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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The Wild flew to Winnipeg on Friday morning and practiced in the afternoon at MTS Centre. Making a bit of a surprise appearance: goalie Niklas Backstrom and defenseman Keith Ballard, both of whom had been out with injuries.
Backstrom had missed the past four games because of a concussion. He took lots of pucks in practice, as he and Josh Harding got most of the work while Darcy Kuemper watched along the boards. Harding will start Saturday against Winnipeg, coach Mike Yeo said, but he liked what he saw from Backstrom.
"I would say I'm pleased and also happy to see the way he looked out there,'' Yeo said. "He looked quick, he looked slick, but it’s one day, obviously, so we’ll keep an eye going forward.''
Backstrom said he has been skating for a few days and felt "pretty good'' after his first full practice in more than a week. "We'll see how everything feels after this,'' he added.
Ballard had missed seven games because of an upper-body injury. Yeo said he doesn't anticipate Ballard playing Saturday, but he said Ballard has "come a long way'' in the past couple of days and that his status is now upgraded to day-to-day. Ballard has been skating on his own and said he just needs to get used to contact again.
Torrey Mitchell (lower body) is still not with the team but could rejoin it in St. Louis, where the Wild plays Monday.
Other notes from practice:
--Matt Dumba will stay in the lineup. He was paired with Clayton Stoner in practice, and Yeo wants to give him a chance to play two in a row and establish some rhythm. "I liked his game in Ottawa,'' Yeo said. "Certainly when we’re playing in high-pace games he helps us with his skating ability, he helps us with his execution and his puck movement. He’s playing against a team that he’s played a number of times already, including preseason, so hopefully that gives him a little bit of comfort there.''
--Mikael Granlund did not practice but was simply taking a day of rest.
--Ryan Suter came off the ice with a towel to his face, surprising Yeo, who was in the hallway talking to the media when his workhorse defenseman walked past. Suter was smiling and had just a small cut to his lip.
As speculated in today's paper, the Wild did indeed flip backup goalies this morning. With Niklas Backstrom sidelined with a concussion, Johan Gustafsson was reassigned to AHL Iowa and Darcy Kuemper recalled for the two-game road trip to Montreal and Ottawa (actually a four-game trip, but the Wild's returning home Thursday before heading to Winnipeg on Friday for practice).
Kuemper will likely start Wednesday in Ottawa unless the Wild acquires another backup beforehand. Kuemper has had a very up and down year for Iowa, and that was epitomized this past weekend when he got lit up Friday night but came back Saturday and made 32 saves in a 1-0 loss to Milwaukee.
But Gustafsson is not ready for an NHL start. So Kuemper is the guy. The 6-5 former Western Hockey League Player of the Year and Canadian Hockey League Goalie of the Year went 1-2-0 with a 2.08 GAA and a .916 SV% in six games (three starts) with the Wild last season (excluding postseason).
In Toronto earlier this year, Kuemper gave up three goals on seven shots in 31 minutes and was pulled in a game the Wild absolutely dominated. The hope is that was an aberration because he was treated like a yo-yo during that time. Remember, he was up in Minnesota as a backup, was returned to Iowa to make his first start of the season, then flew to Buffalo to serve as backup to Josh Harding before starting in Toronto the next night.
We talked to Kuemper today and he believes it was just a blip on the radar. He's confident going into Wednesday's expected start. I'll put those quotes in Wednesday's paper.
As I've reported, if Backstrom is going to be out long, I'd suspect the Wild gets a backup in here via signing, trade or waivers. Jason LaBarbera was placed on waivers today by the Edmonton Oilers. It'll be interesting to see if he is of interest to Minnesota or any of the other teams -- Chicago, Islanders, Los Angeles, Nashville -- who suddenly need goalies. He has 60 NHL wins, although ... he'd be a true stopgap. The puck has a hard time hitting him and he doesn't exactly get my heart racing.
After doing a little digging, it would surprise me if the Wild put in a claim.
I talked to Josh Harding, and he told me his red pads won't be worn in games because his teammates say they see holes easier behind him. I then showed Harding pics of Trevor Kidd's infamous checkered pads in Carolina and Florida. Kidder was a treat to cover, by the way.
I'm doing a big story on Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund tomorrow. As I wrote in yesterday's blog, Team Finland's GM Jari Kurri and coach Erkka Westerlund were at the game watching them for the Olympics, and I talked to both men.
I'm also writing about Marco Scandella, who is playing great and is returning to play in his hometown of Montreal for the second time. He was real good today.
And, from the NHL:
Los Angeles Kings goaltender Ben Scrivens,
Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin and Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding
have been named the NHL’s “Three Stars” for the week ending Nov. 17.
FIRST STAR – BEN SCRIVENS, G, LOS ANGELES KINGS
Scrivens went 3-0-1 with a 0.66 goals-against average, .977 save
percentage and two shutouts to help the Kings improve to 14-6-1 (29
points), their best record through the first 21 games of a season since
1990-91 (15-5-1, 31 points). He relieved injured starter Jonathan Quick for
the final 1:20 of overtime, serving as the goaltender of record in a 3-2
shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres Nov. 12. Scrivens then started the next
three games, posting 23 saves in a 3-2 comeback victory over the New York
Islanders Nov. 14 and recording consecutive shutouts against the New Jersey
Devils Nov. 15 (26 saves) and New York Rangers Nov. 17 (37 saves). The
27-year-old native of Spruce Grove, Alta., has not allowed a goal in his
last 155:02 of playing time and leads the NHL with a 1.24 goals-against
average, .955 save percentage and three shutouts in eight appearances this
SECOND STAR – TYLER SEGUIN, C, DALLAS STARS
Seguin paced all players with five goals and tied for first with
seven points in leading the Stars to three straight victories. He scored
the insurance marker in a 3-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers Nov. 13. Seguin
then tallied a career-high four goals, including the game-winner, and five
points in a 7-3 triumph over the Calgary Flames Nov. 14, becoming the first
Stars player to register four goals in a game since Nov. 16, 2007 (Jussi
Jokinen). He capped the week by collecting an assist in a 2-1 victory over
the Vancouver Canucks Nov. 17, extending his point streak to four games
(6-2—8). The 21-year-old native of Brampton, Ont., leads the Stars, and is
tied for sixth in the NHL, with 12-11—23 in 20 games this season.
THIRD STAR – JOSH HARDING, G, MINNESOTA WILD
Harding posted a 3-0-0 record with a 1.38 goals-against average
and .939 save percentage to help the Wild improve to 13-4-4 (30 points),
their most points through the first 21 games of a season in franchise
history. He relieved injured starter Niklas Backstrom in a 2-1 win over the
Toronto Maple Leafs Nov. 13, stopping 19 shots, plus another two in the
shootout, in 54:29 of playing time. Harding then recorded 22 saves in a 3-2
victory over the Florida Panthers Nov. 15 and 21 stops in a 2-1 triumph
over the Winnipeg Jets Nov. 17 to extend his home-ice winning streak to 10
games. The 29-year-old native of Regina, Sask., is 12-2-2 in 17 appearances
this season and ranks second in the League in goals-against average (1.25),
save percentage (.946) and shutouts (tied, 2).
Update: The Wild has recalled Johan Gustafsson to back up Josh Harding tonight. The reason? Rather than ride pine, Darcy Kuemper is slated to start for Iowa against San Antonio.
The Wild held an optional practice today where most the heavy-minute Wild players – Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville – didn’t practice. Nor did Mikael Granlund.
It sounds like Granlund was just kept off the ice as a precaution because he took the Nazem Kadri shot to the head last night. Coach Mike Yeo said, “With those things, you’re not in the clear for a couple days here, but we expect him to be fine” and play in Friday’s game against the Florida Panthers.
Niklas Backstrom won’t dress though. Backstrom took the blow to the head from Kadri, an infraction that cost Kadri a three-game suspension.
Here is former referee Kerry Fraser's take on the Kadri hits and ref responses last night. Good read.
Yeo didn’t give a diagnosis for Backstrom, but the Wild will call up Darcy Kuemper or Johan Gustafsson to back up Josh Harding (10-2-2 overall, 8-0 at home) against the Panthers.
I’ve still been peppered with tweets about the Wild’s lack of response last night after Kadri ran Backstrom and I skimmed through the blog comments.
I got a few emails and saw some tweets saying it’s clear Yeo doesn’t like tough hockey, of course discounting the fact that Yeo made his living as a minor-leaguer playing tough hockey and had the most fighting majors in Houston Aeros history – one slot up on Derek Boogaard.
“I’m probably the only coach that took boxing lessons [during the lockout] last year,” Yeo quipped.
I asked Yeo about the Wild being called a quote-unquote “soft” team.
“First off, obviously who’s the first [player] to jump on top of him [Kadri]?” Yeo said. “[Ryan] Suter. So to say that we didn’t do anything, that’s false actually. And if you want to get into it, it’s this simple really: They’ve got [Colton] Orr on the bench, they’ve got [Fraser] McLaren (he actually didn’t play, so I’m not positive whom Yeo meant), they’ve got [Mark Fraser]. They’ve got one after another. So if we go after Kadri, well, are they going to go after Konopka? No. They’re going to go after one of our top guys. They’ve got more down the line where they can keep playing that game.
“So where we have to be better is on the power play. Teams have to be afraid to pull that crap on us [because] they’re fearful of our power play. But at the same time, what I like is that our guys continued to play the game. I’ll take exception with anybody that tries to call us soft because that’s not true. Where it’d be soft is if they tried to have a physical impact on us. And as far as I’m concerned, we raised our game. And that to me is tough[ness]. It’s a different type of tough.
Going back to [Detroit Red Wings GM] Ken Holland speak on the radio when I was listening to one of his interviews at the beginning of the year and he was talking about Detroit in their heyday and what he was saying is in an 82-game season, there’s probably going to be five, maybe seven games where you wish you were a little bit tougher. But at the same time, there’s a lot of wins along the course of those 82 games that they got because of the makeup of their team. So what’s important for us is just to continue to prove that No. 1 that we have each other’s back, No. 2 that we’re not going to back down, and if teams want to play us physically, then we’ll rise to the challenge.”
This was my point last
season night. I’m getting tweets that the Wild’s a bunch of cream puffs. They’ve gotten points in 10 of its last 11. Last night was the first game all season where another team looked to challenge the Wild physically.
I’d be concerned if the Wild cowered. The Wild instead elevated its game and didn’t show any examples of a team that was intimidated by the rough stuff.
They’re just not built like Toronto. If you expect Jonas Brodin or Mikael Granlund or even Zach Parise to go in there and mix it up with the Dion Phaneufs and Mark Frasers, you’re going to be disappointed. But that's two games against this alleged rough and tumble Maple Leafs that the Wild outplayed the opponent.
Now, will this be a concern later in the year when the Wild plays against the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings more? We will see. Obviously, the Wild doesn’t match up against the Blues from a size standpoint.
“But regardless, the other thing that we were looking at is first off, we were playing an Eastern Conference team, and when you look at the East, the East is made up – and especially that division – is made up different,” Yeo said. “We’re going through the Western Conference and it’s a different complexion of teams. There are a lot of teams that are built very similar to us. Not to get into it too much, but there were games last year --- our goal is pretty simple. We want to be a Cup contending team. And we felt even in the playoffs last year, I felt that there were many games where we played a lot tougher than Chicago but we came away on the bottom end of it. So we have to continue to play tough but there are other parts of our game that we have to make sure we’re dictating the game the way that we want to play it.”
I asked Matt Cooke about the immediate response to the Kadri on Backstrom thing. Let’s be honest: Cooke knows about responses after running the goalie. He’s done it a few times in his career.
“When Nik got hit, none of us knew he wasn’t OK. Then it turns out a few minutes later he wasn’t OK. But people need to understand is by that time, you’re in a game. It’s 0-0. It’s not because we don’t want to stand up for Nik or stand up for our teammates because in the second period, you see Brodzy go in and get in there for Nino. I just don’t know what the response that’s called for in that situation. Obviously we’re there for each other, stand up for each other and will continue to do so, but sometimes, at what cost?”
This isn’t the 70s and early 80s anymore. You can’t hop the bench anymore. You do, and you get a 10-game suspension the way Toronto’s David Clarkson did when John Scott got in Phil Kessel’s face.
Responses have to happen in the heat of the moment by the players on the ice, like Jason Zucker fighting a player last night after a dirty hit from behind on Brian Connelly. That was a situation where Zucker reacted to stand up for a teammate after seeing with his very own eyes exactly what a dirty hit it was.
In a situation where Backstrom is run, there is a hockey shift going on. I can promise you that none of the five players on the ice actually saw the forearm shiver to Backstrom’s melon from Kadri. Suter got in Kadri’s face and knocked him to the ice. If Suter starts pounding away, not only does he negate the ensuing power play, he probably earns more penalty minutes. And I don’t think you want your 35-minute defenseman chained to the penalty box and risking even a suspension.
Now later in the game you can say that maybe Kadri should have been challenged. I would have liked to have seen that response, too. Although, the Wild claims Brodziak tried to challenge Kadri to a fight and Kadri wouldn’t accept. And you know Zenon Konopka wasn’t going to get an affirmative from Kadri.
So to me, this is an overreaction. It was a 0-0 game. If the Wild lost its minds, earned a bunch of penalties and lost the game because of it, I can’t imagine the fans freaking over this would be satisfied with that because the Wild stood up for each other. They’d be ticked off because of a loss. I’ve got no problem whatsoever with what Zucker did. But the other side of it is he negated a power play with the Iowa Wild down 1-0 in an eventual loss. So you’ve got to pick as fans what you really want? There are no perfect teams. This is how the Wild’s built right now. If I was a fan, I’d rather have Brodin moving the puck flawlessly than risking his health by jumping Kadri.
But I agree with the overall semblance that you have to stand up for your goalie. Again though, I don’t see any patterns this season where the Wild’s not sticking up for each other. This was a one-game thing during a streak where the Wild’s getting points almost every single game.
I’m doing an article on the third line of Cooke, Brodziak and Justin Fontaine tomorrow. They’re going up against top lines and players every night, from the Ovechkins to Kessels, and they’re usually coming out of it even or on top at even-strength.
Cooke and Brodziak, the two constant third-liners all year, have been on the ice for two even-strength goals each in the past 12 games. There’s some good stuff in tomorrow’s article.
-- Konopka, who played seven shifts last night, broke his nose on a Carter Ashton hit. He said it was the 14th time he broke his nose and he woke up in a pool of blood.
--Zach Parise was getting ribbed for doing the flyby. If you didn’t see my article on Parise trying to weed it out, look back in the startribune.com archives from Washington. Parise said it was because it was a tying goal with 4:17 left and it was a reluctant one.
--Yeo on Ryan Suter’s 108 minutes the past three games: It’s such a big story now and I wish it wasn’t. First off, we’ve had three games that have gone to overtime – three in a row – and that obviously impacts things. It’s a ridiculous amount that he’s playing in these overtime periods. The 4-on-4s are a little bit less grinding. I would assume he’s probably playing four minutes out of a five minute overtime period, so there’s four minutes right there, plus you factor in the five minute major and I bet you he probably played at three and a half minutes of that too. So it doesn’t take long when you start adding it up – that’s seven and a half minutes basically right there toward the end of the game. These are close games, they’re one goal games, he’s playing well with the game on the line, and two points on the line. Who are you going to put out there? Well, he’s the guy.”
I just found the above quote humorous re-reading it. That’s it for now. I’ll be on Fox Sports North during Friday night’s Wild game (pregame, first intermission).
The Wild is having a very optional practice this morning. Fourteen skaters are on the ice with two practice goalies.
Niklas Backstrom, who took the head shot last night from Toronto's Nazem Kadri, isn't practicing, nor is Josh Harding, who was called into duty last night despite being sick the night before. Harding is probably just exercising his option.
Not practicing today are Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville. The Granlund one is a concern. Took the head shot from Kadri, has a history of concussions and he's the lone young guy not on the ice.
As of now, no goalie callup for Backstrom. Kadri has a noon CT phone hearing for the Backstrom hit. My guess: Dinged for two games.
The practice goalies today work with strength coach Kirk Olson at Total Hockey as part of the goalie training program, Pro Hybrid Group. They are A.J. Bucchino, 29, who has some pro hockey experience, and Tino Vasquez, who apparently may go back to school next year to play Division III hockey.
Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner, coming back from a leg injury, was just supposed to skate on his own today before the team practiced. But he felt so good after doing so that he joined the Wild and took part in practice.
And that means there is a chance Stoner could return to action Tuesday against Toronto. “We’ll see how it goes as far as tomorrow,” coach Mike Yeo said.
His return would be big. Because Keith Ballard, who has missed two games with an upper body injury, was put on injured reserve Tuesday.
Here are other items from today’s practice:
--A Toronto writer at practice today, doing a story on Josh Harding, asked Yeo if he felt goalie Josh Harding should be considered for the Canadian Olympic team.
“I do,” Yeo said. “Absolutely, I do. You look at numbers, you look at stats, you look at wins, he’s certainly made a case for himself. You want players to put themselves in a position where they’re opening eyes and getting attention from other people. I think he deserves that.”
Harding is first in the league in goals-against (1.22) and tied for first with two shutouts. He is second with a .947 save percentage and seventh in wins.
Harding, who is battling multiple sclerosis, is not talking about that condition this year. Indeed, his play has pushed that issue to the back burner, something Yeo emphasized today.
“The thing about him is, if it wasn’t for all the questions I get on a day-to-day basis, I’d probably forget about it, to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “What impressed me about him? Last year it was always there, because we had to learn so much about it with the doctors. We had to have so much communication with him and with the trainers, just how to deal with it. This year it’s almost been a non-issue. He just comes to the rink and he’s just another player. He’s gone out and played at such a high level you almost forget it’s there. We’ll never forget what he has to deal with. But, at the same time, it’s impressive the way he comes to the rink. We don’t talk about it, and he doesn’t want us talking about it.”
--As expected, Mike Rupp, who has yet to play this season after having off-season knee surgery, will put in a conditioning stint with Iowa Wild. “He’ll play there Wednesday and Friday,” Yeo said. “And we’ll get him back here.”
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