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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Late blog, I know, but it’s been a long day at the arena with Wild and Tampa Bay Lightning practices and a couple articles that I needed to get written first.
I wrote C1 feature on Mikael Granlund’s strong play of late. He had a bit of a valley Saturday in Calgary, but it’s been mostly peaks of late for Granlund, who has played first-line center with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville pieces of the past three games.
Granlund is riding a five-game point streak, which is tied for his career-high.
The Wild had a good practice here at the arena today, and coach Mike Yeo said it was “nice to be back on home ice.” He cautioned that the Wild must get mentally focused to play a good Lightning team because of the old first-game-after-a-long-road-trip doldrums that often plague NHL teams.
The Lightning has been fantastic this year, and if I got a vote (broadcasters vote for Coach of the Year), Jon Cooper would be in my top-3 for the Jack Adams. It’s extraordinary how the Lightning has survived despite playing the past two months without superstar Steven Stamkos.
The scoring center was on the ice at the X today and said he felt the best he has since breaking his tibia horrifyingly in Boston. Cooper, always good for a decent line, said it was time to ramp up the physicality on Stamkos today and told his players that even though Stamkos was wearing a white jersey, “he’s not an egg.”
Stamkos won’t play against the Wild on Tuesday but is eyeing a Saturday return for Tampa Bay and hopes to still represent Canada in the Olympics. Cooper joked that maybe Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who doubles as Canada’s coach, will be so kind and instruct his Red Wings not to touch Stamkos on Saturday. To be clear though, Stamkos needs to be medically cleared and feel fully confident on his leg before he returns.
It’s not unlike Mikko Koivu. There’s little doubt he will get medically cleared at some point, maybe even in time to play in the Olympics. But for him to play in the Olympics, he has to be physically capable and be 100 percent confident on his ankle.
Yeo said that while it’s doubtful Koivu plays Thursday against Nashville (last game before the break), there’s a lot of things on Koivu’s mind because he so wants to play in the Olympics. He feels pressure from his country but also needs to have the best interest of the Wild in mind. Yeo and GM Chuck Fletcher have made clear they would prefer he not play IF he’s deemed still injured or not physically capable. If he’s cleared and opts to play, Yeo is taking the stance that it’s not a bad thing, that after missing so much time, the Olympics would give Koivu a chance to get practices and game action so he’s “on top of his game” once the Wild season resumes Feb. 27 in Edmonton.
Big Ben Bishop, whom I once watched play the Gophers in this arena with the University of Maine, will start for the Lightning vs. Darcy Kuemper.
Valtteri Filppula (lower body) is a gametime decision, Cooper said, although the coach indicated he expects the Finnish center to play.
I had a nice chat with Tyler Johnson today. He attended a few Wild development camps and prospect tournaments back in the day and chose to sign with Tampa Bay over Minnesota. It’s worked out bigtime. He’s second among NHL rookies with 17 goals and 35 points, should be a Calder contender and centering Tampa Bay’s top line with Marty St. Louis in Stamkos’ absence. I’ll have some Johnson quotes in Wednesday’s paper (in my game notebook).
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon is likely to return against the Lightning after missing 14 games with a foot injury. He felt and looked good today, although Yeo said he would “put off” deciding which defenseman comes out for Spurgeon until the morning.
Yeo said merit and which defensemen he feels are needed against the Lightning will come into play. The candidates are Keith Ballard, Clayton Stoner or, dare we say, Nate Prosser, who has played consistently well after finally being given the opportunity to play, uh, consistently.
Kuemper has given up eight goals in the past two starts and Yeo called this a “huge growing moment.” Kuemper has been a No. 1 at every level and has bounced back from par to sub-par performances before. But this is really his first time at this level and Yeo wants to give him that opportunity to rediscover the top-notch game he showed much of January.
A solid effort could mean Niklas Backstrom doesn’t get a start before the Olympic break.
Justin Fontaine missed practice today because he was sick, so he’s a question mark against Tampa Bay.
No update on Josh Harding as the Wild has said it’ll try to get a better sense as to whether he’ll be able to return this season during the Olympics.
Yeo said the Wild’s having a staff meeting Wednesday to determine its Olympic plans. I’ve reported Jason Zucker, who will get to play in front of his former DU coach George Gwozdecky (Lightning asst.) on Tuesday, and Erik Haula will almost certainly play in Iowa during the Olympics. Maybe Stephane Veilleux, too.
The big decision will be Kuemper. He’s young and could use the game to keep this momentum. The risk in my opinion though is with Harding’s uncertain status, what if Kuemper got hurt in Iowa? I’d think the team wouldn’t want to risk that, but that’s what they’ll decide.
All the youngsters that have been here all year won’t play in Iowa during the break.
Again, for all of you asking my Thomas Vanek thoughts, see the previous blog.
I will be on KFAN from 9:55-10:35 Tuesday. Also, the fourth of five Star Tribune Chalk Talks with myself and Wes Walz is Tuesday before the Wild-Lightning game. If you would like to attend the event and the game, go to www.wild.com/chalktalk.
After combining for nine points in Thursday’s loss to the Colorado Avalanche, Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville will remain a line when the Wild visits the Calgary Flames on Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday night.
Afternoon from Calgary. I'll be on KFAN on Saturday at 10:55 a.m.
Parise, who has seven points in the past two games, is coming off a two-goal, two-assist performance, while Granlund and Pominville combined for two goals and three assists.
Coach Mike Yeo plans to also reunite the Jason Zucker-Charlie Coyle-Dany Heatley line. The trio had success last month together, including a two-game string where they combined for four goals and five assists.
Zucker had been scratched the past three games due to the trickle-down effect of Parise’s return to the lineup from a broken foot.
Nino Niederreiter skated on the third line with Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak. He had spent time there earlier this season, while Erik Haula will center the fourth line with two of three wingers – Mike Rupp, Justin Fontaine and Torrey Mitchell.
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who has missed the past 13 games with a broken foot, may return against the Flames.
Spurgeon didn’t take part in a regular pairing during Friday’s practice, but the Wild made sure to get him plenty of reps.
“I thought he looked really good moving the puck and showed no problems whatsoever working in the D zone,” Yeo said.
Yeo said he’d like to get another right-hand shot into the lineup. During Spurgeon’s absence, Nate Prosser has been the only righty other than four games Jon Blum played. Yeo said it would give the power play more options, too.
If Spurgeon returns, Keith Ballard would be the likely scratch.
Yeo wouldn't name his goaltender. My guess is he returns with Darcy Kuemper, although Niklas Backstrom has had a lot of success in Calgary.
He is 8-7 all-time in Calgary with a 1.98 goals against average, .932 save percentage and three shutouts.
The Wild has won eight of its past 12 at the Saddledome.
Talk to you Saturday.
The Anaheim Ducks are the NHL's best team, but suffered only their second home loss in regulation on Tuesday night when the Wild skated away with an impressive 4-2 victory at the Pond.
The Wild is in Colorado today to get ready for a game against the Avalanche tomorrow night. Practice is optional.
Beat writer Michael Russo is still away from the team following a death in the family, but should get to Denver tomorrow -- although he's stranded in Atlanta, which has been shut down by a blizzard, er, one inch of snow.
Update: USA Hockey announced it will name the Olympic team captain on Friday at noon. The U.S. captain will be on a conference call. Wild alternate captains Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are among the five candidates, as the team's "leadership" group includes those two, Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, Kings captain Dustin Brown and Blues captain David Backes.
Back to Tuesday's victory, some quick stats on the game:
Mikael Granlund had a power-play goal to break an eight-game streak by the Wild where it did not score with a man advantage. Still, it was 1-for-5 on power plays, and that nine-game stat now reads 1-for-26.
Parise had the game-winning goal on a very skilled deflection of a Marco Scandella shot, and also had two assists. The Wild is 4-1-1 in the past six, and the Ducks are now 21-2-2 at home.
The Wild improved to 9-3-1 in 2014. At 29-20-6 (64 points), they moved into the first wild card spot in the Western Conference. Remember, top three teams in each division make the playoffs, along with two wild card teams with the next best records in the conference.
Darcy Kuemper made 31 saves to improve to 6-3-1 with a 2.26 goals-against average, .924 save percentage and one shutout in 11 appearances this season.
Our game story from LA-based Joe D'Hippolito is here.
Randball weighed in this morning on Wild fever here.
The Wild is back at practice this afternoon in Anaheim after a day off in Southern California.
It plays the Ducks tomorrow night after opening a four-game road trip with a 3-2 overtime loss in San Jose. The game preview noted Joe Thornton had "only" six goals, and naturally he scored twice, including the game-winner.
Michael Russo is away from the team until Thursday, but provided some interesting faceoff stats:
1. Wild lost 41 of 59 (69%) of its draws Saturday. Kyle Brodziak and Charlie Coyle were the culprits. Brodziak lost 15 of 17. Coyle lost 13 of 18.
2. At the time of his injury, Mikko Koivu ranked third among NHL forwards in ice time (21:34), 16th in faceoff percentage (.557) and seventh in faceoffs taken (888). Koivu has been out 10 games after ankle surgery, and isn't likely to return this week.
3. Koivu’s broken ankle also came one day after the Wild lost Zenon Konopka, who has the highest faceoff percentage in the NHL since 2005-06. Konopka was claimed off waivers by the Buffalo Sabres.
4. The Wild was top-five in faceoff percentage at time of Koivu's injury. It has slipped to 10th at .513
5. Brodziak's faceoff stats have plummeted with Koivu out of the lineup. He has won 75 of 171 (.438) and his overall percentage has dropped from .502 to .490. In the past 13 games, Brodziak is at 89 of 213 (.417).
6. Mikael Granlund has been a bright spot. His percentage last year was .471, and this year he is at .516. That looks better when you consider he was at .479 on Nov. 15. With Koivu out, Granlund has won 83 of 159 (.522).
Niklas Backstrom will be off the ice for a few days because he had another injection in what coach Mike Yeo is calling "a nagging lower-body injury," so the Wild has recalled Johan Gustafsson from AHL Iowa to back up Darcy Kuemper on Tuesday night in Dallas.
Also, Josh Harding, who practiced all last week, didn't practice today because Yeo said he's not feeling well again. Harding has missed nine consecutive games and 13 of the past 15 games since having a "minor adjustment" to his treatment for multiple sclerosis.
The net is Kuemper's for awhile, although Yeo expects Backstrom back for Wednesday's practice.
Kuemper has started four consecutive games and five of the past seven and is 4-1 in his past five with a 1.37 goals-against average and .954 save percentage.
"Sometimes your third goalie is called upon to back up and maybe play a game here or there, but he’s been thrown into more of a starting role for us and he’s taken that opportunity,” Yeo said. “Good for him and good for us. I just read a quote the other day that opportunities multiply as they’re seized and he’s living by that right now."
Kuemper is confident he can run with the net if needed. The Wild has no back-to-backs before the Olympics and he reminded he's been a No. 1 goalie at every level he's ever played at.
"Things have been going pretty good, so I’m confident every time I go in there," Kuemper said. "With the situation right now, I’ve gotten an opportunity to play, so I just have to do my best to give the team a chance to win every night."
Kuemper's turn in net began in L.A. because Backstrom had a cortisone shot the day before for this injury.
In Phoenix a few days later, Backstrom, who missed last year’s playoffs with a sports hernia, admitted to me he played the final month last season with a “tear in the core muscle.”
Backstrom, who played 42 of 48 games last season because of Harding’s absence due to complications from multiple sclerosis, had previously maintained the injury he sustained in warmups of Game 1 against Chicago was the first time he experienced any discomfort.
Backstrom believes the abdominal stiffness he's experiencing is related to last year’s injury.
“You have a problem somewhere and you compensate with something else, so I think it’s from that and related,” Backstrom said in Phoenix. “But compared to yesterday, today was a big difference, so I feel it’s heading in the right direction. I’m getting to where I want to be.”
Yeo basically called the Wild's goaltending situation day-to-day, and something that will be evaluated daily.
That's been the case all season frankly, but this is the first time Backstrom and Harding have been sidelined together.
GM Chuck Fletcher has talked trade with other teams, but last week two goalies were taken off the market essentially when Devan Dubnyk was traded from Edmonton to Nashville and Ben Scrivens was acquired by Edmonton from L.A.
Internally, the team has talked about maybe signing Jose Theodore if it needs insurance eventually. Theodore is a free agent living in South Florida. He works out daily and has been going on the ice all season.
Again though, it's hard for Fletcher to proceed with everything so in flux. You can't afford to sit there and suddenly have three goalies sitting on the roster on a permanent basis.
Fletcher said today that with Kuemper playing well, the anticipation that Backstrom will be back Wednesday and the fact there's not a lot of games left before the Olympics, "we feel we can [currently] manage the situation."
Jon Blum has again been recalled to give the Wild an extra defenseman. Yeo would not say if he'd play in Dallas. Jonas Brodin is fine by the way from the high-stick the other night.
Yeo also wouldn't say if maybe Mike Rupp would play. Rupp did take some shifts on the fourth line today.
Zach Parise's non-contact yellow jersey is in the washing machine and he's wearing a real practice sweater again. He took part in some regular shifts today and took part in game-like situations and bumping. He'll get more reps in Wednesday's practice and Yeo said there's a chance he returns Thursday against Chicago. He is definitely coming on the upcoming four-game trip if for some reason he doesn't play the Blackhawks.
He did not fly with the team to Dallas.
Matt Cooke didn't want to touch the whole Jamie Benn not being suspended thing today. Interestingly, according to TSN's Bob McKenzie, Ottawa's owner Eugene Melnyk and GM Bryan Murray were spotted at NHL headquarters today and the assumption is Melnyk planned to submit his forensics investigation into his contention that Cooke purposely sliced Erik Karlsson's Achilles' tendon last season.
And no, this isn't a joke.
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