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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With one exhibition game left Saturday night against the St. Louis Blues in St. Paul, the Wild is getting down to the nitty-gritty in terms of its roster.
The five guys recalled for Thursday’s game were sent down today, as well as Curt Gogol (waivers) and Gustav Olofsson (expected).
There were effectively two cuts today – forwards Brett Sutter and Michael Keranen. Sutter is on waivers and will be assigned to Iowa if he clears Saturday. Keranen, who eventually does have an out where he can return to Finland, is willing to give Iowa a try.
As I mentioned the past week, strength is the only issue with him and just adjusting to the NHL rink. He’s not a fourth-liner and since there’s no room on the power play, the Wild felt it was better to get him to Iowa and get him playing. With him, Mike Yeo said it’s fit. There’s not too many players in the Wild organization (not in Minnesota) with Keranen’s vision and skill, so if the Wild loses a top-9 winger or power-play guy, Keranen would be one of the first guys to call up.
Sutter was on for a couple goals last season and he was competing with Cody Almond for one spot. Almond is on a one-way contract, which gives him the inside track, plus he can head back to Switzerland if he doesn’t make the team. And since the Wild doesn’t have a lot of centers to call up if there’s an injury, I just don’t think the Wild’s willing to let what is its fifth-best center leave.
So, here’s the deal: The roster is at 27. Josh Harding will be a non-roster injured player, putting it at 26. As of now, there likely isn’t room for Ilya Bryzgalov (barring something unforeseen Saturday; hey, this is the Wild, so anything’s possible), so he’ll have a decision: My guess is the Wild will offer him a two-way contract or an AHL contract (AHL contract may actually be better for him because then it gives him flexibility if somebody comes calling). If he accepts, he’ll go to Iowa eventually. If he doesn’t, he’ll be released from his tryout.
Regardless, Bryzgalov’s departure in some capacity puts the roster at 25 – two more than the maximum. Justin Fontaine will start on injured reserve.
That means technically the Wild only has to make one more cut if it plans to keep the maximum 23 guys.
The roster hopefuls left: left wing Jason Zucker, right wing Stu Bickel (he played wing today; more on this below), left wing Stephane Veilleux, Almond and defensemen Christian Folin and Matt Dumba. It is very clear that Nate Prosser is not considered a roster hopeful. He is sticking for now.
I think Zucker has made the team. Same thing with Almond. So, the Wild can either keep Folin AND Dumba or risk waivers with one of either Bickel or Veilleux. Of those two, I think Veilleux would be the one because of how much the Wild values Bickel’s ability to play up front and the blue line and his toughness.
But again, if Folin and Dumba both aren’t in the top-six consistently, it would be one of them to eventually go. But technically, there is room for both.
“They’re making it tough,” Yeo said. “It’s not like one guy’s pulled ahead from the other. It’s not like both guys are not playing well. Both guys have made a case to be not only one of our top six but both of them are making us think do we need to put both these guys in the lineup?”
Folin said, “I think I’ve been making small adjustments to my game, getting better every game here. Four or five games I’ve played now and Traverse City, too. It definitely helped going to Traverse City to get my lungs going, but overall I feel I’m getting better.”
On whether he wakes up every day worried he’ll still be here, Folin said, “I just try to show up every day like I’m in the NHL right now. I mean, why not enjoy it?”
Dumba said of the stress of trying to make the team, “It’s part of hockey. You get a little stressed, but you can’t really focus on that. I’m here right now. That’s all that counts. I’ve been pretty happy with my camp. I thought I’ve played well. I’ve done well on the power play and made some plays out there. I feel a lot more confident this year. I feel like there’s a lot of little things in my game that are a lot better that maybe the regular eye doesn’t see, but I hope the coaching staff and everyone else does.”
On Prosser, Yeo said he plans to talk to Prosser. “I just want him to have a bit of patience because we do have some things to sort out [with Folin and Dumba] and I know Pross’ game and I know he can come in and be a very good player for us.”
But he won’t play Saturday and probably not in Thursday’s opener vs. the Avs.
With Prosser, it’s about trust. “I know he’s going to compete, I know that he’s going to play the system, I know he’s going to be very difficult to play against. He’s a tough guy in front of the net and a tough guy to get scoring chances against. That’s something that all the coaches value greatly and he’s a big part of our dressing room, too, so we’re happy to have him back.”
Prosser said, “It feels like I never left, like nothing’s changed. Same exact stall. It literally feels like I just went somewhere for two weeks and skated with a few different guys and came back right where I was. Good to be back.”
Prosser said reality set in when his two girls woke up this morning and he was there in the same house.
Assistant coach Andrew Brunette joked, according to Yeo, that it felt like the movie, Saving Private Ryan: “Saving Private Prosser. Go behind enemy lines. We smuggled him out and brought him back on the flight home for us. I coached Pross a long tme. Happy to have him back.”
Yeo said with the demotions, “I guess the message is there’s nothing permanent, and that message also goes to the guys that are here. Nothing’s permanent. This is where we’re at today.”
Bickel played right wing in the skate today. Yeo said that’s where he’ll stay unless he needs him back at the blue line. One reason is it opens the door for Dumba and Folin and Prosser, but I also wonder if Yeo saw what havoc physical forwards like Ryan Reaves and Paul Bissonnette caused last night and wonders if Bickel can play that role on the fourth line with Fontaine injured.
Haula centered the fourth line today. After those early scrimmages, Haula’s camp hasn’t been very good. He had a very bad game in Pittsburgh and struggled last night.
Yeo admitted today that he’s not happy with Haula’s camp, talked to him on the bench during last night’s game and planned to pull him in his office after today’s practice.
“We have to remember with Haulzy and it’s important that he remembers it too, he hasn’t played a full season in the NHL yet. So we can’t be too quick to throw the world at him and we can’t be too quick to get down on him. He’s still a young player who’s developing.”
Yeo said the fourth line role today wasn’t a message, but in the next breath, he said he was rewarding guys who have been playing the way the team expects.
Haula said of his camp, “It’s been tough. I feel like I’ve done good things and I’ve also been a little inconsistent maybe. Good thing it’s preseason. I know what I’m capable of, I know what my identity is and what my job is. I’ve just got to play strong and keep my mind strong and just get ready for the next practice and the next game.
“There’s been times where I haven’t played as well as I wanted to play. It’s preseason, thank God, luckily. I still have a few practices and a game hopefully to get ready and get going.”
Trust me, DO NOT freak out about all this Haula stuff. He will be fine. He will have a significant role. This isn’t Yeo picking on him. This is just a coach making sure that a very important player on this team wakes up and gets his game in order.
But Haula is a second-year pro and still has to earn his place. And his game in Pittsburgh was, by his own admission, awful (three glaring turnovers). And last night, he had one scoring chance, but he was on for the tying goal and just did not play well. He has got to play better, and as we all have seen, can play better.
Speaking of turnovers, Almond is still trying to get out of some bad habits. He has had some big boo-boos, but for the most part, Yeo seems improvement in his quickness and pace of play and playmaking ability. But he wants him to lose some of these big-ice habits and fit more with the Wild’s style of game.
Darcy Kuemper will start Saturday. Yeo didn’t tell us yet the rest of Saturday’s lineup. He indicated it will largely be the NHL lineup (and frankly, it should, because in my opinion, the only game we saw the Wild play most its lineup was earlier this week against Pittsburgh, and despite three third-period goals by Jason Pominville, I thought the played terribly).
But Yeo indicated some guys in Saturday’s lineup will be there because “we have to finish answering questions we need answered.”
The Wild, 2-1-1 in the preseason, plays its second-to-last exhibition game Thursday night in St. Louis.
There is NO bigger game going on involving ANY local team Thursday night, so make sure you keep your eyes ONLY on the @russostrib Twitter network and listen to 107.9-FM. The Wild game has been moved from KFAN to KOOL 108 for NO reason WHATSOEVER.
The big piece of news that came out of today’s practice is right wing Justin Fontaine will miss a couple weeks and definitely the Oct. 9 opener with a lower-body injury. It explains why the poor guy, who was walking a bit gingerly off the ice today, looked so glum. Coach Mike Yeo said “hopefully it’ll be less than that, but that’s what we’re preparing for right now.”
“Nothing serious that we wouldn’t expect him to be completely fine afterward. It’s just going to take a little time,” Yeo said.
Fontaine’s injury opens another roster spot out of camp up front. Barring injury, here’s the lines as of now:
As you can see by my three XXXXXX’s, there’s potentially three forward spots available and five guys now vying for them: Jason Zucker, Cody Almond, Brett Sutter, Michael Keranen and Stephane Veilleux.
I’m expecting all five to play in Thursday’s game. On the trip: Those five, Niederreiter, Haula, Coyle, Brodziak, Ballard, Dumba, Bickel, Folin and Scandella.
I’ll toss the full lineup on here after 4 p.m. The Wild is delaying the announcement because as previously reported, it plans to recall some players previously sent down for the Blues game. From that list, the Wild is three forwards and one defenseman short for the game.
The Wild recalled forwards Tyler Graovac, Zack Phillips and Joel Rechlicz and defensemen Jon Blum and Justin Falk. One defenseman of the seven coming will likely be scratched unless Yeo chooses to play Bickel at forward again. Then, another forward would be scratched.
By the way, Jordan Schroeder cleared waivers and was assigned to Iowa.
I think Zucker has had a good camp, or at least much better than last year. Keranen is interesting. He is very, very skilled, but do you want him playing on the fourth line if he’s not on the power play? And right now, I don’t see how there’s room for him on the power play.
We all know what Veilleux brings by now, and Yeo made it sound today like it’s Almond vs. Sutter (Darryl’s kid) for the other spot.
“Both guys [are] pretty similar to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “That’s been a good competition there, both guys showing that they’re willing to play the body, both guys have factored in on the penalty kill, both guys have made some plays with the puck in the offensive zone when they’ve gotten it. So I think for them, the better the understanding that they have of what we’re looking for – we’re looking for somebody to come in and not be a top guy on the power play. Our top two lines are pretty set, our power play is pretty set, but we need penalty killers, we need physical guys, we need momentum players and we need guys that are very responsible defensively. That, in the end, is probably what it’s going to come down to.”
I talked to Zucker, Almond and Sutter today, and you can read their quotes in Thursday’s paper.
Thursday’s game will be a final chance for those five listed above and maybe defensemen Matt Dumba, Christian Folin and Stu Bickel to make final impressions. As I have written before, technically, the Wild could keep all three and will only keep BOTH Dumba and Folin if BOTH are inside the top-6 (meaning Ballard as the seventh, barring injury).
That’s because Yeo, and earlier this week GM Chuck Fletcher, said that Saturday’s final exhibition game against St. Louis at home will feature “very close to if not” the lineup the Wild plans to play opening night.
“Not to say that game [Thursday in St. Louis] is going to be the deciding factor, but if you want to compare it to school, that’s going to be the final exam and probably the grades in that one are going to count a little bit more than the ones from the start of the year,” Yeo said. “We will evaluate everything as a whole, but what we’re looking for is the progress.”
I love that quote.
Niklas Backstrom, by the way, will play in St. Louis with Ilya Bryzgalov backing him up. Darcy Kuemper will play in Saturday’s preseason finale.
Yeo said the Wild planned to meet after practice to discuss the three-goalie situation. However, I’m not sure that happened because GM Chuck Fletcher only recently got back from the Board of Governors meeting in New York.
Also, I’m not positive Fletcher wants to have that conversation yet because so much can happen in these final two games.
I mean, I don't mean to be the reminder of bad news, but the Wild seems to always get goalies hurt in St. Louis.
Heck, Backstrom, the all-time leader in Wild victories, became an NHL goalie because Josh Harding strained his groin in a preseason game at St. Louis. Heck, Backstrom because the Wild’s everyday goalie because Manny Fernandez injured his knee at St. Louis. Heck, the Wild signed Jose Theodore in 2010 because Harding tore his ACL and MCL in his preseason debut … at St. Louis. HECK, Ilya Bryzgalov got his opportunity to become the Wild’s No. 1 because David Backes ran Darcy Kuemper and gave him a concussion last year AT ST. LOUIS!!!!
Get what I’m saying? It’s kind of why I decided not to ask Bryzgalov today if he would ever consider a two-way contract with the Wild and maybe start off in Iowa. Heck, it’s why Fletcher has also not yet asked him that question.
This is the Wild, the organization that epitomizes goaltending instability. In four days, a lot can change. The most important thing is right now, Kuemper is playing great, Backstrom looks healthy and good. And, frankly, so does Bryzgalov.
But, as Yeo said today about whether the Wild could keep three goalies, “It’s not a perfect situation by any means. I don’t know that’s where we would be steering toward, but I’m not going to say that it won’t happen.”
I honestly think he’ll have to be released from his tryout If Kuemper and Backstrom are healthy after these exhibition games. I don’t think the Wild wants to use three of its 23 roster spots on goalies, and remember, three goalies could eventually become four because Harding is expected back after a minimum of two months.
Remember, the Wild could always release Bryzgalov from his tryout and sign him back eventually if something were to happen (if he isn’t signed elsewhere).
Bryzgalov’s attitude continues to be refreshing. He said again today that he’s just enjoying being around the team and helping them get through camp. And I have said many times: At least these teammates genuinely like the guy: “He puts a smile on everyone’s face. He’s a funny guy,” said Jason Pominville.
By the way, Bryzgalov on taking those selfies with the fans the other night during play while sitting on the bench: “You know, I’ve got to do that. Fans came to have some fun. I’ve got to respect it. There were lots of kids out there, and I must do it for the kids. When you see lots of kids, they excited, and they want to take the picture, it’s nice. They came here to support us and cheering for us, and we have to give them back something.”
On tossing his toque on the ice for Pominville’s hat trick, Bryzgalov said, “You know, I was excited for Pommer. It’s not everyday you score a hat trick, and I celebrated.”
Back to Thursday’s game, the Wild has designed this game as a final test of sorts because it’s at St. Louis, the big, bad Blues.
“That’s an important game for a lot of guys tomorrow,” Yeo said. “We want to see who can go in and who can play in a tough building and who can play against a very good hockey team and show that they’re able to perform in those conditions.
“Also we’ve got some guys who maybe wouldn’t get the same opportunity on the power play and who wouldn’t get the same amount of ice time as they would normally if all of our vets were in the lineup, and we’ll give them some opportunity to feel good about their game and to be leaders for our group.”
Yeo on Dumba: “I’ve been impressed with both guys and I’m referring to Folin and Dumba. Both guys have shown that they bring intangibles, they bring qualities that are unique and that’s what we’re looking for. If we’re looking for a big, solid, heavy defender, then we’ve got one and if we’re looking for more of a puck-moving, skating, offensive-minded guy then we have another option. For those guys, the more that you can do in addition to those things, the better chance they have.”
Yeo on Folin, who got a game last year and practiced with the Wild for a few weeks: “I think from a comfort level, being here, being around teammates and getting used to our teammates I think so. … I do think that he’s benefited from that. Both guys have had that opportunity. Dumba started at the beginning of the year with us last year. I don’t think these guys are coming in and feeling completely overwhelmed with the newness of the systems and the teammates and certainly that helps.”
Charlie Coyle has had a good camp, but the Wild wants more offensively. It’ll be interesting if he doesn’t show it down the stretch of camp here because Yeo is very happy with Niederreiter and maybe is thinking of moving him up to that second line.
“I’ve seen all the things you would expect from him as far as the work ethic,” Yeo said of Coyle. “He’s playing the game hard, he’s playing the game as a big body. I do know that there’s a little more that he can get to as far as the offensive part of his game is not clicking quite at the level we know
it can get to. Part of it is working into a line with Tomas and Mikko there’s a bit of a feeling out process there. But overall I’m not disappointed by any means with his camp. He’s come in in phenomenal shape, and he’s working. But you can just tell with timing and execution that there’s another level he can get to.”
Conversely, Yeo on Niederreiter: “I’ve been very pleased with his camp. He looks very motivated, he
looks great on the ice. We still treat Nino like a young player so we keep pushing him every day. It’s got to be about the next day. But up to this point, I’ve been very pleased.”
Interestante. Talk to you Thursday. I am covering the morning skate here Thursday, then hustling to the airport for my flight to St. Louis. So, I’ll try to blog either before my flight or from the air prior to the game.
A couple light, fun practices at Xcel Energy Center today. The second practice, which comprised pretty much the NHL roster and a couple hopefuls, ended with a shootout competition.
After a goal, the player who scored threw his stick somewhere on the ice. The last player not to score would be tasked with picking up all the sticks, which were scattered on virtually every inch of the ice surface.
Matt Cooke -- the oldest skater on the team -- lost, making for a comedic scene when "Cookie" had to gather all the sticks. Just to make it a really challenging chore, a couple guys tossed all those extra sticks that rested on the bench onto the ice much to amusement of all the players and coaches, and management in the stands.
Oh, and maybe the media.
"It's my own fault," Cooke said, laughing, afterward. "I hit three posts. I beat the goalie every time, but I have nobody but myself to blame. I'm saving my goals for the season."
Monday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the 1-1-1 Wild plays its fourth preseason game. Minnesota lost 3-2 in overtime Thursday in Pittsburgh.
The Pens are bringing a good lineup (see here), including Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang, former Gopher Paul Martin and former Wild Pascal Dupuis.
The Wild's lineup is subject to change based on health (Parise had a maintenance day today and Vanek is still recovering from an upper-body injury), but:
Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville
Thomas Vanek (preseason home debut)-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle
Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Jordan Schroeder
Michael Keranen-Stephane Veilleux-Cody Almond-Zack Phillips
(It sounds like Keranen would be the guy to be scratched and play Thursday in St. Louis)
Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin
Marco Scandella-Christian Folin
Stu Bickel-Matt Dumba
(Wild looks like it wants to see if Bickel can play the left side)
Darcy Kuemper is slated to play the full 60
Ilya Bryzgalov will back up
This is a big game for guys like Schroeder, Veilleux, Almond.
We talked to coach Mike Yeo today a lot about Keranen and how he keeps getting better in camp, and Yeo volunteered that in the meeting he just emerged from, the brass and coaches were commenting that they weren't having enough of these "debates," that not enough bubble players have put themselves on the map to make the team, that it was the veterans who were unusually leading the way and showing the most urgency in camp.
Yeo wasn't talking about guys like Folin and Dumba. He was talking about the bubble guys, some of whom we have only seen play one game (maybe Justin Falk, maybe Brett Bulmer).
The first practice today was a practice that consisted of guys who will likely be Iowa-bound in a few days. Interestingly, Jason Zucker was in that practice.
Zucker won't play Monday and is said to be healthy. Yeo said nothing should be made of that, that he just wanted to get the veterans in that need games and just wanted to get guys in "that we have to answer questions on." Yeo said he told Zucker that he shouldn't be "panicking" and that he's having a good camp.
Incidentally, Yeo had to stop that mostly minor-league practice because he was not happy the way they were practicing.
Yeo talked a lot about Folin and Dumba today. Dumba was really impressive. Until I watched the game again, I didn't realize how good a job he did on the breakout and entry prior to Jared Spurgeon's winner. He basically made the play because Winnipeg cleared the zone with about 30 seconds left in the power play.
We asked Yeo if there's room for both on the team. Personally, I don't see how there is if the Wild's healthy, but Yeo didn't want to get into that yet.
"I don’t think it’s fair to them," Yeo said. "I know they're reading and analyzing everyday, not just their own play, but the play of everybody else. I just want them to concentrate on their game, show us what they can do and relax and have fun doing it. Both guys have earned the opportunity to be in the lineup [Monday]. We'll keep giving them the chance to show what they can do."
On the 3 for 4 power play Saturday with 10 shots, Yeo tried to downplay the hysteria: "We’re only in the preseason right now. So I just want to be careful. We were successful last night because we were running the right routes on our breakout, we were winning faceoffs, because we were shooting the puck. You see it with many, many teams that we you start to have success, you get a little cuter and forget about a lot of the things that you need to be doing. I want to make sure our guys understand it's easier right now than the regular season. Things tighten up. I'm very happy with what we've shown so far, but we're not even close to where we need to be at."
Talk to you Monday. Again, if you happened to miss my feature on J.P. and Zach Parise, here it is. It's a sad but hopefully inspiring story.
It’s déjà vu.
Two Mondays ago, the Wild faced the old sports’ do-or-die, must-win situation when it hosted the Colorado Avalanche in Game 6 down 3-2 in the best-of-seven Western Conference quarterfinals series.
Zach Parise scored two goals and two assists in the Wild’s win to force Game 7, and you know the rest.
Tuesday night, at an overstuffed Xcel Energy Center, the Wild will face the same scenario against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Win, force a Game 7 at 7 p.m. Thursday at the United Center. Lose, seeya in September.
The Wild had an optional practice in St. Paul today and of the players we saw, guys like Mikko Koivu and Ryan Suter and of course Mike Yeo, spirits were good and the demeanor was confident, especially since Game 6 will come at home, where the Wild is 5-0 and has outscored Colorado and Chicago 16-5.
Of course, the Blackhawks don’t want to take their chances in a Game 7. The Blackhawks are 11-2 in clinching games in the Jonathan Toews/Patrick Kane era, an era that has had a modicum of success.
Not much going on news-wise:
Chicago’s Andrew Shaw will miss his fifth game this series.
Matt Moulson and Keith Ballard skated today for the Wild.
Asked if either could play Tuesday, coach Mike Yeo said, “I wouldn’t be surprised, no, so like I said, we’ll see how the skate goes out here today and obviously, we’ll use that as a determination as to whether these guys are available for tomorrow.”
I’d be surprised if Moulson played simply because -- who comes out? Won’t be any of the top-6 forwards. I wouldn’t think it would be for Justin Fontaine. I can’t imagine it’d be for Dany Heatley and Cody McCormick, to me, has been very good.
And Ballard, I haven’t spoken to him, but his head hit the glass fairly hard in Game 4.
Here’s some quotes from today.
Mike Yeo on home ice: “There’s no question that we fed off our fans. We’ve asked our players to step their games up as the playoffs have gone on and it seems like our fans have bought right into that too, because every game seems to somehow get a little bit louder, a little bit more emotion in the building. So, I’m expecting a lot of the same tomorrow. I’m expecting our group to feed off it again, but at the same time, I think that we’ve been able to understand that we can’t just expect things to go the same way when we’re coming home. We went out and we’ve made it that way. We’ve pushed the issue. We’ve forced the issue. We’ve played aggressive and we’ve played, and that’s what we need to make sure we’re ready to do tomorrow.”
Ryan Suter was peppered with questions today. He was real good, which you can read in Tuesday’s paper.
But here’s some good color:
On the Wild always making life difficult on itself: “I think we like the challenge. We always seem to make things harder than it needs to be. I don’t know if that’s a good thing to do, but it seems throughout the year that’s kind of been the way we’ve gone about it making things harder. We’d be up three of four goals, then let the other team back in it. That’s how it’s been, that’s how it is now and tomorrow is do or die.
On how banged up players are: “I think it’s mental. Every single guy in that locker room every single guy in their locker room has issues right now. But it’s a mental thing and you have to overcome that if you want to win, that’s why it’s the hardest trophy to win in the world.”
I asked if how bad his “issue” (from his collision with Marian Hossa in Game 3): “They’re alright.”
Unspoken rule to play through injuries in the playoffs: “You hear stories about the guys that have won before and the things that they go through. I think that’s why it is so hard. That’s why it’s so fun to be a part of because you know the reward at the end.”
On home ice, Suter had a funny line: “The atmosphere. The building has been electric. The fans have been unbelievable. I’m sure they’re having a good time with the late starts (smiles). Everything, it’s been a lot of fun for us. We’re driving to the rink and you see the excitement outside the rink, and we just build off that.”
You tired? “It’s mental. I’m sure when it’s all done, time for some rest. It’s mental. I’m excited. I want to win. Everyone in that locker room, we keep pushing each other. There’s no time to be tired right now.”
Of course, we circled back around to what’s wrong with him.
Colleague Chip Scoggins asked him if his shoulder is screwed up. “My shoulder’s not,” Suter said.
So of course, I chimed in, “Elbow?”
“I’m feeling great (laughing),” Suter said, before looking at PR guy Aaron Sickman for the all-clear that he could leave the front of the backdrop.
Was a funny back and forth.
Similarly, I basically asked Mikko Koivu is his ankle is still an issue: “No, it took obviously a lot longer than I thought when we talked about it, but now it’s been good.”
OK, that’s it for me. I came right to the arena from the airport and would love to get home. Talk to ya after the morning skates Tuesday. I’ll probably be on KFAN in the morning at some point.
Afternoon from the friendly sky, where I’m taking a quick hop over to Chicago for Game 5 between the Wild and Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday (8 p.m., CNBC, KFAN).
The Wild and Blackhawks mostly had the day off. The Wild had an optional but a good amount of players were around. The Blackhawks made coach Joel Quenneville, Marcus Kruger and Michal Handzus available, so slim pickings.
Coach Q said Andrew Shaw (lower body) is unlikely to play Game 5.
Similarly, coach Mike Yeo said Keith Ballard (upper body) and Matt Moulson (lower body) didn’t made the trip to Chicago. Ballard, two games after returning from two months off with a groin injury, was hit from behind by Blackhawks forward Brandon Bollig, who got away with a head shot in my opinion on Zach Parise in the final regular-season meeting.
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety got him this time, suspending him for two games. Not sure if that helps the Wild or not.
Yeo said that Nate Prosser will likely slide back into the lineup. The other option is Jon Blum, who played well down the stretch for the Wild when Clayton Stoner and Ballard were both out at the same time.
The Wild improved to 5-0 at home with last night’s 4-2 victory to even up the series. It has outscored opponents 16-5 at home, holding Colorado and Chicago to an average of 19.6 shots per game. The Blackhawks are 5-0 at home, having outscored opponents 20-7.
The Wild is 1-5 on the road, having been outscored 26-17. As we learned last round against the Avs, even though the Wild held a third-period lead and nearly won Game 5, it took its foot off the gas and lost. That put the pressure back on Minnesota, and the Wild had to win Game 6 at home and Game 7 on the road in order to advance to its first second round in 11 years.
By winning two games at home, the Wild has turned the momentum in the series. The players and coach Mike Yeo know that can easily change with a road loss on Sunday night. On the other hand, if the Wild can sneak out a big ‘W’ at the United Center against a Blackhawks team that is clearly frustrated right now, the Wild will put itself in position to win the series at home Tuesday in front of its raucous crowd in an arena where it has been dominant all postseason.
“Thinking back to Games 1 and 2, I said at that time, it’s not like we were that far off,” Yeo said. “We knew we could play a little bit better and I think we’ve picked our game up since then. Certainly when you look back to those two games, there were parts of it that were going well and then it was a big mistake that came back at us. I think we’ve cut down on our mistakes the last couple games and we have to make sure that we bring that in there. But with that, there’s been sort of a little bit more of an aggressive mindset in how we executed the last couple games and that’s allowed us to get on the attack a little bit more. It’s a fine line. We have to make sure that we’re playing smart, but we can’t be playing safe. We’ve got to take that attitude into their building.”
Big game, to say the least, which is why Yeo spent the afternoon reminding his team not to let its guard down. It’ll be a challenge, but the Wild has to somehow figure out a way to carry the same type of game it has played all playoffs long at home and carry it into the Windy City.
“It’s a huge game,” Dany Heatley said of Sunday. “But I don’t feel the vibe in here that we’re too confident or over-cocky right now. We know they’re a very good team, they play well in their rink. We’ll be prepared for that.”
The Wild continues to get tremendous play from its youngsters. From the Wild game notes, the five youngest forwards -- Wild rookies Erik Haula (23) and Justin Fontaine (26), playoff rookies Nino Niederreiter (21) and Mikael Granlund (22), and sophomore Charlie Coyle (22) – have combined for 13 goals (Granlund, 4), 27 points (Coyle/Granlund, 7), 81 hits (Niederreiter, 31) and 27 blocked shots (Granlund/Haula, 10).
“They’ve been great,” Heatley said. “Obviously a huge reason why we’re here. They've been great for us all year. Whatever role they’ve played, they’ve done a great job. Awesome to see the success there having in the playoffs. They’re all real good kids, they work really hard, and it’s been a lot of fun to be around them.
“I think everyone needs to step it up to win games in the playoffs. I thought towards the end of the year those guys got better as did our whole team. We went into the playoffs playing pretty well and those guys have taken it to another level.”
We always talk about the youngsters, but we rarely include Jared Spurgeon because he has been around for four years. But he is 24 and he has been dynamite since the first couple games of the playoffs. Look at the skill plays he made last night, having his head up to make the stretch pass to Coyle for the Niederreiter winner, the settling of Mikko Koivu’s pass and the patience to score the power-play goal.
“I think as we’ve asked our team to get better, he’s taken his game to another level,” Yeo said. “This is a guy that we have so much respect for as a coaching staff. Not just the way that he executes, the poise that he has, his ability to create offense with his execution, but he’s a very good defender. He’s got a great stick, he’s very smart, he’s a great skater and he’s sneaky strong. He’s a huge part of our team but again to see where his game is at right now obviously offensively this time of year especially playing against a team like this, you need some offense from your defensemen, you need to create some offense from secondary guys whether that’s from your defense or whether that’s from third or fourth line guys. If you’re going to have any success, guys like that are usually stepping up.”
And then there’s Niederreiter, who is coming of age this postseason.
It seemed to start in Game 6 last round.
“I remember that game that even his first period was sort of OK, but then something just flipped,” Yeo said. “He flipped a switch there, and it was just an opportunity for us to say OK, there it is, that's the blueprint for what we need night after night. It's been a work in progress, but certainly that game, for me, was one where obviously, he played a great game, had all of the heroics of the Game 7, but for me, a lot of that started in Game 6.”
In Game 7, on Spurgeon’s tying goal that he set up, Niederreiter gave Spurgeon a kiss on the helmet. Last night, after Ilya Bryzgalov made back-to-back huge saves in the third to rob Jeremy Morin and keep the lead at 4-2, Niederreiter similarly pecked Bryzgalov on the helmet.
Photo courtesy of Star Tribune photographer Carlos Gonzalez
“Yeah, that was such a big save. I was just so happy,” Niederreiter said, smiling. “It happened so quickly. Just being thankful I guess. I did that to Spurg when he scored the tying goal in Game 7. It’s silly but you appreciate stuff like that.”
The Wild leads the NHL with 16 goal scorers this postseason. Quite amazing for a team that lacked scoring depth during the regular season.
"Are you saying that we didn't see it during the year?" Yeo said, laughing, when I asked in probably a bewildered tone. "I feel like we're all improving. Everything's kind of cyclical, there's no question, but everybody's going out, everybody's contributing in the same way, but they're all doing it in their own way, too. The roles have been identified, guys have really bought into them, but just the team game, I think we've been very strong in that regard. Like we've asked of our guys, we've gotten better as a team, and that's what we want to keep doing here."
Talk to you after the morning skates Sunday. Enjoy your weekend.
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