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's top 4 broken apart yet again with Marco Scandella's suspension

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: December 11, 2014 - 3:33 PM

Darcy Kuemper vs. Alex Stalock tonight when the Wild visits the San Jose Sharks.

Stalock, the former UMD goalie and cousin of Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox, makes his first career start vs. his hometown Wild and will become the second Minnesota native to face the Wild in goal (Damian Rhodes, also from St. Paul, did it twice in 2001, the Wild said).

The Wild will be without suspended defenseman Marco Scandella, the Sharks without injured Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

On the Scandella two-game suspension, coach Mike Yeo said, “My opinion doesn’t mean a whole lot right now. I think I saw it a little bit differently than what they did, but it is what it is. We’ll have to get through it now.”

Scandella said, “It’s never fun to get suspensions and miss games, but I respect the league’s decision and I’m going to come back and be ready once I get back.”

I asked him if he thought this wouldn’t have resulted in anything had he not done something similar to T.J. Oshie so recently, and Scandella said he isn’t thinking about that.

“I’m not a dirty player and I don’t go out to injure anybody,” he said. “I’m going to forget about what happened, learn from what happened and move on from it.”

With two-left shot D out with Keith Ballard hurt and Scandella suspended, Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, who were real good together when Jonas Brodin had the mumps, will be back together. Brodin will move to the left side and be paired with Christian Folin and Justin Falk will be paired with Nate Prosser.

This is a big opportunity for Falk, who has played in the NHL, to get some games if he plays well. He has given the Wild some good games this season, Yeo said, and the Wild needs him to play a heavy game against two heavy teams, the Sharks and Saturday against the Coyotes.

GM Chuck Fletcher told me no trade is imminent, but with Ballard out long-term, he will just gauge the defense for awhile and see how Folin plays. The Wild also has Falk and Jon Blum, whom Fletcher said is playing better, down on the farm, as well as Matt Dumba. Ideally, the Wild would like to leave Dumba in Iowa working with John Torchetti, but there may come a point where the Wild has no choice but to call him back up.

Dumba is playing 30 minutes a night there and has two goals, one assist and is plus-7 in three games.

The Wild has played with its top-four of Suter, Brodin, Scandella and Spurgeon intact 10 times in 26 games this season, The four were together the first seven games, and then injuries, suspensions and the mumps has resulted in them playing together for only three of the past 20 games.

Fox Sports North’s Anthony LaPanta crunched the numbers.

The Wild is 6-3-1 with the four together, 9-7 with one or two out.

The Wild’s CORSI numbers with the top-4 together and without the top-4 together are dramatically different, and its goals for are 3.5 and goals against 2.2 with them. Without, the team’s goals for are 2.56 and goals against 2.69. The team’s goals differential is plus-13 with them and minus-2 without.

“It seems like every time we look like we’re getting there, something else happens,” Yeo said. “But every team deals with injuries, and suspensions in this case. This is not new to us. That’s for sure. But there’s no question I’d like to get into a situation where we can get those four guys going. It’s a big difference to our lineup. Defensively, that’s the first place you’re going to look when those guys are able to defend the way that they do and help us in terms of how quickly we defend and getting the puck back on our stick. But also the execution part of it, the offensive part of it, these guys are huge parts of our game.”

If you remember, those first seven games, the Wild’s D were a huge part of the attack and the Wild seemed to always have the puck.

In the first seven games, the Wild’s defensemen had five goals and 12 assists and were plus-26.

“It’s tough to get into rhythms, so hopefully when Scandy’s back we can kind of move on with it and get back to normal,” Suter said. “Maybe that is why we’ve been inconsistent, but good teams can play with everyone and so can good players.”

Kuemper gets back in the net. He has allowed 14 goals in his past four starts, pulled in two of those. If you don’t know why he’s started, I explained on yesterday’s blog, so check that out.

“Every game is a test for him and what you want to see is more consistency start to creep into his game,” Yeo said. “But you can’t fast-track the development of a player. Much depends on what’s happened to them and how they react to it and personality wise, maturity wise, I think he’s definitely grown in those areas. Now it’s just a matter of dealing with all the things that you have to deal with as a young goalie, both successes and failures.

“You can’t force feed that into a goalie.”

The Newsday’s Arthur Staple tweeted that Matt Martin and Ballard exchanged texts. By the way, I saw these MSG angles for the first time late yesterday.

Wild worried about Keith Ballard's future; Matt Martin debate; Marco Scandella suspended 2 games

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild practice Updated: December 10, 2014 - 7:22 PM

UPDATED

Good late afternoon from Northern California, where it’s the calm before the storm, I guess.

Some Super Storm is predicted to slam the Bay Area on Thursday. I grew up in South Florida, so I’m accustomed to terrible rainy weather and gusty winds and, frankly, hurricanes, so I’m not too concerned. But I’m not exactly sure how the Silicon Valley handles such events, and people here seem to be in freak-out mode and the weather reports from the National Weather Service do appear daunting.

It’s supposed to be an absolute mess here Thursday, so wish everybody luck and let’s hope everyone’s safe. As of now, most everybody says it’s very unlikely that the game would be cancelled, but as the San Jose Mercury News’ David Pollak reminded me today, San Jose has scrapped a game because of rain (actually flooding) before in 1995.

Onward.

Thoughts here again are with Keith Ballard, who is such a good guy and just continues to have horrible luck with injuries. The latest is serious and could be season-altering at a minimum and career-threatening at a maximum.

He has three facial fractures and a concussion. Once the swelling goes down, doctors will decide whether or not Ballard needs surgery. He has been released from the hospital and is resting at home.

Even Chuck Fletcher admitted his concern. When I asked whether Ballard may not play again this season (which would likely mean at a minimum his Wild career is in danger because he’s in the final year of his contract), the Wild GM said, “This is serious. He’s had concussions before. I don’t know how many. We’re worried about that. Bones will heal. I don’t mean to make light of it, but his face will heal. But his hand was sticking right up. He was convulsing. This was scary. You could even see the reaction of the Islanders’ bench.  They weren’t standing over him mocking him. They were scared.”

Thomas Vanek, Ballard’s close friend and former Gophers teammate, visited Ballard at the hospital last night.

“He was in good spirits,” Vanek said. “It’s tough for him because I’m sure you know his history with injuries. I thought he was an important player for us vocally and on the ice he was doing well, so it’s another setback for him. That’s why you feel bad for him. But I was encouraged how well he was actually doing.”

As you know by now, Matt Martin won’t be suspended. The league felt that when Ballard turned to avoid the hit, he put himself in a vulnerable position and that directly contributed to the incident and subsequent injury.

Fletcher didn’t want to comment, probably because he could be fined more than he’s worth.

Yeo said, “I’m not going to argue with the league on this one and I’m sure people on the Islanders’ side of the coin would be looking at things differently, but for me, it’s our player, it’s our teammate. When I looked at it, I know that Bally was in a bit of a vulnerable position. He may have turned into it a little bit, but at the same time, I see a player launching himself at him at an area close to the boards. The more I watch it, and again it’s hard to watch, when it’s your teammate, you don’t like those.”

A few players said they felt Martin is a left winger and hit Ballard along the right-wing boards, meaning he traveled 70 feet to deliver the hit. I do think he was on a line change though, and as I said last night and this morning, I just think it’s a reckless, needless hit. I know this is a game of finishing your check. I know as (coincidentally) former Sharks serial illegal hitter Bryan Marchment once said, if you don’t want to get hit, play tennis (or something like that).

But Ballard dumps the puck in the corner 100 feet away. He’s next to the boards. I don’t get why he needs to be hit late. Like I said this morning, the league considers seven-tenths of a second after a player releases the puck late. This, the league says, was half-a-second.

“I thought it was maybe even a little late, but it’s tough to tell because you really slow it down to watch it,” Yeo said. But he added, “He’s seeking him out. He’s on a mission there.”

Obviously, all fans are going to see this in their prism. Just look at my Twitter mentions today and I’m sure the blog and article comments. If you’re an Islander fan, Martin’s a saint. Scandella’s a devil. Wild fans say the opposite.

Of course, Martin has two suspensions to Scandella’s zero (well, for another few hours at least; more on that later).

Obviously an emotional topic. Look, even former congressman Anthony Weiner, an Islander fan, joined the fray and expressed his opinion.

My opinion? Who cares? It doesn’t matter. If the NHL suspends Matt Martin, what’s that do for the Wild? It’s a waste of your time to even get all angered. Just hope for Ballard’s recovery.

Wild plays the Sharks Thursday.

Scandella won't be playing because he was suspended two games for an illegal check to Brock Nelson’s head. 

After practice and before his hearing, Scandella didn’t want to comment until Thursday. He pleaded the fifth, so to speak.

“Obviously we’re hoping he’s not suspended. He’s a huge part of our team,” Yeo said after practice.

But two head shots in 10 days, the league won’t be letting him off the hook. The Wild’s clearly guessing two games.

In the NHL video which can be seen here, the league says the main point of contact was Nelson's head, that his jaw absorbed the brunt of it, that head contact was avoidable and it noted how Scandella was just fined for a similar hit on T.J. Oshie 10 days ago.

Scandella loses $11,021.50 in salary (two days pay out of 186 days this season). Luckily for him, his recent extension doesn't kick in til next October.

If he's suspended again in the next 18 months, he'll lose game checks.

So, Christian Folin will draw into the game Thursday and if Scandella is suspended, so will Justin Falk. Asked why Falk over Matt Dumba or Jon Blum, Yeo said with Ballard and Scandella out, the Wild loses two left-shot D and with San Jose and Arizona (Saturday’s opponent) heavy teams, having a big body that can skate and shoot was the deciding factor.

Sounds like Darcy Kuemper will return to the net Thursday even though Niklas Backstrom was in the cage for the Islanders win.

“Still discussing that a little bit. We’ll wait ‘til [Thursday] to announce our decision,” Yeo said. “Looking at a couple different decisions – the opponent that we’re playing, Backy coming off a game that he should feel rea; good about, he should feel real good about and we’ll evaluate everything.

“We’ve got a pretty good idea which way we’re going.”

Yeo made crystal clear if Kuemper plays, this isn’t so much allowing him to bounce back from the Anaheim loss but more so Backstrom’s 1-9-1 record with a 3.63 goals-against average lifetime at San Jose.

The Wild, by the way, has won four of its past five on the road BUT is 2-11-2 in its past 15 in this glorious city.

Yeo talked a lot again how Wild players stepped up after the Ballard incident – Mikael Granlund challenging Kyle Okposo, a fiery Mikko Koivu with everyone from referee Brad Meier to every Islander and Kyle Brodziak fighting Martin.

“The way  that we came out after that, it said a lot to me and I hope we can continue to with that same kind of passion that we played with the rest of the game,” Yeo said. “I could feel it on the bench. That stuff’s contagious when guys take themselves out of their comfort zone and they’re making a statement to the rest of the group, ‘if you mess with one of us, then you’re going to have to deal with the entire group.’”

Vanek said, “It just shows obviously guys care and respect Bally. Everyone stepped up in that way. Only time will tell how significant that game is, but not just getting wins, but showing those battles out of those guys, that can go a long way.”

Brodziak said he has never seen a scene like Ballard on the ice.

“It was scary,” he said.

On fighting Martin, Brodziak said, “Someone had to do something. You definitely don’t want to be a team that just lets things like that happen. We all care for each other and I know if I didn’t do something, someone else probably would have. I think that’s how you build a camaraderie you need in this league.”

Lots of Wild players mentioned how all they could think about while Ballard was on the ice was his wife, kids and parents.

Talk to you after the Scandella ruling.

Marco Scandella has NHL hearing; Ballard update

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news Updated: December 10, 2014 - 2:43 PM

TWO UPDATES:

First, defenseman Keith Ballard has been released from Regions Hospital. He suffered multiple facial fractures and a concussion when hit by Matt Martin of the Islanders last night. Doctors will wait until the swelling subsides before determining if surgery is necessary.

Second, defenseman Marco Scandella has a phone hearing tonight with the NHL following his second illegal check to the head penalty in 10 days.

Scandella caught Brock Nelson in the head late in last night's 5-4 win over the Islanders. On Nov. 29, Scandella was assessed an illegal check to T.J. Oshie's head and fined without a hearing.

Clearly, Scandella hates former Warroad High players that went to the University of North Dakota and is from Roseau, not Montreal. wink

Two penalties like this so close together was an all but guaranteed league discipline. Checks to the head usually result in two-game suspensions on a first offense. We shall see. A decision will be made tonight by the NHL, I am told.

Scandella flew with the Wild to San Jose, which has a storm of the century coming tomorrow, by the way. I have some serious travel problems today due to weather in the Bay Area, so if I don't make practice, I'll update the blog later after I get availability with players and coach Mike Yeo at the team hotel in San Jose -- assuming I make it out there.

The Wild has recalled Justin Falk to replace Ballard. 

I am told no discipline for Martin. I think it was a needless, reckless hit, but often in this case, when a player turns to dodge a check the way Ballard did, the onus is now on him and that turn at last second is viewed as contributing to the incident and injury. I still feel it was a run and late, but the fact Martin looks to escape discipline doesn't surprise me. The league, which has the technology that I don't, says the hit was .5 seconds after Ballard gave up the puck. .7 or more is considered late, as I wrote in last month's Department of Player Safety feature here. It's also not considered a charge, I'm told, because he comes off the ice after contact and rides up Ballard.

Wild responds to Keith Ballard injury with a big comeback win over the Islanders

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: December 10, 2014 - 12:18 AM

As of now, there’s no further update on defenseman Keith Ballard beyond the team’s original report that Ballard was conscious when he left the arena via ambulance tonight and that he was taken to a local hospital for evaluation and observation.

Scary scene on the ice here tonight when Ballard’s head was driven into the red dasher on top of the boards at the visiting bench in the second period. Ballard was bleeding from the face (Nate Prosser said there was blood on the dasher) and players said Ballard initially looked unconscious and was convulsing.

 

Athletic therapist quickly turned Ballard on his side to open up his airway and doctors surrounded him and called quickly for paramedics. After a few minutes, Ballard was assisted to his feet and helped slowly off the ice.

The Wild responded, storming back from a 3-0 deficit en route to a 5-4 win. Ironically, the Islanders did the exact same thing by the exact score to the Wild in this very arena last December. Remember, that was the loss most everybody thought could result in a housecleaning the next day. It never happened and the Wild soon would turn around its season.

Tonight, the Wild rallied from three goals down to win in regulation for the first time in franchise history. It was the first time the Wild rallied from three goals down to win at home since (overtime) since Oct. 6, 2009, vs. Anaheim.

First, the hit. I’ve watched it a dozen times and every time I watch it, I think it was more and more needless by Matt Martin. Whether Ballard was dodging the check or not, it was an absolutely needless hit, plain and simple, and came well after Ballard dumped the puck into the corner. Just look at the replay. There is nobody else in the screen but Ballard and Martin because the puck was long gone.

Yes, Ballard turned to avoid the check, but it was Martin that drove Ballard recklessly into the red dasher in my opinion.

“It was really scary,” Erik Haula said. “I saw [Martin] had a lot of speed going into that hit. Keith’s just trying to get the puck in deep. Their bench was yelling that he’s dodging, but I don’t think it matters. If you come in with that much speed, he can’t protect himself when he’s probably on one leg trying to get the puck in. I just don’t understand. I don’t think that’s necessary.”

Thomas Vanek, a former Islander and teammate of Martin said, “We’ve showed before that we don’t give up and we’re resilient, and then obviously with what happened to Keith, it was all pretty sickening to us. We took it in a positive way and took the emotion in a good way and started playing real hard and it was a great comeback win for us.

“I was actually on the forecheck and the next thing I know he was in a lot of pain obviously. It’s something I don’t wish upon anyone. Obviously I played for those guys and I don’t think Martin’s a dirty player and [he] wasn’t penalized, but from what I heard of it, to me, it’s a dumb decision. Again, I didn’t see it. I just heard about it. The puck’s in the corner and you finish your hit. I heard it wasn’t dirty, but still, we’re all playing this game because we love it and we shouldn’t hurt each other, but I’m sure it wasn’t his intentions. It was sickening, but we took the emotions the right way and deserved to win and we played hard for him.”

I’m sure I’ll get more into this as we go along, but as the Wild opens a three-game road trip at San Jose on Thursday, the Wild will obviously be without Ballard. We’ll see if it’s also without Marco Scandella. Late in tonight’s game, he was given a minor for illegal check to Brock Nelson’s head. On Nov. 29, he also got an illegal check to T.J. Oshie’s head and was fined, so we’ll see what the league says about two in 10 days.

The Wild scratched Christian Folin, so he’ll play Thursday. If Scandella is in trouble, the Wild would either have to play Stu Bickel on the blue line or call up a defenseman like Justin Falk, Jon Blum or Matt Dumba.

The Wild, for a third time in five home games, came out of the gate awful. For the third time in five home games and second in a row, it fell behind at least 3-0 (I say at least because it was 4-0 vs. L.A.).

“We were able to collect ourselves after the first period,” coach Mike Yeo said. “I thought we came out with much better focus, much better mindset. It’s hard to pinpoint why we’ve started two games like this but the feeling is, I don’t know if we’re apprehensive or waiting for the next bad thing to happen instead of going and getting it.

“What I appreciate is when you mention that to the group and use the words pride and character, we know we have too much pride and character to allow that to continue, and I thought we showed that the rest of the game.”

After the Ballard incident, Mikael Granlund stepped up on Kyle Okposo and drew a retaliatory slash. Jason Pominville deflected Ryan Suter’s shot (three assists for Suter in his first game back from the mumps) to make it 3-1.

Then Kyle Brodziak fought Martin in response to the Ballard hit. Brodziak took a beating but got points from everybody in the locker room.

“When it’s right in front of your bench (the Ballard injury) and you see what’s out there and then you also see what Kyle did after, backing up his teammates, I think that was the turning point for our hockey club tonight and that’s something that’s great to see when you’re defending one another.”

Yeo said, “There were a number of guys that were engaged physically and emotionally after that point. I thought that we came out really well to start out the second period, but I thought that took us to a different level. I’m really hoping this is something we can build off as a team. When you see guys band together like that, that’s what we need going forward.”

The Wild controlled the rest of the period but couldn’t buy another goal. Then on the Islanders only shot of the period, Josh Bailey scored on a breakaway. That should have been the dagger, but Erik Haula said everybody went back to the locker room, collected themselves and internally (not out loud) all got a “win one for Bally attitude.”

Koivu took Jason Zucker’s pass, stepped in front of the net, fired and scored. Then, Haula deflected a pass off Thomas Hickey’s skate and in. Then, 45 seconds later, Zach Parise shot and Thomas Vanek crashed the net and tied the game. Finally, with 4:33 left, Nino Niederreiter jammed away at a Vanek rebound and scored the eventual winner and his team-leading 12th goal on his third stab at the puck and from his belly.

Niederreiter said, “Obviously you never want to see something like that happen to your teammates or in general in the league and it obviously was a scary moment at the time, but I felt like we carried it in a positive way and made sure we don’t focus about what’s going on with Ballard, which obviously was scary, but at the same time we gave everything to try to get better.

“Such a great comeback. When Haulzy got the tying goal, we were just buzzing and trying to get the next one before regulation ends, and that’s what happened and obviously we’re very happy about it.”

Yeo said he will provide a Ballard update Wednesday. The team leaves in the morning and practices in San Jose. I’ll come to you afterward. Apparently there’s some crazy storm coming to the Bay Area on Thursday, so wish us all luck.

I’ve been tweeted by several people and haven’t caught up on what this thing will entail.

Obviously, the Wild shouldn’t need a Ballard injury to make them angry and wake them up.

“You can draw up x’s and o’s, skill is no question a big part of the game, but passion and emotion has to be there for us, no question,” Yeo said. “We have to make sure that we find a way to bring that. We shouldn’t have to have something like that to bring it out of us. That’s whe we’re at our best, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s part of our identity. We need to bring that every game.”

On Suter, who was great, “Nice to ease him into it. 29 minutes,” Yeo said sarcastically. “I mean, I thought that as the game wore on he was starting to find his game more and more. We knew it was going to be tough for him to get it going 100 percent right from the start…from penalty kills to power play to every aspect of his game, he just kept getting stronger and showed you how important he is to us.”

On Vanek’s goal and assist and Niederreiter responding after a few poor games, Yeo said, “Yeah, I’m very happy for those guys whether it’s against a former team or not. We want to get to a point where everybody is feeling good about their game and that’s been difficult to make happen. I think everybody contributed to this win tonight ,and that’s what I think makes us a great team. We have good players, but we want to be a great team. In order for that to happen we need different guys stepping up, but every guy going out and playing the same way. For the last two periods we had that.

“You want to win, and you get wrapped up in the score, but we have to make sure that our game is going. If our game is going and everybody is firing on all cylinders then the score will take care of itself. The biggest thing to me more than anything…and obviously I’m ecstatic that we won – but we needed to respond. We needed to respond after that first period, and I was very pleased with the way we were responding, and it’s good for the players to get rewarded for it.”

Koivu was great. Won 22 of 30 faceoffs to go with his goal and assist. He has won 20-plus draws three times this year and in two games in a row. In fact, he has done this six times in his career and is the only Wild player in history to win 20-plus draws in a game.

On the comeback, Koivu said, “Well, you don’t want to be in that situation, but you never know what’s going to happen or what to expect. I think we have to learn from that, as well. For us, it was a very emotional night. At the end a great feeling, but still you don’t want to see one of your teammates going down like that. So, hopefully Keith is well and we’ll move on and have him back as soon as possible.”

Lastly, because of what happened to Ballard, I had to rewrite my notebook on the fly and this obviously couldn’t see the light of day. But I thought you would find this interesting. The quotes were obviously from before the game. I will talk to you from San Jose on Wednesday and will report from the plane if Martin or Scandella face hearings.

By MICHAEL RUSSO

mrusso@startribune.com

If you’re a Wild fan or somebody who has watched Keith Ballard play throughout his University of Minnesota and 10-year NHL career, the second Corey Perry tried to squeeze between Ballard and the boards last Friday, you knew what was coming.

Ballard lowered his left hip and sandwiched the Anaheim Ducks star. The difference between this hip check and so many of Ballard’s others is Perry sustained a sprained knee and will miss up to a month.

Ballard said that’s “very rare” and he’s not trying to hurt anybody with the hip check, which is nearly extinct in today’s NHL.

“I could have easily went in and put my hand up and not even hit him and let him dump it in, but what if he beats me back to the net and gets a goal?” Ballard said. “He’s a 50-goal scorer.”

On Ballard’s next shift, the defenseman fought Nate Thompson, uncomfortable because he knows Thompson. Thompson, who lives in Minnesota because he’s married to Winnipeg defenseman Mark Stuart’s sister, and Ballard work out and skate together in the offseason.

“He just looked at me and said, ‘Bally, we’ve got to do it,’ and I said, ‘Of course, I understand.’ It’s either him or Tim Jackman,” Ballard said, laughing, regarding the Ducks’ other tough guy who is coincidentally another friend and Minnesota resident. “That’s part of it, although squaring off was a little awkward because I don’t generally fight my friends.

“I’ve done the hip check lots of times and I end up getting into lots of fights about it.”

Even though the maneuver is legal, no player likes to be nailed by one. The perception is you’re going after an opponent’s knees. Perry felt Ballard got him low, which arguably could have been penalized as clipping.

Ballard doesn’t remember learning the hip check, only that he did it a lot in Phoenix to stand out.  Gophers assistant coach Mike Guentzel recalls Ballard deploying the hip check a lot in college.

“Curt Giles was a great hip checker, so maybe Bally remembers him doing it with the North Stars,” Guentzel said. “Bally was always good at that and always had a knack for it. What makes Bally so good is how he goes from upright to low so quick, so it just surprises people and they get mad. But you’ve got to do what you’re good at.”

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