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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Wild coach Mike Yeo completed his pregame availability about 30 minutes ago and he explained his reasoning for coming back with Darcy Kuemper.
Kuemper enters tonight's game with two wins in his past eight starts and has allowed three or more goals in five of his past seven.
“Good goalies have games when they’re not at their best, they have stretches when they’re not at their best, but good goalies find a way to bounce back, find a way to get on top of their game,” Yeo said. “That’s his challenge. This is as important to his development as a player as it is to our team.”
That’s because not only does the Wild have to figure out if Kuemper’s got the ability to be its No. 1 goalie next season, it’s got to figure out if he has got what it takes to be ridden during the playoffs.
“Coming in against a team like St. Louis, in their building, coming off the heels of a tough game, these are the kind of emotions and things that can get in your head that you have to deal with [in the postseason],” Yeo said. “For a goalie to be successful in the playoffs, they have to be able to deal with that stuff.
“He’s shown that he has the mental makeup.”
He said this is another opportunity to prove it. He said hopefully that's tonight, but he did make clear this is not some precondition that he must win tonight or else.
Yeo said the Wild has full faith in Kuemper because of the way he helped rescue its season when Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom were sidelined.
“If it was lightning in a bottle the way he was playing earlier, than we’d be scared,” Yeo said. “But we know that he’s going to get back to that level.”
Yeo said the Wild allowed Kuemper’s average game against Vancouver to “become the story” because of the way it played the game defensively.
“The biggest thing with our group right now is to find consistency in our game,” said Yeo, contrasting the strong game the Wild played Sunday in Detroit with Wednesday’s 5-2 home loss. “We didn’t have the right mindset to play that game. Let’s play the right game in front of our goalie.”
Dany Heatley, once a feared goal scorer, enters tonight's game with four shots in the past 10 games, no goals since Feb. 27 and 12 in 73 games. He is minus-5 in the past four games playing a third- and fourth-line role and a team-worst minus-16.
Yeo wants more from Heatley and said even if he’s not scoring, he’s a big body that can finish checks, be strong on the puck and solid defensively.
Heatley hasn’t yet scratched the proud veteran, but it could be coming if his play doesn’t improve.
“What I’ll say is he’s in the lineup tonight,” said Yeo, adding when I asked if he'll treat him like the rookies Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula and pull him, “We’ll treat everybody the same. The team always comes first. I'm excited to see his game tonight."
Yeo said Heatley isn't the only underperforming player: "We have some guys that have to establish themselves in their place in our lineup and we’ll be a much better team for it when that happens."
--I asked Yeo again about his "arrogance" comment last night.
"I want us to come into games with a swagger," he said. Like tonight, he says any good hockey team would come into a game like tonight at St. Louis and not wait to see what St. Louis brings, not be afraid. "We have to have that.
"But there's a difference between swagger and sort of that idea, 'We’re really good, we can just go out and play the way we want to play and it’s going to happen for us.' We have to remember how hard it is, what it takes and we have to be willing to do it."
So, in other words, there was a way he wanted last game started. He wanted pucks deep and to go to work on Vancouver's D like the Wild did in Detroit. Instead, when the Wild play at home lately, it has a tendency to try to make all these fancy, risky plays, whether it be too much passing or carrying pucks into the zone and turning them over for odd-man rushes. There's a process to winning a game, a gameplan, and he wants it followed.
Afternoon from St. Louis, where the Wild opens a four-game road trip tonight at the Blues.
Coach Mike Yeo will be available before the game, but judging by the optional pregame skate, the staff has made the decision to throw Darcy Kuemper right back in there. It also looks like the same exact lineup as Justin Fontaine, Stephane Veilleux and Mike Rupp were bagged afterward.
Huge game to say the least. Dallas is idle again, meaning the the Wild will have played two more games than the Stars, who are six points back, after tonight. Stretching that lead would be huge.
A Wild loss and a Phoenix win in Jersey would mean the Coyotes would be one point back heading into Saturday's pivotal game in Glendale. That's why last night's loss was so hurtful.
Tonight's game could be a potential first-round matchup if the Wild makes the playoffs. Check out my game notebook on www.startribune.com/wild for quotes from Zach Parise on just how important tonight's game is to the mental makeup of the Wild, especially if it ends up the Wild plays the Blues in the playoffs. Remember, the Wild has lost eight in a row to St. Louis and hasn't won in regulation at St. Louis in the past 11 visits.
Here is Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo this morning on tonight's clash, courtesy of my pals at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
"We're familiar with each other over the last couple of years and now with the division the way it is. If you can set a tone early on, I think they're thinking the same thing, it's a potential first round matchup. This is where it starts. Both teams are playing for something a little bit extra. They're trying to keep that playoff spot and we're trying to move up in first place. If you can send a message playing the right way right now, it's going to be a good start going into the first or second round."
Afternoon from the X, where the Wild and Canucks face off tonight at 6:30 p.m.
If you didn’t see today’s profile on defenseman Jon Blum, please give it a read here. It’s a pretty gripping story.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Eddie Lack.
Alex Burrows dives back into the lineup for Vancouver. No Henrik Sedin though.
For the Wild, Cody McCormick, scratched in the Detroit home-and-home, draws back in for the Wild and Justin Fontaine is scratched (more on that decision below).
The Canucks are six points back of eighth-place Phoenix with nine games left, so they’re likely going to head into tonight’s game like their season’s on the line. You know the Wild would love nothing more than to put the nail in the coffin of their former division rival.
Coach Mike Yeo said the Wild must make sure it’s ready to go.
“We better be ready to match that desperation,” Yeo said.
This is the first of four games in six nights, including the first three games of a road trip to St. Louis (tomorrow, Wild hasn’t won in regulation there since 2007 and has lost eight in a row to the Blues overall), Phoenix, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Huge trip to say the least, so it’s important the Wild gets two points tonight.
Phoenix is now three points back after a big win last night in Pittsburgh. The Wild has played one fewer game. Dallas lost at Chicago, so the Stars are still six points back of Minnesota.
Yeo isn’t happy with the so-called fourth line lately, which the past few games has been Dany Heatley-Erik Haula-Fontaine.
In three of the past four games, he has liked what the third line has brought with Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Nino Niederreiter.
He said they’ve been “very true to their identity -- strong defensively, playing physical, playing in the offensive zone. Our fourth line, it’s sometimes varied as far who the personnel has been, but we can’t defer or change from what we need those guys to bring -- that’s momentum, being solid defensively, being strong on the forecheck, that’s playing in the offensive zone.”
Yeo said Fontaine’s game isn’t “at the same level as we saw in the Islander game, there’s no question.”
Fontaine really had issues in the first Detroit game, and it started 14 seconds in when he visibly hit the brakes on the forecheck, didn’t check Nik Kronwall and the Red Wings got a free exit. Those are the type of things coaches see, and Yeo has felt that his wall play hasn’t been up to snuff in the New Jersey and two Detroit games.
Yeo called those games a “little bit more in your face” than the Islanders game and “similar to what we’re going to see tonight.”
That’s why he’s putting McCormick back in. To me, McCormick’s got to play better though. For somebody the Wild acquired to add toughness and size, I haven’t seen any big hits or fights and he has gotten bumped off pucks in the offensive zone.
But Yeo is looking for more of a typical fourth-line identity from that fourth line. The question is whether it’s possible to get that identity with Heatley, who’s not exactly a speedster or a physical menace, on that line. But as we’ve seen, Yeo has done everything to avoid pulling the veteran from the lineup. The question is whether Yeo can ever really find that identity he so wants if he’s unwilling to move Heatley somewhere else in the lineup or scratch him.
When you think Heatley-Haula-McCormick, it seems like those are three very different type of players Yeo is trying to force-feed together. Haula, again, is in this role because Yeo has explained he has trust in Brodziak playing the system to a T and he doesn’t feel Haula is yet ready to play 16, 17, 18 minutes a night yet against top lines. Yeo knows his system inside and out – better than fans and media -- so he has got a reason to feel this way whether we agree or not. It’s clear many don’t.
Again, Haula will get his time. Gustav Nyquist, a star in Detroit suddenly, spent four seasons in the minors with Grand Rapids. That’s how the Red Wings do things. The Wild has put Haula on the team half a year into his first year pro, so he’s not being mistreated like many of you believe he is. He’s actually been fast-tracked here, so be patient and he’ll get his time.
Back to Fontaine, Yeo said, “We’ve got to make sure we keep him ready to go. There’s going to be a time very soon where we call upon him and we hope he can step in the same way that he did before (goal, assist on Long Island). I just think that line as a whole, we have to make sure we’re building an identity there.”
On Fontaine’s wall play against the Devils and Red Wings, Yeo said, “That’s part of it. When he’s on, he’s stripping pucks. He doesn’t have to be a guy who’s running guys through the boards, but you have to be effective. For some guys it’s using their speed and their stick creating turnovers. So that’s part of it. Being effective on the forecheck because let’s face of it, he’s got to play a bit of a different game with that line, a little more chip, a little more chase.”
And if you’re going to chip and chase, Yeo said you’ve got to be able to recover the puck.
“I’m confident he’s not that far off,” Yeo said.
Talk to you tonight. I’ll also be on Fox Sports North during the 6 p.m. pregame show and first intermission.
Morning (afternoon here) from inside the Joe Louis Arena, where the Wild and Detroit Red Wings complete a home-and-home tonight at 6:30 p.m. CT. Wild lost last night's game 3-2.
Detroit is 8-0-2 in its past 10 at home. The Wild is 3-3 in its past six at Detroit.
The game is on NBC Sports Network with Doc and Pierre at the mics.
Please go to www.startribune.com/wild for all of today's coverage. It includes my game story, notebook, postgame blog and Jarome Iginla column and Patrick Reusse's Darcy Kuemper column and a postgame blog on the Wild's marketing.
The Wild had an optional skate this morning.
Ilya Bryzgalov, who looks to be getting the start tonight, and Darcy Kuemper were on the ice with defenseman Jon Blum, who has been recalled for injured Clayton Stoner, forwards Justin Fontaine, Nino Niederreiter, Dany Heatley, Stephane Veilleux (freshly recalled), Cody McCormick and Erik Haula.
Stoner isn't on the trip, nor is injured Keith Ballard and Mike Rupp, whom I hear is ill. (sick of getting scratched maybe, as you can see here).
Jimmy Howard, "who in my mind won them yesterday's game," said Zach Parise, gets the start for the second consecutive game.
Wild coach Mike Yeo will be available to us ink-stained wretches at 4:15 p.m. CT, so we'll get a better indication of the Wild's lineup then. Just one forward decision to make. McCormick looks to be one of the scratched forwards.
The Wild has previously recalled Veilleux without playing him, but with the penalty kill having given up seven goals in the past nine games (and two of those games don't count because the Wild's penalty kill didn't see the ice in penalty-free games), I'd assume Veilleux draws in.
I'd guess Justin Fontaine is scratched. He had a rough game last night, and since Charlie Coyle moved up to right wing on Mikko Koivu's line, the Wild needs centermen Erik Haula and Kyle Brodziak in the lineup.
Bryzgalov looks to be making his fourth start with the Wild. He is 1-0-2 with a 1.93 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and one shutout.
He is 9-8-5 all-time vs. the Red Wings with a 2.78 goals-against average and .921 save percentage.
I got a lot of questions what Ryan Suter whispered in the linesman's ear during that power-play neutral-zone faceoff with a little more than a minute left after the linesman booted Mikko Koivu for the 100th time.
"We were just talking about that in the back, the guys were like, 'What the heck were you saying?'" Suter said, laughing. "I asked him, 'Who's supposed to put his stick down first?' I was just trying to make him think to give our guys a little more time because we were tired."
"It seemed every time they'd kick out Mikko and Granny."
It did seem the linesmen last night had a personal problem with Koivu.
"I’m not sure why. I’m not a ref," Suter said. "Maybe he was yelling at him too much. Mikko likes to do that."
Yes, he does. Lots of linesmen have told me this. Koivu, who wears his game face before, during and after games, should probably lighten up.
I'm writing about the Wild's 23rd-ranked penalty kill for tomorrow. I talked to Suter and Parise about it, and both were pretty good.
"Sometimes during the year, you go through ups and downs," Suter said. "But we’re going through all downs it seems this year. "The good thing is there’s still time to get it right before we get to the playoffs."
By the way, Suter and Parise say the team isn't, as Parise put it, "freaking out."
But both admitted players have put themselves in positions again where they're scoreboard watching. Luckily for the Wild, Phoenix blew a third-period lead to Boston last night and lost, so that lead remains four points. Dallas won, and that cushion's down to six points. Dallas will have two games in hand on the Wild after tonight, so tonight is a huge game for Minnesota.
The schedule gets very hard after Wednesday.
Parise hasn't scored in five games, by the way. And Jason Pominville really needs to settle down suddenly. He's had the yips the past few games, whiffing constantly on passes, shots, etc.
I'll update this after we grab Yeo tonight.
Wild looks to close its three-game road trip with a second consecutive victory tonight when it visits the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center.
Good chance Zach Parise draws into the Wild’s starting lineup of his first return to New Jersey since departing as a free agent two summers ago.
Ilya Bryzgalov vs. Cory Schneider in goal. For the Wild, Erik Haula is scratched a second consecutive game (more on that below) and defenseman Keith Ballard is sidelined with a groin injury. He apparently hurt it the other day and tried to give it a shot this morning. He had to leave the pregame skate early.
--Left wing Jason Zucker is indeed out the rest of the season. General Manager Chuck Fletcher said Zucker will need additional surgery to repair a tendon in his right quadriceps.
“It’s a setback, but he should be fine for next season,” Fletcher said. “It’s frustrating it came to all this. I feel badly for the kid.”
Zucker was initially injured Jan. 9 late in the third period at Phoenix. He blocked a scorching Shane Doan blast just above the right knee. The decision was made to hold off surgery until the Olympic break.
“Honestly, it’s a fluky injury, one I’ve never heard of,” Fletcher said. “When they initially went in, it was worse than they thought. They fixed it, but he reaggravated it while training.”
--Parise will play his first game tonight at the Rock. Fans will boo. Future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur says fans have that right.
And while maybe Devils fans have every right in the world to be upset Parise left New Jersey for home in Minnesota, Brodeur said it was the Devils who made the mistake by not trying to sign Parise earlier.
“We had plenty of chances,” Brodeur said. “We had two years to talk to him and figure out something and we waited and waited and it was too late.”
I asked him to follow up on that and he said, “When you know you have an athlete that is going to be a gamebreaker and he’s going to be one of the top [available] players and the rules are free agency comes a lot younger than it used to, you have to make commitments. You see around the league some of the young guys, the (Steven) Stamkos’ and etc., they don’t wait. They get them done. And we let him walk to free agency. That’s a decision of the organization, regardless of it was financial at the time with the ownership that we had, but he was our property for a long time and we lost him.”
GM Lou Lamoriello has had a long policy of waiting to sign his pending free agents. In fact, Brodeur’s one of the few who has been signed in the middle of the season. Everybody from Scott Niedermayer to Scott Gomez to Brian Gionta to Alex Mogilny to even Doug Gilmour left.
The moment New Jersey signed Ilya Kovalchuk to a 15-year, $100-million contract in August 2010, it seemed the homegrown Parise was destined to be elsewhere.
“That’s too hard to say,” Parise said when asked if it would have changed things if Lamoriello tried harder to extend him earlier. “I know Lou has his policies and his way of doing things. It’s not as if Lou waited ‘til June 29 or 30 to pick up the phone. We had talked for a long time before that. … I don’t think it’s fair to say that Lou waited ‘til the last minute because that wasn’t the case.”
By the way, Parise said Tuesday that Lamoriello doesn’t hold a grudge and they still have a good relationship, that Lamoriello understands this is the way it works in the NHL.
As far as Devils fans apparently being upset that Parise kept saying he wanted to stay, Parise said, “I wasn’t lying. I have no reason to lie about that stuff. I was always being completely honest. It basically came down to Minnesota or here.”
Brodeur said, “I had good conversations with him. He really was debating going to Minnesota or staying with us. I talked to him a lot that day about it and he was torn a little bit about making that decision. But a lot of people have influence on players – agents and families and stuff like that, and if he went anywhere – I don’t have to name the team – it would have been a lot [more] heartbroken for the fans than going to Minnesota, that’s for sure.”
I assume he was talking about the Rangers, although the Rangers were never in the mix. Philly and Pittsburgh went hard after Parise, as well as Chicago. Detroit was the big team after Ryan Suter.
“We’re hockey players,” Brodeur said. “We have different views than fans as far as what’s expected from people in the locker room and stuff like that. “So, the fans for sure are not pretty pleased with his decision to leave us, especially being the captain. The only drawback is he went home to Minnesota, so I think you have fans that will be a little understanding. But those fans are pretty rare. It affected our organization in a big way losing him, and that’s what the fans care about. Us, it’s part of the business.”
-- Talked to Justin Fontaine, who had a goal and assist against the Islanders in his second game being scratched for five straight. He was on a line with Matt Moulson and Mikko Koivu.
“No one likes sitting out. It’s definitely frustrating,” he said. “I just came to the rink with the right attitude. That’s why I said about staying sharp and staying positive around the rink, being a good teammate. You never know the role you’re going to get thrown in and you’ve got to take advantage when you get that opportunity.”
Coach Mike Yeo had the same conversation with Haula. As I wrote the other day, Yeo isn’t unhappy with Haula. He feels he wants to get everybody in roles, and while fans and media say he simply should elevate Haula to a third-line status, he doesn’t yet feel that Haula is ready to play 18 minutes a night against top players.
Yeo said Fontaine is a “good example for a guy like Haulsy. We’ve got a lot of guys. We added a couple guys to a team that we already felt was strong, so that means every night there’s two, three guys out of the lineup. So when you’re not in there, it’s how you use that time to make sure you’re ready when you do get in. It speaks volumes [about Fontaine] the attitude he had while he was out and how he worked to make sure he was ready for that opportunity. I talked to [Haula]. He’s been playing well, and he’s going to get back in [eventually] and we have to make sure when he gets back in he’s at that same level.”
-- Teammates have been calling defensive defenseman, No. 4 Clayton Stoner “Bobby Orr” since his highlight-reel breakaway goal Tuesday against the Islanders.
“Today anyways. I'm sure it'll change tomorrow,” Stoner joked.
Yeo said, “His play has been very strong lately. He’s been making the right decisions with the puck. He’s been moving the puck quickly and efficiently. …. His defending has been very strong, from his gaps through the neutral zone, his one-on-one play to his D-zone coverage, I’ve been very impressed with how he’s been playing the game.”
Stoner said he’s OK from his crash into the corner wall after scoring. He said he tripped over goalie Anders Nilsson’s stick.
Stoner scored his first NHL goal in this Devils’ arena in 2011. It was a dump-in that Johan Hedberg came out to play. But the puck hit a stanchion on the glass and ricocheted into the open net.
Stoner said he tested it this morning. Stanchions have changed, he disappointedly said.
-- On Bryzgalov starting, Yeo said the Wild used the “guideline” of coming back with a goalie coming off a shutout. Bryzgalov made 36 saves for his 32nd career shutout and first with the Wild on Tuesday on the Island.
Yeo said Bryzgalov was a calming influence in the net that night and “looked big. I want to see if he can get back at it.”
He also has a 2.07 GAA lifetime against New Jersey.
-- Same forward lines at 5-on-5 to start tonight. PP units are Parise-Koivu-Moulson-Suter-Pominville; Heatley-Granlund-Nino-Brodin-Spurgeon.
Yeo said he wants to spot Charlie Coyle in more on the penalty kill and the Nino spot on the power play may rotate between Nino and Coyle depending on “who’s playing better.”
-- Greg Carey, the senior at St. Lawrence University, signed with the Phoenix Coyotes yesterday. The Wild is waiting to hear today a decision from his younger brother, Matt Carey, 22. The freshman is said to play more of a pro style but is raw. He’s tied for 38th in the country with 37 points (18 goals).
Also, as I wrote a few days ago, the Wild, Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins are among many teams after Swedish defenseman Christian Folin, who plays at Massachusetts-Lowell. Many scouts say Folin has the ability to step right into an NHL lineup. He can’t be signed until they’re done playing, and that could be a bit.
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