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 will try to bounce back from Wednesday’s 4-0 home loss to the Los Angeles Kings tonight in Dallas, where the Wild won, 2-1, Nov. 15, behind Darcy Kuemper’s 27-save performance.
Prior to that Dallas game, Kuemper was pulled at home after giving up two goals on two shots in an eventual victory over Buffalo. Kuemper has now been chased in his past two home starts, so coach Mike Yeo will give him a chance to rebound a second time in Dallas.
So why return with Kuemper?
1) The above bouncebacks; 2) Kuemper has stopped 46 of 48 shots in two victories this season against the Stars; 3) Niklas Backstrom is 1-5-3 all-time at Dallas with a 3.75 goals-against average and .868 save percentage; 4) the Wild plays at home Saturday night against St. Louis, so Backstrom can start that game.
Kuemper getting rattled in the midst of tough games and letting it affect him is becoming part of his M.O. We saw it last year, we have seen it this year.
“Well, he’s a young kid who is proving himself,” Yeo said. “I said that from the start of the year, there’s going to be ups and there’s going to be downs. We’ll keep working on him. We’re trying to continue to develop a young player. Obviously, we’ve seen what he’s capable of and it’s up to us, it’s up to him to try to bring the consistency out.”
I didn’t cover last game, but I watched on my cell phone and I told my brother right at the second goal that Yeo would be kicking himself for not pulling him then. After the third and fourth goals, I said Yeo’s going to be really beating himself up because it was so clear early that Kuemper was in la-la land.
Yeo usually has a great feel on when to pull his goalies, and the Wild has rallied back in a couple lately after yanks. I knew why Yeo probably didn’t pull Kuemper, and he confirmed his reasoning today when I asked why he didn’t pull him at 2-0 (I understood 3-0; just trying to get him out of the period at that late juncture). Yeo brought the previous Buffalo start. Keeping Kuemper in was in Yeo’s mind another learning experience that a young goalie needs: Battle through tough moments in a game (obviously didn’t work).
“Part of it is I don’t want to just pull him every time that he lets in a bad goal,” Yeo said. “He’s got to fight through it, too. We’d pulled our goalies in the two previous home games, so after two goals just to pull a goalie again, in hindsight, sure probably would have done it, but that said it’s important for him to battle through that stuff. That’s part of your development as a player, is going through those hard times as well. We want to develop him. We know how important he is to us not only this year but the future and so that was part of it.”
Good afternoon from Dallas, where the Wild plays tonight at 7:30. Hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving. Wild is 5-0 against the Central (but hasn’t played Chicago or St. Louis yet) and the Stars are 0-5-2 against the Central (but hasn’t played Colorado yet).
Not sure exactly the forward lines tonight because Mikko Koivu and Thomas Vanek didn’t skate. I saw Vanek off the ice. I never did see Koivu.
Defenseman Jonas Brodin is expected to play for the first time in eight games tonight. He had been out since Nov. 11 with the mumps.
Brodin said he lost some weight (not sure from where since he’s a rail). The virus hit him bad, saying that he woke up in New Jersey and his jaw hurt. He still played and started to feel sicker during the game. The next day, he woke up in Minnesota and was completely sick with a very noticeable swollen jaw.
“I was pretty big and swollen,” he said. “It was bad. Head fever, I felt tired and exhausted for more than a week. I didn’t feel like eating and when I ate, it hurt really bad for like four hours.”
Brodin said he has felt good on the ice since Monday. “It’s fun to get back with the guys and fun to start playing again.”
Yeo didn’t divulge who would sit if Brodin returned. Obviously, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Brodin will be the top-four, so it’ll be either be Keith Ballard, Nate Prosser or Matt Dumba. If the Wild wants to keep Ballard in because he’s the only left-shot, it’ll be Prosser or Dumba.
A reporter this morning asked about Dumba’s progress and Yeo kinda hesitated and grinned before answering, and Yeo’s poker face sometimes is BAD (I’d be wealthy if I sat across the table from Yeo at a card table), so it could be Dumba.
On Dumba, Yeo said, “Again, with just another young kid, consistency’s always the big thing. I just want to keep seeing improvement in his game. The improvement, if you want to compare it to a guy like Zuck, the improvement’s not going to come from him shooting harder or skating faster or making a nicer play. The improvement’s going to come from all the other little things and we’re going to continue to work with that.”
Brodin has skated on his own and in two morning skates and only one full practice (yesterday). Ideally, that’s not enough practice time for a guy who hasn’t played since Nov. 11, but Yeo said, “Back-to-back games here and if physically he’s feeling fit, his skating ability and his execution [would be a welcome addition]. We wouldn’t expect a perfect game from him, but a good game from him we kind of expect, and a good game from him, it would mean a lot to our team.”
I talked to Zach Parise a lot this morning about his line with Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville. They haven’t been very good since being reunited the last three games. Parise scored a big goal in Tampa, but that was with Pominville in for ear repair and when he returned, they had a big defensive-zone breakdown that led to the winning goal. In Florida and last game against L.A., just not very sharp and lots of ins and outs of the o-zone.
Turns out Yeo brought them in for video clips this morning because he spotted bad habits creeping into the game.
Pominville has really struggled. He has one goal in the past 14 games and is tied for fifth among NHL forwards with 34 missed shots, and that’s only posts and missed nets, that’s not all the swings and misses and fans we have seen this season.
“There’s been some good and some bad,” Parise said. “I think we’re spending a little too much time in our D zone. We’ve been getting good chances. We haven’t been scoring as much as we’d like, and I think that’s causing us to start to cheat on offense. [Yeo] brought up how Pommer and I, right when we get the puck, we’re trying to fly and even if we do get the puck, it’s still a 1-on-2 or 2-on-2, and you can’t really generate much like that. So it’s more so coming up the ice together and timing a little better and in the offensive zone, we’re so good at retrieving pucks off of shots, but right now we’ve kind of stopped shooting and we’re trying to make that extra play and they’re breaking it up and now we’re backchecking rather than holding onto it a little longer and supporting and shooting. We haven’t shot.
“It’s just like second nature, when things aren’t going well, all of sudden you start to fan out to the perimeter. No one’s going through to the net, everybody wants something out here (motioning away from the net) and we’ve been guilty of that right now. It’s not working for us. I’m glad he brought it up because you don’t notice it when you’re in the game.”
Yeo on that line: “That line, when they’re on their game I don’t know that we have another group and maybe that’s because that they’ve played with each other as much as they have, but that uses each other and plays with each other as well as they do. It hasn’t been as much the last few games. … That confidence that doesn’t just come back magically. You have to work for it to come back and I think it will.”
I also talked to Parise about the old NHL Thanksgiving rule. Typically, if you’re in the top-8 at Thanksgiving, you make the playoffs. If you’re outside the top-8 at Thanksgiving, you don’t.
According to STATS INC., 77.3 percent of NHL teams since 2005-06 that are in the top-8 at Thanksgiving make the playoffs. Entering tonight (after Thanksgiving), the Wild is in ninth place in the West – three points behind second wildcard team, Winnipeg.
Interesting, two exceptions to the “rule” the past five years were the Wild. In 2008-09 and 2011-12, the Wild was inside the top-8 at Thanksgiving and ended up missing the playoffs.
“It’s funny, there’s such an emphasis on points at the end of the season and those races, but they’re so important early also,” PARISE said. “You don’t want to put yourself in that situation where you’re trying to chase or hoping people lose. But it’s still November. But we’ve got to get ourselves playing better hockey – bottom line.”
Parise also said, “It’s important to keep everything in perspective. I know there were fireworks we lost 4-nothing last game. It wasn’t pretty, but we were just come off winning four in a row. Win four in a row and you feel great, you lose one, you feel awful. Everyone just needs to relax a little bit. Do I think we were playing really well when we won four in a row? No, but we found ways to win the game. I don’t think we’ve been playing great as of late, but at the same time, in our last seven, we’re 5-2 maybe? Things aren’t always as bad as that 4-0 loss, which was ugly, don’t get me wrong, but everyone needs to slow down a little bit, tap the brakes.”
As the Wild prepared for tonight's game against Los Angeles, two players who won't be in the lineup made progress toward a return. Defenseman Jonas Brodin and winger Matt Cooke both skated Wednesday morning, and coach Mike Yeo said Brodin could be ready to play Friday at Dallas.
Brodin has missed six games because of an illness believed to be mumps. Yeo said his conditioning is not quite up to speed, but the coach doesn't think he's far off. "He's much, much better,'' Yeo said of Brodin. "He looks like a different guy right now. There's a chance we could have him Friday.''
Cooke has been out for 12 games with a hip flexor injury. He has begun skating without full gear and will need much more work to get into game shape. "At least he's touching the ice,'' Yeo said. "He's feeling better, but he's got a long way to go just to get him back up to speed.''
Though the Wild is coming off a 2-1 road trip in which it straightened out some problems that had plagued it away from home, Yeo cautioned against feeling too satisfied. The Kings--despite having a 1-4-4 road record and the fewest road wins in the Western Conference--are a balanced and solid team with no clear deficiencies.
"It's never an easy game (against the Kings),'' Yeo said. "And it's not necessarily a fun one, either, especially if you're not executing, you're not performing the way you need to. It will certainly be a good test tonight.
"I felt like (the Tampa Bay game, a 2-1 loss) was a bit of a step in the right direction. Despite losing that game, I felt there were a lot of parts of the game that looked right. (In the 4-1 victory over Florida), we took another step in the right direction, a bigger step. Our challenge is right now, coming off that trip--a feel-good win--we can't just assume things are going to start where we left them in Florida. We have a lot of work to do. We're not where we need to be, and this is a great team we're playing tonight. We've got to make sure we're ready.''
Today is defenseman Keith Ballard's 32nd birthday, and he is expected to skate in his 600th NHL game. The Baudette native will celebrate with family members coming in for Thanksgiving weekend. Ballard said the last 100 games have taken their sweet time, as he lost significant time to injuries and was a healthy scratch by Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault during Ballard's final season with the Canucks.
The former Gopher has played the past 54 games in a Wild sweater since being signed as a free agent in the summer of 2013. He has played only nine games this season after the mumps sidelined him, but he's grateful to still be on the ice.
"I enjoy coming to the rink,'' he said. "I have genuine excitement coming to the rink and seeing the guys. That’s the fun part about playing--getting to know guys and developing those bonds and close friendships. That’s what makes it fun going to the rink for me.
"It's gone by fast. When you're young, everyone says, 'Enjoy it. It goes by fast.' These 10 years have gone pretty quickly for me.''
Like my brain, this may be a mishmash of unorganized thoughts.
I picked up so many little notes this morning, you may be seeing things scattered in the paper throughout the coming week that was gathered today, including a column on former Wild defenseman and two-time Cup champ Willie Mitchell, who is Florida’s captain and is motivated to help this franchise turn around. He talked a lot today about the team on and off the ice and also a lot about the Panthers’ young talents, like Nick Bjugstad.
Speaking of Bjugstad, if you didn’t read my piece on Bjugstad vs. Erik Haula tonight, here is that feature. He enters tonight on a four-game point streak (five goals, three assists), including the overtime-forcing goal with 30.3 seconds left of an eventual shootout loss two days ago in Nashville.
As you know if you watched him in high school and college, he is a physical force, one that can skate and shoot the puck ridiculously hard, and things seem to be coming together now for him as an NHLer. Mitchell said he has watched Bjugstad grow up before his very eyes just in the past week.
As Haula said in today’s paper, he is such a good kid, too. I still remember his draft year, I was making arrangement via text to sit down with Bjugstad in Dinkytown for a pre-draft feature. I suddenly had a few Wild responsibilities come up on this June afternoon, and had to text Bjugstad two or three times to change locations and then times and he did everything to accommodate me even though I was inconveniencing him.
We were also joking around this morning about this one time I ran into him at this gas station near campus because he was filling up his scooter. He caught me at the very worst moment – incensed because my car got stuck in the car wash with me in it and unable to get anybody from the gas station to pick up the phone and come out to turn the thing off. It was literally straight out of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode.
I’ll be on Fox Sports North during tonight’s pregame show and first intermission, and I’m sure Bjugstad’s recent play will come up.
Before I continue, I wanted to send my best to the families of Muzz Oliver, Pat Quinn and Viktor Tikhonov. Hockey lost three men in the past 24 hours. If you’d like to read Patrick Reusse’s blog on the loss of Oliver, check that out here. Quinn was one of the greats that my generation of sportswriters got to know well and I just always enjoyed interviewing him as a manager and coach. I believe his daughter lives or lived in Edina, so again best wishes to the family.
Niklas Backstrom vs. Roberto Luongo tonight.
Backstrom is 5-0-1 with a 1.95 goals-against average and .941 save percentage all-time vs. Florida, and he’s 3-0 at Florida, so that’s part of the rationale. Also, because of Backstrom’s poor record at Dallas and the fact Darcy Kuemper won there a few weekends ago, I’d guess Kuemper starts in Dallas on Friday and Backstrom at home against St. Louis on Saturday. I’d think they’d want to get Backstrom a start before that important division matchup.
Last we saw Backstrom, he had a sensational first two periods against Winnipeg before the wheels fell off in the third. A 3-0 lead evaporated in five minutes and he was yanked for Kuemper, who came on and got the win by stopping three of three shots before Marco Scandella’s OT winner.
“He’s part of our team and we’ve got to make sure we’re keeping him going, making sure we’re giving him an opportunity that he can go out and prove that he can win hockey games,” coach Mike Yeo said. “That’s what he’s done in the past and we expect him to do it again.”
Still, this wasn’t an easy decision, I’m told. The coaching staff really deliberated this yesterday just because Kuemper was so good in Philly and played well against Tampa Bay.
“Traditionally, you automatically are going to play both goalies on a father-son trip,” Yeo said. “But that’s not an easy decision. This was something that was on the schedule and we had aimed for, but it wasn’t just an easy decision, not because of Backy, but more because of Kuemps. He’s been on top of his game, but we’re expecting him to get back in the net against L.A. when we get back home [Wednesday].”
By the way (I told you this would be a mishmash of thoughts), just an fyi, I won’t be around the team Tuesday-Thursday, so Rachel Blount is picking up the team the next few days (although the team likely won’t practice either Tuesday or Thursday), so next you’ll hear from me after tonight is when I pick up the team in Dallas on Thanksgiving night Thursday.
Interesting game tonight. Usually I have a good feel for what to expect, but not tonight. Florida is coming off a 2-1-1 road trip and we know the first game after a long trip is typically hairy. But I wonder if that's offset by the Wild's day off yesterday (other than a workout at hotel) and the fact the team pretty much unwound by spending time down by the beach with their dads/mentors watching football. Can they just turn the switch back? OF course, THAT may be upset by the fact the Wild wants to win this road trip -- so to speak -- after splitting the first two in Philly and Tampa. Plus, the Wild has a tough stretch coming up with home L.A. Wednesday after a long flight back to Minnesota tonight, road Dallas Friday a day after Turkey Day and home St. Louis Saturday. So it knows it needs to win this one.
What else? I talked to Charlie Coyle and Jonathan Huberdeau a lot about their time together winning a Quebec League championship as linemates with Saint John. Panthers coach Gerard Gallant was their coach, and I’ll try to squeeze that stuff into tomorrow’s paper. If not, I’ll get it in at some point.
Yeo talked to me a lot about Coyle today, and I plan to do a feature in the next few days about his play this season and what the expectations are. He has all the tools, but what will he be? What can he be? Does he need a little more, Rick Tocchet, David Backes SOB in him? How can he bring that more consistently?
Stuff like that. He certainly needs to shoot the puck more and knows it.
He hasn’t been playing either special teams lately. Yeo told him a few weeks ago when his game dipped that until he gets his game back to par, he won’t see penalty kill or power play. Yeo has been happy with his game lately, especially recent ones against Buffalo and Philadelphia. So my guess is we’ll see him on the power play tonight.
Jonas Brodin (mumps) is working out back in Minnesota and a little birdie told me he’s expected to start skating tomorrow.
Same birdie told me Matt Cooke will start skating in Minnesota tomorrow, too. He has been working out heavily this trip and looked like a coach in a warmup suit during the father-son picture the other day in Tampa.
Cooke hasn’t played since Oct. 28. Tonight will be his 12th consecutive game out with a hip flexor.
“This has gone on longer than I think we all would have anticipated,” Yeo said. “We can feel the loss of him in our lineup, just as far as his board work, his controlling pucks in the offensive zone, his penalty killing, his physicality and his speed. We’ve definitely felt his absence.”
I think I mentioned the other day, Cooke leads the league in points per 60 minutes and that fourth line was a factor every night offensively with Cooke on it. Heck, his last game in Boston, it was his line that tied the score after Zach Parise sparked a third-period comeback for a win.
Yeo said that line with Cooke may have had a fourth-line label, but, “I can throw that line out there against any line” because they’re tough to play against, good defensively, physical, play in the offensive zone and create momentum.
I have some real good father-son anecdotes involving Nate Prosser, Matt Dumba, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula that I’ll try to squeeze in tomorrow’s paper.
Lots of little stuff to get in. See you on the tube tonight and on Twitter during the game.
Wild captain Mikko Koivu skated this morning and the anticipation is he’ll be able to play tonight when the Wild visits the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Afternoon from the Bay area of Florida, where the Wild looks to extend its win streak to five games and hand the Lightning a third straight loss for the first time this season. Minnesota beat Tampa Bay 7-2 at home last month, but coach Mike Yeo said the team can’t hang its head on that. Yeo reminded that the Lightning was banged up and tired at the end of a five-game trip. Also, Evgeni Nabokov started and was awful.
Lightning players this morning over and over said they were “embarrassed” by the beat down from the Wild last month and wants to make amends, especially coupled with the fact they’re in their first losing streak of the season and by consecutive 5-2 defeats at the Islanders and Maple Leafs.
So Yeo expects, like Philadelphia on Thursday, a very motivated opponent tonight and a very good one. No team in the league has more goals than the Lightning’s 75, so Tampa Bay is far from a one-trick pony with Steven Stamkos. The Wild does catch the Lightning for a second time without top defenseman Victor Hedman though.
As for Koivu, Yeo is expecting him to play and “we’ll need him. We’ll need him. Good test tonight not only playing a top team in the east, but a top team in the league.”
The Wild silenced Stamkos in Minnesota, but the Lightning has last change tonight.
“We’ll do what we can to try to get matchups,” Yeo said. On Stamkos, Yeo said, “You can’t defend that guy with one guy or two guys. It’s going to have to be a five-man unit, always an awareness of when he’s on the ice and always making sure you’re doing the right things with and without the puck, and it’s not enough to do them well, you have to do them really well. But it’s not just [Stamkos on the Lightning].”
Koivu missed the final 18:50 of the third period in Philly.
He said it’s probably some flu or virus. At first, he was worried it was the mumps.
“You think about it when it goes around,” Koivu said. “You know it’s an option, but the symptoms were different. After the game, the next morning, they said it’s something else. So it shouldn’t be that one.”
The pattern though with the previous guys is illness, feeling better and then swollen glands a few days later, so Koivu doesn't sound completely confident he's out of the woods. His plan is to play tonight, but he didn’t want to say for sure until he got some lunch into him this afternoon and a nap.
If Koivu plays, Kyle Brodziak will play wing on the fourth line with Erik Haula and Ryan Carter. Koivu would center leading goal scorer Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine and Mikael Granlund would be reunited with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville.
Stu Bickel would be the lone scratch.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Ben Bishop.
Koivu said the virus in Philly was “building up all day and just the first two [periods], I couldn’t recover.” He said when he came to the bench after that third-period turnover on the power play about a minute in, it was a decision they all made together to sit out the rest of the game.
On staying on the bench the rest of the game, Koivu said, “Usually you don’t do that. It was an awkward feeling. I probably should have just taken off, but you never know what happens in a game if someone else goes down.”
As you know by now, the Wild is having its father-son trip to Tampa Bay and Florida. There are dads, brothers and other mentors of players, coaches and staff.
The coolest part is trying to figure out which dads belong to which sons. For instance, you don’t need them wearing a jersey to figure out Steve Ballard is Keith Ballard’s dad: “You know how I’m going to turn out,” Keith said. Brent Kuemper has the exact same face as Darcy. Same expressions, same grin. I loved chatting with Scott Zucker, mostly because as you probably know by now I am a Vegasaholic. He is Director of Construction for Station Casinos, so not only is he in charge of 18 hotel/casinos, they have 30 or 40 other things they own. Fascinating job to say the least.
Here’s a picture of Brent chatting with his son’s goalie counterpart’s dad, Dick Backstrom today.
The Finn’s – Erik Haula and Mikael Granlund’s dads -- have been hanging out with … Matt Dumba’s dad, nonstop. No dad is funnier to shoot the breeze with than Tomi Haula.
Jamie Brunette, Andrew’s brother, sounds like and laughs like his bro.
This morning, coach Mike Yeo had all the mentors into the team’s pregame video session with the players.
“We wanted it to be as inclusive as possible so they get a good feel what we go through,” Yeo said, “but at the same time there’s a time today where we have to turn the switch” and concentrate on prepping for game.
Yeo said, laughing, that all the dads and mentors were “pretty quiet. I felt like a school teacher. I asked a couple questions and nobody wanted to talk and a couple guys started to put up their hands and their sons started to grab their arms and push them down.”
Andrew Brunette, who’s in charge of the power play, said jokingly it was a good thing Yeo didn’t bring up the power play during the morning meeting (PK and PP meetings come after the players arrive to the rink before the game) because “there would be lots of opinions, I’m sure.”
I’ll have some funny stories in tomorrow’s paper, like when Chris Prosser – Nate’s dad – took a couple funny shots at his son during an interview and how Dan Hendrickson – Darby’s brother – let me know that in 1993, the player taken right ahead of Andrew Brunette in the seventh round was … Dan Hendrickson.
Yep, the Washington Capitals had back-to-back picks and took Dan Hendrickson 173rd and Andrew Brunette 174th.
“I like to look at it as we had a great career -- we played 1,100 NHL games combined,” Hendrickson, a former Gopher, quipped.
The joke being of course that Brunette played all the games. Hendrickson was the faster skater though. :)
“I’m still Darby’s brother, but I was one pick in front of Bruno,” Dan Hendrickson said.
Talk about karma though that years later, Darby Hendrickson and Andrew Brunette would become longtime teammates, buddies and now coaches on the same staff. Brunette has become very close with the entire Hendrickson family, going camping and fishing with them, helping their dad coach at Benilde-St. Margaret’s during the 2004-05 lockout and even skating on Dan’s roller hockey team at times and his pond hockey team.
I also talked to Paul Yeo, Mike Yeo’s brother, who is four years older and has a lot more hair. Here's Paul Yeo, Jamie Brunette and Dan Hendrickson shooting the breeze.
As you can imagine, big bro is very proud of little bro.
I remember talking to Paul on the phone after Mike was hired in 2011. Mike Yeo may still be the youngest coach in the league, but he’s in his fourth season behind the Wild bench.
“Like anything, the more experience you get, the better you are, the more confident you get,” Paul Yeo said. “He’s always learning.”
I talked to Paul about the turmoil his brother fought through last winter and you can read that in tomorrow’s paper.
Josh Harding is expected to start next weekend for Iowa. He backed up last night, but with three games in three nights, Johan Gustafsson is expected to start tonight and John Curry will be recalled to start tomorrow for Iowa. Just too soon to throw Harding in as a starter.
That’s it for me. Talk tonight.
As I tweeted this morning, I suspect the Wild will be facing a very surly Philadelphia Flyers team when Minnesota opens up a three-game roadie.
After watching his team’s uninspired 2-0 loss at Madison Square Garden (a third straight defeat), Flyers GM Ron Hextall, the former goalie who didn’t mind dropping the gloves every once in a while either, could be heard by reporters screaming at his team in the changing room. He dropped profanities, made clear the effort was “embarrassing,” and apparently slammed doors and kicked over a garbage can.
Wild coach Mike Yeo expects a motivated Flyers team tonight, and even though the Flyers don’t have the tough makeup they had in the '80s, '90s and even in recent years, Yeo will toss Stu Bickel, the Wild’s toughest customer, in the lineup tonight. Kyle Brodziak will be scratched.
Bickel will see shifts on the fourth line, and, most likely, Yeo will alternate double-shifting other forwards at times in the game to skate with Erik Haula and Ryan Carter.
“I liked what [Bickel] brought last time we were on the road [in Dallas] and coming in to play against a team that I think is going to be very motivated, I want to make sure our guys are ready to play a physical type game.”
The Wild is 3-6 on the road and Yeo felt that the tough element Bickel brought in Dallas may have helped in that 2-1 win and “maybe that’s something we’ll look at going forward. He did a good job and we’ll get him back in today and we’ll take it from there.”
--Tonight’s game is scheduled to start at 7:59 p.m. and 30 seconds ET. (Returning to the hotel around 1 a.m. should do wonders for my productivity tomorrow after a 3:30 a.m. wakeup call to get to my flight to Tampa via Atlanta!!!)
The reason is Eric Lindros and John LeClair, two members of the Flyers’ old Legion of Doom line, will be inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame at 7 p.m. ET. Warmups start at 7:22 p.m. The Wild will be in the locker room during the ceremony, so this will be treated by the team like a typical 8 p.m. (7 p.m. CT) game.
--Yeo is juggling his lines tonight for really three reasons: 1) He says the Wild keeps getting stale during win streaks (three in a row now); 2) He wants to create three scoring lines on the road (32 home goals vs. 17 road goals in 9 games); 3) To get Thomas Vanek going.
And, frankly, that’s the real catalyst to all this. Vanek has one goal. He has 33 shots (14 in two games meaning 19 in 15 others). If Vanek was doing playing well 5-on-5, there wouldn’t be such a need. So tonight, Charlie Coyle will slide in to center the Vanek-Jason Zucker line, Justin Fontaine will move to the Nino Niederreiter-Mikael Granlund line and the top line of Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville will stay intact.
Coyle will be Vanek’s fifth center this year. Zucker has no goals in 10 games, no points in eight. And Coyle, a minus-2 last game, had three assists in the two previous games but no goals since Oct. 23 (12 games).
Let’s go point by point as to why Yeo is juggling his second, third and fourth lines despite a three-game winning streak:
1. Yeo: “There’ve been times we’ve won games consecutively and then we almost get a little bit stale. Our staff feels there are times where you should leave it alone and there’s other times that just because you got the result that you wanted, I think you have to look at the game as a whole. We have to male sure we’re keeping the guys on edge as well.”
Basically, Yeo also said despite the winning streak, you look at each game and the Wild did have rough times, especially the past two. The first half of the game in Dallas wasn’t good. The Wild coughed up a 3-0 lead in the third Sunday against Winnipeg before winning in overtime.
2. Yeo believes Coyle’s speed and skill through the middle of the ice will help. Yeo: “We’ve got to score more goals on the road. Even the game in Dallas, we won 2-1, which is great, but you can’t keep doing that all the time. We have to win some games like that, but we have to find a way to score at least three goals on the road, so we can’t just rely on one line, maybe even two lines to do that. We have to get some more scoring throughout our lineup and if that means we have to split up some lines and try some things, again, we’re not satisfied that we’ve won three games in a row. We have to try to continue to get better here. Hopefully this works and if it doesn’t work, then we’ll find something else.”
3. Which brings us to Vanek because point 2 wouldn’t be a problem if the Wild wasn’t having such a hard time finding him linemates that could help him score. He has made plays obviously, proven by his team-high nine assists, but he was brought here to score goals and he’s barely even attempting shots, which is unbelievably concerning to the coaching staff right now. That has been abundantly clear lately.
Yeo: “We have to get him going, and skill guys have to play with skill players. We’ve talked a lot this year about how Charlie we think there’s another level to his game, but what a great compliment to him that every time we have moved him off a line this year it’s because we’re trying to get somebody else going. We put him with Mikko because we think he could help Mikko. We put him with Granny because we think he can help Granny. And now we put him with Thomas because we think he can help Thomas. And that’s a real compliment to the player.”
So could this be permanent with Coyle?
“It could be,” Yeo said. “We don’t seem to be right now anyways a team that has two lines that are going to go out and just score basically every night. So we’ve got to make sure that we have another line that gives us that threat, gives us that possibility. When we’ve struggled, it’s because we don’t score. We’ll do the right things defensively and play the right game without the puck,” but they’re not scoring when they do the other stuff, so “it’s worth a try.”
And one big reason why the Wild has to try this is because Erik Haula hasn’t produced the way the Wild expected after his solid postseason. He has two goals and no assists.
-- Yeo coached LeClair briefly in Pittsburgh and says he was a class act and pro and he said he had the “misfortune” of having to play against Lindros when he played for Oshawa and Yeo Sudbury.
“He was just a man amongst boys,” Yeo said.
He was a foot taller and Yeo said, “40 pounds heavier and faster and more skilled. For somebody to be able to dominate the game the way he did both physically and skill wise, it was hard to watch playing against him, but it really was impressive. He could really take over a game in any way,” meaning he was great if you wanted to play a skating game, a skill game or a physical game, he’s just “power right through ya.”
-- The Wild will fly to Tampa right after tonight’s game to begin the father-son trip. Many of the fathers or other mentors will already be waiting for the team in Tampa, others are arriving in time for practice Friday.
I have to look it up, but the Wild has been pretty atrocious during its, I think, three prior father-son trips and one mother-son trip. You’d think it would serve as motivation. But last time the Wild did this in January 2012, the Wild got absolutely annihilated in Philadelphia and Toronto.
The Wild has previously done father-son/mother-son trips in Southern California and I think once to Chicago. Two of those came in the Doug Risebrough-Jacques Lemaire era, and I don’t think the Wild has a single point in the two done in the Chuck Fletcher era.
“What I hope and what I told our guys, that trip hasn’t started yet,” Yeo said. “We have an opportunity to make it a special trip, but it’s not fun and it’s not special unless you win. Ideally, you go in there tomorrow and we have an opportunity to see everybody and we’re feeling good about a game tonight. All-in for this game and nothing else matters.”
I’ll have a lot more on the father-son trip in Saturday’s paper. Also, if you didn’t see my story on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter’s sorrow that their fathers can’t be on the trip, here’s that link.
-- Lastly, Matt Cooke is on the trip and will have his father-in-law tagging along with him in Florida.
The Wild misses Cooke's hard-nosed game and frankly that fourth line was scoring every game with Cooke on it. Cooke leads the NHL in points per 60 mins (4.42). Ryan Carter's 4.02 is third, by the way.
Cooke will miss his 10th game tonight with a hip flexor injury and just hasn’t been able to get it right. The Wild wants to get him 100 percent so he doesn't have to deal with this all year. Cooke played on it for awhile after hurting it Game 2 in Denver. He’s obviously frustrated by the length of time out because he typically doesn’t miss games for injury, but the hope is he can begin skating after the road trip that ends at Florida on Tuesday.
Cooke feels awful for old Pittsburgh teammate and former Wild Pascal Dupuis, who will miss the next six months to treat a blood clot in one of his lungs. Cooke said he texted with Dupuis.
“Missing games are never easy,” Cooke said. “He went through a tough situation last year with his knee, and now, this, just terrible. He’s a guy that has his priorities in the right spot. As much as none of us want to step aside from our livelihood, he knows he has got to make sure he’s healthy for his wife and kids.”
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