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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Pressure mounting bigtime on the Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: April 22, 2013 - 8:42 AM
Playoff strips for each home game in Rounds 1 and 2 go on sale at 10 a.m. Monday on wild.com.
 
The big question now is whether you’d actually be investing in some playoff tickets by purchasing them or making a down payment on tickets for next season.
 
The Wild has put itself in the most unenviable of positions with three games left in the regular season.
 
“We certainly don’t seem to like doing things the easy way that’s for sure,” said coach Mike Yeo.
 
Beaten tonight, 4-1, by a Calgary Flames lineup littered with Abbotsford Heat players, the Wild has now lost five in a row (0-4-1) at home alarmingly during a playoff push. Amazing, quite frankly, since for much of this season, the Wild was one of the league’s best home teams (at one point, 13-3-1 at the X).
 
The Wild looked like it ran out of gas in the third period. It just didn’t have the same zip we saw for much of the first two periods, almost like players emptied the tank trying so hard to get rubber behind Detroit Red Wings waiver pickup Joey MacDonald. When Mikael Backlund gave the Flames a 2-1 lead at 8:50 of the second period, the Wild had a 22-8 shot lead. It led 25-12 after two.
 
Obviously, frustration’s going to mount then. The Flames, proving teams are scariest when it just doesn’t matter anymore, came out and played a strong third.
 
The Flames had no answer for the Wild’s top line. Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu combined for 15 shots. And yet, the Wild couldn’t muster up a goal beyond Parise’s tying tally late in the first period.
 
“I’m getting kind of tired trying to search for positives,” Parise said, his frustration obvious, after a nine-shot effort. “We’ve got to win games. That’s a game we needed to win. Unfortunately we didn’t and now we can’t afford mistakes the way things are shaking up right now.”
 
No, the Wild can’t. The Wild is clinging to seventh with things trending the wrong direction.
 
Suddenly, the defending champion Los Angeles Kings come to town Tuesday before pesky Edmonton arrives Friday. The Wild finishes in Denver on Saturday in what could be a must-win game if the Wild doesn’t win the next two at home.
 
The way the math works – 2-1 should get the Wild in. But the way this team has played on home ice of late (0-4-1, 4 goals in those 5 games), that’s hardly a sure-thing.
 
That’s why I always get a kick out of all these strength of schedule tabulations and that playoff probability web site. I go by how a team is playing. And the Wild hasn’t played consistently well all month. I don’t care that 10 days ago the Wild had a 95 percent chance of making it or whatever.
 
The game is played on the ice, not inside a calculator.
 
But so we can all visualize the math better:
 
7: Minnesota has 3 games left with 51 points. The maximum points it can get is 57. (vs. LA, vs. EDM, at COL).
8: Columbus, which scored late to hand San Jose its second regulation home loss this season, has 2 games left with 51 points. Max points it can get is 55 (at DAL, vs. NSH)
9: Detroit has 4 games left with 48 points. The maximum points it can get is 56 (vs. PHX, vs. LA, vs. NSH, at DAL)
10: Dallas, which lost 4-3 at Los Angeles in overtime, has 3 games left with 48 points. The max points it can get is 54 (at SJ, vs. CBJ, vs. DET).
11. Phoenix has 4 games left with 46 points. The max points it can get is 54 (at DET, vs. SJ, vs. COL, at ANA).
 
2-1 should get her done for the Wild, but talk about backing in now. (The Jackets, behind their star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, keep finding ways to win huge games. They didn’t lose 6-1 in San Jose. They found a way to win. Hung on for dear life to win, but won nonetheless).
 
This is why after tonight’s loss, Matt Cullen said, “We just need a better effort from everybody. We control our own destiny here. We have three games left and we have to have our three best games.”
 
Said Kyle Brodziak: “We’ve put ourselves in a tough spot, but we’re still in the driver’s seat. It makes it more difficult now. But we’ve got to dig deeper. We’re still in the driver’s seat. It’s still ours right now. And we’ve got to keep it. Tomorrow’s a new day. We’ve got to figure out what we need to do to get better and make sure we come with a real strong effort against L.A. on Tuesday.”
 
True the Wild is in the driver’s seat, but it’s driving this season right into an embankment.
 
Just no excuse to be turning every opposing goalie that puts on a sweater in this building into a Vezina candidate.
 
And, look, there is no doubt the Wild had phenomenal looks last game against Columbus (shootout loss) and tonight against Calgary. The level of urgency was there the first two periods. These were Grade A chances and MacDonald stoned the Wild at every turn.
 
But, as Parise said, “It was pretty similar [to Columbus]. We’ve got to put them in. That’s all there is to it. We’ve got to put them in.”
 
Parise, Koivu and Ryan Suter had 21 of the 35 shots. The Wild needs more from everybody else.
 
It needs better goaltending from Niklas Backstrom (I said on the radio last week that it worried me that the Wild wasted two strong performances by him in 1-0 and 2-0 losses last week to Chicago and St. Louis). It needs better play from the blue line (Brett Clark didn’t see a shift after playing a starring role in Calgary’s second goal). It needs Devin Setoguchi and Jason Zucker to start chipping in again (it’s obvious Cullen is playing hurt and seemed to aggravate his injury tonight), it needs Cal Clutterbuck to start scoring goals.
 
On Backstrom, Yeo said, “I’m not concerned about Backy, no. One thing this guy has proven over and over again is the way he prepares, the way he commits himself, he’s a professional, he’s a veteran, those are the guys you want in this situation. Doesn’t matter about the last game or the game before that, to me it’s all about the next one and he’s the guy I want in the net.”
 
The Wild went 0 for 3 on the power play. Calgary’s went 3 for 3. The mental mistakes or careless mistakes need to stop. Calgary’s first power-play goal came when the second unit turned the puck over three times and Mikael Granlund took an interference penalty in the neutral zone on a power play.
 
Just not good enough this time of year. Players need to dig in, start burying pucks, prove to these fans that they deserve to be in the playoffs. Go five games without a win at home during a playoff push? I don’t think many level-headed people would say that they do.
 
“We gotta be better for sure, no excuses,” Yeo said. “We can sit here and say we were doing lots of good things, but the bottom line is we gotta be better.”
 
Pressure is mounting for Yeo bigtime now. The Wild can either save its season or watch it go right off the rails. If that happens, look out.
 
“That’s part of it,” Yeo said. “If we’re going to sit here and pretend that other teams aren’t feeling the same thing, your kidding yourself. That’s part of the challenge, you should actually relish that. It’s been a long time since many of us in this organization have dealt with it, playing games at this time of year. When they don’t mean anything it’s not fun. You want to play in games that mean something, games when intensity is up and everything is magnified. That’s what being a competitor is all about, a matter of being able to go out and execute and playing well in those situations.”
 
Josh Harding will be recalled this morning from AHL Houston after a 2-game conditioning stint; Darcy Kuemper will be reassigned
 

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