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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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.
Ugly, ugly performance tonight by the Wild really for the first time this season when the Montreal Canadiens outskated them from start to finish en route to a 6-2 victory.
The two goals make it sound closer than it actually was. Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley each scored with the Wild trailing by five goals, Heatley’s coming with 1.3 seconds left.
Max Pacioretty, who entered the game with two goals, an eight-game goalless drought and all but disappearing from USA Olympic talk, scored three goals (a natural hat trick) on 10 shots.
Josh Harding was pulled for the first time this season, and it was far from his fault. He held the Wild in a scoreless first period and did all he could in a one-sided second period. Coach Mike Yeo gave him the mercy pull so he didn’t have to endure any more punishment and could now have enough in the tank to start Wednesday in Ottawa.
From everything I’ve been told, the plan was to go with Darcy Kuemper in Ottawa (although Yeo was denying that after the game).
Regardless very doubtful that happens now. Kuemper, who gave up three goals on seven shots last month in Toronto, came in and gave up three goals on nine shots to the Canadiens. He was beaten on the first two shots he faced, meaning at that point, he had stopped four of 9 shots this season.
He is 3-7 in the minors with a goals-against just under 3.0. This is a problem, especially with Matt Hackett (who has actually been worse statistically in Rochester) no longer in the organization and Johan Gustafsson having next to no North American pro experience.
Niklas Backstrom is sidelined with a concussion. The Wild has a ton of games coming up, including back-to-backs the next three weeks and in four of the next five (not counting Wednesday). He is doing light workouts but not skating, so my guess now is the Wild will have to somehow add an experienced backup, whether it be trading a draft pick for a Scott Clemmensen-type or signing a Jose Theodore or a Rick DiPietro or a Mathieu Garon or somebody.
But Harding can’t do it all himself and it’s hard to be confident with Kuemper right now until he goes to Iowa and gets his game in order. He just doesn’t look comfortable in net. This kid knows how to play goal. He's played at a high level before. But right now, he's struggling.
Still, goaltending by Harding and Kuemper had nothing to do with tonight’s loss. The Wild, 10-1-2 in its previous 13, just had a clunker that happens over the course of every season.
The objective now it too get a little “ticked” as Yeo termed it and use it as a motivating factor in Ottawa.
The second and fourth lines had a tough time tonight. No sustained pressure, which led to a lot of playing on its heels and retreating. Jonas Brodin was a minus-4 (maybe he was getting used to his new half shield; just kidding), Ryan Suter was minus-3, Heatley was minus-3 and needs to be shown the video of his entire shift before Pacioretty’s first goal, a goal that started the snowball to roll. Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville and Torrey Mitchell were minus-2s.
Top line was even and Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser, Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke managed to be plus-1s.
Mitchell hurt his leg tonight. No update from Yeo, although he didn’t think it would be too serious. Still, if there’s a chance he can’t play, the Wild will either have to dress seven defensemen or recall a forward from Iowa. Mike Rupp’s extending his conditioning stint to play two games this weekend, so it won’t be him. Prosser did play forward a little bit last season.
Anyway, that’s it for me. Wild may not skate in the morning, so may be a late update Wednesday.
Evening from the X, where Mikko Koivu scored both goals and Josh Harding made 21 saves (8 on Blake Wheeler alone) to lift the Wild to a 2-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets for its sixth straight home win.
Read the game story for the details on www.startribune.com/wild, but Jets fans came in droves, chanted, taunted Harding, causing Wild fans to boo and give it right back with loud “Let’s Go Wild” cheers.
“So how about our fans tonight? It was awesome. I loved it,” coach Mike Yeo said. “Their fans are great, there’s no question. They travel well. They’re loud. I thought our fans were awesome.”
Read more about that in the gamer, like I mentioned, but one’s got to think Harding should be one of the three Stars of the Week on Monday in the NHL. Four goals in three wins and 12 goals in eight games (7-0-1) this month to help left the Wild, which has points in 12 of its last 13 (10-1-2).
Harding is 9-0-2 since Oct. 17 for the longest point streak in a single season by a goalie in Wild history. He is 10-0 at home with a 1.15 GAA. He is 12-2-2 overall and leads the NHL with a 1.26 GAA and .946 SV%. In his career at the X, he is 31-9-2, including 24-4-1 since Jan. 27, 2010.
Koivu recorded his 13th career multi-goal game and Zach Parise tried to set him up for the empty-net hat trick, but Parise said that he led him too far with the pass. Koivu’s winner came with 3:12 left after he won a draw to Ryan Suter. Suter patiently sent it to Charlie Coyle, who cut down low along the half wall, spun away from Keaton Ellerby and passed to Koivu in the left circle, who one-timed a laser past Ondrej Pavelec.
Koivu has nine points in his past six games.
“Offensively, I sure hope he keeps going the way he is right now because defensively, every single night, he’s just a guy that’s extremely difficult to play against,” Yeo said.
Suter logged 30:08 of ice time and blocked a career-high seven shots. The Wild, the NHL’s third-best faceoff team (.549), won 33 of 52 faceoffs.
The Wild is the best defensive team in the West, giving up 1.95 goals per game (2nd in the NHL). It has allowed the fewest shots in the NHL (24.0) and the fewest 5-on-5 goals (19 in 21 games).
Marco Scandella had another outstanding game, assisting on Koivu’s first goal. Since being scratched in three in a row, Scandella is plus-9 in 15 games with one minus-1 game in that stretch. His MO has been inconsistency, but that’s awfully consistent and I think one big thing is he doesn’t have the minors hanging over his head anymore.
Mikael Granlund had another outstanding effort. Great on both sides of the puck, and Koivu and Granlund did this with Finnish brass Jari Kurri and Erkka Westerlund in the press box scouting. Granlund had four shots, attempted eight shots and won 8 of 11 draws after winning 7 of 10 last game. He's also sneakily good with the stick, constantly taking pucks away from unsuspecting opponents like his countryman and mentor, Koivu.
Matt Dumba looked much more at ease tonight and Jonas Brodin was much better than recent games.
The Wild got off to an outstanding start tonight, dominated the first period and jumped out to a 1-0 lead on Koivu’s first goal. It left some other goals on the ice, so to speak. Kyle Brodziak missed the net on a couple chances, Nino Niederreiter set up a three scoring chances on one shift, including one from his belly, Jason Pominville was stopped from in tight, Jared Spurgeon whistled one wide of the net during a monster shift by the top line.
The momentum turned with a second-period penalty, and Harding had to be great. For the second game in a row, the Wild began to get sloppy in the neutral zone and that made life difficult on itself as the Jets began to pressure.
Dustin Byfuglien scored 54 seconds into the third, but Yeo said, “Once they tied it up, something clicked.”
Koivu then tied it. For the second game in a row, it was that line on the ice for the tying goal only to recover and get the winner.
On the Parise-Koivu-Coyle line, Yeo said, “Those guys were going all night. That line was great all night long, so I’m not surprised to find them in that situation.”
Parise, always honest though, said the Wild had to figure out why it’s getting some complacent in games it’s dominating because it will eventually catch up to them. Remember, the Wild has yet to play teams like San Jose, St. Louis, Coloradoand Phoenix, and he said “there are good teams out there that will make you pay for it.”
Wild hits the road for four after practice Monday, heading to Montreal (Scandella’s second return to his hometown), Ottawa (Matt Kassian), Winnipeg and St. Louis (Team Minnesota!)
I’ve got a couple good stories in the works, a couple that may be in Tuesday’s paper. I’ll talk to you after Monday’s practice, although I’ll have to hustle to make my flight, so who knows when. That’s it for me.
Wild survived a ginormous scare tonight when the Florida Panthers rallied from a 2-0 deficit with a pair of goals 5 ½ minutes apart by the 8 ½ minute-mark of the third period.
But one shift after Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Charlie Coyle, Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin were on the ice for the Jonathan Huberdeau equalizer, the same exact fivesome was on the ice to set up the winner by Coyle, who one-upped his former Saint John teammate (Huberdeau).
Koivu redeemed himself for a giveaway on the tying goal by setting up Coyle’s third career winner with 8:22 left.
The Wild improved to 9-1-2 in its past 12 overall and 6-0-1 in November. It has won five in a row at home and nine of its last 10 at the X.
Good evening from high above the being-boarded-up rink.
Read the gamer for all the details and quotes and also give my game notebook a read here. With Niklas Backstrom sidelined with a concussion, if it looks like he will be out long-term, GM Chuck Fletcher told me he will look at adding a goaltender to provide depth and help Josh Harding.
The Wild is two games into a stretch of 17 games in 30 nights. In each of the next four weeks, the Wild has a back-to-back set and in five of the next six.
Harding is 11-2-2, has given up 19 goals in 16 games, hasn’t lost in regulation since Oct. 17 (8-0-2 since) and is 9-0 at home. He’s been outstanding. But he will need to be spelled during this stretch, so the Wild may need to get a goalie.
Read the story, but one option could be free agent … Jose Theodore. It may never get to that point though because Backstrom told goalie coach Bob Mason he is feeling better. So we will see.
Tonight, the Wild got off to a great start, dictated play, was on its toes, jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals by Parise and Jason Pominville before the tide turned in the second. You could sense it coming. The Panthers tightened up and Yeo had no problem for the Wild “going for the throat,” but he didn’t like the way the Wild was playing with the puck and the team just made life more difficult on itself.
Finally the momentum shifted and Tomas Kopecky and Huberdeau scored.
Call it a lesson learned to a feisty Panthers team that has played quite well since the coaching change last week. It’s the first time all season the Wild has blown a two-goal lead. Yeo felt the Wild fell into the trap after a well-executed first that the rest of the night would be easy.
Like I said, please read the gamer for the details, but a couple things I didn’t get into:
-- The first line of Koivu, Parise and Coyle were solid all night. The Panthers were in the Wild’s face in the neutral zone and at the offensive blue line the last two periods. That was the one line that continually popped pucks behind Florida’s defense and went to work
-- Mikael Granlund continues to play well. He’s now getting more and more penalty kill time. Tonight the PK went 3 for 3.
“He’s earned it with the way he’s played 5-on-5,” Yeo said, adding that Granlund’s smart, detailed and obviously has speed and a good stick.”
-- Jared Spurgeon continues to play terrifically. Solid defensively, tonight had an assist, three hits, two blocks.
-- Brodin had a very tough night with the puck and it’s been a lot since he has been back. He told me in Washington he’d have to wear the bubble for another two or three weeks to protect his broken cheekbone. I asked Yeo after the game how long it would be until the bubble comes off (it’s clear it’s affecting his puck play), and Yeo said with a big smile, “I don’t know, but I plan to ask tomorrow.”
I’d say Yeo agrees with my assessment.
-- Pominville leads the team with 12 goals and now has 9 goals and 13 points in the last 11 games. He had his 118th multi-point game.
-- Koivu had two assists for his 94th multi-point game.
-- Parise has 10 goals and has 6 goals and 12 points in his last 11.
The Wild is having a very giant optional practice tomorrow, so optional in fact that I’ve been pretty much told there’s no reason to attend. So unless there’s news, no blog.
Enjoy your Saturday and talk to you Sunday.
Update: Kadri has a noon CT hearing today for steamrolling Niklas Backstrom. This has two games written all over it. The league is not further disciplining him on Granlund hit.
The Wild improved to 5-0-1 in its past six and 8-1-2 in its past 11 by rallying for a 2-1 shootout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight.
As always, please read the game story for all the good, but Zach Parise tied the game with 4:17 left before Parise and Jason Pominville scored in the shootout to lift Minnesota to a game it pretty unarguably deserved to win.
Other than its power play continually failing them, the Wild severely outchanced Toronto. Jonathan Bernier was great as usual against the Wild (eight goals allowed in 434 minutes against Minnesota) and the Maple Leafs’ defenders continually got sticks in the Wild’s way to knock chances out of harm’s way.
The big story of the way was menace Nazem Kadri, the 2009 seventh overall pick. He knocked Niklas Backstrom out of the game 10 ½ minutes in by not only barreling him over, but giving him a forearm shiver to the head.
Backstrom sustained an “upper-body” injury, which means he’ll need to see an “upper-body” specialist for an “upper-body” baseline test. Later, Kadri, who was running around all game with no Wild players challenging him (he once hog-tied Nino Niederreiter and sent him to the ice, creamed Mikael Granlund for a match penalty hit to the head.
The one on Backstrom I think will be really scrutinized by the league (as all the Wild players said, it's the type of blow to the head the league wants to rid), especially if the NHL sees the hit on Granlund the way Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle saw it: “It’s beyond me the five-minute major. I just looked at it. He made initial contact with the shoulder and the kid had the head down. (Kadri) didn’t have his arms up and he ran into the player and Granlund snapped his head back. Obviously the referee’s saw it differently and obviously when it’s a five-minute match penalty it’ll be reviewed.”
Kadri wasn’t made available. Josh Harding came in and made 19 saves to improve to 10-2-2.
The big story of the game though was Toronto creating havoc, taking runs at guys (Marco Scandella, Granlund, Jared Spurgeon, Niederreiter obviously Backstrom) and the Wild not doing the same. Now, the Wild could have made Toronto pay if its power play wasn’t, as Yeo admitted, “out of sorts.” Also, because the Wild was trying to rally, Zenon Konopka only played seven shifts. Also, Mike Rupp’s in Iowa on a rehab stint.
But maybe the lack of response did show that the Wild may need to spot Rupp in against some of the more aggressive teams in the NHL. As of now, if the Wild’s healthy up front, it’ll be hard for Rupp to get games. But there may be times where Yeo may need to consider him.
Yeo said, “Do we match up against that team's toughness? No, we don’t. If we want to start trading off, we go after Kadri, next thing you know, what are they going to go after? They’re going to go after our guys too and again we don’t match up in that toughness department against them. Now we do have a team that cares about each other very much, and we stick up for each other, trust me. You saw Brodzy (Kyle Brodziak) getting in there for Nino and you saw guys competing and battling and trying to have that team toughness. Between the whistles and the way we fought through this game and found a way to win, that’s a message too to your teammates.”
The Wild just aren’t built like Toronto, so while there may be times where the Wild may be exposed for what even Yeo admits is a lack of toughness, I’m not overly concerned this is a huge problem yet. Some fans were tweeting me incessantly that the Wild are “soft.” The reality is, this is the first time all season a team came in intent on trying to push the Wild around, and the end result?
The Wild completely outplayed that team and ended up taking two points. At the end of the day, this alleged soft team has gotten points in 10 of the last 11 games and the last six. So this is not as big a deal yet as I think these fans are making it out to be.
The power play was an issue tonight. I’m not a big fan of Jason Pominville in the slot, although on the major, he nearly scored from that area. I just like his booming shot from the point. I think he’s more effective there. I also love the chemistry with Coyle on the top line with Parise and Mikko Koivu, so to me, keep that going and if you want a right-shot on the second unit, toss Justin Fontaine in the middle or use Jared Spurgeon there. I also don’t like the No. 2 unit without Niederreiter. But the past few power plays tonight, Yeo went with a second unit of Granlund, Coyle, Heatley, Brodin and Scandella.
Yeo said the Wild obviously has to look at the power play.
I thought the Wild’s D played real well again tonight. Under the radar has been Spurgeon. He has kind of been overshadowed by Ryan Suter’s 108 minutes the past three games (most ice time in a three-game stretch since ice time started to be tracked in 2000 (according to Elias) and Marco Scandella’s rising game. But Spurgeon’s been good in every zone.
Harding, sick last night, came in cold and again was solid, especially late in overtime. Just a good two points, and the Wild needed a puck off two skates to beat Jonathan Bernier (33 saves).
Yeo gave some good kudos tonight to Brodziak, Matt Cooke and Justin Fontaine, who went up a lot against Phil Kessel’s line and also helped create momentum after the failed five-minute major before Parise’s equalizer. Wild could have won in regulation if not for Bernier. After Parise’s goal, it was all Wild.
“Bernier was lights out. It was one of the better goaltending performances I’ve seen this year,” Harding said.
Talk to you Thursday after practice. Check out my Charlie Coyle notebook and my Wild Minute with actor Erik Stolhanske.
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