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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Following five games in seven days and with four games in six nights with travel beginning Wednesday at home against the Vancouver Canucks, the Wild had an optional practice today.
Actually, as Mike Yeo called one a week ago, it's more of a directive day off for a few. The only top-6 forward who practiced today was Charlie Coyle, and the top-2 D, Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, didn't practice either. Also, Matt Cooke didn't skate
So, eight big-minute guys didn't practice. Also, injured Clayton Stoner, who's week-to-week, and Keith Ballard, who's day-to-day, didn't practice.
I'll be on KFAN at 9:55 a.m. Wednesday.
Need your help: Friday, the day I typically write my Sunday Insiders, I have a crazy travel day and a little advance to write on a very important game at Phoenix the next day.
Soooooo, I'm going to try to get my Sunday Insider written Wednesday.
Soooooo, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to do another Blog Q and A. That's where you ask questions in the comment field of this blog, I pick some good ones and answer them in print Sunday.
Here's the rule though: Please keep the questions short and snappy (remember, space is at a minimum in the paper, so I need brief questions I can quickly answer so the more, the merrier get in the paper). Please also look at some of the other questions so we try to keep duplicates at a minimum. Also, as much as I love to read your opinions, please don't use this particular blog to comment on the Wild or other questions. This way, it's easier for me to pick out questions.
Lastly, because of space issues, I reserve the right to edit your questions to potentially shorten them up. So, get to work and thanks for the help.
On a personal note, longtime Chicago Blackhawks beat writer Tim Sassone has passed away. He was Chicago. He looked like Chicago, he talked like Chicago. He has been a colleague of mine from the moment I began covering the NHL in 1995 and was always a good friend. Just a great man, and my thoughts are with his friends and family, his Blackhawks beat-writing crew members, the team that so loved him and all of us in the Professional Hockey Writers' Association who feel an emptiness in our hearts today.
All Wild players present and accounted for at today’s practice, except defenseman Keith Ballard, who will miss his third game in a row with a groin injury.
The Wild plays a home-and-home with the Detroit Red Wings this weekend starting with a 1 p.m. game at the X on Saturday. The Red Wings, absolutely destroyed by injuries, are fighting for their playoff lives and coming off an overtime win against Pittsburgh. The great Daniel Alfredsson literally scored a buzzer beater in OT.
The Red Wings have a lot of young talent, they work their butt off and, as I mentioned, they’re motivated to keep the organEYEzation’s 22-year playoff streak alive. In 9th-place, they’re a point behind the Blue Jackets and Rangers, who play tonight, so the Wild should expect a desperate opponent this weekend.
Darcy Kuemper will get back in the net for Minnesota. It’s his first start since Monday’s game in Boston. He allowed three goals in that one.
Rookie forward Erik Haula, scratched in the previous two games, will draw back into the Wild’s lineup against the Red Wings. Cody McCormick appears to be the scratch. Haula will play on a line with Charlie Coyle and Dany Heatley, and coach Mike Yeo said Haula will see some shifts at center. But he skated mostly as a wing this morning.
Nino Niederreiter moved to a line with Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak.
Coyle and Niederreiter have been very up and down lately. Their line with Heatley had a real tough game last night in New Jersey, so Yeo’s mindset is put Haula there and maybe rekindle some of that Jason Zucker-Coyle-Heatley chemistry from earlier this season. The common denominator between Haula and the injured Zucker is speed.
Yeo met with Coyle and Niederreiter before the Islanders game. Both aren’t scoring consistently and because they’re young, that’s eating them up. It’s clearly affecting the rest of their game. Yeo wants them to get it out of their mind and start doing the stuff that makes them successful, like using their size, being strong on pucks, reliable in other areas. That was a major issue last night.
The Wild badly, badly need Coyle and Niederreiter on top of their game consistently. One reason – and I stress just ONE reason (I realize there are other issues, like Heatley fitting in on that line, Mikko Koivu getting back up to speed, etc.) -- why the Wild’s having trouble finding consistent lines right now is their up and down play.
“That’s part of it, there’s no question. When those guys get on top of their game, they’re going to make their lines better. They can’t wait for who they’re playing with. They need to get on top of their game and I will say in fairness we have juggled them around, they have been in different spots, but at the same time these guys have a pretty firm idea of what their identity should be and how they have to play the game and we need to see that consistently. That’ll strengthen the line of whichever line they’re on.”
Yeo continued, “We want these guys to create, we want these guys to be a factor offensively, but that’s only going to happen when the game is consistently there. That’s the big thing they have to learn. As young kids, that’s usually the challenge. When a young kid is pressing or he’s thinking he has to score a goal, there’s other parts of their game that falter. My focus for them is to concentrate on having a good game and the results will come.”
I talked to Niederreiter and Coyle and you’ll hear from them in tomorrow’s paper.
On the Koivu-Moulson line, Yeo said, “We’re still hoping that Fonzy (Justin Fontaine), I didn’t think that that line had as much going on obviously as the game before, but that was kind of our whole team. We’d like to see if Fonzy, we’re going to give him another chance there and see if he can kind of recapture some of what they had in that Islander game. Maybe he’s the guy, I don’t know. Maybe this is an ongoing thing where it’s kind of whoever’s going, whoever’s on top of their game finds a way to get up there. For us to be a good team, we have guys who can be interchangeable in different positions. But in order to be a good team, they need to be on top of their game.”
Yeo on Zucker missing the rest of the season (click link), “It’s a tough one for sure. We all thought that he was going to be back after the Olympic break so it’s a tough setback that’s for sure. “It’s disappointing because like I said I thought that his game was going. I thought we were finding kind of the right mix with him and here we are. It’s difficult but he’ll have to bounce back from it for sure.”
Defenseman Nate Prosser is off the hook for his elbowing major and game misconduct on the Devils’ Tim Sestito from Thursday night. Prosser was playing the puck in the corner and Sestito came flying in to check him. Prosser instinctively raised his arm to protect himself. I think he got Sestito with the forearm.
The league says that just because this didn’t rise to the level of supplemental discipline, the correct call was made.
My only issue: If Prosser doesn’t protect himself, he could have been plastered against the wall or glass. Conceivably Sestito could have been penalized for a no-doubt charge, so I’m not sure what Prosser’s supposed to do there other than absorb a potentially-dangerous check or pretend he’s a bullfighter and somehow “Ole.”
Prosser said today, “I was trying to ask the ref on the skate out, ‘Can you talk to me a little bit to tell me what you saw just to give me some kind of perspective?’ In all honesty, I didn’t know what really happened until I saw the replay. I was pretty sure I didn’t get him with my elbow and it obviously wasn’t intentional. I’m just hoping he’s alright.”
On the major, Prosser said, “I was surprised they were bringing me to the box. I thought, ‘OK maybe two,’ but kicking me out of the game, I was shocked.”
Did he know Sestito was coming? “As soon as the puck got dumped in, I knew the line we were out against and I saw some guys barreling down. He probably took 10 strides before he got to me, so he’s at full speed. So I knew he was coming and that was a natural reaction to somewhat protect myself.”
Lastly, Zach Parise’s goal from last night has been changed to Ryan Suter. The puck deflected in off Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador. Jared Spurgeon and Jason Pominville got the helpers, meaning Pominville’s point streak is now at seven games.
OK, I need to begin writing from the paper and get out of this coffee shop. I can barely keep my eyes open right now. Back in the old days covering this league, I would routinely get up for an early flight after getting back to the hotel at 1 a.m., fly home, cover practice and then go party afterward.
I miss being young.
The Wild conducted a fairly routine practice Friday at Xcel Energy Center, with Thursday’s win over the New York Rangers having lifted some of the pressure of two consecutive shootout losses to start their four-game homestand. Everyone was healthy and active, including TV analyst Mike Greenlay, who was sporting an impressive shiner to go with his five stitches. Greenlay was none the worse for wear after being clipped under the left eye by a stick while calling Thursday’s game from between the benches.
Darcy Kuemper bounced back from a subpar game against Edmonton on Tuesday, making 29 saves for his 12th victory of the season. That breaks the Wild’s record for victories by a rookie; the previous mark of 11 was set by Josh Harding in 2007-08. Kuemper is now 12-4-3 and has not lost consecutive games in regulation this season.
Coach Mike Yeo had anticipated a strong comeback by Kuemper, calling him a “water off the duck’s back kind of guy.’’ That kind of resilience, Yeo said, is an “extra important quality’’ in the NHL. He added that Kuemper probably was helped by his extensive junior hockey experience, when he also had to get past bad performances quickly because of a rigorous schedule that left no time for moping.
“Everyone’s going to have an off night, and everyone’s going to have a great night,’’ Yeo said. “You can’t sit around and be thinking about that and preparing for the next game at the same time.
“Young players have to learn how to prepare, how to learn, in a lot of ways, what it means to be a pro. For a guy like (Kuemper), one thing that’s helped is the fact he’s played junior hockey, where they play a schedule that’s similar in the amount of games they play and how up and down a season can be. And also, spending the time in the (AHL). For a player like that, that’s a big help.’’
Yeo is likely to stick with the same lines Saturday, when the Wild end the homestand against Columbus. He said he would like to get Justin Fontaine back into the lineup, but Fontaine is a victim of circumstance. He is tied for third among Wild forwards with 12 goals, but he has not played since March 3, sitting out the past four games.
“Part of it is based on roles right now,’’ Yeo said. “We’re going to need our fourth line to play, and we’re going to need them to eat up minutes. It’s not just the five-on-five. We’ve got (Dany Heatley), who’s playing on the power play, he’s taking up minutes there. We’ve got (Erik) Haula and (Cody) McCormick, both key guys on the penalty kill right now.
“Unfortunately for (Fontaine), he wouldn’t factor in on either one of those right now; he’s not a penalty killer, and he’s not a power-play guy with the guys we have in the lineup. So we do want to get him in the lineup, but at the same time, we’ve got guys in roles right now, so we have to approach it that way.’’
Yeo lauded Haula, but hedged on whether the center might move up from the fourth line to the third. Yeo said he is considering it, but added that Haula has to continue earning his assignments on a nightly basis.
Columbus should be another good test for the Wild, Yeo said. The Blue Jackets are healthy and have four solid lines, and he anticipates the game will be a tight-checking one, similar to the Rangers game.
The day after Tuesday's deflating 4-3 shootout loss to Edmonton, the Wild spent much of Wednesday's practice at Braemar Arena working on its power play. It also worked on something more nebulous but equally important: developing the chemistry that coach Mike Yeo said his team is struggling to find.
Since the personnel shift that occurred at the trade deadline--when the team shed fourth-liner Torrey Mitchell and gained forwards Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick--the Wild is 0-1-2, including Tuesday's clunker against one of the league's worst teams. Yeo said that rebuilding team chemistry with those new pieces will happen with repetition, and he has impressed upon his players that working toward that goal is critical.
Yeo did not make any changes to his line combinations in Wednesday's practice, though he said he would reevaluate that Thursday morning as the Wild prepares for Thursday night's home game against the New York Rangers. He did say that Darcy Kuemper will get the start in goal.
"When we made the trade, the first thing I said to the group was, 'We've got work to do now,''' Yeo said. "The work is not skating up and down the ice. It's not watching video. We do that stuff all the time. The work is building chemistry. The work is, you're almost starting from scratch again to build your team game.
"We've got different guys in different roles now, and different positions. So that’s our task. That’s up to us as coaches to make sure all our players have an understanding of what their role is, but also to players, the only way to build chemistry is to go out and do the things your teammates are expecting you to do, and know they're doing it for you. And that’s when it happens.
"The harder you work at it, the quicker it comes. The players know we have to keep working at it. We're not that far off.''
Forward Zach Parise--who was perturbed Tuesday by what he saw as a lack of energy and intensity as the Wild lost a three-goal lead--said he does not think chemistry is an issue. He described Tuesday's loss as "a weird game'' and "an off night,'' saying he does not think it is indicative of a problem.
"I don’t think there's a chemistry problem at all. That’s just my opinion,'' Parise said. "I thought we played a very good game against St. Louis. We had a lot of opportunities to win in Dallas. Then we played a bad game last night.
"Everyone wants to search for solutions. Really, we just played a bad game. That's it. That's why it's important to look at the big picture. I know when you lose a couple, it's easy to jump on things. In all reality, we're fine.''
The Wild spent time Wednesday working on 4-on-3 and 5-on-3 situations. They failed in both of those at two critical points of Tuesday's game, and Yeo said he liked the puck movement he saw in practice.
"We're still trying to build chemistry with those guys, the same way we are with our lines,'' he said. "When you add a couple new players, it obviously has an impact on line combinations, and there's going to be an adjustment there. Likewise with the power play, the more we can get out there and work these things in practice, just getting the reps and getting out there, knowing where guys are, knowing their tendencies, knowing where their sticks are going to be and reading off each other, it's going to help more and more.''
After a pair of intense back-to-back games at Dallas and St. Louis, Wild coach Mike Yeo predictably gave most his big-minute players a mandatory practice off.
With the Wild near the start of 20 games in the final 37 days of the season, I'd expect a lot of this down the stretch as Yeo weighs the importance of rest vs. work. I was shooting the breeze with a coach the other day and he too was saying the most important thing this time of year is rest.
Besides keeping players fresh, rest, the coach said, is the most critical thing when trying to avoid injuries down the stretch. Scheduled to practice today for the Wild were Erik Haula, Cody McCormick, Nate Prosser, Keith Ballard, Mike Rupp, Justin Fontaine, Clayton Stoner, Ilya Bryzgalov and Darcy Kuemper.
Couple housekeeping items:
1. The final Star Tribune Chalk Talk with Wes Walz and I is Tuesday night prior to the Oilers-Wild game. If you want to come to the Chalk Talk and attend the game, tickets are at www.wild.com/chalktalk.
2. I will be hosting a live Star Tribune chat right here at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Please join.
3. On Wednesday, from 12-3, I will be co-hosting Common's show with Brandon Mileski on KFAN (100.3-FM). Lots of hockey talk, which is the best kind of talk.
4. If you missed, here's David La Vaque's article on Minnesota Mr. Hockey, Avery Peterson, a Wild draft pick.
The Wild, 0-1-1 in its past two, hosts the Oilers, who have won two of their past three, in the second game of its four-game homestand Tuesday night at 7. The Wild is 20-2 in its past 22 home games against the Oilers and 24-11-2 all-time against them at home.
Oilers coach Dallas Eakins said today that goalie Viktor Fasth and defenseman Oscar Klefbom will debut on the Oilers' four-game road trip. Eakins didn't necessarily say Minnesota, I don't think, and the Oilers are hitting the road this afternoon for four games.
If Klefbom plays vs. the Wild, it'll be the NHL debut for the 2011 first-rounder. He's one of Jonas Brodin's best buds.
Fasth, if he plays, it'll be his Oilers debut after being acquired from Anaheim last Tuesday -- the day Bryzgalov was traded from Edmonton to Minnesota. If Fasth plays over Ben Scrivens against the Wild, it'll be Fasth's first game since Nov. 18. He's been hurt all year. He won 15 games as a rookie for the Ducks last year.
Kuemper is expected to start against the Oilers.
For the Wild, Matt Cooke is slated to play his 1,000th game. He'll become the 286th NHL player to play in 1,000 games and the fourth to do so while wearing a Wild uniform.
Keith Carney, Andrew Brunette and Matt Cullen were the others. With his family on hand, Cooke will be honored before Tuesday's game with the customary silver stick from the Wild and a crystal from the NHL. NHL official Jim Gregory will be on hand from the league.
Cooke, 35, has collected 162 goals and 384 points, a plus-61, 2,013 hits and 1,120 penalty minutes in 999 regular-season games over 15 years. He ranks 10th among active players in hits, 13th in penalty minutes and 28th in games. He has played another 97 playoff games and won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009.
Also, captain Mikko Koivu is now up to 435 points, putting him two from tying and three from passing Marian Gaborik to become the Wild’s all-time leading scorer. Koivu has 38 points in 49 games against Edmonton, tied for his most against any opponent.
Talk to you after the morning skates Tuesday and again, please join my 2 p.m. Star Tribune chat.
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