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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The Wild completes its three-game roadie tonight at Chicago (7:30 p.m.) before opening a four-game homestand (separated by the NHL’s annual Christmas hiatus) tomorrow night against the Boston Bruins.
The Wild is 3-5-1 in its past nine regular-season games at Chicago but 0-6 at Chicago in the past two postseasons.
The Wild is 6-0-1 against the Central Division, but it has yet to play the Blackhawks or Nashville, which comes to town Saturday. The Wild is 0-4-1 against powerhouses Anaheim, Los Angeles and St. Louis and as Zach Parise said to me in a Dec. 7 story here, it’s time for the Wild to join the top tier.
“We’ve got to start beating some of these teams,” Parise said.
Afternoon from the United Center, where the Wild just had an optional skate. If you didn't see my feature today, I did a story on the Wild's emergency medical action plan, which you may have witnessed one week ago when Keith Ballard was hit from behind. Here's that link.
If the Wild wins tonight, it'll be 8-8 on the road. Remember, this is a team that began the season 2-6 on the road. It's a good sign that the Wild is winning games on the road because one must assume it'll start to improve its home play again. The Wild is 2-2-1 in its past five at home after starting the season 7-1 at home.
Minnesota catches a big break tonight because coach Joel Quenneville says Duncan Keith, who ranks sixth in the NHL in average ice time per game (25:53), will miss the game because he is sick. Keith has 18 points and is plus-10 and scrambles up the Blackhawks’ blue line to potentially Tim Erixon-Brent Seabrook; Johnny Oduya-Niklas Hjalmarsson; David Rundblad-Michal Rozsival.
Coach Q said he “didn’t know” when asked if Keith has mumps-like symptoms. Hey, the Wild is in town, so be careful. Interesting story going around right now about Beau Bennett being out with the mumps and the fact he visited a children’s hospital recently. Here is a link.
The Wild, which has had five defensemen come down with the mumps, actually has player visits scheduled for a children’s hospital in the Twin Cities on Monday and has been talking to the hospital to see if it should go on as scheduled or be postponed.
Better be safe than sorry. The Wild hopes it’s beyond the whole mumps that seems to have begun with the St. Louis Blues (whether they’re willing to admit it or not, more than a dozen players, staff and, uh, media came down with mumps-like symptoms) and Wild. The Wild has taken all sorts of precautions from boosters (them and the Iowa Wild) a month ago to decontaminating its locker-room and equipment to making sure players use separate towels and water bottles.
As of now, the Wild still says Jared Spurgeon will miss his second game tonight due to a stomach ailment, but I’ll ask Mike Yeo again during his 5:30 availability tonight. Again, since the first seven games of the season, the Wild's top-4 of Ryan Suter, Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella and Spurgeon has played in the same game in three of 22 games.
Antti Raanta vs. Darcy Kuemper tonight. I was shooting the breeze with Kuemper this morning and we were talking about how much water weight goalies lose per NHL game. I knew I should have been a goalie. He told me his record in one game was losing 10 pounds!
You should see how much water Niklas Backstrom drinks between periods.
Speaking of Backstrom, the veteran will likely start tomorrow’s home game vs. Boston. Backstrom is 5-0-1 in six starts vs. the Bruins with a 1.32 goals-against average, .957 save percentage and two shutouts. Makes sense because his favorite colors are yellow and black.
(I’m making that up).
Mikael Granlund told me he is playing tonight after missing Monday’s practice.
Wearing No. 27, Brett Sutter will make his Wild debut for Ryan Carter, who is out with an upper-body injury. Sutter, whose father is Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter, will play his 55th NHL game over parts of seven seasons.
The former Calgary Flame and Carolina Hurricane will play his second game in Chicago, which is neat because his dad spent his entire NHL playing career for the Blackhawks and coached the Blackhawks. Brett Sutter lived in Chicago as a kid and grew up a big Blackhawks fan.
“My dad’s history playing here and coaching here, it’s exciting,” Sutter, 27, said. “They were kind of my childhood team growing up here, so it’s definitely neat. But at the same time, once you get out there, it’s just another game. You try to put that aside and just play.”
Sutter said he has been playing center in Iowa. He’ll play fourth-line wing likely with Erik Haula and Kyle Brodziak tonight as the Wild comes back with the same lines I assume from its Arizona win. Again, we’ll get Yeo at 5:30 and the Wild had an optional skate this morning.
He said it won’t make a difference what position he plays tonight.
“I’m just going to try to be a real hard-working player,” Sutter, the former Charlotte Checkers captain, said. “I’m going to win every battle I can and keep it real simple tonight and just play a heavy game, be physical and do what I can to help the team.”
Yup, he’s a Sutter Brother’s son.
We chatted with Sutter about the Iowa coaching change, too, and you can read about that in tomorrow’s paper.
Scandella returns from his two-game jail sentence tonight. He said he’s not a dirty player, but he has to learn from the two recent head shots.
Also, I talked to Mikko Koivu about his signature shootout move (which he did alter a little the other night) and I’ll have those quotes in tomorrow’s paper.
FYI, I’ll be doing another podcast with Star Tribune columnist live from the Local in Minneapolis at 3 p.m. Wednesday. You can listen to it live or after the fact on souhanunfiltered.com. This will be a weekly thing, by the way.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Alex Stalock tonight when the Wild visits the San Jose Sharks.
Stalock, the former UMD goalie and cousin of Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox, makes his first career start vs. his hometown Wild and will become the second Minnesota native to face the Wild in goal (Damian Rhodes, also from St. Paul, did it twice in 2001, the Wild said).
The Wild will be without suspended defenseman Marco Scandella, the Sharks without injured Marc-Edouard Vlasic.
On the Scandella two-game suspension, coach Mike Yeo said, “My opinion doesn’t mean a whole lot right now. I think I saw it a little bit differently than what they did, but it is what it is. We’ll have to get through it now.”
Scandella said, “It’s never fun to get suspensions and miss games, but I respect the league’s decision and I’m going to come back and be ready once I get back.”
I asked him if he thought this wouldn’t have resulted in anything had he not done something similar to T.J. Oshie so recently, and Scandella said he isn’t thinking about that.
“I’m not a dirty player and I don’t go out to injure anybody,” he said. “I’m going to forget about what happened, learn from what happened and move on from it.”
With two-left shot D out with Keith Ballard hurt and Scandella suspended, Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, who were real good together when Jonas Brodin had the mumps, will be back together. Brodin will move to the left side and be paired with Christian Folin and Justin Falk will be paired with Nate Prosser.
This is a big opportunity for Falk, who has played in the NHL, to get some games if he plays well. He has given the Wild some good games this season, Yeo said, and the Wild needs him to play a heavy game against two heavy teams, the Sharks and Saturday against the Coyotes.
GM Chuck Fletcher told me no trade is imminent, but with Ballard out long-term, he will just gauge the defense for awhile and see how Folin plays. The Wild also has Falk and Jon Blum, whom Fletcher said is playing better, down on the farm, as well as Matt Dumba. Ideally, the Wild would like to leave Dumba in Iowa working with John Torchetti, but there may come a point where the Wild has no choice but to call him back up.
Dumba is playing 30 minutes a night there and has two goals, one assist and is plus-7 in three games.
The Wild has played with its top-four of Suter, Brodin, Scandella and Spurgeon intact 10 times in 26 games this season, The four were together the first seven games, and then injuries, suspensions and the mumps has resulted in them playing together for only three of the past 20 games.
Fox Sports North’s Anthony LaPanta crunched the numbers.
The Wild is 6-3-1 with the four together, 9-7 with one or two out.
The Wild’s CORSI numbers with the top-4 together and without the top-4 together are dramatically different, and its goals for are 3.5 and goals against 2.2 with them. Without, the team’s goals for are 2.56 and goals against 2.69. The team’s goals differential is plus-13 with them and minus-2 without.
“It seems like every time we look like we’re getting there, something else happens,” Yeo said. “But every team deals with injuries, and suspensions in this case. This is not new to us. That’s for sure. But there’s no question I’d like to get into a situation where we can get those four guys going. It’s a big difference to our lineup. Defensively, that’s the first place you’re going to look when those guys are able to defend the way that they do and help us in terms of how quickly we defend and getting the puck back on our stick. But also the execution part of it, the offensive part of it, these guys are huge parts of our game.”
If you remember, those first seven games, the Wild’s D were a huge part of the attack and the Wild seemed to always have the puck.
In the first seven games, the Wild’s defensemen had five goals and 12 assists and were plus-26.
“It’s tough to get into rhythms, so hopefully when Scandy’s back we can kind of move on with it and get back to normal,” Suter said. “Maybe that is why we’ve been inconsistent, but good teams can play with everyone and so can good players.”
Kuemper gets back in the net. He has allowed 14 goals in his past four starts, pulled in two of those. If you don’t know why he’s started, I explained on yesterday’s blog, so check that out.
“Every game is a test for him and what you want to see is more consistency start to creep into his game,” Yeo said. “But you can’t fast-track the development of a player. Much depends on what’s happened to them and how they react to it and personality wise, maturity wise, I think he’s definitely grown in those areas. Now it’s just a matter of dealing with all the things that you have to deal with as a young goalie, both successes and failures.
“You can’t force feed that into a goalie.”
The Newsday’s Arthur Staple tweeted that Matt Martin and Ballard exchanged texts. By the way, I saw these MSG angles for the first time late yesterday.
Wild and New York Islanders tonight at Xcel Energy Center as Minnesota looks to wrap up a four-game homestand (1-1-1) on a positive note against the NHL’s wins leader with 19.
Today at 12:30 p.m. CT, I will be doing a live podcast with Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan at www.souhanunfiltered.com. It will also be archived after the fact.
Niklas Backstrom in goal for the Wild tonight. Jaroslav Halak for the Islanders.
Charlie Coyle (stomach bug) skated today and will play tonight. Stu Bickel and Christian Folin look to be the Wild scratches.
Ryan Suter (mumps) returned after two games out.
“I don’t know how more people haven’t gotten it honestly with the amount of time we’re together,” said Zach Parise, who sounds like he’s coming down with something (“I’m just congested”).
Coach Mike Yeo is excited to get Suter back, although he said, “I don’t think it’s fair to expect him to be where he was before he caught this.”
Eight Minnesotans are expected to play in tonight’s game: Parise, Keith Ballard, Nate Prosser and Ryan Carter vs. Kyle Okposo, Brock Nelson, Nick Leddy and Anders Lee.
That’s a lot of “Fargo” accents.
“That’s pretty impressive,” Parise said of all the Minnesotans on one sheet of ice. “That says a lot about the development here. That’s a lot of guys from one place in one NHL game.”
And this doesn’t even include honorary Minnesotans Erik Haula and Thomas Vanek. :)
Again, Vanek skates on a line with Mikael Granlund and Parise tonight as Yeo tries to get Vanek’s game going. Vanek knows this is his chance.
“I’m not expecting any miracles tonight, and I know it’s not the other players I have played with,” Vanek said. “I need to be better. I know that.”
Lee, the former Edina star and Notre Dame standout, had to be worried he would miss his first game at Minnesota. He got a last-second NHL hearing yesterday for elbowing St. Louis defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. He ended up being fined $2,286 and will play tonight. I wrote about Lee when the Wild played at Long Island in March.
The kid has 40 goals in 104 combined NHL and AHL games.
Okposo is tied with John Tavares for first in scoring with 24 points. Nelson leads with 12 goals. Leddy is second among Isles defensemen with 13 points and leads with plus-10.
Their Minnesotans are good, and I got good stuff today from Okposo, Lee and Leddy. Lee, playing his first game at the X, has his parents, grandparents, one of his sisters and a ton of cousins coming tonight.
I learned today: You can’t spell Islanders without Anders.
“I actually saw that on a poster once,” Lee said, laughing.
Leddy is excited about his trade to Long Island.
“I got some more responsibility, which is nice. Really nice,” he said.
Nino Niederreiter vs. Cal Clutterbuck again tonight. Niederreiter had a goal and two assists in two games against the Islanders last year, Clutterbuck one goal in two games. You can hear from Clutterbuck in tomorrow’s paper. Clutterbuck said it’s a little less odd playing the Wild, that most the nostalgia has worn off.
Niederreiter leads the Wild with 11 goals but is scoreless in the past three games and was minus-3 last game.
Yeo said like all young kids, the Wild’s still trying to get him to be
“The consistency is still trying to bring it out of him. He’s starting to figure out what type of player he needs to be
Defenseman Ryan Suter took part in this morning’s skate, but he won’t play for the Wild tonight when it hosts the top team in the Western Conference, the Anaheim Ducks.
It’ll be Suter’s second missed game due to the mumps.
Coach Mike Yeo said it was a good sign to see Suter on the ice, but he’s still not 100 percent and with three days before the Wild hosts the New York Islanders, “hopefully we can get him back in the lineup for our next match.”
“I think the way he plays the game, I think he could have stepped in having not been on the ice for a few days and really not missed a beat, but not feeling 100 percent, it’s not worth it,” Yeo said.
The Wild has had five defensemen all miss games this season due to the mumps. The others were Marco Scandella (two games missed), Jonas Brodin (seven), Keith Ballard (eight) and Christian Folin (five).
Nate Prosser’s locker-room stall is in between two: Folin and Scandella.
“I got the booster,” Prosser said. “It’s kind of weird all the Dmen keep getting it. I’m doing what I can to prevent it and washing my hands a lot and staying away from the guys that have it. But for awhile there I was pretty nervous”
Jared Spurgeon’s stall is between Suter and Ballard. Brodin is around him, too.
“I got the immunization and just hope I don’t get it,” Spurgeon said. “It seems to be surrounding us all. We’re all in close proximity, so if you’re going to get it, you’re going to get it.”
Zach Parise joked that the forwards haven’t gotten the mumps because “we’re stronger and smarter. It’s a weird thing. Hopefully everyone’s doing everything they can to stop it from spreading. Hopefully this is the last case because it’s scary.
“I mean, what is this, the Oregon Trail? Where are we right now? Every team seems to get the flu once a year, but the mumps? You don’t hear about that, so hopefully it gets under control.”
On Anaheim, Corey Perry, Francois Beauchemin and former Wild Clayton Stoner had the mumps. They all missed five games each.
“It’s crazy,” Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. “I wonder if there'll be any hitting out there today. Afraid to get anything on them.
“I’ve never experienced a mumps epidemic sort of thing in all the years I played. There’s something new every year, and good teams like Minnesota find ways to get around it.”
Asked how Suter being out would affect the Ducks tonight, Boudreau said, “I think Montreal had 10 shots halfway through the third period [Wednesday], so even though Suter’s a great player, they play extremely well defensively.”
Stoner said he was laid up for a few days, was sweating profusely and had a painful face (not really swollen) and aches. He thought he was better, skated and almost had a relapse where it got worse. That happened to Ballard, too.
Asked how he thinks it started, Stoner said, “We point the finger other places and people think it’s us. I got mine a week after I got the booster, but they say it takes a couple weeks for the vaccine to kick in.”
Stoner noted that the St. Louis Blues had a ton of cases, which is true. And remember, the Wild and Blues played an exhibition home and home in early October and then went through Anaheim a few weeks later.
Stoner, a Wild third-round pick in 2004, was with the organization for 10 years. He played 227 games for the Wild and weirdly was in the visiting locker room at Xcel Energy Center for the first time as a player since before he had a full-time job with the Wild. In training camp, the minor-leaguers and prospect are usually in the visitors’ locker room.
On playing his first game against the Wild as a visitor tonight (he played against Minnesota in Anaheim’s home opener in October), Stoner said, “I’ll probably be a little nervous before the game. I’m not going to lie. I played a lot of games in this building, and in front of the same fans. So I’ll be a little nervous.”
Stoner is likely soon going to be teammates with Ilya Bryzgalov again. The Ducks signed him to a tryout the other day (he’s not on the trop).
“The Bryzly Bear is back,” Stoner said. “I can’t get away from that guy. He’s a good guy. He was like, ‘Yeah, I was retiring, I was heading back to Russia for Christmas and I get a phone call.’ I asked him the last time he skated, and he said, ‘A couple months ago in Minnesota.’ I was like, ‘OK.’”
Yeo said Matt Cooke is at least a couple weeks away from rejoining the team.
He’ll miss his 17th game tonight with a hip flexor injury.
“Until I start to see him on the ice every day, we’re not at the point where we’re considering to play him,” Yeo said.
Yeo talked a lot about the high-powered Ducks.
“We played one of our best games of the season I could argue in their building earlier this year and lost, so that says something about what kind of team we’re playing against here,” Yeo said.
Wild has to stay out of the box. The Wild has given up no power-play goals in the past five games and two in the past 10, but the Ducks can light ya up.
With Josh Harding set to play the weekend for Iowa, Johan Gustafsson was assigned to ECHL Alaska.
“He’s got to play games,” said Iowa GM Jim Mill.
Raphael Bussieres was assigned, too.
No new news in the Thomas Vanek gambling stuff other than a new figure that Vanek allededly owed (To refresh your memory, here is the original story I wrote earlier this season and here’s a story with Vanek's admission of making mistakes).
An attorney for a one of the men who pleaded guilty Friday to illegal gambling, extortion and money laundering said the $230,000 Islanders check Vanek signed over last spring was just part of upward of $10 million in gambling losses that Vanek owed these guys.
That article from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle can be read here.
“Absolutely pure fiction, just a pie in the sky, made up number,” Vanek’s agent, Steve Barlett, told me by phone. “It’s unbelievable these lawyers keep popping off about my client when it’s their clients going to jail and my client did nothing illegal.
“Thomas was being extorted. Thomas made bad decisions, but he was far more the victim than anything. These weren’t all gambling losses. He was paying them more than he owed because they threatened to divulge what he was doing.
“Trust me, this poor kid won’t ever gamble again even if it was for 25 cents.”
We'll see if this is the last of this.
The Wild will have to figure out a way to effectively eat up the league-leading 29 minutes, 19 seconds per game that defenseman Ryan Suter logs tonight against the Montreal Canadiens and potentially in the foreseeable future.
One day after Mike Yeo said he didn’t think the Wild’s No. 1 defenseman had the mumps, the Wild coach ruled out Suter for tonight’s game and said the team is concerned he may have the virus that has infiltrated (strangely only) the Wild’s blue-line corps this season and a few other teams like the St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks and the latest, the New York Rangers.
Suter had played 153 consecutive games with the Wild since signing in 2012.
Suter went for bloodwork yesterday and the team is awaiting the results, Yeo said. Yeo said Suter doesn’t have swollen glands but a few other symptoms unique to the mumps that makes the Wild concerned.
"We're hoping it's just illness," Yeo said. "There's a couple symptoms that he has that would make us concerned that it could be [the mumps]."
Defensemen Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, Keith Ballard and Christian Folin have all had the mumps this season, although sometimes it takes a few tests to actually test positive for some reason. For instance, Folin says he was never officially diagnosed with the mumps, but he had the same exact symptoms Ballard had. Ballard tested positive for the mumps, but it took a few tests to actually get the positive result.
Suter, who leads Wild defensemen with 13 points and leads the team with a plus-10, logged 32:30 in Saturday’s shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues, turned the puck over for the game-tying goal late in the third period and definitely didn’t look himself after the game. He also said the night before in Dallas (a game he finished minus-1 that he was actually minus-3 in until the game-tying and winning goals with 1:52 left in the third and overtime, respectively) that he never felt comfortable or was able to get into the game.
That actually was the pattern for Scandella and Brodin. Both had some tough moments in games at Montreal and New Jersey before being forced out of the Wild lineup with the illness. Scandella only missed two games, but Brodin missed seven games and 17 days.
Ballard missed eight games and Folin five.
Another pattern was feverish/exhaustion/body aches, then feeling a little better, then getting sick again with the swollen glands. The Wild was confident Suter was going to be able to play tonight because yesterday he told the Wild he was feeling much better. But obviously something changed in the afternoon because the Wild recalled Folin for insurance.
Folin will play tonight and in today’s skate was paired on the right side of Brodin, who normally plays the right with Suter but will move to his natural left side tonight. Assistant coach Rick Wilson said he didn’t know exactly how he’d throw out the D tonight, but they’ll start with Scandella-Jared Spurgeon, Brodin-Folin, Ballard-Nate Prosser.
Yeo said, "We’ve really been missing at least one of our top four for a good chunk of the year and these guys are very valuable to the defensive part of our game. These guys eat up a lot of minutes, play special teams, but they're also a huge part of our execiution, a huge part of getting the puck to our forwards and creating offense."
He said the Wild will be missing a guy who plays half the game tonight, so a it's a big void that will need to be filled by Scandella, Spurgeon and Brodin.
So far, no forwards or goalies have been struck with the mumps and, if Suter ends up having it, only Prosser, Spurgeon and Matt Dumba have avoided it on the back end. Once Scandella and Brodin were diagnosed in early November, all Wild players, staff members and broadcasters were offered mumps boosters.
Childhood vaccines do wear off over time.
As for Folin, he's glad to be back after playing eight games earlier this season. He felt his game was coming together at Iowa, where he scored two goals and two assists and was plus-1 in eight games.
The Wild wanted him to get his game back to being aggressive and assertive. Yeo felt the looming roster decision before he was sent down was in the back of his mind and he was playing too safe.
Folin said the recall was a nice surprise and that he had fun playing in Iowa just because he got to be on the ice more, playing three games in three nights at times and 30 minutes a night.
He said it was nice picking up some points: "It’s not like I’m a defenseman that will get a lot of points, but I like to shoot the puck and it was fun when the puck went in finally and get my first professional goal out of the way."
On the difference between the NHL and AHL, Folin said, "I don’t think it’s more time and space at all. It’s really fast. It’s not as controlled, so there’s guys coming from everywhere. It was like going back to college that way. But it was fun. I just liked being on the ice more."
He said the Wild's message when he was reassigned was, "Just get back down and work on the defense of my game. I wasn’t feeling too good about my game after coming back from mumps there. It was tough coming back. I think I lost a few steps. I was out five games, and that's tough."
I talked to Jason Pominville this morning about his struggles. He has one goal in the past 16 games, coming at Montreal on Nov. 8.
"It's tough. It's really tough. It hasn't been in easy," Pominville said. "I like the way I'm playing. That's what's been really weird. I feel good. We've been making plays, just haven't been able to put one in. I mean, if you look at my shots, my attempts, I think I've got to find a way to get my percentage a little higher. I'd be out of this pretty quick. I like everything else. I just got to try to find a way to put one in. Obviously getting our power play going would help me in that sense as well."
I asked him about fanning on so many shots: "If there's a wobbly puck, I'll try to shoot it no matter what, whether it's a good pass, a flat pass, or whatever, I just try to get it there as quick as I can. I think it's the best way to beat a goalie. If you asked Heater (Dany Heatley), he said he scored probably 200 goals on fanned one-timers (laughs). Usually if goalies have time to square up, they're tough to beat. Sometimes it gets there, sometimes it doesn't. But I like to get it off as quick as I can."
On Yeo meeting with line in Dallas and the line playing two good games since: "I don't think we were that far off, but to sit down with him and to see things that he sees and that he wants us to do a little bit differently really helped us. That was in Dallas, and the goal we scored in Dallas (Parise to Pominville to Granlund third goal) was typical of what he was talking about. He kind of felt that me and Zach were pushing the pace a little too much and getting a little too far ahead of the play and in Dallas we were able to come up as a unit of three forwards with our defensemen joining and we created a 2-on-1 and I was able to hit Granny. It was nice to be able to see it."
Lastly, Justin Falk was reassigned after the skate.
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