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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I’m looking forward to Sunday because I’ll actually get to sit down and watch Saturday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche over again – or for the first time.
All I know, every time I took a break from writing my file-at-the-gun metro-edition article (that actually needed to be in before the game ended, like when the Wild trailed 2-0!), I looked to my right and the Wild was in the offensive zone.
It seemed to me almost every waking moment the Wild got pucks deep and went to work on Colorado in the offensive zone. But this is the Wild. Scoring goals never comes easy, and tonight, it took Matt Cooke’s goal with 3:27 left and Mikko Koivu’s dramatic tying goal with 4.3 seconds left to force overtime.
The Wild didn’t score in the shootout and fell 3-2, but the way the Wild has been losing and most notably the way its game has fallen apart, this could be a huge point and stepping stone in the right direction.
“We’ve been pressing offensively,” Kyle Brodziak said. “It was a good job by everybody of not getting frustrated, not getting caught up in negative thinking. We just kept on playing. It was nice to get rewarded for that. We have to keep doing that, coming out and playing aggressive and being hungry.”
That sentiment was the common theme afterward and I’m still trying to wrap my head around what exactly happened here tonight.
The hockey cliché (and if you’ve been a Wild fan since its inception, you know it by heart), “If we keep playing like that, the goals will come and we’ll win more games than we lose,” was uttered more than a few times tonight. The reality is, the Wild got to the hard areas, outchanced the Avs 2 to 1, outshot them 37-25 and would have won this game if not for Semyon Varlamov.
Now again, I know the cynics out there will all say the Wild makes every goalie look like the second coming of Patrick Roy, but the reality is even when the Wild fell behind 2-0 tonight, it was all over Colorado for seven or eight shifts in a row. Then one Marco Scandella whiff, and Nathan MacKinnon made the Wild pay.
But coach Mike Yeo said he told the players that if they kept playing the type of game it was and didn’t stray from it, even if it took 59 minutes, 59 seconds, they would get rewarded.
Koivu came through … again. In the past eight games, he has a winner with 3:12 left, a winner with 2:57 left and now a tying goal with 4.3 seconds left.
It was an interesting game. It was a weird start because the Wild had a lot of scoring chances, but it was loosey goosey in the neutral zone, turned a lot of pucks over and Colorado was able to come with speed time and again. Things finally settled down.
First, Yeo gave us some different looks, reuniting the Zach Parise-Koivu-Jason Pominville line – a line that for some reason just hasn’t clicked for the most part, although they were much better tonight and obviously teamed for the Koivu equalizer – and the Cooke-Brodziak-Torrey Mitchell line. That line was sensational, spending almost every single shift in the offensive zone creating chances. Cooke had five shots, was hard on Colorado’s defensemen, was all over the net and finally scored for the first time since Oct. 12, snapping a 22-game drought. Mitchell had a slew of chances, too, and Brodziak and Mitchell assisted on Cooke’s goal.
Charlie Coyle started on a line with Jason Zucker and Justin Fontaine but was quickly elevated to a line with Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley. That line was real good, too, spending lots of shifts in the offensive zone. Niederreiter was a beast down low and Heatley had a solid game for the most part.
Coyle’s exposed weakness right now is faceoffs. Coyle lost 12 of 16 faceoffs and has lost 27 of 33 in the past three games he has played predominately center. Regardless, Coyle will probably have to stay at center with Mikael Granlund and Zenon Konopka hurt.
Yeo also scrambled his top two defense pairs, separating Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin by pairing Suter with Jared Spurgeon and Brodin with Scandella.
Spurgeon had a real rough game tonight. Scandella had a mostly good game other than the one turnover on the MacKinnon goal, but he redeemed himself with a huge play to keep the puck in on Cooke’s goal.
One giant mea culpa. Yeo didn’t want to talk to us before the game about who was starting in goal. When I found out Josh Harding was starting, I assumed it was a reflection as to how badly the Wild wanted to win (Harding’s been the more reliable) and that it was a reflection as to where the team thinks Niklas Backstrom’s game is.
After all, Backstrom is 24-5-3 all-time against the Avalanche and 11-2-1 in Denver with a 2.02 goals-against average. Turns out Yeo said after the game that Backstrom was supposed to start, but he was sick, so Harding got the last-second nod and Backstrom backed up.
Referees Dan O’Halloran and Gord Dwyer called a penalty-free game, the first in Wild history and the first in the NHL since Feb. 28 (Toronto at Islanders).
Wild certainly did enough to draw a penalty tonight, but nevertheless, the Wild now has drawn 29 power plays in the past 11 games and 20 in the past nine.
Anyway, the Wild took the positives tonight.
“Fair to say, our game’s been more down than up lately, and the most important first step for us was to go out and play a really good game and have everybody on board,” Yeo said. “It was a different feeling on the bench than what we’ve had lately. There was a lot more talk, guys were a lot more engaged.”
There were even two flybys by Cooke and Koivu!!!
That’s it for me. I believe practice will be scrapped now Sunday after two back-to-back games and the team not due into MSP until 2 a.m. Flyers are in town Monday. Talk to you then if no news Sunday.
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 has recalled center/winger Erik Haula from AHL Iowa. Veteran Mike Rupp has been designated for non-roster status because he is heading home for a few days because of a death in his family, Rupp said today.
Haula was in town for Thanksgiving, so the Wild had his equipment shipped to Minnesota from Des Moines, Iowa. He got a call yesterday that this most likely would happen.
Coach Mike Yeo is keeping tonight's roster mum until warmups, but Haula, the former Gopher, thinks he is making his NHL debut during today's 5 p.m. game against the Colorado Avalanche.
"Every time I've been here, you always think of what it feels like," Haula said. "Now it’s actually happening. It’s pretty crazy."
Haula didn't even have his suit here, saying, "Thankfully it was Black Friday. I got a good deal."
The Wild does need a second-line center and Haula says he is playing center. The original plan was to play Justin Fontaine there, but with Rupp put on non-roster status, the Wild was able to open up a roster spot for Haula. Haula is tied for second on Iowa with 10 points (four goals) in 18 games and I felt was having a great training camp until about three or four days to go.
My guess now is Fontaine only plays if Zach Parise can't because the third line is expected to be Jason Zucker-Kyle Brodziak-Dany Heatley and the fourth line is expected to be Matt Cooke-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell. I'd think Mitchell plays over Fontaine because of his penalty-kill role.
I think Parise may be playing. Yeo wouldn't say for sure, but he was just on the bench listening to music doing his normal pregame visualization.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere in goal for Colorado. My guess is Josh Harding starts for Minnesota, but we will find out soon.
Happy Thanksgiving from the X, where the Wild practiced, including Zach Parise. He lasted the whole thing, every now and then skating up to assistant athletic therapist John Worley to talk about his bum foot.
Parise is officially listed as questionable for Friday's 5 p.m. game against Colorado -- the front of a home and home. It'll be a tough challenge despite the fact the Wild has had Colorado's number for seven years or so -- 31-11-5 in its past 47 and 12-2-2 in its past 16 in Denver.
Coach Mike Yeo wouldn't reveal which goalie would start in goal. Josh Harding practiced and if he's healthy, I'd think he starts if for no other reason than his stellar home record. I'd think Niklas Backstrom starts in Denver.
Center Mikael Granlund has been placed on injured reserve with a head injury (officially upper-body, but I'm not blind), meaning he will miss at least a week or at a minimum three games -- probably more -- after three hard hits in the past eight games.
Granlund took a head shot from Toronto's Nazem Kadri, then took a hard hit four games later from Ottawa's Marc Methot where he crashed into the boards. He missed two games, returned to the lineup last night against Phoenix and was lost 29 seconds into his first shift when he was hit high by rookie defenseman Connor Murphy as Granlund tried to deliver a check.
Yeo said the Wild didn't rush Granlund back.
"To sit here and say in hindsight that I wish he didn’t play, of course," Yeo said. "But when a guy’s cleared to play, what are you going to do? You going to say no? He was cleared to play and obviously cleared to play with the idea that we wanted to be careful and think about the big picture. Sometimes things happen."
Left wing Jason Zucker, who played three games in Ottawa, Winnipeg and St. Louis before being reassigned yesterday to make room for Keith Ballard and Torrey Mitchell, has been recalled and should stay awhile now. Zucker scored twice in Iowa's win last night at Chicago.
He was sent down Wednesday with Darcy Kuemper. They had 3 p.m. flights that were delayed, they arrived for the game vs. the Wolves at 5:30 p.m. with only airport pizza in their stomachs and beat the Wolves. Zucker was pulled off the bus headed to Iowa after the game to go to an airport hotel for sleep, then a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call to fly back to Minnesota because of the Granlund injury.
Zucker's recall doesn't fill the center need though. Charlie Coyle has played better at wing than center, although we all saw in training camp that he has the ability to play the position. He won the second-line center spot outright until spraining his knee. Granlund filled in admirably.
Besides being more of an offensive-threat at wing, Coyle hasn't done well in the faceoff circle. He has won 38 percent of his draws this season. In his last four games predominately at center, Coyle has lost 30 of 43 faceoffs and 15 of 17 the past two games.
So in practice today, Yeo experimented with Justin Fontaine, who has rarely played center in his college or pro career, as second-line center, putting Zucker on the third line and Matt Cooke, goalless since Oct. 12, on the fourth line.
Lines: Parise-Koivu-Coyle; Nino-Fontaine-Pominville; Zucker-Brodziak-Heatley; Cooke-Konopka-Mitchell.
Why Coyle back to the top line as a winger rather than second line as a center?
"The games we've been winning lately, that line has been producing," Yeo said of Parise-Koivu-Coyle. "We were forced into a situation where we had to break it up, but I think what we have to try to do is look at it in a different way and keep that line together and fill some holes elsewhere."
Yeo made clear, "I’ve got no problem putting [Coyle] at center, but I think we have to try to give that line a chance to get back to the type of dominance they were having and the success they were having. Instead of breaking them up, let’s arm those guys with what they need to lead our group. We need people to step up, whether it’s a guy coming into the lineup like Zuck or whether it’s a guy biting off a little more ice time."
On Fontaine moving to center, Yeo said, "Just trying things. Thought we'd give it a shot."
Fontaine is looking forward to the opportunity. He is 2 for 2 on faceoffs this season and doesn't practice them much.
On Zucker on the third line, Yeo said it should elevate that line with Brodziak and Heatley and give it some speed. "Heater had one of his strongest games in a long time last night," Yeo said. "He was strong on a lot of puck battles and had three really good scoring chances and one goal. We'll use this as an opportunity to continue to help him grow his game, get it back to his top level."
By the way, I questioned yesterday why the Wild wouldn't just keep Zucker here and keep Mitchell on IR. Yeo said it was because the Wild needed Mitchell because of his role as a penalty killer.
On Cooke being demoted to the fourth line, Yeo said, "Many times when players haven’t scored in awhile, they start to do things that hurt themselves. We all remember how he scored his goals." He needs to get back to "doing the right things," Yeo said.
Today was a long, long practice with a ton of teaching moments. Yeo interrupted practice a lot with whistles, saying afterward, "there's a couple parts of our game that have slipped and we have to try to get it back."
There is no morning skate Friday because of the early game. I'll be back with you after Yeo's 2:45 p.m. availability. I will also be on Fox Sports North during Friday's Wild Live pregame show and first intermission.
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.
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