, although I’ll be pushing it to make the morning skate, if there is a full one anyway. Niklas Backstrom likely in goal.
For all coverage, startribune.com/wild. I did my game notebook on Haula, Parise, Heatley, Fontaine, etc., so check that out.
The Wild lost for the third time in five games tonight thanks to its fifth consecutive awful start.
It survived Ottawa and Winnipeg. It cost them in Montreal, St. Louis and tonight against Phoenix during a 3-1 defeat.
It didn’t help that Mikael Granlund was lost 29 seconds into the game. The Wild wasn’t specific about the upper-body injury that kept him out of the previous two games. This one we don’t need them to be specific. We have eyes.
Granlund sustained a head injury tonight for all to see. He went in to deliver a hit and Coyotes rookie defenseman Connor Murphy met him with a high hit Granlund didn’t expect. Granlund went down hard, was slow to get up and when he did, he skated slowly to the bench looking dazed.
Granlund has a history of concussion and now has taken three hard hits in the past eight games – a Nazem Kadri head shot and a Marc Methot hip check that sent him crashing into the boards, being the other two.
Coach Mike Yeo said Granlund was feeling a little better after the game, but he admitted concern now about his health.
The Granlund loss one shift into his night triggered an absolute mess with the lines. The Wild was excited to reunite the Nino Niederreiter-Granlund-Jason Pominville line. They were together for one shift.
Charlie Coyle, who hasn’t played nearly as well at center as he has at top-line right wing, had to move back to center and then everything got scrambled the rest of the game.
It took until the second period for the Wild to get any flow.
Jason Zucker was sent back to Iowa after the game. He scored twice tonight in a 3-1 win over Chicago and Yeo indicated Zucker will now come back and the Wild was basically forced into sending him back because Keith Ballard and Torrey Mitchell were ready to come off injured reserve. Personally, I would have kept Mitchell on IR for another game after no practices under his belt from his injury more than a week ago.
Regardless, Zucker probably comes back now. That doesn't fill a center need though, so either the Wild feels it has somebody in Iowa that can fill that role, or it'll have to continue to be Coyle.
When the Wild was racking up wins earlier this month, Yeo was able to go with the same lines every single night. In fact, other than Coyle and Mike Rupp (who missed the first 24 games), the Wild hadn’t had an injured forward all season until Mitchell missed the Ottawa game.
So a Wild team that had dealt with consistency with its lines all season is now having to mix and match not only every game, but from shift to shift, period to period, because of the injuries.
It’s clear it’s affecting the team early in these games. The one common denominator in all these slow starts is the Wild usually finds its game, like tonight in the third when it played with more zip and generated, according to Yeo, nine scoring chances. But by that time, it was a 2-0 hole and against a Phoenix team that spent the last 24 hours screaming that it needed to get back to the defensive foundation that Dave Tippett’s teams are known for, it was not easy to rally back on the Coyotes tonight, especially with an undermanned bench lacking Granlund and Zach Parise.
The power play was a mess tonight as well on two chances, and not a shock since the loss of two top-6 forwards resulted in guys like Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine, two guys normally not playing regular power-play shifts, seeing ice time and Keith Ballard playing his first game in the last 10.
But one indicator of the Wild’s slipping game is the lack of power plays lately. It has drawn 18 power plays the past seven games and three or fewer in each. It has drawn three or fewer in 11 of the past 13 games.
Even Yeo said a few days ago it’s hard to draw a power play when “you’re backchecking all game.”
Yeo said the Wild is playing too safe lately, maybe because of the injuries, maybe because it’s almost afraid to lose because of the magnitude of these games. If that’s the case, the Wild better man up fast because this isn’t changing. The race will only tighten and it’ll be a grind in this grind of a conference until Game 82.
“When we’re at our best, we’re playing an aggressive game with and without the puck,” Yeo said. “We seem to be starting these games a little hesitant.”
That’s it for me. Early practice Thursday. Have a Happy Thanksgiving everybody.
First things first, on Tuesday, the persistent question I understandably expect to get from all Wild fans is, “Any update on Zach Parise yet?”
The answer will probably be, “No.”
The Wild has the day off Tuesday, so typically when that happens, injury updates aren’t revealed until the next availability, which will occur Wednesday morning. So you may have to hold your breath for 24+ hours or so.
Try not to turn blue.
If there’s an update, we’ll get it out to you ASAP. But right now, Parise was nailed on the instep of his left foot when he blocked Alex Steen’s one-timer on a first-period penalty kill.
Parise struggled to the bench and was late arriving to the game in the second period. He returned and it was clear his first hop of the boards that he wasn’t feeling the greatest. Still, he battled through three shifts, drew a penalty and played almost every second of a power play before leaving the game for good.
Parise emerged in the locker room after the game in just a dress sock. He was limping, but he said he didn’t know how bad it was and that he’ll wait to find out after seeing doctors and getting x-rays, an MRI, etc., on Tuesday.
“When a guy like Zach gets hurt, it’s always concerning because he’s a top-notch player and brings an awful lot more than just scoring goals," coach Mike Yeo said. "But I do think we’re a deep enough team and have enough character that we should be able to battle through it. But certainly it’ll be a challenge.”
Yeo then interrupted himself to say, “who knows with Zach,” and that the Wild must wait for results before it’ll know the prognosis and whether he can even play Wednesday against Phoenix.
If the Wild is without Parise for awhile, look out because the team just began its toughest stretch so far this season Monday with a 3-0 loss to St. Louis. In now eight of the next 10 games, it faces Phoenix, Colorado, San Jose, Chicago and Anaheim.
In order, Chicago, St. Louis, San Jose, Phoenix, Colorado and Anaheim are the top-6 scoring teams in the league. Minnesota ranks 23rd and could be entering this stretch without its leading scorer either out or hurting.
Tonight, not a good game. Read all the coverage in the paper for most the details, but the Cliff’s Notes version: Disputable disallowed goal by the ref on Parise’s tally 30 seconds in (ruled a high-stick, and because of that, when there was no conclusive video evidence, the call stood up), and then 50 seconds later, Vladimir Sobotka scored.
Frustration engulfed the Wild and whether it was that, what St. Louis was doing or both, the Wild was schooled during a first period where virtually every waking moment was spent in the Wild end.
“I thought it’s in,” Mikko Koivu said of the Parise no-goal. “You want to have a good start on the road and I thought we did. And then they get their first right after, so that makes it even more frustrating. It’s a tough way to start the game when you think you score and it’s not a goal and they score right after. That’s an excuse. But the difference is we didn’t create enough.”
That’s for sure. The Wild created nothing in the first and barely anything in the second. The third was all Minnesota (12-1 shot count, the 1 being Steen’s empty-netter), but by then, Jaroslav Halak was there to make all the saves.
Yeo: “We were prepared, engaged right from the start, we come out and do what we’re supposed to do. To me, it’s clear, it’s a good goal.”
On Blues working the puck deep and going to work, Yeo said, “They were very strong on their gameplan. They were just getting everything in deep and forecheck and forecheck and forecheck. That’s how they got the lead and they committed to that.”
Yeo said the Wild wasn’t strong enough with its exits and when it had a chance to be first on pucks, players weren’t and that’s how St. Louis scored its first two goals.
Parise’s quotes on his disallowed goal in the new game notebook on www.startribune.com/wild, so please read that. He had some strong quotes.
Niklas Backstrom forked over a bunch of rebounds in the first, and then when the Wild’s D were routinely beaten to the net by Blues forwards, it turned into disaster.
Backstrom said, “That’s their strength. They’ve had a lot of success with that the last couple years. It’s always a challenge for the goalie against them. I don’t know if you want to call it playoff style hockey, but that’s how it is. In the playoffs, you get the bodies in front of the net and get the puck there.
Jason Pominville said once St. Louis got that early lead, it made life difficult, saying that’s what Ken Hitchcock teams thrive on. Also, the Wild’s just not drawing a lot of power plays lately. Pominville (and Yeo this morning) basically said when you’re backchecking all game, you’re not going to draw penalties.
“We’re not playing enough in the O zone,” Pominville said.
There is rarely a good time to play the powerhouse St. Louis Blues, but the Blues are churning like a buzz saw right now.
The Blues are arguably the deepest team in the NHL and have run through almost every opponent it has faced (three regulation losses in 23 games), blowing out many recently.
Early tonight, the Cup contenders played keep-away with the puck and barely gave up scoring chances to the Wild. In fact, the Wild’s best chance in the first two periods may have come on Zenon Konopka’s goalmouth backhander. When your best chance comes from an enforcer with one goal since Dec. 2011, it typically doesn’t bode well.
The Blues have racked up an 11-game home point streak against Minnesota, not losing in regulation to the Wild in St. Louis since Oct. 20, 2007.
Talk to you Tuesday if there’s Parise news. Otherwise, Wednesday morning.
Well, that was certainly interesting, as we like to say in Minnesota. The Wild's 3-2 shootout win over Winnipeg had a little bit of everything. Mystery goalie injuries! Quick escapes from the Winnipeg airport! Leaden performances turned into gold!
The one thing it didn't have: Mike Russo. He'll be back tomorrow to pick up the team in St. Louis, where it finishes the four-game road trip Monday.
The -10 temperatures notwithstanding, this was quite an entertaining game to drop in on. When Josh Harding skated to the bench during warmups, it looked like he might have an equipment issue. Then Niklas Backstrom leads the Wild onto the ice at MTS Centre, and it's evident it is something more serious. Coach Mike Yeo said after the game that Harding has a lower-body injury, presumably a leg. Yeo anticipates it is a day-to-day type of injury, though he isn't certain.
So Backstrom gets the no-notice start after being cleared for full practice only one day before. He said afterward--in his usual deadpan manner--that it was "fun'' to get hit by 14 pucks in the first period as his teammates flailed away. Getting pushed out on stage without warning actually was an advantage, he figured, after missing four games because of a concussion (and being prevented from even skating until last Monday or Tuesday). "You don't really have much time to think,'' he said. "You just go out and play and get into the game. It's good to get shots and feel the puck right away.''
Backstrom stopped 37 of 39 shots, and the two goals he gave up were on rebounds. (The first came after a Matt Halischuk shot hit him and went airborne, then fell into the crease, where Michael Frolik knocked it in as the Wild failed to clear the rebound; the second came when Halischuk banged a shot off Backstrom and the puck came right back to him.) He had cautioned Friday that even though he felt good, he knew that meant nothing in the realm of head injuries, when good days can turn into bad ones for no forseeable reason. He certainly didn't show any lingering effects Saturday.
Darcy Kuemper looked so odd sitting on a bar stool behind the glass by the Wild tunnel, in his ball cap and pads. He said he got heckled a little by the fans immediately behind and beside him. He was amazed at how quickly the Wild team bus got to the airport to retrieve him before he could get on the plane to the Twin Cities (and to his car, which he then planned to drive to Iowa) and how efficiently the airport and Delta staff got him and his gear back through customs.
Hockey players are such creatures of habit that you figure this wacky sequence of events would have thrown the Wild completely off its game. Backstrom gave them time to pull it together after that awful first period. Lots of giveaways, missed shots, off-target passes ... the Jets just totally outplayed them. As Zach Parise said, "we could have been down three, four, five-nothing after the first period. We were lucky to get out of there 0-0.''
Interesting choice by Yeo to yank Nino Niederreiter out of the doghouse and promote him to the penthouse in the third period. Through two periods, Niederreiter played seven shifts (6:29 of ice time) and had one shot, two giveaways and no hits. Yeo, who moved players around throughout the game because Mikael Granlund was a late scratch with an upper-body injury, decided to give him a shot in the third period with Parise and Mikko Koivu. Niederreiter went to the net and plucked the rebound of Marco Scandella's shot off the pads of Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec, then tucked it in to tie the score 1-1.
"I wanted to give (Niederreiter) a chance,'' Yeo said. "We didn’t put him out there much to try to get his attention. I give him a lot of credit. Everyone has bad shifts or bad stretches or whatever; it's always how you bounce back. We wanted to give him a chance to see how he responded with those guys. We thought having a big body who could get to the net, the way he did for the goal, could help, could benefit those guys.
"He's a young kid. His first two periods weren't great. With young kids, they go with the wave of the rest of the group. As the rest of the group picked it up, he was able to pick it up, too.''
Ryan Suter was strong as usual, starting the play that led to Parise's shorthanded goal that tied the score 2-2. Parise had a goal and an assist, five shots, was plus-2 and demonstrated the kind of leadership the Wild needed to drag itself out of the dumpster in the first period. Koivu netted a slick backhander in the shootout, followed by Charlie Coyle's beauty.
Yeo was clearly proud that his team didn't cave under the weight of all the weird circumstances. "I spent a lot of time before the game trying to figure out lineup combinations and how to get people back from the airport,'' he said. "But you've got to deal with that type of adversity, and our guys did.
"You play 82 games, and they can't all be a work of art. There are going to be some times where you draw it up the way you want it to happen, and you go out and do it. There are going to be other times where things are going to happen, and you're going to have to deal with it. You're going to have to find a different way to get a win. I give our guys credit for staying in the game and (Backstrom) a lot of credit for keeping us in the game.''
As for the opposition, this is not going to fly well with Jets fans. This streaky bunch is now winless in its past four--after winning the previous four in a row--and finished a three-game homestand 0-1-2. Friday, some players expressed frustration, saying everyone was not giving his all. The effort was not lacking Saturday, but one point isn't going to make them feel any better--particularly after falling to 0-2-1 this season against their division rival.
That's it from the 'Peg. Stay warm!
Mikko Koivu’s winning goal with 2:57 left tonight lifted the Wild to a 4-3 win over Ottawa and as importantly helped the Wild forget a 6-2 pounding the night before in relatively nearby Montreal. Remember, Koivu won the Winnipeg game with a goal with 3:12 left.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Koivu and St. Louis' Alex Steen are the only two NHLers to score two go-ahead goals in the final five minutes of regulation this year.
Losses like Tuesday can be lasting if you don’t quickly brush it aside. The Wild, which has lost two in a row in regulation just once this season and that was more than a month ago, avoided that night tonight and improved to 11-2-2 in its past 15.
In the crazy West, the Wild hopped from eighth in the West to third with (32 points) and is one point behind Anaheim for the most points in the NHL (33). Of course, eighth in the West is now Colorado with 30 points, so it's not like there's a cushion (ninth is Vancouver with 26 points). The leader in the East wouldn't be inside the top-8 in the West (Boston with 29 points). As somebody joked with me on Twitter a few weeks ago, the East should just take a knee at this point.
The Wild's place in the standings is a little deceiving because the fourth through eighth teams in the West has played between one, two or three fewer games than Minnesota.
The Wild gave up a season-high 37 shots and lacked legs in the first period and had some sloppy moments, but the Wild certainly motored through it and pulled out a big W.
Jason Pominville (there was a scramble pregame amongst the media because the off-ice officials listed Pominville as a scratch even though he was in warmups; turns out the officials mis-read the lineup sheet submitted by the coaches, whether it be Pominville vs. Prosser or No. 29 vs. No. 39) scored a first-period power-play goal, Jonas Brodin scored a goal and assist for his first career multi-point game, Dany Heatley scored a goal and assist in the building that loves to boooooooooo him, Zach Parise had two assists, Justin Fontaine had his first career assist and Josh Harding made 34 saves one night after being pulled for the first time this season. Harding tied his career-high with 13 wins accomplished in 19 games (the other 13-win season in 2011-12 came in 34 games). He is also tied for the league lead with 13 wins.
Oh, and Koivu had three points – the 22nd 3-point game of his career – to continue a string of clutch performances by the Kaptain and his Linemates. Last four wins, that line has scored some huge goals, as I documented in the gamer on www.startribune.com/wild.
I’ll write a lot about Koivu in Friday’s paper. The much-maligned captain by many has been huge lately in leading this team. You know when it started? After Yeo split him and Parise and Koivu said he needed to contribute more. Coincidence or not, that seems to be the turning point.
Heatley, one of the two Ottawa villains on the Wild roster (Matt Cooke is the other), played his fourth game against the Sens – third in Ottawa – since asking to be traded in 2009. He has a goal and five assists now.
He was appreciative of coach Mike Yeo having his back before the game. The Ottawa press corps peppered Yeo with questions about the former 50-goal scorer playing on the fourth line. Yeo deflected a bunch of questions, stuck up for Heatley, talked about how professional he has been about the whole thing.
He then followed it up with a goal and assist.
On Yeo sticking up for him, Heatley said, “I’ve known that from the time I got here. He’s a good man. I don’t really read what they’re writing. I haven’t been their favorite guy for a lot of years, so I don’t really care what they’re writing. But it is nice to know your coach has your back.”
He also let me know in joking fashion that this goal -- a whiff of puck, then a jam inside the post from behind the goal line -- was more of a "garbage goal" than his one in Montreal, a reference to the way I described his goal with 1.3 seconds left down 6-1 in Montreal. By garbage, I meant meaningless. It was a funny moment and proof positive again that every player is secretly on Twitter.
Yeo went on and on about the Wild’s leadership tonight. He talked about how the vets went out and helped lead the Wild to the W in response to last night.
“Internally, everyone knows it was pretty ugly last night, so it’s on us veteran guys and the captains to lead on the ice and not necessarily vocally, but play the right way and get back to what we were doing well,” Parise said.
Jason Zucker was called up to add speed and energy to a team that lacked it in Montreal. He skated with Mikael Granlund and Pominville, and although he had a couple near costly turnovers like many of his teammates, he had a decent game.
Yeo talked about the one turnover where Zucker didn’t shoot between the circles and tried to force a pass (almost identical spot as the Koivu goal, interestingly), but Yeo said Zucker’s speed was a factor and if he continues to play like this, he’ll make an impact.
Not much of a blog, but it’s after midnight, I’ve got a long drive back to downtown, I think I have a flat tire and an early flight.
Wild is off Thursday, so no blog unless there’s news. Rachel Blount is covering practice Friday in Winnipeg and the game Saturday in Winnipeg. I’ll be on Fox Sports North in studio Saturday before, during and after that game.
On here, you may next hear from me Sunday in St. Louis after practice.
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