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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UPDATED WITH VIDEO EXPLAINING WHY JAMIE BENN WON'T BE SUSPENDED
What an incredible way to end Hockey Day Minnesota.
The largest crowd at Xcel Energy Center this season (19,192) was sent off in the night by Elk River’s own, Nate Prosser, who scored his first career overtime winner one game after scoring his first game-winner.
Against the team that used to call Minnesota home, the Dallas Stars, Prosser scored off Nino Niederreiter’s rebound after Charlie Coyle’s muscle move behind the net to win a battle and free himself of Alex Goligoski.
It was just the perfect end to a day that saw Hockey Day Minnesota hosted inside the pit that Prosser grew up playing in.
Prosser, who wears a smile on his face pretty much 24 hours a day anyway, was walking on air after the game. He said he couldn’t believe what just happened and coach Mike Yeo joked that he’ll be the next mayor of Elk River.
Read the game story at www.startribune.com/wild for all the quotes and details.
As I told you the other day, I sat down with Prosser on Wednesday and have a profile planned on him for Tuesday’s paper.
Lots of great efforts tonight by the Wild.
The team was outshot 35-19, yet Darcy Kuemper made 33 saves and improved to 4-1 in his past starts with a 1.36 goals-against average and .954 save percentage.
Erik Haula made a great play to create a breakaway for himself en route to his first NHL goal. Read the gamer for his quotes.
Ryan Suter scored a goal, blocked six shots, had two shots and two hits.
Prosser, Marco Scandella and Haula combined for nine blocked shots.
Jonas Brodin, who took an uncalled high-stick (refs called it a follow-through by Antoine Roussel; I hate this stupid rule), had three takeaways and an assist on Suter’s goal after a great play by Torrey Mitchell. Brodin returned to the game after bleeding profusely from the nose.
Kyle Brodziak had a strong game and had three hits. Matt Cooke had an assist, three hits and two shots.
Cooke also looked to be elbowed in the head in overtime by Jamie Benn. No call amazingly. We’ll see if the league reviews it, and if the league does, he could face a suspension in Tuesday’s rematch at Dallas.
Regardless, it was dirty. A launch into Cooke up high with the elbow. Here's the GIF courtesy of Sean Gentille of Sporting News.
UPDATE: The NHL views this as a protective maneuver, I'm told by the league. Basically, it could have conceivably been a penalty but doesn't rise to the level of supplemental discipline. Here is the rationale: Considered a defensive contact to the head. Here's the video explaining.
Personally, I don't see how this is a protective move. Looks to me like Benn takes opportunity to tattoo Cooke. With a rematch in Dallas on Tuesday, let's hope cooler heads prevail.
One has to wonder also if Cooke would be given the same benefit of doubt if he was skating with the puck and decided it was time to "protect himself" and paste Benn in the head.
Wild has won seven of nine now and just continue to ride high despite the loss of big guns Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu, defenseman Jared Spurgeon and goalie Josh Harding.
Impressive to say the least. The Wild has the day off Sunday, meaning barring news, no blog.
I’ll write a follow on Kuemper, who had some awesome stuff to say after the game about how well Niklas Backstrom is treating him throughout what could be an awkward few weeks.
Talk to you Monday after practice.
Twentieth win in the past 22 home games against the Oilers tonight as the Wild snapped a 1-1 tie with three goals in a 3:23 span to win for the sixth time in eight games.
The 8th-place Wild and slumping 7th-place Canucks are now tied with 57 points, but Vancouver has two games in hand. Phoenix won to stay four behind the Wild with three games in hand.
Dallas, 2-7-1 in its past 10, lost and is eight points behind the Wild heading into the home-and-home with Minnesota that starts Saturday with Hockey Day Minnesota.
Speaking of Hockey Day Minnesota, Nate Prosser, the product of the host city of Elk River, scored his first career winning goal and first goal in almost two years late in the second period. Justin Fontaine scored 2:12 later and then Jason Zucker scored the fastest Wild goal to ever start a period eight seconds into the third off a great give and go with Dany Heatley.
Jason Pominville scored a goal and assist for his 120th multi-point game of his career and Darcy Kuemper made 20 saves for his first home win of the season.
Prosser was the big story. He has played seven games for injured Jared Spurgeon and is plus-7 in that span next to mostly Marco Scandella averaging 17:19 a game. Tonight, he was plus-3 in 20:09 of ice time.
Read the gamer for much, much more on Prosser, and I’ll be writing a profile on him next week. I sat down with yesterday.
One unsung thing in this game was the play of Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Fontaine. The line shut down the Ryan Nugent-Hopkins-Sam Gagner-Taylor Hall line in a big way by spending much of the night in the offensive zone.
Brodziak was always on the right side of the puck. Sure, scoring is a chore for him, but one reason why he gets so many scoring chances is he’s usually doing all the right things leading up to the scoring chance that, well, he usually doesn’t bury.
But after Cooke crushed Nail Yakupov (he left with a head injury; clean hit), it triggered a 3-on-2, and Fontaine scored on Brodziak’s rebound.
Up to the point Prosser and Fontaine scored, the Oilers had the Wild hemmed in its zone for much of the second period. The Wild stayed composed and kept the Oilers to the outside, but fans were understandably starting to freak as the Oilers began skating circles around Minnesota.
But a Ryan Jones turnover to Pominville led to Prosser’s goal to stop the bleeding. It was then all Wild from that point forward.
Ben Scrivens will quickly learn he’s not in L.A. anymore. This poor goalie came to Edmonton on Wednesday with a 1.97 goals-against average. The Oilers are the worst defensive team in the NHL, have allowed four or more goals 29 times and have been beaten by three or more 16 times.
Just look at the awful D on the Zucker goal, his fourth in eight games.
Heck, just look at the Wild’s first goal.
Mikael Granlund made it all happen. After Scandella cleared the zone, Granlund’s hustle coupled with a rolling puck forced the linesman to wave off an icing.
With rookie defenseman Martin Marincin, who will be on Slovakia’s Olympic team next month, asleep at the switch, Granlund stole the puck and centered for Pominville, who made one deke to create an open net for himself before his team-leading 19th goal.
“He just forechecked really hard,” Pominville said of Granlund. “I gave him a yell. He knew where I was and flipped it to the area.”
Scrivens had to be thinking, “I don’t remember Drew Doughty ever getting his pocket picked in front of the net.”
That’s it for me. I’ll talk to you after Friday’s practice.
It was bad enough having to write about this game for the paper, so I don’t know how much more I want to spend on it here.
3-nothing loss by the Wild. Just a poorly-played game from start to finish.
The team was flat, executed badly, from losing puck battles and races to having by far its worst passing performances in weeks. Passes were either ahead of guys or behind them much of the night.
Darcy Kuemper did an admirable job keeping the Wild in its for awhile, but the dagger came 5:55 into the third with the Wild actually pressuring. Marco Scandella broke his stick on a shot and Erik Condra made it 2-0 on a breakaway.
The Wild showed signs of frustration all night. It’s hard to tell totally on replay because you can’t see where Kyle Turris has the puck, but the team felt Clarke MacArthur was offside on Ottawa’s first goal. There were a few missed calls, like Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle being tripped and Ryan Suter being high-sticked right in front of one of the refs a shift before Condra made it 2-0.
But coach Mike Yeo said, “When you’re more engaged in the game, when you’re on top of your game, things like that don’t beat you.”
The Wild hasn’t had a practice since last Wednesday because of mandatory CBA days off and also because of the travel to and from Phoenix on Monday and the travel to and from Nashville. The team looked like a team that was tired and didn’t practice a lot tonight, although Yeo said it was no excuse and it needs to use Wednesday’s practice “efficiently” before Edmonton comes to town.
The bad thing tonight is 9th-place Phoenix lost, so the 8th-place Wild could have gained a six-point cushion on the Coyotes, who still have three games in hand. Dallas, in 10th, won.
The Wild suddenly has flipped the script and has won three in a row on the road but has lost four of six at home.
That’s got to change.
“We need points,” Jason Pominville said. “We have to find ways, whether we practice or we don’t. It’s up to everyone to dig deeper and find a way to get yourself going.
“You’ve got to be good at home. For the most part this year, we have. But if you want to be a team that climbs in the standings and a team that’s tough to play against, you have to be better than what we were at home. Tonight just wasn’t good enough.
“We had an opportunity to create a little distance and create that separation a little bit. It’s unfortunate we didn’t come out with the effort.”
Guess what? That’s it. This blog is yucky like tonight’s game. Wild needs to turn the page at practice Wednesday.
I’ll be filling in for Paul Allen on KFAN from 9-noon Wednesday. I’ll have Darcy Kuemper as a guest at 9:55, Mike Florio, Lavelle E. Neal The Third, Marney Gellner and others.
Kent Youngblood is covering practice because I’m grabbing lunch with a player afterward for a weekend feature. So Kent will be on here to blog afterward.
The Wild won for the fifth time in six games and third in a row on the road tonight with a 4-0 victory over the Nashville Predators.
Real good game for the Wild, which limited the Predators to very few legit scoring chances and helped Darcy Kuemper to his first career shutout. Kuemper made 23 saves for his third career win, and he had to be particularly good in the second.
The Wild clamped down defensively, but it did spend some extended shifts in its own end and went the final 13:44 of the period without a shot. But even then, the Wild had a 2-0 lead thanks to goals by Dany Heatley and Jason Zucker and it always felt like the Wild had the game in pretty good control. Still, Kuemper was good controlling rebounds and was real good playing the puck and helping out his defensemen.
Good bounceback win for the Wild, which felt it deserved better than zero points in allowed 18 shots during a 4-2 loss less than 24 hours earlier to Colorado.
The Heatley-Charlie Coyle-Zucker line was great again, with Coyle assisting on both goals by his linemates. He had a funny anecdote about Heatley in the gamer, so read that at www.startribune.com/wild.
“Those three guys, the last two games have been by far their best without the puck,” coach Mike Yeo said.
All the goals by them have come off rushes and Yeo noted it could not happen if not for being good defensively, quick to transition and spending less time in the defensive zone.
Ryan Suter, the ex-Pred, was an absolute stud tonight. He had one assist in 28:42 of ice time and was plus-2 and just was so strong in his own end and started the transition of both goals by Heatley and Zucker. Before the Heatley winning goal, he forced the turnover and led the rush. Before the Zucker goal, he was a defensive-zone battle before going for a line change.
Just a great game for a guy that you know couldn’t have been too happy for the turnover that led to Ryan O’Reilly’s winner the night before.
Yeo went on and on about the leadership on this team with guys like Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise hurt. He went down the list of players and said there’s a lot of good things going on behind the scenes that we never see, like Jason Pominville not showing up on the score sheet tonight, but “you’re not there to see how he is on the bench and the way he goes out shift after shift. Sutes, same thing, …” and so on and so on.
The Wild opens up a three-game homestand Tuesday against Ottawa. Yeo already said Kuemper will start.
“We just want to keep it going,” Yeo said. “Every game we have a lot of things that we need to do right to have the right outcome right now [because of all the injuries].”
Matt Cooke and Marco Scandella also scored third-period goals tonight. Scandella was great again. So was Nate Prosser, who has stepped in admirably ever since Jared Spurgeon injured his foot.
Nino Niederreiter has eight points in the past eight games. Mikael Granlund had an assist and won 9 of 16 faceoffs. Erik Haula had four shots to lead the team. Coyle was awesome. Clayton Stoner was physical with three hits. The Wild blocked 21 shots. The Wild has given up two goals in the past three road games. Heatley scored his 63rd career winning goal and first this season.
I wrote a good amount on Heatley in the gamer and will come back with a pretty good story on the relationship young forwards Coyle, Granlund, Niederreiter and Zucker have with Andrew Brunette, Darby Hendrickson and Darryl Sydor.
That will be in Tuesday’s paper. The Wild has an off-day Monday, so barring news, no blog.
Remember, I’ll be doing our third Star Tribune Chalk Talk with Wes Walz prior to Tuesday’s game against Ottawa. If you would like to attend the Chalk Talk and attend the game, go to www.wild.com/chalktalk.
I’ll be filling in for Paul Allen on Wednesday from 9-noon, incidentally, on KFAN (100.3-FM).
I’ll also be on KFAN on Monday at 11:40 a.m. and Tuesday at 9:55 a.m.
Funny thing happened Thursday morning inside the visitor’s dressing room here at Glendale Arena.
As the room opened, a swarm of media headed to the back wall of the room. Justin Fontaine was all alone back there, so he stood up to address to the horde of buzzards, I mean reporters, before we all made an abrupt beeline to his right where Jon Blum’s stall was.
Psyche! After all, it would be Blum’s Wild debut later that night. Fontaine started laughing as all his teammates began making fun of him.
“False alarm,” Fontaine said, embarrassingly.
Turns out we should have probably chatted with “Fonzie” because hours later Fontaine would connect on his first career hat trick in a 4-1 win over Phoenix, the Wild’s fourth consecutive win to thrust it back into the top-8 in the West for the first time since Dec. 22 (just an fyi, everybody around them, including the Coyotes, have games in hand on Minnesota, so don’t get too excited yet).
After the Wild went 1,449 days without a hat trick, it picked up its second in five days. Saturday against Washington, Ryan Suter became the first defenseman. Tonight, Fontaine became the first rookie, and this is a guy that was a healthy scratch six times in a 12-game stretch from Nov. 29-Dec. 22. He became the ninth Wild player to get a hat trick and 17th overall.
The first came off Keith Yandle’s rebound when he blew one by Matt Cooke’s screen. The second was a lucky bounce when Jason Pominville’s dump-in hit a stanchion and went to the front of the net with Mike Smith out. The third was an empty-netter.
Kyle Brodziak scored the winning goal, had an assist and was plus-3, Cooke and Nino Niederreiter had two assists each and Niklas Backstrom made 39 saves for his third win in a row as the Wild won in regulation on the road for the first time since Nov. 20 to complete a 2-0 road sweep.
The Wild has the day off Friday and hosts Colorado on Saturday before playing in Nashville on Saturday. Kent Youngblood will cover the Avs game.
The big story in my eyes tonight was Backstrom. A lot of us were surprised tonight at Mike Yeo’s decision to come back with Backstrom because of the magnitude of the game over Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper made 39 saves in L.A for his second career win.
But Backstrom didn’t disappoint. Personally, I think it was an organizational decision because the team needs to see 1) if Backstrom is healthy; 2) if he can continue to play well with this team so needing him right now.
Why do I say that? The Wild’s concerned about its goaltending with Josh Harding’s uncertain health situation and Backstrom’s struggles in the first half and his four afflictions this season (knee, concussion, virus and now abdominal soreness).
As I wrote in Friday’s game story, GM Chuck Fletcher may be looking to add a goaltender to provide some insurance. This is a league where it’s awfully difficult to make a trade and Fletcher also isn’t looking to throw away assets. So according to sources, the Wild is interested in maybe signing free agent Jose Theodore, who is working out daily and skating weekly in South Florida.
Again, we’ll see if Backstrom’s three-game winning streak and outstanding performance tonight (27 of his 39 saves in the first 40 minutes) slows the GM down, but after talking to a bunch of people, it wouldn’t shock me at all if Fletcher eventually looks at signing Theodore. A lot really depends on what’s the word on Harding once we get back to Minnesota.
The Wild is spending the night in Phoenix and heading back in the morning for an off-day. Next access is Saturday morning. Mikko Koivu is also expected to talk for the first time since ankle surgery Saturday morning, so Kent will have that.
Amazing that it was just last week when the Wild was at the trail end of a six-game losing streak and Yeo was potentially on the chopping block if he had lost to Buffalo or Washington. It feels like centuries ago. I’ll have a lot more on that in Saturday’s paper.
I emailed back and forth with Zach Parise today. He became a dad to twins yesterday, and I talked to him about shot blockers and fatherhood. Those quotes are in the Blum/Ballard game notebook on www.startribune.com/wild.
Jason Zucker took a puck from Shane Doan’s shot above the left kneecap in the third period tonight. Scary scene as he couldn’t put any weight on it going down the runway. But afterward, he was walking, had four stitches and said he’ll be fine.
That’s it for now. Barring news, no blog Friday.
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