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.

Also find Russo on Facebook.

Email Michael to talk about hockey.

Wild youngsters soaring this postseason; El Nino on kissing Bryz; Bollig suspended

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Rookies, Wild practice Updated: May 10, 2014 - 6:10 PM

Afternoon from the friendly sky, where I’m taking a quick hop over to Chicago for Game 5 between the Wild and Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday (8 p.m., CNBC, KFAN).

The Wild and Blackhawks mostly had the day off. The Wild had an optional but a good amount of players were around. The Blackhawks made coach Joel Quenneville, Marcus Kruger and Michal Handzus available, so slim pickings.

Coach Q said Andrew Shaw (lower body) is unlikely to play Game 5.

Similarly, coach Mike Yeo said Keith Ballard (upper body) and Matt Moulson (lower body) didn’t made the trip to Chicago. Ballard, two games after returning from two months off with a groin injury, was hit from behind by Blackhawks forward Brandon Bollig, who got away with a head shot in my opinion on Zach Parise in the final regular-season meeting.

The NHL’s Department of Player Safety got him this time, suspending him for two games. Not sure if that helps the Wild or not. 

Yeo said that Nate Prosser will likely slide back into the lineup. The other option is Jon Blum, who played well down the stretch for the Wild when Clayton Stoner and Ballard were both out at the same time.

The Wild improved to 5-0 at home with last night’s 4-2 victory to even up the series. It has outscored opponents 16-5 at home, holding Colorado and Chicago to an average of 19.6 shots per game. The Blackhawks are 5-0 at home, having outscored opponents 20-7.

The Wild is 1-5 on the road, having been outscored 26-17. As we learned last round against the Avs, even though the Wild held a third-period lead and nearly won Game 5, it took its foot off the gas and lost. That put the pressure back on Minnesota, and the Wild had to win Game 6 at home and Game 7 on the road in order to advance to its first second round in 11 years.

By winning two games at home, the Wild has turned the momentum in the series. The players and coach Mike Yeo know that can easily change with a road loss on Sunday night. On the other hand, if the Wild can sneak out a big ‘W’ at the United Center against a Blackhawks team that is clearly frustrated right now, the Wild will put itself in position to win the series at home Tuesday in front of its raucous crowd in an arena where it has been dominant all postseason.

“Thinking back to Games 1 and 2, I said at that time, it’s not like we were that far off,” Yeo said. “We knew we could play a little bit better and I think we’ve picked our game up since then. Certainly when you look back to those two games, there were parts of it that were going well and then it was a big mistake that came back at us. I think we’ve cut down on our mistakes the last couple games and we have to make sure that we bring that in there. But with that, there’s been sort of a little bit more of an aggressive mindset in how we executed the last couple games and that’s allowed us to get on the attack a little bit more. It’s a fine line. We have to make sure that we’re playing smart, but we can’t be playing safe. We’ve got to take that attitude into their building.”

Big game, to say the least, which is why Yeo spent the afternoon reminding his team not to let its guard down. It’ll be a challenge, but the Wild has to somehow figure out a way to carry the same type of game it has played all playoffs long at home and carry it into the Windy City.

“It’s a huge game,” Dany Heatley said of Sunday. “But I don’t feel the vibe in here that we’re too confident or over-cocky right now. We know they’re a very good team, they play well in their rink. We’ll be prepared for that.”

The Wild continues to get tremendous play from its youngsters. From the Wild game notes, the five youngest forwards -- Wild rookies Erik Haula (23) and Justin Fontaine (26), playoff rookies Nino Niederreiter (21) and Mikael Granlund (22), and sophomore Charlie Coyle (22) – have combined for 13 goals (Granlund, 4), 27 points (Coyle/Granlund, 7), 81 hits (Niederreiter, 31) and 27 blocked shots (Granlund/Haula, 10).

“They’ve been great,” Heatley said. “Obviously a huge reason why we’re here. They've been great for us all year. Whatever role they’ve played, they’ve done a great job. Awesome to see the success there having in the playoffs. They’re all real good kids, they work really hard, and it’s been a lot of fun to be around them.

“I think everyone needs to step it up to win games in the playoffs. I thought towards the end of the year those guys got better as did our whole team. We went into the playoffs playing pretty well and those guys have taken it to another level.”

We always talk about the youngsters, but we rarely include Jared Spurgeon because he has been around for four years. But he is 24 and he has been dynamite since the first couple games of the playoffs. Look at the skill plays he made last night, having his head up to make the stretch pass to Coyle for the Niederreiter winner, the settling of Mikko Koivu’s pass and the patience to score the power-play goal.

“I think as we’ve asked our team to get better, he’s taken his game to another level,” Yeo said. “This is a guy that we have so much respect for as a coaching staff. Not just the way that he executes, the poise that he has, his ability to create offense with his execution, but he’s a very good defender. He’s got a great stick, he’s very smart, he’s a great skater and he’s sneaky strong. He’s a huge part of our team but again to see where his game is at right now obviously offensively this time of year especially playing against a team like this, you need some offense from your defensemen, you need to create some offense from secondary guys whether that’s from your defense or whether that’s from third or fourth line guys. If you’re going to have any success, guys like that are usually stepping up.”

And then there’s Niederreiter, who is coming of age this postseason.

It seemed to start in Game 6 last round.

“I remember that game that even his first period was sort of OK, but then something just flipped,” Yeo said. “He flipped a switch there, and it was just an opportunity for us to say OK, there it is, that's the blueprint for what we need night after night. It's been a work in progress, but certainly that game, for me, was one where obviously, he played a great game, had all of the heroics of the Game 7, but for me, a lot of that started in Game 6.”

In Game 7, on Spurgeon’s tying goal that he set up, Niederreiter gave Spurgeon a kiss on the helmet. Last night, after Ilya Bryzgalov made back-to-back huge saves in the third to rob Jeremy Morin and keep the lead at 4-2, Niederreiter similarly pecked Bryzgalov on the helmet.

Photo courtesy of Star Tribune photographer Carlos Gonzalez

“Yeah, that was such a big save. I was just so happy,” Niederreiter said, smiling. “It happened so quickly. Just being thankful I guess. I did that to Spurg when he scored the tying goal in Game 7. It’s silly but you appreciate stuff like that.”

The Wild leads the NHL with 16 goal scorers this postseason. Quite amazing for a team that lacked scoring depth during the regular season.

"Are you saying that we didn't see it during the year?" Yeo said, laughing, when I asked in probably a bewildered tone. "I feel like we're all improving. Everything's kind of cyclical, there's no question, but everybody's going out, everybody's contributing in the same way, but they're all doing it in their own way, too. The roles have been identified, guys have really bought into them, but just the team game, I think we've been very strong in that regard. Like we've asked of our guys, we've gotten better as a team, and that's what we want to keep doing here."

Talk to you after the morning skates Sunday. Enjoy your weekend.

ADVERTISEMENT

San Francisco - WP: M. Bumgarner 7 FINAL
Kansas City - LP: J. Shields 1
San Diego 10/23/14 7:25 PM
Denver
Detroit 10/26/14 8:30 AM
Atlanta
Buffalo 10/26/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
St. Louis 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
Houston 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
Minnesota 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Seattle 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Carolina
Baltimore 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Cincinnati
Miami 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Jacksonville
Chicago 10/26/14 12:00 PM
New England
Philadelphia 10/26/14 3:05 PM
Arizona
Oakland 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Cleveland
Indianapolis 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Pittsburgh
Green Bay 10/26/14 7:30 PM
New Orleans
Washington 10/27/14 7:30 PM
Dallas
Houston 85 FINAL
Miami 90
Indiana 89 FINAL
Minnesota 107
Utah 105 FINAL
Oklahoma City 91
Portland 93 FINAL
Denver 75
Phoenix 114 FINAL
LA Lakers 108
LA Clippers 107 FINAL
Golden State 125
San Jose 3 FINAL
Boston 5
NY Rangers 4 FINAL(OT)
New Jersey 3
Toronto 5 FINAL
NY Islanders 2
Detroit 1 FINAL(OT)
Montreal 2
Arizona 3 FINAL(SO)
Nashville 4
Carolina 1 FINAL
Winnipeg 3
Philadelphia 0 FINAL
Chicago 4
Vancouver 3 FINAL
Dallas 6
Florida 4 FINAL(OT)
Colorado 3
Tampa Bay 2 FINAL(OT)
Calgary 1
Arkansas State 40 FINAL
Louisiana 55
Connecticut 10/23/14 6:00 PM
(18) East Carolina
Miami-Florida 10/23/14 7:00 PM
Virginia Tech
So Florida 10/24/14 6:00 PM
Cincinnati
Troy 10/24/14 6:30 PM
South Alabama
BYU 10/24/14 8:00 PM
Boise State
(6) Oregon 10/24/14 9:00 PM
California
North Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Rice
UAB 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Arkansas
Rutgers 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(16) Nebraska
Maryland 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Wisconsin
Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(11) Kansas State
Minnesota 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Illinois
Memphis 10/25/14 11:00 AM
SMU
North Carolina 10/25/14 11:30 AM
Virginia
San Jose St 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Navy
Northern Ill 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Eastern Mich
(25) UCLA 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Colorado
Akron 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Ball State
Massachusetts 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Toledo
Ohio U 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Western Mich
Ga Southern 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Kent State 10/25/14 1:30 PM
Miami-Ohio
Oregon State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Stanford
Fla Atlantic 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(23) Marshall
Louisiana Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Southern Miss
(1) Miss State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Kentucky
Georgia Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Pittsburgh
(22) West Virginia 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Oklahoma State
Texas Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(10) TCU
Michigan 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(8) Michigan State
Boston College 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Wake Forest
Central Mich 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Buffalo
Vanderbilt 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Missouri
Old Dominion 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Western Ky
UNLV 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Utah State
Temple 10/25/14 4:00 PM
UCF
(15) Arizona 10/25/14 5:00 PM
Washington St
Texas-El Paso 10/25/14 6:00 PM
TX-San Antonio
Wyoming 10/25/14 6:00 PM
Colorado State
Syracuse 10/25/14 6:00 PM
(21) Clemson
Texas State 10/25/14 6:00 PM
ULM
(3) Ole Miss 10/25/14 6:15 PM
(24) LSU
(4) Alabama 10/25/14 6:30 PM
Tennessee
So Carolina 10/25/14 6:30 PM
(5) Auburn
(13) Ohio State 10/25/14 7:00 PM
Penn State
(20) USC 10/25/14 9:00 PM
(19) Utah
(14) Arizona State 10/25/14 9:45 PM
Washington
Nevada 10/25/14 10:59 PM
Hawaii
Montreal 10/24/14 5:30 PM
Ottawa
Saskatchewan 10/24/14 8:30 PM
Calgary
Hamilton 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Toronto
Brt Columbia 10/25/14 6:00 PM
Winnipeg

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Are you happy to see the Royals in the World Series?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT