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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“Same lineup tonight. Goaltender out,” coach Mike Yeo said, before the Wild visits the Winnipeg Jets for its final road game of the regular season.
When I looked stunned, Yeo said, laughing, “I mean ‘from the goaltender out.’ I should have worded that better. I should be careful, especially with our team the way things have gone this year.”
I'll be on Hockey Night in Canada Radio on SiriusXM (207/211) today at 2:45 p.m. CT and on the arena cam on NHL Network today at 5:40 p.m. CT.
Ilya Bryzgalov for the Wild (5-0-3 in nine appearances/eight starts with a 1.87 goals-against average and .920 save percentage) vs. Michael Hutchinson for the Jets.
The 6-foot-3 Hutchinson, 24, will make his NHL debut. He’s a 2008 Boston Bruins third-round pick who started this season in the ECHL. He was promoted to AHL St. John’s, where he played well (15-5-1 with a 2.33 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
The Wild’s magic number to make the playoffs is three points, the Wild’s magic number to clinch the top wildcard spot is four.
The Wild cannot clinch tonight. If the Wild ends up tied in regulation/overtime wins with Phoenix, the next tiebreaker is head-to-head. Yes, the Wild is 2-1 against the Coyotes this year, but technically, in a bit of a strange rule, the Wild’s first win in Phoenix ceases to exist.
In determining the head-to-head tiebreaker when an odd number of games were played in the season series, the first game played in the city with the extra home game is not counted. So the Jan. 9 game (4-1 Wild win) is thrown out. Thus, for tiebreaker purposes, the Wild and Coyotes split the two-game season series, both teams earning two points and coincidentally tied in goals because they were each 3-1 victories.
So if the Wild’s actual totals and the Coyotes’ maximum totals after Monday night are 94 points and 34 regulation/overtime wins (which would happen if the Wild wins in regulation or overtime tonight), that still would not officially clinch a playoff berth for the Wild. If the Wild at the end of the season is tied with Phoenix in points and regulation/overtime wins, the next tiebreaker is goal differential for the season. Since that couldn’t be determined until Game 82, the Wild would have to wait to officially clinch if it wins in regulation/overtime.
Now, if the Wild wins tonight, and Tuesday night gets a point vs. Boston OR the Coyotes lose in Columbus, the Wild would clinch a playoff spot.
“They’re playing hard,” Yeo said of the Jets. “I look at the road trip, the way that they played, … they’re doing a lot of things well. I see a very strong work ethic, I see a team that’s playing with a lot of pride right now. I think we’re going to have to be ready to play very hard and I think we’re going to have to play very fast.”
My guess is Bryzgalov also starts tomorrow’s game against Boston, but we shall see. If the Wild does clinch the top wildcard spot by the time Thursday’s St. Louis game comes around, I wonder if we get to see local boy John Curry’s
NHL Wild debut. I did a big story on Curry for tomorrow's paper, so check that out. I also wonder if Yeo would take that opportunity to rest some of his big-minute guys. I’d be nervous against injury against a Blues team that the Wild still conceivably could play in the first round.
I also think if the Wild clinches before Thursday or Sunday vs. Nashville that we’ll get to see Christian Folin’s NHL debut.
“It would be a great feeling. I can’t wait. So hopefully they have a good game tonight,” said Folin, laughing.
Lines again for the Wild:
Niederreiter continues to have to play the fourth line. “It’s a function of the pieces fitting elsewhere right now,” Yeo said.
Basically, look at the lines, and unless he’s replacing Fontaine, where’s he playing? Coyle’s been absolutely fantastic for 2½ weeks, Moulson and Pominville are top-6 guys, Cooke and Brodziak have been a staple.
Niederreiter just has to continue to stay with it and his time to move up will come. On this line, he just needs to get pucks deep, get in on the forecheck and be physical. It has been a work in progress playing the right side. He’s clearly better and more comfortable on the left, but Yeo says that’s improving. Yeo said he’s been very pleased with Niederreiter’s defense all year.
Wild and Pittsburgh Penguins tonight at the X.
Wild's magic number is five points, eight to get top wildcard spot, and avoid St. Louis in the first round (Anaheim or San Jose).
The Wild is coming off a 2-1-1 road trip and must guard against first-game-after-a-long-road-trip flatness. The Wild really can’t afford it because it has been playing much better on the road than at home since the Olympic break.
The Wild is a yucky 1-2-3 in its past six home games.
“We have to be much better at home than we have been,” said Zach Parise.
Battle of the Z’s in net tonight: Ilya Bryzzzzzzgalov vs. Jeff Zzzzzzatkoff.
Bryzgalov is 4-0-3 in seven starts and eight appearances for the Wild with a 2.11 goals-against average. Zatkoff is 12-5-1 with a 2.58 goals-against average for the Pens. He is 12-3-1 in his past 16 appearances and made 24 saves in a 5-2 win at home against the Wild on Dec. 19.
For the Penguins, Jussi Jokinen won’t play with an injury. Former Wild good guy Andrew Ebbett has been called up and will play. For the Wild, Dany Heatley, Jake Dowell and Mike Rupp will be scratched tonight. The Wild didn’t do line rushes in the morning skate, but my guess is:
Same D, so:
Defenseman Keith Ballard will miss his 10th game with a groin injury.
“He’s not there yet,” coach Mike Yeo said. “He’s a little bit frustrated. He’s dying to get back, … but it’s not coming back as quickly as he had hoped.”
-- Niederreiter is back in after missing last game in Chicago for precautionary reasons. He took a high hit from Jake Muzzin on Monday in L.A. He needs to play better than he has since the Olympics.
In 17 games since returning from the Olympics, Niederreiter has two goals, three assists and 19 shots. He just hasn’t been the same with his board battles and strength on picks either and has taken three penalties in the past five games.
-- Word out of the Wild locker room is that Matt Cooke actually scored the goal Erik Haula got credited for in Chicago with 1:54 left. I tweeted a GIF. You be the judge. Either way, I don’t think it’ll get changed at this point, but we’ll see. Regardless, Haula did a great job throwing that puck through a screen and Cooke did a great job driving the net to forced Nik Hjalmarsson to open up his legs.
Cooke was Mr. Popular this morning with his former team, the Penguins, in town.
-- I’d think Yeo will want a shutdown line tonight going up against the Penguins’ prolific lines and likely Hart Trophy winner Sidney Crosby (102 points). That means Brodziak would stay on the third line and the Wild’s top line should see that type of matchup, too, because Yeo doesn’t ever mind that matchup.
I’ll write about Brodziak’s offensive struggles in tomorrow’s paper. He’s been solid most of the year defensively and the utter opposite offensively. Again though, Brodziak’s season is nothing like his year last year when he was minus-18 in 48 games and was getting almost no scoring chances for long stretches. The reason why Brodziak has gotten so many great chances this year is because he’s been so strong defensively, solid on the forecheck and is usually on the right side of the puck positionally. And, sorry, I know he’s the poster child for hate lately, but that’s a fact.
Unfortunately, once Brodziak gets that puck on his stick, he’s usually missing the net with it, stick-handling himself into a worse position, hitting the iron or shooting it right into the goalie.
You’ll hear from him in tomorrow’s paper.
-- Speaking of Haula, that line should be better tonight if Yeo plays his matchups well.
Yeo said of Haula, who had the tying goal, led the team with five shots last game and logged a career-high 15:30: “We keep giving him more and he keeps showing that he’s able to take it. Every game is a new test for him right now. There’s going to be a bit of a jolt adrenaline-wise for him right now. He knows he’s getting more opportunity and an increased role. He has to make sure he doesn’t lose what got him here, what we need from him night in and night out. He’s got to be a very strong defensive player for us, he has to find a way to use his speed and be a factor on the forecheck, but at the same time, we’re asking a little bit more from him offensively. We’re anxious to see if he can do that against a team like tonight. He’s going to obviously be faced with some tough competition, so we’re anxious to see how he performs.”
-- Yeo said Darcy Kuemper (upper body) is feeling a little better and was in this morning, but no update beyond day-to-day. He also had no update on Mikael Granlund (head) beyond day-to-day. I saw Niklas Backstrom (abdominal surgery) and he’s already working out.
-- McCormick will play center tonight for the first time really as a Wild. Yeo said it was important to get him a practice so he could get familiar for his center responsibilities as opposed to wing.
-- Parise said, “I feel alright” from the blindside hit he got Thursday from Chicago’s Brandon Bollig. “I felt OK yesterday and today even better, so I think I’m fine. I just didn’t see him coming. I was kind of surprised it wasn’t a penalty, at least interference or something, but they have a lot to watch out there and just didn’t see it.”
I'll be on Fox Sports North tonight during the pregame show and first intermission and will talk during the pregame about the three high hits lately and why the league didn't suspend the perpetrators.
Wild, winners of two in a row and three of five, and the Chicago Blackhawks, losers of three in a row, tonight at the United Center. The Wild's magic number is down to seven points after Phoenix's loss last night in L.A.
To further demonstrate how crazy the Wild’s goaltending situation has been this year, Ilya Bryzgalov will be the Wild’s fourth starter in five games against Chicago this season.
“Trying to keep them guessing,” joked coach Mike Yeo.
The Wild is 3-1 against the Blackhawks this season. The Hawks are without Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane tonight, and even without them, the Blackhawks still have three players with more points than anybody on the Wild (leading scorer Patrick Sharp; my pick for the Norris, Duncan Keith; and future Hall of Famer Marian Hossa).
The Wild will be without Granlund and Darcy Kuemper tonight. Both returned to Minnesota to see team doctors. I asked Yeo and GM Chuck Fletcher about whether the undersized Granlund must adjust his physical game if he wants to have a long career in the NHL. Yeo admitted the team has had internal discussions about this, and I’ll have more on that in tomorrow’s paper.
Nino Niederreiter skated this morning but won’t play tonight, Yeo said.
“It’d be silly on our part to rush him back. This time of year, let’s make sure we give him a chance to fully heal and get ready for the next one,” Yeo said. “We don’t want him to come back for one period and then lose him for three weeks here. Let’s just make sure we approach this with a bit of caution toward making sure we have him back and healthy for good.”
Yeo did say Niederreiter isn’t having any ill effects from the Jake Muzzin hit, but the team wants to be careful with a potential head injury.
Dany Heatley, scratched the previous two games, will return to the lineup on the fourth line with Stephane Veilleux and Jake Dowell.
Defenseman Keith Ballard, close to returning, will miss his ninth consecutive game with a groin injury.
I’ll be writing more about Christian Folin in the coming days, but Yeo was more specific today on whether or not he’ll play in any of the final regular-season games. Obviously, some of it will depend on circumstance. Remember, Nate Prosser, after signing as a free agent out of Colorado College, wasn’t supposed to play any games.
But then Nick Schultz and Marek Zidlicky got hurt and Prosser played the final three games of the 2009-10 season.
So, it’s hard to have a plan, but Yeo did say today it will be hard to experiment with Folin if the Wild is still trying to make the playoffs or clinch that first wildcard spot. The Wild’s four up on Dallas, which is playing well, has a cupcake schedule and has played one fewer game.
“If there were, I don’t want to say meaningless games, but if there were games that weren’t relevant standings wise, then maybe that’s a possibility,” Yeo said of playing Folin. “But our priority has to be No. 1 to get into the playoffs and No. 2 to make sure that all of our players and our team game are on top of things heading into the playoffs.”
If it turns out Folin doesn’t play, practicing now and throughout the playoffs will help in his future nevertheless.
#Blackhawks lines: Sharp-Shaw-Hossa, Saad-Nordstrom-Versteeg, Bickell-Regin-Morin, Bollig-Kruger-Smith. Teravainen out of the mix.— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) April 3, 2014
Yes, that was Andrew Brunette, the third-leading goal scorer and fifth-leading point-getter in Wild history, in goal at the end of today's Wild pregame skate.
Darcy Kuemper had to leave the skate early because "he was not feeling well," said coach Mike Yeo, so Brunette followed tonight's starter vs. the L.A. Kings, Ilya Bryzgalov, off the ice.
Little did anybody realize that Brunette would return to the ice wearing Kuemper's gear and mask so the assistants could work tonight's scratches -- Dany Heatley, Mike Rupp, Cody McCormick and injured Keith Ballard.
As you can see above, Brunette, who used to do his best work around the crease, was a little deep in his crease, and as you can see, the shooters were able to fill the net pretty easily.
"It would help if a couple of those guys would pick up guys in front of the net," Brunette joked afterward. "Bally didn’t pick anybody up the whole game. They were tap-ins. What could I do?"
Assistant coach Darryl Sydor's scouting report, "He looked a little bit like Ken Dryden, really low. There’s a little room blocker side. Speeds’s not that good."
Brunette said, "I thought I had a better glove. Heater kept burying them glove side all the time."
Brunette said he played a little ball hockey goalie back in the day, but his excuse for his "terrible" goaltending today was Kuemper's pads were too big and he was wearing player skates.
Some funny tweets I received:
@Russostrib there cannot be less flexible goalie than Brunette, who used to lead stretches w "everyone touch your knees"— Ray Ferraro (@rayferrarotsn) March 31, 2014
In the meantime, Yeo wasn't specific about Kuemper in terms of was he not feeling well because he's ill or because he got hurt. As of now, there's no word as to whether Kuemper will be able to back up. If he can't, the Wild would either have to parachute John Curry or Johan Gustafsson into town (don't know if that's even possible this late with the team in L.A.) or if the Wild may need to sign a goalie quickly Paul Deutsch-style.
"We won't dress Bruno, for sure!" GM Chuck Fletcher said via text. Fletcher also said there would probably be a Kuemper update later after the team gets more info, so this is obviously an injury.
Remember, this second-half ride for Kuemper began Jan. 7 in L.A. because Niklas Backstrom got a cortisone shot to his core muscle the day before and because Josh Harding was suffering from complications from MS.
There's something about L.A. with Wild goalies. In Dec. 11, Matt Hackett had to make his first career start in L.A. (victory) because Harding got hurt in San Jose and Hackett relieved him for his first career win.
Same Wild lines as I blogged yesterday. Jonathan Quick expected to start for the Kings.
Southern California native Jon Blum will play his 100th NHL game tonight. Ballard though is "very close" to returning, said Yeo, maybe Thursday in Chicago as long as he continues to feel good after Wednesday's practice in Chicago.
Yeo on Heatley: "The pregame skate in Phoenix, the assistant coaches really complimented him in how hard he worked in all the extra work he was doing. Yesterday, real good practice. So he’s doing everything that he can right now. That’s the key for me, use these practices to build the confidence back up, to get feeling good about yourself, and then that way when you get back in there, you’ll be ready to take advantage in it."
Yeo on struggling Nino Niederreiter, who had a great game last time the Wild played in L.A.: "He’s trying to bring the physical presence. It just seems like plays are happening fast for him right now. Seems like he’s kind of rushing things with the puck and that to me just points to confidence. We’ve talked to him, we’ve challenged him, but at the same time we’ve tried to pat him on the back and let him feel good about himself. At the same time, I think he sees himself bouncing from line to line, he hasn’t really been able to find a place and stick with somebody. There’s no question that we know there’s another level to his game. He’s just got to take a deep breath and settle down and play the game."
As I mentioned the other day, J.P. Parise is on the Wild road trip. He's attending the meetings, going on the team plane, etc. It's his personal father-son trip.
How'd this come about? Fletcher discovered that father-son trips were not done in New Jersey, so J.P. Parise, a former NHLer, has never gotten to go on a father-son trip with Zach. So last week, Fletcher invited J.P.
"I said, 'Oh my God, I'm in," J.P. Parise said.
J.P. was blown away, saying, "this organization, the atmosphere is so inviting." He had a lot of cool things to say today actually and I'll do more of an in-depth story in the next couple days.
He got to watch his son score twice in Phoenix. The second goal -- the empty-netter -- actually allowed Zach to pass J.P. with 239 goals.
"The nice part: It took me 12 fricking years to do it. He did it in seven," said J.P. Parise, howling with laughter. Zach did end up getting the puck even though a Coyotes player fired it the length of the ice into the Minnesota net. Bryzgalov comically let it go in.
Two-time 50-goal, 100-point scorer Dany Heatley, who ranks sixth among active NHLers with 143 power-play goals and 12th with 372 goals in 861 games, will be a healthy scratch for the first time in his career tonight when the Wild plays a pivotal game against the Phoenix Coyotes.
The 7th-place Wild, 3-5-4 in its past 12, is facing a Coyotes team that is 7-2-1 in its past 10 and is one point behind Minnesota in the standings. The 9th-place Dallas Stars are four points back and play the NHL-leading St. Louis Blues.
Heatley said coach Mike Yeo told him of the decision during a “pretty quick, 10-second” conversation before today’s pregame skate.
“It’s not a good feeling, but at the same time, I’ll stay ready and be ready if they need me again,” Heatley, 33, said. “I think it’s gone up and down this year. I mean, got a chance there a couple months ago and thought I played pretty well and things are kind of back to where they were at the start of the year and things haven’t gone well. I’ll be ready when I get a call again.”
Heatley has scored 12 goals in 74 games. He is a team-worst minus-18, but since the trade deadline, his role has decreased and so has his ice time. He has four shots in the past 11 games and is minus-7 in the past five.
Yeo said today there was no final straw, but there is no doubt that not getting those two pucks deep on that late first-period power play in St. Louis on Thursday was the catalyst to this decision. If Heatley’s not scoring, Yeo has said he can’t be a defensive liability and he must be strong on pucks. He wasn’t either in that situation, and by not getting the puck deep, Jared Spurgeon was in position to cough up the puck for T.J. Oshie’s back-breaking shortie.
We peppered Yeo on the decision to sit Heatley after today’s pregame skate. He made clear this was the decision for this particular game.
The lines tonight:
“Looking at the lineup and [we’re] still trying to find the right mix,” Yeo said. “We’re trying to find something new here. I think everything that we’ve got makes sense. If you look what we’ve got with Haulzy, we’ve got two speed guys, two guys who can be physical getting in on the forecheck, obviously all those guys are penalty killers for us. You look at Brodzy, he’s a big body, should be able to get to the net and be strong defensively, but he’s got two guys who showed a lot of chemistry together as far as Moulson and Fontaine when they were together in Long Island. Reuniting that line of Granlund, Pommer and Nino, that’s a line that’s had success together and obviously Mikko’s line spent a lot of time together and had a lot of success together.
“I’m not saying there’s a final straw [with Heatley]. We went into this game saying this is what we need. We’re trying to find the right mix. There’s been nights where it’s looked close, there’s been nights where maybe we have one line but we don’t have another. We’re trying to get four lines that make sense, four lines that get going, and for this particular game, this is what we felt we needed.
“It’s never fun scratching a player. They all want to play. … That’s always difficult, and his situation is different in a lot of ways, especially compared to a young kid, because he hasn’t been a healthy scratch, because of the career that he’s had and how difficult that would be for him emotionally. But he handled it very well and I thought he did a good job on the ice today. We’re not done with him. We’re going to need him again. Since the trade deadline, he got reshuffled. He was playing well before the trade deadline and you can see confidence is a big factor right now, so we’ll use these practices to do what we can to get it back.
On sitting Heatley, Yeo said, “Fonzie’s a guy, we have to get him into this game. We’ve got to keep him involved, but he had a real strong game in this building last time we were here (hat trick). Nino’s been lost in a lot of ways because of the reshuffling, too, and we believe there’s more there that we can pull out. That had a lot to do with it. Steph, we thought his speed and energy coming into the lineup would be key,” plus Yeo said he should help the Wild’s 64.6 percent penalty kill the past 12 games.”
If you didn’t see the previous blog, I talked to Phoenix coach Dave Tippett about scratching veterans. Derek Morris will be a scratch for a third straight game tonight, while Tippett is inserting Mike Ribeiro after scratching him the past two.
On tonight’s huge game, Yeo said, “We should be excited about it. To be playing in games like this this time of year, that’s what you want as a competitor, to be playing in meaningful games, games that the intensity’s up, that matters to both teams. We’ll see that tonight.”
On starting Ilya Bryzgalov, Yeo said, “His record has actually been pretty good (2-0-2, but a .900 save percentage), so I think the composure that he has and the big body, this is a team that’s going to look to get as many pucks to the net as possible, so if he can be big in the net, especially how they like to use the points and get pucks to the net from the point, for a big guy to be able to see around the traffic and still make himself big is very important.”
On Darcy Kuemper, who has allowed 3+ goals in six of his past eight starts, Yeo said, “We have to take a plan with him. Where I think it’s been very difficult for him is the fact we’ve had very little practice time, so at the very least, today we have a plan in place. This is just not a pregame skate for him. This is a day where I want him coming off the ice feeling like, ‘ok, I got better.’ And I want a plan in place [Sunday], too. He doesn’t have the games right now to be feeling good about his game, so if he doesn’t have the practices, it’s pretty difficult. Two days to get back on top of things.”
I talked with Kuemper and goalie coach Bob Mason this morning and may write about Kuemper Sunday for Monday’s paper going into the Wild’s game at L.A., where this ride began for Kuemper with a shootout win in place of the injured Niklas Backstrom on Jan. 7.
On Mikael Granlund taking Matt Moulson’s spot on the No. 1 power play, Yeo said, “This is a guy that we’re going to count on in so many ways. He’s shown that he can be effective there and we’re trying to find a way to make sure we’re getting him as involved as possible. We can’t be putting him in a situation where he has to take a backseat. We have to get him to the forefront. He’s got experience playing in the biggest games at the biggest stage and being effective in those. This is an opportunity for him to prove that.”
At the beginning of the skate, Yeo grabbed Jared Spurgeon briefly for a conversation. Spurgeon has turned two pucks over for huge goals against in each of the past two games.
Yeo said, “I don’t think that his game is off. I haven’t seen him make those two plays ever in his career, in the NHL or the American League. It’s not him. But it happens to every player. So I just wanted to basically give him a tap on the shin pads today to say, ‘Listen, forget about that.’ He’s always been a guy in these kind of games where he’s really shone, with his composure, with the way he executes, with the way he defends. I don’t want him coming into this game with any baggage.”
Wild must be disciplined tonight. Phoenix’s power play is real good, and Keith Yandle leads the league in power-play points. And the Wild’s penalty kill? Ain’t too good.
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