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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Posts about Wild game coverage

In return of Parise and Scandella, Parise scores 2, Scandella the OT winner as Wild survives Jets scare

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: November 17, 2014 - 5:26 AM

I joked on Twitter at the start of the third period that the Wild was “clinging” to a 3-0 … lead, and while I maybe didn’t envision exactly what transpired in the third, that is exactly what I meant by the word, “clinging.”

It wasn’t that I felt the wild was playing poorly. But I have seen it so many times after teams get into penalty trouble:

The Wild, with a 3-0 stranglehold on the game and dominating 5-on-5 play against the Winnipeg Jets (the Jets didn’t even have an even-strength shot on goal this game until 3 ½ minutes in the second period!), killed five penalties in the second.

Guys like Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville played four shifts in the second, Charlie Coyle three. The momentum of the game completely turned because the Wild spent basically the entire period on the PK. The Jets were skating forward so to speak, the Wild backward.

So I didn’t think it would be easy for the Wild to return to its first period play. I expected the Jets to push and the Wild to be on its heels, but of course, I didn’t expect to see a 3-0 lead evaporate in a span of 4 minutes, 52 seconds on goals by Michael Frolik, Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd. It was the second time this season the Wild coughed up a three-goal lead in the third, but this time it didn't lose.

The last goal came at 10:47 of the period. The Wild survived the final 9:13, somehow, someway, got to overtime, got the 5-minute Zamboni dryscape to settle down and came out and scored 61 seconds in when Marco Scandella, fresh off the mumps, whistled his first career overtime winner for a 4-3 win.

Evening from the press box, where I was actually off tonight. Rachel Blount is busy to my right banging on the keyboard working on her game story, so I figured I’d help out and blog.

Shame the way things unfolded tonight for Niklas Backstrom because he was so good in the first two periods. The veteran was a huge part of the Wild’s 8 for 8 penalty kill, being the man in net for seven of them before Darcy Kuemper entered to replace him. He made three saves for his eighth win of the season in his 14th appearance, which means he can no longer be sent to the minors without clearing waivers. So he’s here for the long haul.

Player after player jumped to Backstrom’s defense afterward, saying they were fluky goals.

“Three-nothing in the third period, there’s no reason that game needs to go to overtime,” said defenseman Keith Ballard, who played old-school hockey tonight, laying one of his typical hip checks on Adam Pardy and fighting Andrew Ladd after Ladd asked him to go following Ballard admittedly getting away with a couple cross-checks. “They scored three lucky goals. I mean, every single one of them went off one of our guys before it went in. We spent a little too much time in our end in the third and I think we got away from that constant pressure that we saw in the first of getting pucks deep and battling down there and then we get a line change and the next line’s doing it, too. It was too much one and done in the third.”

But, Scandella, who missed the previous two games with what the team thinks was the mumps, capped a 25-minute night with the winning goal. Scandella said he didn’t get confirmation that he indeed had the mumps, but the team definitely thinks he does and vaccinated players, staff and broadcasters. Jonas Brodin is still out with the illness and was hit harder than Scandella, coach Mike Yeo said before the game.

Scandella said his jaw was very swollen. “It didn’t look very pretty,” he said, laughing, adding that he was depleted of any energy and only started skating for the first time in five days this morning.

“It feels great,” Scandella said of his winner. “Rough third period. We didn’t get the bounces that we wanted. Sometimes that hockey. They had momentum. They came hard. We bent, but we didn’t break. Everyone was focused. No one was panicking. We played resilient.”

He said the “excitement of the game and adrenaline” got him through. “Little bit down from beating the virus, but once you’re in the game, you don’t think about that. The fans helped a lot. It was a loud building tonight.”

Zach Parise returned from a concussion for the first time in six games and scored two goals – one Jason Pominville pass that ricocheted off Parise’s leg, one Parise-to-Pominville intended flubbed pass that deflected in off Jets winger Blake Wheeler’s skate. Parise three or four times flirted with his third career hat trick and first with the Wild, but he couldn’t get it to go.

Parise said he felt pretty good, but “a couple times I probably had more time than I felt like I did and rushed a couple plays. But hopefully it will get better as I get into some more real practices and play some more games.”

He said he lost his conditioning a bit: “It's always hard to replicate that game speed, even though it wasn’t that long being out. These guys played five games and you lose that pretty quickly. You need to get a couple games to get back to normal speed.”

On the game, Parise said, “Of course we were frustrated with the way we let them back in the game. Unfortunately, we gave them a point we shouldn’t have. It was good for us to come back and win in overtime, but it wasn't the ideal thing to crawl back in there when we had a 3-0 lead.”

Weird game, to say the least.

Why did the game change?

“I think we spent the entire second period killing and they spent the entire second period either on the power play or acting like idiots,” Ballard said.

Defenseman Ryan Suter, the NHL’s time on ice leader the past two seasons and leader again this season at 29 minutes, 13 seconds a game, still logged 28:24 Sunday despite being whistled for a career-high four minor penalties (eight penalty minutes).

The Wild killed all of Suter’s minors and all eight Winnipeg power plays in the game, as I mentioned above.

“It was unbelievable. They called me for them, but our PK did a really good job stepping up,” said Suter, unhappy with a few of the calls by referees Brad Watson and Justin St. Pierre.

The Wisconsin native added with a laugh, “Guys were joking that the Packer game was on in the penalty box. It wasn’t. It was a tough night. I don’t think I’ve had four penalties this year.”

In fact, Suter entered with only four penalty minutes.

The Wild was very frustrated with Watson and St. Pierre all game and got into some barking matches throughout.

There is no doubt the refs’ involvement in the game – whether you agree with the calls or not – affected the way the game evolved.

“You could feel things starting to slip,” Yeo said. “Our PK was outstanding tonight but you never want to put yourself in that position because we’ve got other guys that we’ve basically lost in the game. That was not the recipe for success. We just lost the rhythm of the game through the second period and with that things came out in the third. In the end we found a way to win and that’s all that matters.”

On Scandella and Parise’s returns, Yeo said, “We got two very important pieces back into the lineup tonight and both those guys had a huge impact on the game. From a defensive standpoint, Marco is such a big part of the way we want to play the game, taking away time and space, being in guys’ faces and helping us with the execution. I thought he played a really strong game before he scored the overtime winner. That was the icing on cake. Zach, the way he came out in the first period, and it was tough to get him involved in the second, but whenever we needed a momentum shift or to help get things going the right way, he was the guy getting after it and playing the game the right way as well.”

More on the game, Yeo said, “Listen, things happen, you can blame bounces, you can get frustrated with your play. But in the end the game is sitting right there for you.  And I liked that we regrouped and went after it in overtime. I thought we got back on the attack and that’s the way we have to play the game (Context from Russo, not a quote: Parise set up Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon, but both swung and missed).

“We’re not a back-up team and let them come at us. We’re a team that dictates and initiates, and when we play that way we’re effective, and when we don’t we’re not so much.”

On Backstrom being pulled, Yeo said, “That was just momentum, that was not on him by any means. He was making some good saves. There were a couple tough bounces that were tough for any goalie. But I’d already burned my timeout and I felt they still had the momentum after that, and obviously they scored that goal. So you’re looking for anything to do.”

Kuemper made three saves for the winner one home game after Backstrom replaced him and got the win with 25 saves. Not often you see consecutive home wins where the starting goalie didn’t get credit for either win. If I remember correctly, Backstrom’s first three NHL wins were all in relief of Manny Fernandez – a first in NHL history.

More on Parise, Yeo said, “What I like about Zach, you see that end result but there are things leading up to that that are the reason he scores those goals. He doesn’t take shortcuts. You talk about doing something before the game and you draw it up on the board, then you see that first goal go in because he does exacly what we’re talking about. That’s leadership.”

On Nino Niederreiter’s team-leading eighth goal, a highlight-reel goal where he took a Thomas Vanek pass in the high slot, weaved around Jacob Trouba and tucked a backhander from behind the goal line inside the post, Yeo said, “Good to get another one on the power play. “We want to have competition between the two groups. The last three games we’ve gotten power-play goals, they’ve all come on the back half of the power plays. That whole two minutes is important. That was a heck of a play. He’s got to be a guy who just keeps getting to that area. He’s so dangerous around the front of the net. The more times you get there the more times you get rewarded.

Odds and ends:

Pominville was plus-3 and three assists for the sixth time in his career. Jared Spurgeon has eight blocked shots and has blocked 15 in the past two games. On one of Parise’s goals, he turned a 2-on-2 into a 3-on-2. He has at least one point in 7 of 12 games this season.

The Wild is 7-1 at home, outscoring opponents 32-16 here. The Wild is second in the NHL on the PK at 89.3 percent (50 for 56, 5 for 5 on 3-on-5s. The Wild killed three abbreviated two-man disadvantages tonight).

Parise has 35 multi-goal games now. Justin Fontaine has three assists in the past three games. Pominville now has 128 career multi-point games. Mikko Koivu won 18 of 28 draws. Since Oct. 30, he has won 131 of 210 (62.4 percent).

After the game, Justin Falk and Jordan Schroeder were reassigned to Iowa.

That’s it for me. I’ll talk to you after Monday’s practice. The Wild’s off Tuesday (I’m getting revaccinated for the mumps that day!!!) and Rachel is covering Wednesday’s practice as I head to Philly.

Wild is 3-6 on the road and plays four of its next five on the road, including the Flyers-Lightning-Panthers trip coming up. The latter two games will be the team’s father-son trip.

That’s it for me. Tuesday’s paper, I’m doing a big story on the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, which I got to shadow during last Sunday’s NHL slate of games. Should be some great color and anecdotes in that story, which I better get home and write, in fact.

OK, there you go. A 2,100-word blog on my day off!!!

Mike Yeo talks about Darcy Kuemper's response and the former "young guys" after Wild wins in Dallas

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: November 15, 2014 - 6:44 PM

It was very clear Friday night that Mike Yeo was sick to his stomach when he learned that Patrick Schoonover, the 14-year-old from Apple Valley who played in the Eastview Hockey Association, died while playing in a tournament in Brainerd.

Yeo has two teenage children, so this hit home for Yeo, who is all about his family when he’s not at the rink. So it really wasn’t a shock after today’s 2-1 win over the Stars that Yeo emerged from the coach’s office here in Dallas and began his press conference by talking about Patrick and the boy’s family before addressing the Wild’s victory.

“Since we heard about what happened yesterday, Patrick, it’s been him, his family, the Eastview community, they’ve been in our thoughts,” the Wild coach said. “So it’s a tough thing. It’s a game that brings a lot of joy and happiness to a lot of us. So when something like that, something terrible, happens within it, it definitely hits you hard.

“I just hope that we can be there any way that we can.”

And knowing Yeo, he means it from the bottom of his heart. My best as well to Patrick’s friends and family and everyone affected by his tragic loss.

No easy way to transition, of course, but on to the trivial blog about today’s game.

Not a good first half for the Wild, but unlike the last three road games, the Wild didn’t unravel in the second. It stuck with it and finally discovered its game after getting a spark from a huge Ryan Carter to Erik Haula tying goal.

After the goal with 4:19 left in the second period, the Wild put together four or five real good shifts in a row and easily could have carried a lead into the third period. Didn’t matter, because 40 seconds in, Kari Lehtonen hand-delivered a Charlie Coyle rebound right onto a driving Mikael Granlund’s stick, and the centerman, like his Finnish countryman Haula, scored his second goal of the season.

Darcy Kuemper, pulled Thursday against Buffalo after allowing two goals on two shots, responded impressively with 27 saves for his second road win of the season and the team’s third. Kuemper stopped all 11 shots he faced in the third and made a number of big saves early to hold the game scoreless and then the deficit to 1-0. It was only the Wild’s second win at Dallas in its past 21 visits. The Stars have been poor at home this season, going 1-4-4, but the Stars had the better of the play by far in the first half of the game.

But the Wild, despite being shorthanded from a defensemen point of view with Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin sick and Zach Parise missing his fifth straight game, gutted out a hard-fought win. Ryan Suter was great, logging 31-plus minutes and being plus-2. Trust me, Jared Spurgeon is still very much hurting, but he played his second straight game, and one game after a career-high eight shots and a goal, he blocked seven shots today and logged almost 28 minutes.

The Wild blocked 28 shots and the Wild was outshot (28-22) for the first time this season.

“I was eager to get back out there,” Kuemper said. “That Buffalo game was weird. Bad break on the first one, bounces off a body, and then beat by a good shot, and all of a sudden your night’s over (laughing), so it was kind of a tough one to get into. But it definitely left me hungry. I was eager to get back out there. I was even eager to get on the ice for practice yesterday.”

On the win today, Kuemper said, “Without a morning skate and traveling, maybe we were a little heavy legged, but we stuck with it and we did a good job defending. Great boxouts allowed me to see it. We didn’t change our game like we were when we were getting ourselves in trouble on the [four-game] losing skid. Got that goal [from Haula] and it gave us life.”

Yeo was real pleased with Kuemper. Niklas Backstrom has a “good chance” of starting Sunday against Winnipeg in a second of a back-to-back. After seeing the way Kuemper responded, I can’t imagine the Wild will mess around with its goaltending now for contractual reasons, but one more game now, and Kuemper requires waivers to play in Iowa. And there’s no chance the Wild would ever, ever, ever risk waivers with Kuemper, it’s $1 million No. 1 goalie.

So, what’s this likely mean? After Josh Harding’s conditioning stint, the Wild will either keep three goalies on its roster initially or place Harding on waivers and try to get him to Iowa for the time being. GM Chuck Fletcher did tell me in New York in late October that was a possibility.

After the game, Yeo kind of let slip a little motivational message he has given Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula and Jason Zucker in recent days during the Wild’s struggles. Yeo didn’t know he was letting it slip, but since Coyle basically repeated Yeo’s words verbatim to me prior to us talking to Yeo, it was pretty obvious that Yeo met with the now former “young guys.”

The Wild’s former “young guys” didn’t play well during the four-game skid, from the young goalie on out. As I said when Parise got hurt, Guy Lapointe told me now the Wild will get to find out which of its kids will drive the bus rather than being on the outside pushing.

The problem with youngsters though is they often go with the flow of the rest of the team, and since none of them proverbially stepped up, Yeo basically said enough is enough and clearly sat them down.

Asked about the “young guys” after the game, Yeo said, “I’ll let you guys keep doing it, but I’m going to quit referring to them as young guys because they’re part of our team. They’re just players on your team. They’re no longer young guys. These guys are on second lines, first PPs, whatever. We need these guys not to be young guys and get excited when they play. These guys have a lot of potential and the reason that they’re in high spots in our lineup is because we know what they’re capable of, so we count on them to do it regularly.”

The response has been impressive.

One game after Niederreiter’s hat trick and Coyle’s two assists, Haula scored the tying goal Saturday, Coyle assisted on Granlund’s winner and Yeo tapped on the shoulders of Coyle, Zucker and Granlund to defend the game in the final minute with a Stars extra attacker on.

Now, Coyle was beating himself up bigtime after the game for two failed clears in that final minutes, but Coyle echoed his coach, saying, “We’ve got to know that we’re a big part of this team, so we’ve got to be ready for that. We want that. We want to be the guy to be called on at the end there to help your team win.”

For a second consecutive game, the Niederreiter-Granlund-Coyle line was arguably the Wild’s best, which means there’s a chance Parise will be reunited with Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville when he returns from a concussion. Yeo said there’s a “possibility” that happens Sunday.

That could drop Zucker, who played another strong game Saturday in all areas (except the power play, down to the third line. Maybe that’ll somehow motivate a struggling Thomas Vanek, who still has one goal and has taken 32 shots in 16 games (14 of those came in two games, meaning he has 18 in the other 14 games).

Guys are getting what they deserve,” Yeo said. “You look at Zuck’s season so far and he’s got a long way to go still, there’s no question. We’re going to keep pushing him, but he’s gone from the fourth line to getting a regular spot on the penalty kill, getting an opportunity on the power play, playing on the first line and that’s what happens when you go and you do the right things and you play the right way. Like I said, we’re going to have to make sure that we continue to keep pushing him because we’re not completely satisfied with where he’s at. He’s playing really well but we want to keep pushing him to get better and we’re going to do the same for the rest of the group.”

Haula, whom Yeo has not been happy with really since training camp, had a good game and scored a huge goal to spark the Wild today. Carter set him up with an impressive play all around. They spent 59 seconds on the ice that shift and mostly defending, so they had to be tired. But Carter read a weak pass by Brenden Dillon perfectly, picked it off and set up Haula’s first goal since Oct. 25.

On Haula, Yeo said, “I saw him pick it up through the course of the game. I think that we’re trying to work with him to bring the consistency into his game and understanding I look back to a couple games ago here in Buffalo and I thought he did some good things and there was some progress made, but there were some other areas that didn’t fit with his identity. He’s got to be a really good defensive player. He’s got to be hard in his battles and I thought that he took an understanding that he needed to pick that part up into tonight and so the fact that he got rewarded with the goal was a plus.”

Carter by the way has nine points, tied for second on the team. Pretty impressive for a guy who logs 9:30 a game.

Carter said, “With some personnel out and playing on the road, it’s a difficult situation. But in this league, there’s no time for excuses, so it’s nice that we came in on the road, which I think we needed. To get a road win, third-period win, it’s huge for us.”

Haula said, “We stayed patient and we had great life on the bench tonight. That’s really carried us to victory. It’s a great road win. We needed that. It’s good for whole the team after the emotions we have gone through for the last stretch here.”

Yeo, by the way, still has not officially said Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin tested positively for the mumps. One would think they did because the team, staff and broadcasters have the ability to get re-vaccinated, but regardless, Yeo didn’t rule out Scandella or Brodin from playing Sunday. That would seem like a longshot, but we shall see.

That’s it for me. I’ll be going to the game to tweet and maybe blog, but Rachel Blount is covering the game itself. Check out Sunday’s paper. Lots of stuff in there, from the gamer and notebook to my Sunday package on NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly talking candidly about the cap recapture punishment the Wild faces if Parise and/or Suter retire prior to 2025. If you’re not familiar with it, give it a read. He also talks to me about the Olympics, etc.

It may have been Buffalo, but Wild gets much-needed victory

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: November 13, 2014 - 11:24 PM

Hey, it’s easy to discount tonight’s 6-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres as meaningless because it came against Buffalo.

Even Sabres coach Ted Nolan is exasperated with his bad team, which in all-out lottery pick mode. For a third consecutive game, the Sabres gave up a half-dozen, so this isn’t a good team and Nolan ripped into some of the cluelessness defensively after the game.

But imagine if the Wild lost.

So that’s why I rolled my eyes at some of the “who cares?” tweets after the game, that the Wild only beat a junior team (no disrespect to junior teams, of course). The Wild did its job – it won a game it so desperately needed to win just to dial down the temperature for one night by snapping a four-game losing streak.

The Wild maybe even overcame a couple mental hurdles by not completely freaking out when it gave up a goal 63 seconds in and another one when Darcy Kuemper gave up a second goal on a second shot 10 seconds after the Wild took a 2-1 lead. That would be all she wrote for Kuemper, but Kyle Brodziak and Nino Niederreiter (first career hat trick, 18th in Wild history, 10th player) responded and Niklas Backstrom was solid in net by stopping 25 of 26 shots for his first home win since Jan. 4 in his first home appearance since Jan. 11.

“It’s huge for us,” said Ryan Carter, who had a goal and assist and was part of great fourth line with Brodziak and Justin Fontaine. “I don’t care what the opponent says or what their record is on any given night. It’s difficult to win in this league. It was nice to get that. I think we did it in good fashion, too. They got ahead early and we fought back and got the lead. They came back again, we stuck with it. That’s the kind of game I think we needed.”

The win came after coach Yeo scrambled all four lines in large part to spark low-scoring centermen Mikael Granlund, Mikko Koivu and Erik Haula.

Koivu centered Jason Zucker and Jason Pominville. Granlund centered Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle (two assists) and Haula centered Thomas Vanek, and in his Wild debut, Jordan Schroeder for an all-Gopher line.

Yeo said Granlund needed to play with two workers (Granlund had a good game and Coyle had a great game) and Haula needed to play with two creative, offensive guys. Yeo also hoped their speed would help Vanek.

“We kid about it, but we don’t just roll the dice and see what comes up here. It may appear that way sometimes,” Yeo said, jokingly this morning.

For one night it worked. Niederreiter, who now leads the team with seven goals, scored his first-period goals from the blue paint. Yeo indicated he has been trying to convince Niederreiter that he has got a good enough shot to score off the rush (he proved that in Game 7 last year), but where he’s going to make his mark in this league is by driving the net and being hard to contain by the blue.

For one night, Niederreiter listed to his coach.

The Wild got two power-play goals (wow) for a second time this season and now the Wild hopes to build on it in Dallas, where the Wild is 1-14-5 since March 2003. The Wild is 2-6 on the road and is 0 for 29 on the road on the power play.

Carter tied the score after a goal by Buffalo 1:03 in. He bunted the Brodziak rebound past Jhonas Enroth. Originally veteran ref Paul Devorski (sadly retiring after this year) called it off thinking the bunter batted it in with his glove, but he replays showed Carter sacrificed the runner to second – so to speak – perfectly.

“I was confident that it hit my stick,” Carter said. “And he told me on the ice, too, he was going to go look at it upstairs. I knew if they looked at it, it was going to be a good goal.

“That was a quick play. I don’t know how I thought of it or why I did it. It worked out. There’s a million things I could do now thinking about it. Just stand there and let it hit the ground and knock it in or something. I’m glad it worked out.”

It was Carter’s second goal in two games and Yeo loved the play of his fourth line tonight.

“It’s a good reminder for everybody how they did it,” Yeo said of their six-point game. “When you meet with the lines and you’re talking about what their role is, what their identity is, that line’s gotten a lot of offense for us and there’s been different people on it at different times this year, but it’s a good reminder that it doesn’t always have to be pretty, it doesn’t always have to be fancy. It still feels the same. If you score a pretty tic-tac-toe, off-the-rush goal or if you score one off the forecheck in the offensive zone and go to the net and getting a rebound and cross-checking the thing into the net – that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that (laughing) – but those guys did a great job.”

Carter said of the fourth line that has dried up since Matt Cooke’s injury: “If you can chip in, it’s nice. It’s good to get scoring throughout. At the end of the night, we needed that. It was important.”

Jared Spurgeon felt he was rusty at times, but he adds a whole different element to this team and scored a power-play goal. He constantly was a threat deep in the offensive zone.

For a guy who missed five games with a shoulder injury, he logged 29:27 because Yeo couldn’t ease him in because of illnesses to Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella. Just impressive.

“To get out there was good. Now we have to look forward to Dallas,” Spurgeon said. “I just tried to get back into it as fast as possible. Playing with Suts (Ryan Suter) is pretty easy to do that. I just tried to keep it simple.

“I was able to get back on the ice about three days after I got hurt. They did a great job keeping me in shape. Obviously that’s a lot more fun than what I was doing before.”

Kuemper has given up goals in his past seven starts. His save percentage is down to .908.

On pulling Kuemper today, Yeo said, “I just felt that was a change that was needed. This is not by any means … I wouldn’t have started him if I felt that we’ve been losing games because of him. In fact I told him that yesterday. But that was just something that I felt that we needed to do at that time.”

Turned out to be the right call because Backstrom was great. It’ll be interesting to see how the Wild handles the goaltending now.

Josh Harding may be looking at a conditioning stint soon. The Iowa Wild play three in three next weekend, so perhaps Harding can get two games.

If the Wild keeps three goalies on the roster, that means one less position player. The Wild obviously can’t risk waivers on Kuemper and if he plays in two more games, he would require waivers to get to the minors.

So like I said, it’ll be interesting to see how the Wild handles this now. Do they ride Backstrom for a few games to see how Harding respond or does it not mess with its goaltending and just treat Kuemper’s contract situation like business as usual?

OK, that’s it for me. Big win from the proverbial sense. It was needed. Now onto Dallas.

I have to write my Sunday stuff in the morning, then fly to Dallas. Follow Rachel Blount of Twitter at @blountstrib for news from practice. I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m. (barring flight delay) and on Fox Sports North during the pregame show at 12:30 p.m. Saturday and first intermission.

Four losses in a row, and Wild's searching for somebody (or someones) to step up

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: November 11, 2014 - 10:22 PM

On Nov. 1, the Wild jumped to the top of the Central Division. That lasted 24 hours. Thanks to four losses in a row since – the latest coming Tuesday, 3-1, at New Jersey, the Wild’s now fifth in the Central – eight points behind Nashville.

“It’s big,” Thomas Vanek said. “It’s November, but you lose the points now, it’s tough to gain them later.”

The Wild has lost its way since the injuries to Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon, and luckily, they could be coming to the rescue Thursday against Buffalo.

But coach Mike Yeo made clear after tonight’s loss that this slump goes beyond the absence of Parise, Spurgeon and Matt Cooke. He said the Wild has almost forgotten how tough it is to win in this league and it’s getting a good reminder now.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence, but the three young teams who have been hyped and are considered up-and-comers in the division – Minnesota, Colorado and Dallas – are all struggling right now. It’s almost like players think it’ll come easy and forgot how much commitment it takes every game to win in this difficult league.

The Wild certainly has. The Wild’s M.O. at the start of the year was work ethic. Maybe they followed the leader (Parise), which is possible, but whatever the reason, the Wild played pretty complete, hard-working games the first 10 games of the season (OK, forget the third against the Rangers). But that 7-3 start is now officially history as the Wild returns to wintry Minnesota with a very disappointing 7-7 record.

The Wild lauds its depth, yet nobody has stepped up and taken the reins without Parise, Spurgeon and Cooke.

Mikko Koivu: One assist this season. Thomas Vanek: 1 goal. The kids are struggling and have completely dried up. Jason Zucker, who still leads the Wild with five goals, scored them all shorthanded or on the fourth line. He has no goals in seven games since moving to the second line. Charlie Coyle was minus-6 on the road trip, didn’t hit anybody in the first two periods and couldn’t seem to stop pucks on his stick. Mikael Granlund, no assists in six games and passing up shots.

The one great shot he did take tonight hit the post, then almost rolled over the line after it hit Cory Schneider. Almost. That unbelievably bad puck luck was exemplified moments later when Jaromir Jagr skated around Vanek and set up Mike Cammalleri for the eventual winner – a 2-0 lead.

The Wild hasn’t held a lead in 240 minutes. The second period, which was the Wild’s best the first 10 games, has been a disaster the past four. All three games on the road trip were scoreless after the first period only to be unraveled in the second.

The Wild’s power play is still a disaster. 0 for 4 tonight, including one in the third with a chance to tie tonight. And that was to the 30th-ranked overall penalty kill and 30th-ranked home penalty kill, one that had only NOT given up a power-play goal in two previous games this season.

The Wild’s power play is now 2 for 44 this season and 0 for 29 in eight road games.

This Koivu situation is a major problem. One assist for the all-time leading scorer in franchise history. One. In 14 games. This Vanek situation is a major problem. One goal and not scoring goals in moments where the Wild most need him.

He fell on the knife tonight, saying he was awful in the first two periods. But he beat himself up for missing out on that chance late in the second when the puck rolled off his stick. He was happy with the team’s play in the third and how he also brushed off his personal bad two periods behind him to play a better third. But he said by then it was too late, that you’re not going to win in the NHL when you show up for 20 minutes in a 60-minute game.

Yeo didn’t want to single out players when asked about Koivu and Vanek.

Coyle is in a bigtime slump. Not just not scoring (no goals since Oct. 23). He’s just showing little bite right now. Yeo did say he felt it was a lack of confidence just like the team.

“I don’t see a lot of confidence,” Yeo said. “Similar to our entire group. Wins haven’t come. Goals haven’t come. Not scoring has been a huge factor here. You can do a lot of things right and then you’re not scoring goals and then you’re not feeling too good about your game. We got some Grade A chances tonight (Chief among them, Vanek to Haula on a 2-on-0 with 5 ½ left, and Haula was robbed) that don’t go in the net. That gets in your head. We’re going to have to fight through this and earn our confidence.”

Coyle said, “Everyone goes through slumps like this. I had a little lapse like this last year. Same thing I wasn’t scoring, wasn’t putting up points. I just have to get back to playing my physical game. I can’t focus on goals. That’s when you’ll continue to struggle. I’ve got to focus on the process and play to your strengths. Play physical and get my nose dirty.”

Before the first goal tonight by New Jersey, the Zucker-Koivu-Coyle line buzzed and buzzed. Again, no goals though and the Devils come right down and score when Seth Helgeson, who made his NHL debut, took a shot that Tuomo Ruutu deflected for the former Gophers defenseman’s first career assist.

“Same thing pretty much,” Coyle said of his line. “Zone time, chances, but we’ve got to be better burying them. It’s as simple as that.”

Coyle said it’s frustrating the way the team is playing, but the players have to stay positive, stay on an even keel and get back to basics. But he did say astutely tonight was a totally missed opportunity, that playing a team that played on the road the night before, if the Wild showed up in the first two periods and forechecked the heck out of them, they probably could have capitalized more in the third.

“We’ve got to get back to outworking teams, outshooting teams and creating chances and burying puck,” Coyle said.

Big game vs. Buffalo to try to get back on track Thursday before it heads to Dallas, where the Wild has won once since I have been the beat writer.

“We’ve lost four in a row. If we’re looking past anything right now, that would be kind of foolish,” Yeo said. “We have to dig deep here. It’s as simple as that. I know that sounds awfully cliché. We’re the only ones that are going to get ourselves out of this. We’re not going to get out of it by trying to make a fancy play or trying to outskill teams. We have skill in the lineup that can be effective if we’re playing a certain way. We have to remember, it’s hard to score in this league. Teams defend well. They all play a system. We have to get some dirty goals, we have to get some pucks to the net, we have to find a way to create more.”

That’s it for now. Early flight for me, so I need to jet out of the rink and get some shut-eye. Rachel Blount has Wild practice Wednesday, so stay tuned to her Twitter account (@blountstrib) to see if Parise and Spurgeon returns may be on the horizon.

Wild drops third straight game and looks like a shell of its early-season self

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: November 8, 2014 - 10:57 PM

Wild’s in a bit of a pickle and now will be desperately trying to grab control of losing streak and attempt to stop a spiral downward.

That 7-3 season-opening record and dominant play is history. The Wild’s 7-6 now thanks to three losses in a row by a combined score of 11-2, the latest coming by a 4-1 score tonight here in Montreal.

The Wild’s struggling to score. It can’t stop giving up goals (23 in the past seven games, which isn’t Wild hockey). And it’s playing without three significant pieces – Zach Parise, the team’s heart and soul and go-to scorer, Jared Spurgeon, who was off to a fabulous start and is so, so, so important to the team’s puck possession game, and Matt Cooke, who plays hard-nosed hockey, kills penalties and was a key contributor to a fourth line that was scoring until the very moment he left the lineup.

The Wild’s also playing two rookie defensemen who two games in a row on the road made significant mistakes that helped turn scoreless games upside down.

The Matt Dumba one tonight was not good. Scoreless. Everything going well. Team’s following the gameplan and trying hard to get that first goal by Carey Price.

Then Dumba, instead of doing the safe thing and getting the puck deep, tried to chip a puck off the wall. It was too soft, so instead of backing up and realizing it was going to be a turnover, he stepped in front of defender Max Pacioretty (1st big mistake) and then dived to try to keep it from getting to Tomas Plekanec (2nd big mistake).

With the Canadiens coming the other way with speed, Dumba was still picking himself off the ice at the top of the right faceoff circle in Montreal’s end. Yes, the Wild wasn’t outnumbered because Mikko Koivu realized Dumba’s error and backed him up, but it seemed to foul up Marco Scandella because his gap was poor, he surrendered the blue line to the super-fast Brendan Gallagher and 1-0 Canadiens.

Dumba played one shift the rest of the game and none in the third period.

The Wild keeps playing Dumba because it’s about development and has to experience intimidating climates like Montreal, but he’s 20 years old and erratic and hasn’t yet played a second of minor-league hockey even though last I checked, that’s the development league.

The question is can the Wild continue to play him when the bad has thus far outweighed the good.

Jonas Brodins don’t grow on trees. The fact that he could step into the Wild at 19 years old was special. Dumba has all the tools to be a real good defenseman, but he is too reckless at times and tonight characteristically tried to turn something into nothing, made a careless play and it led to a goal against.

Like I said, assistant coach Rick Wilson benched him from there, so perhaps a stint in Iowa is coming for Dumba.

The Wild did tie the game when Thomas Vanek, who twice earlier in the game and once the previous shift neglected to shoot in an attempt to set up Jason Pominville. Third time was a charm when Vanek saucered a beauty to Pominville circa 2011 for Pominville’s fourth of the season and 11th of his career against his hometown Habs.

But with the Wild less than a minute from getting out of the second, 1-1, rookie Christian Folin’s turnover led to Lars Eller’s go-ahead, momentum-turning goal. There were a lot of mistakes on that shift. Folin’s was just the last, but he also had issues in Ottawa.

By the 6:04 mark of the third, it was 4-1.

The third goal, the Wild had a gripe with and coincidentally I have been working on an article on incidental contact for Monday’s paper.

Jiri Sekac made it 3-1 and Darcy Kuemper was unable to make the save because Brandon Prust pushed him inside the net. However, referee Kelly Sutherland didn’t rule it incidental contact because he was already calling Nino Niederreiter for an interference penalty because he felt Niederreiter checked Prust onto Kuemper.

The Wild was very frustrated because in the previous home game against Pittsburgh, Mikael Granlund was arguably pushed onto Thomas Greiss and Mikko Koivu still had a goal wiped out because of incidental contact. Earlier this season, Jan Hejda pushed Niederreiter onto Semyon Varlamov and Charlie Coyle had a goal waved off for incidental contact.

I’ll get more into this in Monday’s paper, but again, Sutherland didn’t rule incidental contact here because he was calling Niederreiter for a delayed penalty all along.

The Wild was upset. Ryan Suter told the ref, “You’ve got to know the play,” meaning know Prust’s MO.

Yeo in the postgame said, “We’re losing games similarly to the way that we did last year at this time. You’d like to think some of the lessons that we learned that we would use that right now. I feel we have to learn some of those lessons again.”

Yeo was frustrated because the Wild was executing the gameplan well, “it’s a 0-0 game and there’s no reason to change. I felt that we did.”

On the Dumba mistake, Yeo said, “I don’t want to pin this just on him. This is a young kid, he’s learning lessons. But that said, that was similar to our whole group. We want to be aggressive, we want to go after the next goal, but you’ve got to make sure you don’t give up the first one, too. As the game wore on, as we got impatient with our process, we started to get away from [our gameplan]. It’s not good enough.”

On the fact that Parise, Spurgeon and Cooke may not be coming to the rescue, Yeo said, “I’m going to use the night here to sort it out. There’s a couple different directions we can go. I feel we can get very hard on certain individuals right now and take that approach or the other flip side is we have some young kids who are definitely pressing. You can see it in some of our execution, some of the plays – whether it’s nerves or tension. Whatever the approach is we’ll find the right one.”

Pretty sure he’s talking about guys like Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle, who was minus-3 tonight.

“We’ll be a better team at the 20-ghame mark than we are right now,” Yeo promised. “This has to be about learning and sometimes when you face this adversity like we saw last year, that makes you better.”

Suter said, “We’ve played a soft game. First period tonight, we played a good north-south hard game the way we need to play. Second period, we got away from that. We made a mistake and then we started not finishing checks. We’re an easy team to play against when we play that way. If you want to have success, you have to stick to the gameplan.”

On the mistakes by Dumba and Folin, Suter said, “It’s a tough game. It takes time to learn. It’s unfortunate, but those plays happen to everybody. It’s not just those guys. We all have to be better. It’s too bad. We had such a good thing going and now we’re kind of getting away from what we were building.”

Koivu said, “It’s on all of us. … They get the goal, and we feel that we’re playing good, but it’s not enough. You’ve got to find another notch. That’s why on the road it’s tough. You have to bear down every single shift. It doesn’t matter what the score is, you have to play the way we need to play to win some hockey games, and right now we’re not doing that.”

The Wild’s got a mess on its hands right now, and it’s up to the healthy players and coaches to get themselves out of it.

That’s it for me. The Wild’s heading back to Minnesota as I write, will take Sunday off, practice at the U on Monday and fly to New Jersey afterward. Rachel will cover Monday’s practice because I’m heading to New York on Sunday to work on two big NHL stories you’ll see in the future, including Sunday night where I’ll be watching the league’s slate of games from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety war-room.

Lastly, goose-bump night here at Bell Centre watching the great Guy Lapointe, the Wild’s chief amateur scout, get his No. 5 retired and see his banner reunited with the “Big Three,” Larry Robinson and Serge Savard. I wrote about it in Saturday’s paper but also wrote a column on Lapointe in Sunday’s paper, so please check that out. Here’s the end of tonight’s ceremony.  


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