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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The Wild held an optional practice Wednesday at Ridder Arena, with 14 skaters joining goalies Darcy Kuemper, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding on the ice. While the struggling Thomas Vanek and Mikko Koivu didn't participate, Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon did, though only Spurgeon has a good shot at playing Thursday against Buffalo.
Coach Mike Yeo said Parise, who has missed three games because of a concussion, is doubtful for the game. Depending on how Spurgeon felt after the practice, Yeo said, he could return to the lineup after missing five games. "I'm a little more hopeful that he can return,'' Yeo said.
Yeo added that there hasn't been a setback with Parise. The team is just being extra cautious with a player who looks more valuable by the minute, given how his team has collapsed without him in the lineup. "We just have to be smart about it,'' Yeo said. "We know what he adds to our lineup, but you just have to think of the big picture here. We have to make sure when we get him back that we're keeping him back for good.''
The WIld will make some lineup changes Thursday, Yeo said, though he didn't reveal them after the practice. Without Parise and the still-injured Matt Cooke, the team has only 11 forwards as of Wednesday afternoon, when it sent winger Stephane Veilleux and defenseman Jonathon Blum to Iowa. No word yet on a callup. Kuemper will start in goal.
Yeo said the WIld "isn't complete with its game'' right now as it tries to end a four-game losing streak. Among the problems he cited: being too soft in front of the net, trying to force plays and committing careless turnovers. He repeated that players are getting frustrated when they don't score early on, which leads them to press too hard in the second period, which leads to spending too much time and energy in their own zone. "A more complete focus on playing our game for 60 minutes will help us,'' he said.
When asked directly about the lack of production from Vanek and Koivu, Yeo declined to criticize them. Vanek has only one goal, scored on the power play, in 14 games. Koivu has two goals and one assist in the same span.
"It's on all of us,'' he said. "Obviously, those guys, that comes with the territory for sure. They're leaders, and they're expected to score. And there's going to be a lot of attention drawn to that. We have a number of people here who are capable of going out there and creating offense, whether it's helping those guys get on the scoresheet or whether it's getting on the scoresheet themselves. The bottom line is, we do it as a team.''
With a little sliver of time at home before resuming their road trip, the Wild practiced Monday morning at Ridder Arena--and nearly the full roster was on the ice. Winger Matt Cooke (lower body) was still out, but upper-body injury victims Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon both skated. The biggest surprise was seeing goalie Josh Harding, who broke his foot in September and practiced for the first time this season.
Parise, Spurgeon and Harding all will travel with the Wild to New Jersey for Tuesday's game, the last of a string of three on the road. Coach Mike Yeo said none of them will play, but he wanted all three to continue skating with the team as they move forward with their recoveries.
All were wearing red sweaters during practice, but none took it easy. The threesome participated in all drills, and each looked like they were well on the road to a return.
"I was happy to get the news they would be joining us for practice, and they looked good,'' Yeo said. "The bottom line is that we had to get through today. This was a big step. They looked good in practice.
"We'll talk some more with them, but we plan on bringing them on the road--not with the expectation they’ll play, but to give them a chance to hopefully get back sooner. So we'll let them skate with the group, and this is a good first step.''
The Wild did not allow the media to speak with Parise. Spurgeon said he resumed skating three days after his injury--which happened when the defenseman slid awkwardly into the boards during the Wild's shootout victory over San Jose on Oct. 30--and hasn't lost much conditioning. "I'm just waiting for everything to strengthen back up, and we'll go from there,'' he said.
Harding found out Sunday that he was cleared to practice. He said he felt good and has been working on his rehabilitation since shortly after breaking his foot.
"It was great seeing all the guys again and getting that competition back,'' Harding said. "Just challenging yourself to stop every shot, just going out there and doing your job. This was another step. Whatever I can do to help this team out, that's the next step.''
Yeo said he anticipates the near-return of Parise and Spurgeon will serve dual purposes. It will give the team an emotional lift, and it will be "a motivator'' to players who realize their roles could change when those two stars re-enter the lineup.
The biggest change Yeo wants to see in his team is more mental fortitude when things don't work in its favor. "We're not really that far off,'' he said. "There are stretches where we’re thought out very, very good. But the ability to stay with it for 60 minutes, we've got to be a little bit stronger between the ears. We've got to be a little bit tougher mentally.
"Things are not always going to go your way. The puck might not go in when you get chances, or the other team might get a bounce, might get a break and then score. That’s why you play a 60-minute hockey game.''
Good afternoon from Montreal, where the Wild, which has lost two in a row for the second time this season, practiced today at the Bell Centre.
I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m. CT, and just a note if you don’t realize, even though Saturday’s game is listed at 6 p.m. CT, it actually starts at 6:30 p.m. FSN+’s Wild Live will start at 6 and KFAN’s pregame show at 6:15.
The reason for the 6:30 p.m. start is because at 5:30 p.m. CT/6:30 p.m. ET, Hall of Famer’s Guy Lapointe’s Montreal Canadiens’ No. 5 sweater will rise to the Bell Centre rafters during a 25-minute ceremony before warmups. Lapointe will be reunited with the “Big Three,” – Larry Robinson and Serge Savard. Their banners were already at center ice today so Lapointe’s can go right next to theirs.
Lapointe’s No. 5 has been painted onto the ice between both nets. Here’s a feature I wrote on Lapointe in June, and in Saturday’s paper I wrote a story on Lapointe and in Sunday’s paper I wrote a column on just how good Lapointe was.
Most cool Saturday – the Wild players will be on the bench during the ceremony. It’s cool because Lapointe was partly responsible for drafting many of these Wild players as the team’s chief amateur scout. He has been with the Wild since the inception when hired by former teammate Doug Risebrough. In fact, in hockey ops, I believe the only guys from Day One still with the team are Lapointe, equipment manager Tony DaCosta, athletic therapist Don Fuller, PR guy Aaron Sickman and scout Ernie Vargas.
Robinson, who’s the associate coach for the San Jose Sharks but is skipping their game against Dallas, Savard, Mario Tremblay and many other former teammates will be at the ceremony with Lapointe, his wife, three kids and brother. If you’ve ever seen a Canadiens ceremony, they’re usually second to none. Tonight, Lapointe and his wife made sure they will be free so they can spend the evening with Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, coach Mike Yeo and Wild colleagues.
As you can tell if you read the above story on Lapointe, he is the ultimate prankster.
So Yeo expects to be shoe-checked tonight (kind of like Mikko Koivu’s shootout move, all folks in Lapointe’s vicinity know he’s doing to smear ketchup or some other substance on their shoe, yet he always gets em anyway).
“I’ve been shoe checked once in pro hockey and it was from Guy when I first got the job in Minnesota,” Yeo said. “For me, the experience that I’ve had getting to know him, I mean, I’ve always heard about him and you know what a great player he was and what a great career he had, and then to be around, like he’s such a joy. That’s the best way that I can put it. He’s such a joy to be around, keeps things loose, but at the same time he’s very insightful for me to listen to the way that they used to do things, the way that their team used to operate, I love that. Real pleased that we can be here and be part of that special night for him.”
OK, here we go, and I actually need to be somewhat quick here because I have two articles to write, a preview box and my Sunday package still to get done this afternoon.
Wild’s not in a crisis situation, but it sure feels it could get to that point with Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon out and teams like St. Louis, Nashville, Vancouver, even Winnipeg on fire right now.
Yeo had some conversations with guys on the ice today, which he said were different for each guy.
“Bottom line,” Yeo said, “is I think everybody is aware of where they stand right now. I don’t think that we’re that far off. But we have to find a way to push over the edge. For our organization, we’ve been kind of teetering on the edge of being a really good team and getting to that next level, so we can’t be satisfied with playing well and outshooting a team and thinking that’s enough. We have to find ways to win those games, we have to find ways to win games differently, we have to find ways to win games when people are out of the lineup, and that’s what the great teams do.
“I know that our group is capable. It’s always like this in the early part of every season. We’re very early in the building process of your group, of your team, so I could feel things starting to slip a little bit when we had won a couple games toward the end of that stretch at home and we paid the price for that against Pittsburgh and it doesn’t come easily back to us. We were almost there last night, but almost isn’t going to cut it. I know we’re going to play a desperate team tomorrow, a very good hockey team, and we’ve got to make sure that our team game is real strong and each individual within that team game is ready to go out and perform the way we need them to.”
Darcy Kuemper in the cage Saturday.
No real big changes in today’s practice. One minor change had Kyle Brodziak in between Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula between Stephane Veilleux and Ryan Carter. Very clear Yeo isn’t all too thrilled with Haula’s game lately and Haula admitted as such after practice. Yeo and Haula had a brief chat on the ice today, and my guess is Haula is one of those players Yeo was referring to as doing the “minimum” after last night’s game.
It also sounds like Keith Ballard may return from a long bout with illness, which could have been the mumps. He had some positive tests as I reported over the weekend here. He missed eight games with the illness and actually nine in a row if you include the healthy scratch as LA, which means if Ballard plays only his second game of the season, it’ll be his first game since logging 7:08 of ice time and having an assist and penalty at Anaheim on Oct. 17.
“We’ll have to talk more about that [Saturday morning],” Yeo said. “Obviously Bally’s a guy that I would like to get in given the fact that he’s a veteran, given the fact that he can skate against a real good skating team. We have to make sure his conditioning level’s going to be up to par, but talking to him today, he felt really good and so we’ll have to make those decisions tomorrow.”
If Ballard plays, I think Nate Prosser sits. Looks like the two rookie D may stay in.
I talked to Ballard and he said he’s heading in the right direction and this road trip has been big for him because he has handled everything the coaches have thrown at him after practice and even staying up late. He was going to bed every night at 6 or 8 p.m., so he said even watching the home games last week, he’d be exhausted by the second period.
Today’s post-practice stuff had a lot to do with the young guys and the need for them to step up bigtime with Zach Parise, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Cooke out. It’s the vets, too, though and Ryan Suter said it’s on everyone.
Some pointed quotes from Suter in his typical casual-talking style: “For us, the biggest thing is just getting back to the basics. If you’re a checker, be a checker and be good at it. If you’re a goal scorer, start scoring goals. Goaltenders got to be good goaltenders. Everyone just has to focus on themselves and we’ll get this thing turned around.”
He also said certain players may need to leave their comfort zones: “No one likes to block shots, but if things aren’t going well, you might have to get in front of one and do things that you maybe aren’t used to doing. Zach’s a tough player to replace. Spurge is tough on the back end. He was coming into his own this year, so it’s tough. Lot of pressure on other guys. They just need to bear down and we all need to pick up a little extra.”
Of the young forwards, Jason Zucker was undoubtedly the best of the bunch yesterday. Charlie Coyle played pretty well, too, but he lacked that final oomph to get to the net and get a goal. How many times the past three or four games does Coyle do a good job down low with the puck or drive a guy wide but is unable to make that one final play with the puck? Last night, it seemed like every time he skated in with power, he’d end up in the corner or on the ice or losing the puck.
Not shockingly, he was honest today about his line with Zucker and Koivu yesterday, saying, “We’ve got to perform. Our line was buzzing, but we’ve got to produce goals. Chances are chances, they’re not the end result. But it’s going to come, we’ve just got to stick to it. Once it does, we’re going to get more confidence and it’s going to get rolling.”
Mikael Granlund hasn’t been playing well. Nino Niederreiter has some goals lately, but he hasn’t been as good defensively. And the Wild wants more from Haula offensively.
I’m going to start stringing some quotes together now, partially out of laziness, partially out of the fact I really need to get some writing done for the actual printed product.
Coyle: “You try not to think about pressure – but, yeah, the pressure is on because one of our best players is out. Guys need to step up. I think this is when you find out about your team with how guys respond. There’s definitely a lot of younger guys on this team that have to take on more responsibility, so I think there’s definitely pressure on us. But I think we’re able to do it. I don’t think they’d put us here if we weren’t able to do it.”
Coyle on the fact the kids did it last year: “If I remember correctly, that was during a tough period when we were on a losing streak, too. The season could’ve just gone like this (pointed downward), but instead everyone kind of stepped up and picked each other up and we found out a lot about guys from that stretch with top guys out. This will be a good challenge for us, but I think we’re ready for it. We just need to step up.”
More Coyle: “The tough times are when you find about guys. In an easy situation, it’s easy to survive. It’s when things get tough that your backs are against the wall and you have to perform at your best. It brings out the best in some people and you can tell who lives up to the pressure and the hype and who can’t. But I think as a team we can do that, we’ve done it before.”
Erik Haula: “I think individually and as a team, we’ve got to be better. We have guys who are hurt so guys have to step up. It’s got to be better starting with myself. I’ve got to be better and right through the lineup. We have a bunch of young guys and we know that we need to be better. It’s a good opportunity so we’ve just got to produce.”
On what did Yeo say to him on the ice: “I don’t think we’re that far off, but individually I’ve got to be better offensively and be stronger on pucks and win battles in the offensive zone. I’ve got to keep working on that. I feel like defensively I try to do a good job every game, but there’s still little things that I really need to work on and get better at. You could say all you want, but in the end it’s just the game and what you do on the ice.”
El Nino: “Obviously there’s a few key players out but at the end of the day we have to pull together as a team. We have to make sure we focus on the guys that are here and dig deep and make sure we have a last push on the ice.
Yeo talked to you? “I feel like each guy just has to step up. Zach is out and Spurgeon is out and Cooke is out. It’s tough to replace those guys but we have to make sure each guy brings what we need to bring and we have to focus on ourselves. If everybody does his strengths, that’s how we’ll get better as a team. … Zach is out so we have to make sure another guys steps up. That’s how it works. That’s how we did it last year. Each of the young guys got better and we had to fill their shoes. We have to make sure we play our best hockey at the time they’re out.”
Thomas Vanek returns to Montreal for the first time since the playoffs. He was peppered by the press today and said pretty much a lot of the same stuff you have heard from him the past few days – he needs to step up, get more shots (got seven last night), begin to score.
He talked about how lucky he was last year in Montreal getting to play with two consistent linemates (until he was demoted to the fourth line in the conference finals) and how in Minnesota “I’ve pretty much played with every forward here.”
He’ll skate again with Granlund and Jason Pominville on Saturday. Yeo said, “As the game went on, it seemed to be coming along for them. They were involved in four good scoring chances in the second period for us. And I think that’s what we should expect. One game is probably a little bit too early to judge. There were some signs, and I know that they have had chemistry together in the past, so giving that line another opportunity to play together and show what they can do is going to be important.”
Yeo talked a lot about Habs coach Michel Therrien. Yeo was his assistant in Pittsburgh before Therrien was fired and Dan Bylsma took over. Yeo said he wouldn’t be here without Therrien, calling him the most underrated coach in the NHL, but “with that said, I’d love to beat him, too (laughing).”
OK, my fingers hurt and I haven’t even written for the paper yet. Talk to you Saturday.
There was plenty of chatter on the ice this morning at Xcel Energy Center, but it wasn't idle talk. The Wild buckled down through an intense one-hour practice designed to sharpen it up for Tuesday's home game against Pittsburgh, which features three of the NHL's six highest-scoring forwards in Sidney Crosby (seven goals-11 assists), Evgeni Malkin (five goals, 10 assists) and Patric Hornqvist (six goals, eight assists).
Good communication has been a key to the Wild's defense, which is as impressive as the Pens' offense. Pittsburgh's plus-19 is the best goal differential in the NHL, but the Wild is second at plus-17--thanks to a league-low 18 goals allowed. The Wild already has shut down some of the top players and lines in the Western Conference, and coach Mike Yeo said he is anxious to see how his team performs against Crosby and company.
Several players said the effort will start with communication, making sure everyone is aware when the Crosby and Malkin lines are on the ice. The task from that point on will be to frustrate the top scorers while effectively playing the smart team defense the Wild has demonstrated so frequently this season.
"It's been a collective effort,'' defenseman Marco Scandella said. "The forwards back us up when we're jumping into the play offensively. We're having great communication right now, moving the puck to get out of the defensive zone and using each other. It’s a process. We've been building this for a couple of years now, and we're starting to learn each other's tendencies pretty good.''
Scandella said the Wild will need to stay close to Crosby and Malkin, taking away time and space. Erik Haula noted that the team must stick rigorously to its system, keeping turnovers and odd-man rushes to a minimum and forcing the Penguins to play a 200-foot game. And Zach Parise--who knows a thing or two about being a scorer singled out for extra attention--added that the Wild must pin the Pens' stars in their own zone as much as possible.
"When you play against guys like Crosby and Malkin, when you don’t have the puck, you have to make sure you stay above them and make them come through five (players),'' Parise said. "And you can't cheat on the other side of the puck. The best thing against guys like that is to make them spend long shifts in their own zone. That’s the frustrating thing when you play on a scoring line. When you find yourself in your own zone the whole night, it gets really frustrating.''
In injury news Monday, Keith Ballard practiced for the first time in a long while. The defenseman said he has never gotten a definitive diagnosis of the illness that caused his jawline to swell up and sapped his energy. He skated only twice in the previous 12 days and will need to regain strength and conditioning before he's ready to play.
Forward Matt Cooke (lower-body injury) won't play Tuesday. Forward Ryan Carter (upper-body injury) also practiced Monday, though Yeo is unsure whether Carter will play Tuesday. "He looked pretty good, but we'll have to see how he is in the morning,'' Yeo said. "Sometimes, things like that might get a little bit more sore after you put in the work.''
Happy Halloween everyone. Some fans got a head start and came to Thursday’s Wild-Sharks game in costumes.
This one caught coach Mike Yeo’s eye:
“Good-looking guy,” Yeo quipped.
Yeo was full of jokes today, saying he should have had the imposter fill in for him at today’s press scrum. When I asked Yeo where the guy sat during the game, Yeo joked the lookalike actually coached the game from the bench.
Impressive costume. He even got Yeo’s style down with the shift and tie and certainly the facial expression.
Wild hosts the Dallas Stars on Saturday night. The Stars, who play at home Friday night, are gifted offensively, but they give up a bunch of goals. So it should be a fun game to watch.
I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m. today.
The Wild will be without defenseman Jared Spurgeon for awhile. Spurgeon, who has been outstanding this season with two goals, six points and a plus-7, injured his shoulder early in the third period when he slid awkwardly into the boards after a check from Joe Pavelski.
This is a huge loss. Not only is he one of the Wild’s biggest offensive threats from the back end, he really helps make the Wild’s puck possession and transition game run. Plus, his breakouts have been exceptional this season.
Yeo would only say he’ll miss “more than a couple games.”
Spurgeon’s down in the dumps about this.
“Not happy,” he said. “We’ve been playing awesome, so that’s the hardest thing to come out of the lineup when your team is playing well. We’ve been winning games. It’s one of the best starts since I’ve been here that we’ve had. But the guys we have in the room, it’s not going to matter with me being out with the way we’re playing. Just try to get back as fast as I can.”
Spurgeon said it’s not separated, but he has got to let it settle down and get the strength back so it doesn’t separate.
“It could be a lot of worse,” he said. “I’ll just take it day by day and hopefully get better. It all depends how everything heals up.”
Defenseman Jonas Brodin took part in today’s optional practiced. Yeo asked it how it went, and Brodin said well. But Yeo said he needed to have a longer conversation with him. But he’s hopeful he can return against the Stars, so he’s listed as “possible” for Saturday.
Defenseman Christian Folin practiced again and Yeo expects the rookie to return. Defenseman Keith Ballard is still sick and defenseman Justin Falk was reassigned.
“This is another test for the depth of our defensemen,” Yeo said, adding it’s a test for the young defensemen and players like Nate Prosser and even Marco Scandella, who has been so good (even or plus every game this year). “When you lose somebody, there’s always more opportunity.
“If we’re playing our game the right way and if we’re going out and attacking the way we have been and defending the way we have been, then we give the guys a good chance to succeed.”
I talked with Ryan Suter and he said with Spurgeon out, just like last year when the Wild lost defensemen, he’s taking it upon himself that he has to step up even more to help the team. Shocker there, right?
Left wing Matt Cooke will be out for awhile. Nothing serious, but the hope is rest will help him heal. He actually got hurt Game 2 of the season in Denver and had been playing on the lower-body injury.
Yeo said Erik Haula has a good shot to return Saturday, but the team has to first make sure he’s completely fine after the morning skate.
My guess is Justin Fontaine stays on the line with Thomas Vanek and Kyle Brodziak to start and Haula centers Ryan Carter and Nino Niederreiter.
The Brodziak line has produced two games in a row, but it really got going when Fontaine was put on it Thursday. Yeo wasn’t happy with Niederreiter’s game and made clear today that “I’m expecting Nino to have a real strong game” Saturday.
The way Yeo has been rolling four lines this year, Yeo said nobody should get caught up on who’s on the so-called third line and who’s on what’s considered the fourth line.
“Bottom line is if Haula plays, if Fontaine plays [with Brodziak or Haula], we’re going to have four good lines. If we want to get caught up on who’s on the third line, who’s on the fourth line, both lines will play and both those lines will be important for us.”
Yeo said what he loves right now is “if a line’s having an off night, we can change up the lines or somebody else can pick up the slack [like Fontaine on Thursday]. I feel like I’ve got four lines I can put on the ice against anybody.”
Yeo talked a lot about how good Jason Zucker is playing today and said he thinks Zucker and Charlie Coyle helped bring Mikko Koivu energy Thursday. Koivu was terrific with a goal, nine shots, 22 of 28 in the circle and a shootout equalizer.
If you didn’t read the Vanek story, see this blog. But the bottom line is, this is not a new development. The only thing new is the defense attorney for the bookmaker who’s going to prison for potentially nine years decided to give detail to Vanek’s involvement.
But Vanek is cooperating in the investigation, is the star witness and as long as he didn’t bet on hockey (this was a football ring apparently) and as long as he doesn’t face criminal charges, it’s very unlikely the NHL is going to take any action against him.
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