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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Suter back in action tonight; Granlund, Kuemper could follow Tuesday

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild pregame skate Updated: January 19, 2015 - 1:50 PM

With his two-game suspension over, Ryan Suter took part in Monday's optional morning skate to get ready to play tonight against Columbus at Xcel Energy Center. The defenseman said he is rested and ready, though he did get into one game while he was off: a knee hockey battle with his son, Brooks, which took place in a suite at Xcel during the Wild's victory over Arizona on Saturday.

"(Thomas) Vanek's kids didn't show up, so I had to play hockey with them,'' Suter said. "I was the goalie.''

Trying to stop pucks himself, Suter said, made it hard to watch that game. He also wasn't in the best of moods as a forced spectator; Monday, he was still irked by the suspension he got for elbowing Pittsburgh's Steve Downie in the head. "I was very surprised (to get suspended),'' Suter said. "I don't hit that often. That was probably my first hit, and it cost me two games. I probably won't be doing that any more.''

Still, it was much easier to watch a team that pulled itself up from the floor and won its past two games. Suter said the time off recharged his battery, though he and coach Mike Yeo also were happy to see development in the Wild's defensive corps. Suter said he's content to keep logging huge amounts of ice time--he's averaging an NHL-high 29 minutes, 34 seconds per game--but the improved play of other defensemen means those minutes can be spread around.

"The guys, over the last couple of games, have really shown they can take on more minutes,'' Suter said. "I think that will bode well for our team moving forward. Honestly, personally, I feel fine. But guys have shown they can take on more, and that’s a huge thing for our team, to be able to have more guys playing more.''

Yeo plans to pair Suter with Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba with Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella with Christian Folin to start Monday's game. The combinations, though, will be adaptable, changing with the circumstances of the game. Nate Prosser will be a healthy scratch.

"If everyone is on their game,'' Yeo said, "that gives us the possibility for the first time in a long time to almost roll three (defensive) pairs, or at least to get a little more consistency in pairings going out on the ice. These things are always fluid, but that’s the initial plan.''

Devan Dubnyk will start his third consecutive game in goal. Niklas Backstrom will be the backup tonight. Yeo said he believes Darcy Kuemper is healthy enough to play Tuesday at Detroit; it's possible Kuemper could get in, to prevent wear and tear on Dubnyk as the Wild plays three games in four nights. All three goalies will go on the trip.

"Right now, we're just going day by day, and this is the way we're going into the game tonight,'' Yeo said. "After the game, we'll determine what we need for tomorrow. We're bringing everybody (to Detroit), at the very least to get the workload. If we don’t feel that Devan can play tomorrow, then we'll make that decision.''

Yeo sounded much more certain about getting Mikael Granlund back into the lineup. The center wore a yellow no-contact jersey at Monday's morning skate, his second practice since he had wrist surgery on Dec. 29. Yeo would prefer that players have a full-contact practice before rejoining the lineup, but in Granlund's case, he said he doesn't want to wait any longer than necessary.

"I think there's a chance (that Granlund plays Tuesday),'' Yeo said. "We have to see how that goes. He was skating for a good amount of time before he rejoined the group.

"Obviously, we would make sure we have full confidence based on what we hear from doctors and full confidence that he's fully healed and ready to get in there. But this is a guy that is a huge part of our lineup, a huge part of our team, and certainly, we've missed him while he's been out. We don’t have that luxury (of taking more time). I think it's just something we're going to have to deal with. We're lucky we're talking about a guy who’s very smart. The conditioning part, I think, will be a challenge for him as much as anything else, because when you're not in the corners and you're not battling, that’s certainly a different type of conditioning you're dealing with. But unfortunately, it's not like we have three or four days here to give us that opportunity.''

Dubnyk happily talked to the media after the skate today, a bit of a shocker for those of us used to goaltenders who routinely refuse game-day interviews. He's really an affable, modest guy. He spoke about how grateful he is to have the chance to play regularly, downplayed his role in the Wild's recent revival ("I don't think I'm a savior of any sort,'' he said) and mentioned that after Sunday's practice he found a place to live, meaning he will not be a permanent hotel guest.  

A reminder from Mike Russo: He will be hosting a live chat Tuesday at 1 p.m. at www.startribune.com. Get those questions ready!

RACHEL BLOUNT


 

Granlund back at practice, and the nets get crowded

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild practice Updated: January 18, 2015 - 4:37 PM

Wild center Mikael Granlund sounded relieved to be back on the ice with his teammates Sunday, even if he was wearing a yellow no-contact jersey. Granlund practiced for the first time since he broke his wrist on Dec. 29 and smiled throughout the nearly hour-long workout. Coach Mike Yeo said Granlund won't play Monday against Columbus at Xcel Energy Center, but he might rejoin the lineup for Tuesday's game at Detroit.

Yeo said Granlund must be cleared by doctors for contact before he can play. He doesn't think Granlund has lost much conditioning, since he resumed skating shortly after having surgery to repair the wrist. Granlund confirmed that he has been doing lots of skating and agreed that his fitness won't be a problem.

"It felt good out there,'' said Granlund, who has four goals and 11 assists. "I was real excited to get back out there. We'll see where we go from here.''

While new goalie Devan Dubnyk stayed in one net for all of Sunday's practice drills, Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom shared time in the other. Yeo said Kuemper is "cleared and ready to go,'' healed completely from a lower-body injury that kept him sidelined for six games. As for how he will juggle three goaltenders, Yeo acknowledged that it won't be easy. He went through it last year with Backstrom, Kuemper and Josh Harding and said the team's handling of the situation is going to be critical.

It's possible, Yeo said, that Kuemper will go to Iowa for a conditioning stint in the AHL. That is being considered, but nothing has been finalized. "It's up to us to figure out when he's had enough work to get into full-time action,'' Yeo said.

In the meantime, Yeo, goalie coach Bob Mason and the rest of the staff must figure out how to get everyone the repetitions they need while also handling their psyches with care.

"I think we were able to manage it fairly well (last year),'' Yeo said. "It is a little bit tricky in that you have to make sure the person who's starting is getting the workload and preparation they need. And in a lot of ways, how you deal with the other two guys is going to be equally as important as far as their emotional state, making sure they're ready in case they need to be called upon and also making sure they're getting the proper amount of work.''

Backstrom was testy Sunday when asked about his recent difficulties in net. He acknowledged that the competition created by Dubnyk's arrival will be good for everyone, and he also agreed with Yeo that it will be challenging for all three to get the work they need. But the bottom line, Backstrom said, is that all three have to find a way to do whatever they need to do to make sure they are at their best.

"It's always easy to judge the goalies,'' said Backstrom, who has a goals-against average of 3.04 and save percentage of .887. "It's easy to blame the goalies.

"For a goalie, the biggest thing is you have to know you can make mistakes, because everyone makes mistakes. You have to be able to know you can do it. You can't go out there and think you can't make a mistake, because that’s not going to help you. You just have to find a way to be at your best for the guys in this locker room. That’s what they deserve.''

Mr. Russo (or as Sid might call him, Mr. Multimedia) asked that I remind you that he will appear on Rosen's Sports Sunday tonight and on KFAN on Monday morning at 10:15 a.m.

RACHEL BLOUNT

Wild has a winning streak for the first time in two months

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: January 18, 2015 - 1:50 AM

Baby steps.

The Wild’s trying to take steps toward rediscovering that effective game we saw in October and the first part of November, the type of play that helped it at one point build a 7-1 home record before the rug started to be pulled from under its season.

For about 35 minutes tonight, fans at Xcel Energy Center saw lots of reminders of what that game looked like.

Playing against a down-and-out Arizona team that is about to begin a major rebuild, the Coyotes are still a hard-working, well-coached team, so there was no way this game was going to be as easy as the Wild’s game at Buffalo a few nights earlier.

The Wild played a strong puck possession game in the first half, looked fast and constantly spent time in Arizona’s zone and probably should have had a three- or four-goal lead if not for the netminding of Mike Smith. It built a 2-0 lead though en route to a 3-1 win.

It wasn't an easy one though. The game's complexion changed when Mikko Koivu made one of those mistakes you typically make when you're tired. Koivu, who had a solid game with the exception of this one shift, was late in his shift, so he was slow to make a decision as to whether to chip a puck out or force an exit pass while his linemates went to the bench. He was pickpocketed, took a penalty and the Wild’s 2-0 lead became 2-1 on the penalty kill.

From there though, the Coyotes pushed hard and Devan Dubnyk, facing his old team from only three days earlier, had to be good. He was, as Dave Tippett called him to me a few hours earlier, “very settling.” He made big saves, froze pucks, alleviated pressure on forechecks by coming out and playing pucks for his D.

He showed his size a few times by making outstretched pad saves that looked like they would be sure goals. He stopped all 11 pucks he saw in the third and 25 in all for his second straight win in a Wild sweater and the Wild’s first two-game winning streak since Nov. 16-20.

“He’s made some huge saves,” said Jason Zucker, who scored the winning goal on a second-period brief breakaway that was created by his speed, a nifty chip pass by Justin Fontaine and Dubnyk bypassing a few Coyotes with a clear. “There were definitely a few we thought would go in and somehow he kept them out.”

Dubnyk’s assist on the Zucker goal was the second of his career and the Wild’s first since Niklas Backstrom on Dec. 2, 2011. He is the sixth Wild goalie in history to record an assist. Regardless of the assist, Dubnyk’s puck-handling has been noticeable and a huge plus. He just negates forechecks coming out to play pucks and deeps the defensemen, that you know get hurt often, from getting smashed. Ryan Suter talks about that in my game notebook, which is on the statribune.com/wild page and paper Sunday.

I wrote most my gamer on Dubnyk and how the Wild was able to magically turn his Coyotes mask into a Wild-looking mask so quickly. So check that out if you wonder. He’s also wearing his Coyotes pants only with Wild green on top of his breezers. The pads were also the same Coyotes pads, but the Wild has leather swatches in Wild colors. Assistant equipment manager Rick Bronwell cuts traces of the pattern in the pad and the leather pieces just stick on.

Dubnyk had a bunch of cool stuff to say after the game and you can read that in the gamer.

“It was weird [playing my old team],” he said. “It was more weird being around the hotel and seeing them around there and walking over to the rink and stuff. I had the opportunity to play against Edmonton for the first time this year. I just tried to draw off of that experience and different things I do to just try to make the picture small and not worry too much about the situation and just concentrate on the game.”

Charlie Coyle looked like the Coyle fans want to see. Scored a goal, wiggled down the boards brushing off checks to set up one chance, got into a major-league battle with Michael Stone. Played angry, and coach Mike Yeo sat down with him a few days ago to let me know he wants more.

I loved Jonas Brodin’s game. Obviously was on for the one goal though. Jared Spurgeon was great for a second straight game. I liked Jason Pominville’s game early and how impressive was Marco Scandella?

Doesn’t practice after missing five games and comes in to play 24:48 and be plus-3. He just adds a different dimension.

“I was ready mentally,” Scandella said. “You just got to convince yourself you’re ok. I didn’t practice as much as I liked to, but I felt great.”

On the Coyotes’ push, Dubnyk said, “That’s a great group of guys that work hard over there and at some point they’re going to make a push and they did in the third. It’s how you handle those pushes and we did an incredible job. Lots of stuff from the outside and it’s my job to handle those.”

After the one goal, Antoine Vermette, his old teammate, said something to him. Asked what, Dubnyk, laughing, said, “He wanted me to give him a couple more. I said, ‘Sorry I can’t, maybe another time, not right now.’”

Yeo said the first half of the game was “fantastic, and then it seemed like we were getting a little bit frustrated that we weren’t extending our lead and we started to get away a little bit, which really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. So there’s some good teaching points in that game.

“Things we were doing early in the game that were leading to chances and that were making it so difficult and frustrating for them we started to get away from. We have to make sure on top of it the full 60 the next game for sure.”

Yeo felt the Wild defended well late and didn’t scramble the way it would have in recent games, but he felt players weren’t completely as composed as they needed to be in the third.

But a few weeks ago, the Wild probably would have lost this game. It won this won and maybe it’s starting to take steps in the right direction. We’ll see if the Wild can build on this in home-road back-to-backs Monday and Tuesday against Columbus and Detroit.

That’s it for me. Check out my Sunday Insider in the paper and startribune.com/wild on tanking, too. Rachel Blount is covering Sunday’s practice and Monday’s game, although I’ll come to the game and tweet away before my Tuesday morning flight to Detroit.

I'll also be on Rosen's Sports Sunday on CCO-TV on Sunday night.

I'll also be doing a live chat on startribune.com/wild at 1 p.m. CT Tuesday from Detroit.

Scandella returning tonight for Wild; More on Dubnyk, injuries, other Wild updates

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: January 17, 2015 - 1:36 PM

Happy Hockey Day Minnesota everybody.

Man, am I getting old. Just got out of the Coyotes locker room, where I was shooting the breeze with Connor Murphy.

I remember him as a toddler learning how to skate at Gold Coast Ice Arena in Pompano Beach, Fla., when I covered his dad, Gord Murphy, on the Panthers. Across the room was Sam Gagner, who I remember as a kid dominating youth hockey at Incredible Ice in Coral Springs when I covered his dad, Dave Gagner (the former North Star).

Connor said there are actually pictures of he and young Sam together on the ice as kids.

Wild and Coyotes tonight – two struggling teams, with the Coyotes about to begin a severe rebuild that was started with Devan Dubnyk being dealt to Minnesota and Keith Yandle and Antoine Vermette at least likely to be traded this season.

Dubnyk, three days after being traded from Arizona, vs. Mike Smith (the NHL’s worst qualifying goalie in SV% and GAA, tonight.

“He was just solid,” coach Dave Tippett said this morning of Dubnyk. “I’d like to say he came in and just reinvented himself, but he just came in and played a solid, simple game. I don’t think anybody anticipated Smitty’s struggles and when Smitty was struggling, he just came and stabilized things. Probably that’s why Chuck [Fletcher] thought he’d be a fit here right now. There’s nothing extraordinary about his game. He’s a big guy, just plays strong position and is very settling in there.”

Dubnyk was only in Arizona half a season, but he created quite a bond with his ex-teammates and went to dinner with a bunch of them last night.

“I made a lot of good friends there in a short period of time,” Dubnyk said.

But he said this is a great opportunity in Minnesota and said the Buffalo win was “One of the best games I’ve ever been a part of.”

He said he came to Arizona hoping for an opportunity at some point, whether it be this year or next and to get the opportunity to “get in the net and play again and to get it so soon, it’s real exciting to think about.”

Niklas Backstrom, one of the best pros around, was treating him royally today despite his future is in severe flux. Darcy Kuemper was back on the ice today with a new hipster haircut. I said, “Did you ask for the Scandella?” Turns out he did go to Scandella’s barber.

He’s getting close. Mikael Granlund has a doctor’s appointment today to see if he can get cleared to return for tomorrow’s practice. Ryan Suter has a game left in his suspension. And Scandella will be surprisingly put in the lineup tonight, so Yeo said, “We’re getting close to what our group should look like.”

Yeo does not have an answer yet how he’ll manage the three goalies once it arises. Only one can start, only one can back up. He said the most important thing is to make sure they’re all getting the reps, so to speak. Rachel Blount will have more on the goalie situation most likely in Monday’s paper because it’s expected they’ll make Backstrom available tomorrow.

Scandella did have a concussion from that puck to the head Jan. 6 and missed the past five games.

“Extremely frustrating. Team got a big win last game and just want to come in and hopefully help out,” he said. “I’ve been skating a bit, so you just go out there and play simple. I feel good, my head’s good. I’m just ready.”

On returning with zero practices under his belt and only a few days of practice, Scandella said, “That’s the luxury that sometimes you don’t get. But I worked hard on my way back. I feel great. Head, mind, everything, body feels great. Little rested too because the time off obviously helps with bumps and bruises.”

Yeo said he’s “very happy to have him back. I thought the defense did a great job last game, but he’s a huge part of our defensive group.”

On playing him with no practices, Yeo said, “He’s got a good base. He’s been skating,” and that he hasn’t been out for three or four weeks like Granlund, “so the fact that he hasn’t been out very long and given where we’re at in this season, I think we’re confident that he’s OK.”

Yeo has a busy day.

He was sprinting over to the airport to watch his son, Kyler, play for Hill Murray outdoors against St. Thomas Academy. His daughter, Braeden, has senior night at 3 for East Ridge against Roseville. Yeo had to go there to take part in the opening ceremonies and helped last night with her senior night posterboard.

“I’m pretty good with the arts and crafts,” he joked. “Typically on a gameday I go home and get my beauty sleep, but these are things you can’t miss as a parent.”

Yeo said most important is the Wild must get back to being a good home team tonight. This is a team that has won once in the past eight home games. It also hasn’t won two in a row since Nov. 16-20.

“Since I’ve been here we’ve always had stretches where we get on six-, eight-game runs,” Yeo said. “I guess one positive is we haven’t done that yet. I am optimistic that will happen at least once this year and hopefully more than once. Generally when we play a consistent game,” it gives them a chance to win every night.

We talked to Suter today about his time off and he had a lot of interesting stuff to say I’ll put in Sunday’s paper. Great stuff on what it’s like to watch the game from upstairs and also if he thinks the time off will help him. Also good stuff on Dubnyk.

Same lines tonight, meaning Jordan Schroeder is scratched.

Parise-Koivu-Pominville

Zucker-Haula-Vanek

Nino-Coyle-Carter

Cooke-Brodziak-Fontaine

Brodin-Folin

Scandella-Spurgeon

Prosser-Dumba

Blum is scratched. Shane Doan is hurt for Arizona.

Yesterday was J.P. Parise’s funeral. Suter lost his dad, Bob, in September.

“It was a good tribute to Zach’s dad,” Suter said. “It’s so sad and brings back memories to see him going through that, good friend, close friend. It went smooth. Hopefully it starts the healing for them.

“For him to be playing and then go bury your dad, it would have been hard to do. Now that’s it over, hopefully we can all move on.”

Yeo said, “It really hurts to see a teammate hurt.”

Sure it was the Sabres, but the Wild's 7-0 whipping gave Minnesota a much-needed, feel-good win

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: January 15, 2015 - 10:21 PM

Rex Ryan has a lot more work to do to fix the Buffalo defense than he imagined.

Oh, wrong coach, wrong team.

Fine night for the Wild to face the Sabres.

As I wrote the other day on the blog, it’s a little eerie that one year ago, the Wild was in the midst of a six-game losing streak entering its 43rd game of the season against the Buffalo Sabres. Mike Yeo’s job was in peril, the Wild’s goaltending was in shambles.

One year later, the Wild was in the midst of a six-game losing streak entering its 43rd game of the season against the Buffalo Sabres. Mike Yeo’s job is in peril, the Wild’s goaltending has been in shambles.

Last January, the Wild beat the Sabres, went on a 23-10-7 the rest of the way for the third-best record in the NHL and stormed into the playoffs.

This January, the Wild’s hoping its easy 7-0 win tonight over the Sabres with new goalie Devan Dubnyk in net was the start of the same turnaround.

The Sabres are awful, are in bottom-out, rebuild, go for Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel mode and it showed tonight. But the Wild got back to basics, defended well with a mishmash blue line and protected Dubnyk bigtime. Yes, it was the Sabres, but man, the Wild needed a game to start feeling good about itself again.

He was barely tested, making only 18 saves to become the first Wild goalie to ever debut with a shutout.

The seven-goal win was not only the largest margin of victory in Wild history, it was the largest margin of defeat for the Sabres since they moved from the Aud to the First Niagara Center in 1996. So, you may discount the win as the Wild beating a peewee team, but as much as the Sabres lose, they have never lost like this, not only this season, but not at home in 18-plus years.

“We’re all embarrassed. I’m speechless,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said.

Hey, he stole the Wild’s line, at least of late. Usually it's the Wild which says it's embarrassed. But the Wild won for the first time since Jan. 3 and first time on the road since Dec. 29 and most of all sat inside a happy locker room for a change after a game.

Funny Matt Cooke/Dubnyk anecdote to lead my gamer, so read that when the new one gets on at startribune.com/wild, but it’ll give you a good idea of just how much work Dubnyk had in his debut.

“The guys came out and worked so hard for me and allowed me to settle into the game,” he said. “We had a lead and the way we were playing we weren’t about to give it up. I could concentrate when the pucks came across the blue line, which wasn’t too often because of how solid we played.”

Dubnyk admitted he had some nerves, but mostly because his body was a little tired from his red-eye and 8 a.m. Buffalo arrival and the quick turnaround, but he tried not to build it up too big and just focused on making the save.

Zach Parise scored the winning goal 5:13 in, had an assist and six shots. Thomas Vanek had a season-high eight shots and also scored a power-play goal and assist against his longtime team. Kyle Brodziak (shorthanded, real good game) and Erik Haula (real good game) also had a goal and assist and Matt Dumba (plus-3, first pro fight), Jared Spurgeon (plus-4 a game after being minus-4) and Matt Cooke also scored as the Wild outshot the Sabres 37-18.

There were actually too many good games to list tonight.

Mikko Koivu had two assists for the first time since Nov. 24.

Jason Pominville posted his 31st career three-point game with three assists on a night the classy former Sabres captain was welcomed back with a video tribute that bizarrely didn’t happen last season.

He didn’t know it was going on until Parise told him while the team was on a power play. He was very appreciative.

Since Nov. 16, Pominville has 22 assists, tied for first in the NHL with Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf over that span.

He now has 134 career multi-point games and three in his past six games.

Parise said, “We were playing a team that was struggling, too. There was an emphasis on defending and let the other stuff come. We wanted to make sure we were taking care of our own end first and coming up the ice together, but limiting their chances. I thought we did a good job of that.

“When we’re playing well, that’s what we’re doing. We’re really not giving up too many Grade A chances. Throughout all zones, we played more of a five-man unit.”

He said, “When the goals are coming, when guys are talking, supporting each other, you get that excitement. It felt like everything just fell into place.”

Haula said, “We just had the mindset we’re going to put everything just out there and battle.”

Brodziak said, “There’s been a lot of talking lately and I thought everybody was focused on playing the right way. As the game wore on, you see what it does to other teams. Now we just have to bring that every single night and every single period.”

Dumba was real good for his first NHL game since Nov. 28. He said, “It’s kind of weird. Its didn’t feel like that at all. It just felt like I was very engaged, focused right from the get-go. Once I made a couple good, solid plays, I just played from there.”

Yeo like Dubnyk’s poise and size in net and the way he played pucks to alleviate pressure.

“We needed to give him a good chance and we needed to give our defensive group a good chance to play a solid game,” said Yeo, who loved the Wild’s overall game, the play of the D and the forwards and called it one of the best defensive games in weeks and proof that if you defend well, offense comes from that.

On Dumba, “We want him be impactful. … I like the fact that he’s trying to make a statement every time he’s on the ice.”

He liked Haula’s game a lot and wants him to continue to build his game.

On the win, “We can’t sit around and start feeling really good about ourselves. Unfortunately, we put ourselves in a pretty deep hole here, so as good as this game was, the next game’s more important.”

That’s it for now. The Wild is off Friday as the team will have a hard, emotional day as it supports Parise at his dad’s service. Then, Hockey Day Minnesota on Saturday when Dubnyk will face the Coyotes so soon after being traded from there.

I’ll have a story on that in Saturday’s paper and I’ll also be writing my Sunday Insider on “tanking” for McDavid and Eichel.

I will be doing a Podcast with Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan on Friday at 5 p.m. at O’Gara’s in St. Paul. Either come on down or listen live or later at souhanunfiltered.com.

Barring news, talk to you Saturday.

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