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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There was plenty of chatter on the ice this morning at Xcel Energy Center, but it wasn't idle talk. The Wild buckled down through an intense one-hour practice designed to sharpen it up for Tuesday's home game against Pittsburgh, which features three of the NHL's six highest-scoring forwards in Sidney Crosby (seven goals-11 assists), Evgeni Malkin (five goals, 10 assists) and Patric Hornqvist (six goals, eight assists).
Good communication has been a key to the Wild's defense, which is as impressive as the Pens' offense. Pittsburgh's plus-19 is the best goal differential in the NHL, but the Wild is second at plus-17--thanks to a league-low 18 goals allowed. The Wild already has shut down some of the top players and lines in the Western Conference, and coach Mike Yeo said he is anxious to see how his team performs against Crosby and company.
Several players said the effort will start with communication, making sure everyone is aware when the Crosby and Malkin lines are on the ice. The task from that point on will be to frustrate the top scorers while effectively playing the smart team defense the Wild has demonstrated so frequently this season.
"It's been a collective effort,'' defenseman Marco Scandella said. "The forwards back us up when we're jumping into the play offensively. We're having great communication right now, moving the puck to get out of the defensive zone and using each other. It’s a process. We've been building this for a couple of years now, and we're starting to learn each other's tendencies pretty good.''
Scandella said the Wild will need to stay close to Crosby and Malkin, taking away time and space. Erik Haula noted that the team must stick rigorously to its system, keeping turnovers and odd-man rushes to a minimum and forcing the Penguins to play a 200-foot game. And Zach Parise--who knows a thing or two about being a scorer singled out for extra attention--added that the Wild must pin the Pens' stars in their own zone as much as possible.
"When you play against guys like Crosby and Malkin, when you don’t have the puck, you have to make sure you stay above them and make them come through five (players),'' Parise said. "And you can't cheat on the other side of the puck. The best thing against guys like that is to make them spend long shifts in their own zone. That’s the frustrating thing when you play on a scoring line. When you find yourself in your own zone the whole night, it gets really frustrating.''
In injury news Monday, Keith Ballard practiced for the first time in a long while. The defenseman said he has never gotten a definitive diagnosis of the illness that caused his jawline to swell up and sapped his energy. He skated only twice in the previous 12 days and will need to regain strength and conditioning before he's ready to play.
Forward Matt Cooke (lower-body injury) won't play Tuesday. Forward Ryan Carter (upper-body injury) also practiced Monday, though Yeo is unsure whether Carter will play Tuesday. "He looked pretty good, but we'll have to see how he is in the morning,'' Yeo said. "Sometimes, things like that might get a little bit more sore after you put in the work.''
Happy Halloween everyone. Some fans got a head start and came to Thursday’s Wild-Sharks game in costumes.
This one caught coach Mike Yeo’s eye:
“Good-looking guy,” Yeo quipped.
Yeo was full of jokes today, saying he should have had the imposter fill in for him at today’s press scrum. When I asked Yeo where the guy sat during the game, Yeo joked the lookalike actually coached the game from the bench.
Impressive costume. He even got Yeo’s style down with the shift and tie and certainly the facial expression.
Wild hosts the Dallas Stars on Saturday night. The Stars, who play at home Friday night, are gifted offensively, but they give up a bunch of goals. So it should be a fun game to watch.
I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m. today.
The Wild will be without defenseman Jared Spurgeon for awhile. Spurgeon, who has been outstanding this season with two goals, six points and a plus-7, injured his shoulder early in the third period when he slid awkwardly into the boards after a check from Joe Pavelski.
This is a huge loss. Not only is he one of the Wild’s biggest offensive threats from the back end, he really helps make the Wild’s puck possession and transition game run. Plus, his breakouts have been exceptional this season.
Yeo would only say he’ll miss “more than a couple games.”
Spurgeon’s down in the dumps about this.
“Not happy,” he said. “We’ve been playing awesome, so that’s the hardest thing to come out of the lineup when your team is playing well. We’ve been winning games. It’s one of the best starts since I’ve been here that we’ve had. But the guys we have in the room, it’s not going to matter with me being out with the way we’re playing. Just try to get back as fast as I can.”
Spurgeon said it’s not separated, but he has got to let it settle down and get the strength back so it doesn’t separate.
“It could be a lot of worse,” he said. “I’ll just take it day by day and hopefully get better. It all depends how everything heals up.”
Defenseman Jonas Brodin took part in today’s optional practiced. Yeo asked it how it went, and Brodin said well. But Yeo said he needed to have a longer conversation with him. But he’s hopeful he can return against the Stars, so he’s listed as “possible” for Saturday.
Defenseman Christian Folin practiced again and Yeo expects the rookie to return. Defenseman Keith Ballard is still sick and defenseman Justin Falk was reassigned.
“This is another test for the depth of our defensemen,” Yeo said, adding it’s a test for the young defensemen and players like Nate Prosser and even Marco Scandella, who has been so good (even or plus every game this year). “When you lose somebody, there’s always more opportunity.
“If we’re playing our game the right way and if we’re going out and attacking the way we have been and defending the way we have been, then we give the guys a good chance to succeed.”
I talked with Ryan Suter and he said with Spurgeon out, just like last year when the Wild lost defensemen, he’s taking it upon himself that he has to step up even more to help the team. Shocker there, right?
Left wing Matt Cooke will be out for awhile. Nothing serious, but the hope is rest will help him heal. He actually got hurt Game 2 of the season in Denver and had been playing on the lower-body injury.
Yeo said Erik Haula has a good shot to return Saturday, but the team has to first make sure he’s completely fine after the morning skate.
My guess is Justin Fontaine stays on the line with Thomas Vanek and Kyle Brodziak to start and Haula centers Ryan Carter and Nino Niederreiter.
The Brodziak line has produced two games in a row, but it really got going when Fontaine was put on it Thursday. Yeo wasn’t happy with Niederreiter’s game and made clear today that “I’m expecting Nino to have a real strong game” Saturday.
The way Yeo has been rolling four lines this year, Yeo said nobody should get caught up on who’s on the so-called third line and who’s on what’s considered the fourth line.
“Bottom line is if Haula plays, if Fontaine plays [with Brodziak or Haula], we’re going to have four good lines. If we want to get caught up on who’s on the third line, who’s on the fourth line, both lines will play and both those lines will be important for us.”
Yeo said what he loves right now is “if a line’s having an off night, we can change up the lines or somebody else can pick up the slack [like Fontaine on Thursday]. I feel like I’ve got four lines I can put on the ice against anybody.”
Yeo talked a lot about how good Jason Zucker is playing today and said he thinks Zucker and Charlie Coyle helped bring Mikko Koivu energy Thursday. Koivu was terrific with a goal, nine shots, 22 of 28 in the circle and a shootout equalizer.
If you didn’t read the Vanek story, see this blog. But the bottom line is, this is not a new development. The only thing new is the defense attorney for the bookmaker who’s going to prison for potentially nine years decided to give detail to Vanek’s involvement.
But Vanek is cooperating in the investigation, is the star witness and as long as he didn’t bet on hockey (this was a football ring apparently) and as long as he doesn’t face criminal charges, it’s very unlikely the NHL is going to take any action against him.
The Wild’s 0 for 19 power play is taking on a life of its own. At least the players have a sense of humor about it.
When the room opened up to reporters today, the guys were laughing. The reason? The inside joke in the room was when anybody asked about the power play, they were going to say, “This is what happens” when the beat writers design it.
In practice today, coach Mike Yeo worked the power play with no penalty kill defending it.
Ryan Suter said the No. 1 unit was a good 20 percent. Darcy Kuemper, the dude who became only the second goalie since 1943-44 to shut out three opponents in his first four starts of a season, quickly corrected him that it was actually 10 percent.
Yeo said, “The second group was even better [than the first]. They didn’t have a goalie.”
The best power plays in the league are 20 percent. That means, Yeo reminded, that they don’t score 80 percent of the time.
“But if we don’t score right now every time, it’s just another one lumped on,” Yeo said. So Yeo said the challenge to his frustrated players is that if you don’t score on one, don’t let it ruin the next shift or the rest of the period or game.
In all seriousness, the Wild knows it needs to start scoring on the power play if for no other reason than to relieve the internal and external pressure. The power play leads the NHL in shots, so the 0-for is not because of a lack of chances or zone entries or good breakouts.
Wild hosts the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night before heading out east for two games in two nights at the Rangers and Boston on Monday and Tuesday.
The Lightning plays Friday night in Winnipeg. Seven of the Lightning’s 21 goals have come on the power play and it has been stingy defensively, too.
Luckily for the Wild during this power-play drought is its penalty kill is third-best in the NHL at 93.3 percent.
In its three wins, the Wild has outscored opponents 10-0. In its two losses, it has been outscored 4-2.
So in five games, the Wild has surrendered only four goals and has allowed a league-low 22.8 shots per game. It has fired the second-most shots per game at 36.
So, the Wild needs to get its power play in order and it should be a pretty dangerous team, as Yeo said after Thursday’s 2-0 win over Arizona.
Yeo said of Tampa Bay, which stars Steven Stamkos and budding star Jonathan Drouin, “I know that they’ll be ready. That’s a team that plays fast, that’s a team that counters very quickly. They’re coming at you with every line, they attack aggressively.”
In Games 3-7 in the first round against Colorado, the Wild had Erik Haula pretty much shadow 18-year-old stud Nathan MacKinnon, who lit the Wild up in Games 1 and 2. In Games 3-7, MacKinnon scored one goal and was minus-6 in Games 6 and 7. In Minnesota, where Yeo controlled last change and could get Haula and Suter and Jared Spurgeon out against him, MacKinnon was shut down.
So expect Haula to be on the ice a lot with Stamkos on Saturday.
“I did grab Haulzy on the ice and let him know to make sure he’s ready,” Yeo said. “Whether he gets a full dose of it or a partial dose of it, with his speed against a fast, dangerous offensive line, he’ll see some action.”
Yeo is just excited to get games in now. The Wild theoretically could be 5-0 right now if it just took advantage of its power play in Anaheim and L.A. But Yeo feels “other teams are ahead of us” in terms of game speed and pace of play because they have played more games.
Yeo said, “The good news is that we still look like a pretty good team, but these games are going to make us better if we use them the right way.”
Keith Ballard and Christian Folin are still under the weather, so they didn’t practice today. So Yeo expects to go with Thursday’s lineup again Saturday.
Lightning backup Evgeni Nabakov, 16-8-3 all-time vs. the Wild with a 2.09 goals-against average, is expected to start for Tampa Bay.
That’s it for me. Have to write my Sunday Insider now, and be sure to check out Saturday’s paper for a crazy article you won’t even believe.
I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m.
After four games in the NHL season’s first 15 days, the Wild plays six in the next nine. Five are against playoff teams from a year ago except Thursday’s against Arizona.
“Too much time off,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We’re all sick of practicing right now. We’re our own biggest rivalry now. We just have to start playing some games.”
Good afternoon from Xcel Energy Center’s press room. Wild opens a two-game homestand Thursday against the Coyotes and Lightning before hitting the road for New York and Boston.
In Thursday’s Star Tribune, I wrote a very big profile on Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon. Some fun stuff in there, so please give that a read. Spurgeon has played more games in a Wild sweater than any current Wild defenseman.
I'll also be on KFAN live at 9 a.m. from the studio.
In Thursday’s game, Keith Ballard and Christian Folin will be the third pair. Matt Dumba and Nate Prosser aren’t expected to play. Darcy Kuemper will make his fourth start of the season. He allowed two goals in his previous three starts.
Kyle Brodziak is expected to be scratched for a third consecutive game. Remember, his scratch in Game 3 of last year’s playoffs was his only scratch of his Wild career prior to this string. In fact, prior to this, he only missed three regular-season games in his Wild career due to injury or illness.
The Wild is 0-2 without Brodziak this season, but Yeo doesn’t want to pull Ryan Carter.
First of all, Yeo noted that the Wild has scored two goals in its past two games and Carter assisted on both.
“He has a good idea what he needs to bring every night. Be a defensive physical presence,” Yeo said.
As for playing Ballard over Dumba, Yeo said he wants the left-shot in Thursday’s lineup, saying it helps the transition game, especially in the neutral zone, having a left-right ratio.
“We’re a speed team, and if we’re going to play fast, then you have to move the puck effectively,” Yeo said, “so we’ll see if that helps our transition game.”
As you know, the Wild’s power play is 0 for 16, yet it has generated the second-most shots on the power play in the NHL. It includes an eight-shot and seven-shot power play in Denver and L.A., respectively.
Teams often go through three- or four-game droughts during a season, but when it’s at the start of the season, it’s a lot bigger deal and there’s more conversation about it.
Asked how to stop frustration from creeping in, Yeo said, “That’s the problem. There’s frustration already. There’s frustration even when we work it in practice. It’s going to be a challenge for us. Our best power play in every game has been our first power play, and then if we don’t score, frustration creeps in and then next thing you know you start to get into your own way a bit.”
He said the Wild has generated 27 power-play scoring chances in four games, so you score on one or two of these, you’d easily have one or two wins. Heck, in L.A., the Wild went 0 for 5 on power plays that could have tied the game at 1-1 or 2-2.
So Yeo said the Wild much focus on what it has to do on the power play and not the end result. But no doubt, there will be a big breath of fresh air once the Wild finally scores one.
The Coyotes have the fifth-worst penalty kill in the West at this very early juncture in the season (4 goals allowed on 19 chances).
For Arizona, looks like Martin Hanzal is out. Sam Gagner, its biggest offseason pickup, has no points. Mikkel Boedker is off to a torrid start with five goals in five games.
We'll see who starts in goal. Mike Smith has allowed 16 goals in three games. Devyn Dubnyk has given up five goals in two games and helped earn them three of their five points.
Talk to ya Thursday.
With another substantial break in the schedule--three days this time, between Sunday's 2-1 loss at Los Angeles and Thursday's home game against Arizona--the Wild held a long practice Tuesday. Charlie Coyle was the last player off the ice, two hours and three minutes after the workout started at Xcel Energy Center.
The team worked on a little of everything, including a power play that hasn't scored in 16 opportunities. Coach Mike Yeo also swapped the right wings on his second and third lines, elevating Coyle to the second line with Mikko Koivu and Thomas Vanek and putting Justin Fontaine with Erik Haula and Nino Niederreiter.
Yeo is hoping Coyle's speed--and his familiarity with former linemate Koivu--can jump-start a second line that hasn't produced. Koivu has no points in the first four games, while Vanek has only one assist.
"This was our intention going into the season, to have (Coyle) start there,'' Yeo said. "Whether injuries or other factors came into play, or the play of him on the (Niederreiter-Haula) line, that’s a line we haven’t tried yet.
"Mikko and Charlie have had a lot of chemistry together in the past. They're both big bodies, they're both strong on the puck, and Thomas should fit that as well. One thing that excites us right now is the way Charlie is skating. His speed is very noticeable; it's been a real factor out there. We think adding that element to that line could really help.''
As for the power play, Yeo and several players said its failings lie in the details. Yeo urged the team to have a stronger presence in front of the net to make it harder for goalies to spot the puck. Zach Parise said more practice time should help.
"That's the biggest thing,'' he said. "I thought it was good in LA; we had good chances and good shots, but nothing was squirting free for us. I'm hoping we practice it more and everything will start to come.
"We can make cleaner passes; a couple of times, we were trying to set guys up for one-timers, and the pucks are in the feet or the passes aren’t flat. I thought it was good in LA for the most part. It's just that the finish isn’t there.''
Despite losing back-to-back games on their California road trip after starting the season 2-0, Parise said the Wild feels good about the way it's playing.
"I don’t think anyone is upset with the way we played,'' he said. "I think our game is in a good spot. We're playing a good style of hockey. I think we're playing an exciting style of hockey, I think we're playing in a way that’s entertaining and fun for the fans to see. If we keep playing like that, we're going to win more than we're going to lose.
"We just couldn’t find the back of the net in either one of those games. Are there areas we need to improve? Of course. But all in all, for where we are in the season, I think we're playing pretty good.''
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