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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Wild ushers in New Year poorly; Shanahan explains non-suspensions vs. Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild news Updated: January 1, 2012 - 11:31 AM

Sunday update: Jed Ortmeyer has been reassigned.

Read the updated gamer here when it's up later for all the details of the game, but the Wild better hope that practice makes perfect in January.

After starting the month of December on a five-game win streak (end of that 7-game win streak), the Wild finished on a 1-6-3 slide. It was -- and is -- ravaged by injury, traveled from time zone to time zone, and because of all that, it got very little quality practice time.

That should change in January with only 10 games on the docket.

This team needs to practice and rediscover a game that's completely vanished. For all the good the Wild accomplished the previous two games, that erased from the mind tonight in a game the Wild just didn't play well in. It lost 4-2, giving up three third-period goals, including two to Radim Vrbata early in the third to break open a 1-1 game.

Things don't get easier now. Ten of the next 13 games are on the road. The Wild doesn't play consecutive home games until Feb. 9-11. This will test the Wild's mettle, and maybe it'll get some bodies back like Devin Setoguchi soon.

But this team needs to practice as I just said.

"There will be no excuses for not having practices or … having enough rest this month," coach Mike Yeo said. "It’ll allow us to really see where we’re at. … There’s space between games that we can get better as a team here.

"The next practice is going to be hard. The practice [after that] is going to be hard."
 

The Wild will take New Year's Day off, so there will be no blog unless they swap some bodies with Houston. I've got to think Jed Ortmeyer goes. He was a turnover machine tonight, especially one that led to Vrbata's first goal.

But Ortmeyer wasn't alone in the turnover department. Only the Wild can win 72 percent of the draws and rarely ever have the puck because it just kept handing them to the Coyotes.

Marco Scandella was scratched tonight. Yeo said he's felt like his game has slipped recently, proven by his minus-6 in the last four games. But Greg Zanon could replace him again in the press box next game. Zanon was minus-2 tonight and took a penalty that led to a Daymond Langkow goal. On the first Vrbata goal, he lost a puck battle with little Ray Whitney. On the second Vrbata goal, both he and Justin Falk dove to the post because they thought Vrbata was going to try a wraparound.

Niklas Backstrom is also showing signs of cracking. He's given up 18 goals his past five starts (1-4).

Matt Cullen looked good tonight after a tough stretch. Scored the Wild's 14th all-time penalty-shot goal when his shot went crossbar, goalie pad and in. He also had an assist on Pierre-Marc Bouchard's fourth goal in six games for Cullen's first multi-point game since Dec. 4.

The Wild's just got to get these injured guys back. Yeo was scrambling lines tonight like it was back to the days of Jacques Lemaire.

Bouchard and Cal Clutterbuck played on the first and second lines. Darroll Powe and Nick Johnson played on the second and third lines. Ortmeyer played in the fourth and the third lines, as did Colton Gillies, who was quickly demoted after a tough first period.

Tonight the Wild got Jared Spurgeon back, but was without Setoguchi, Guillaume Latendresse (who sounds still a ways away), Casey Wellman, Jarod Palmer and Clayton Stoner. Just everyday it's a new guy.

I was thinking tonight, much of the Wild's success the first two months was due to the play of its third and fourth lines. Well, because of the injuries to top-6 forwards this month, guys who were mainstays on those lines are moving up, minor-leaguers (for a reason) are moving in to those lines, Gillies' game has disappeared.

Those two lines haven't been nearly as effective because of it lately, and those lines were a big part of the Wild's structured, workmanlike style. And a guy like Kyle Brodziak just looks dead-tired now. He was minus-3 tonight and has no goals since Dec. 14.

The Wild also lacks speed right now and a consistent forecheck, which is why it's drawing such few power plays on a nightly basis.

This month of January will be huge for the Wild. It is home-heavy in the last eight weeks, but this month will be critical in 1) rediscovering its game, 2) getting healthy, 3) learning to win on the road again, where it had much of its early success. Because it doesn't play a lot, because it's on the road a lot, they don't gain points, they can easily slip out of the top-8. They're only five up on nine now.

As a supplement to my Sunday Insider on how NHL executive Brendan Shanahan claims no Wild hatred  (can be read here), Shanahan went through three of the hits from behind recently against Wild players and explained to me his rationale in not suspending the aggressors:

Cody McLeod on Jared Spurgeon: “McLeod actually sort of reaches out with his hand almost in what appears to us to be an effort to gauge the distance and almost to let him know, ‘I’m here,’ Spurgeon digs in, applies the brakes and gets run into. … We didn’t feel there was any extra force behind the hit. It was more of a big man coming in on a forecheck and colliding with another man that stepped in front of him to try to stop and shield the puck.”

Lennart Petrell on Marek Zidlicky: “I think even the Edmonton commentator said this was going to be a slam-dunk suspension. We could not see any shove, and it’s a better example of a guy reaching out to a guy he’s friends with and played with to say, ‘I’m here.’ (Zidlicky and Petrell played together on HIFK). Then Zidlicky kind of toe picks.”

Zach Bogosian on Pierre-Marc Bouchard: “Puck goes down last minute of game to Bouchard. First thing [Bogosian] does is put his stick down on the ice to stop the pass. Then he steps toward Bouchard in a legal fashion and takes a swipe at his stick for the puck. He doesn’t get it, so then he takes another step and is about to hit him in what appears a perfectly good and harmless situation. But then as he applies the check, Bouchard turns his back and unfortunately there’s an injury. So Bogosian is thinking pass prevent, then poke check, then eliminate.”

During his Tuesday phone conversation with Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, Shanahan told Fletcher it doesn’t “escape me that this has now happened to your club three times.” He was referring to the fact McLeod hit Spurgeon from behind and there would be no league discipline.
“At the same time when we break down the McLeod-Spurgeon play, we can’t and I would never punish McLeod for the fact that Bogosian was close for his hit on Bouchard.
“I can’t suspend a guy because he hit the wrong guy on the wrong team. [Fletcher] understood. Hey, it’s a tough call. You’re calling a GM the day after he loses one of his best defensemen to an injury. It’s not a pleasant job that we do. But we do it everyday.”

By the way, in the column, I talked about the email Shanahan sends his 14 colleagues for “thoughts?” In the old days, folks would “reply all.” But Shanahan worried a couple commanding presences could influence others’ judgments. So now, only Shanahan sees each individual opinion. He then may follow up with more questions.

Anyways, hopefully you enjoyed the column and it gives you a little more insight into the supplemental discipline process.

I'm done. I'm going to go brave the weather now. Happy New Year! And be back with you Monday.

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