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 vs. Blackhawks blog: Pominville returns to practice; PHWA voting process

Posted by: Michael Russo under Rookies, Stanley Cup, Wild practice Updated: May 6, 2013 - 5:25 PM
With the Wild hoping to even its series with the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 4 Tuesday (8:30 p.m.), injured Jason Pominville took part in this morning’s optional practice. He was unavailable to the media and coach Mike Yeo was vague about his availability for Game 4 – partly because it’s the playoffs and probably because he doesn’t know.
 
After all, Yeo thought Pominville was ready before Game 1. But the winger woke up in Chicago not feeling right following a strenuous practice the day before and hasn’t played in the three games since.
 
My guess is he’s not ready yet. Stranger things have happened in the playoffs, but besides the fact that you don’t want to rush the vet back in if he’s hurt, today was only his second practice (and an optional one at that) since the April 23 injury, so who knows where he is fitness wise?
 
“Today was encouraging,” Yeo said. “I’m not saying that he’s a possibility for tomorrow. I’m not saying that he isn’t. For me, I’m just glad he was on the ice today and we’ll just see what the plan is going forward.”
 
Afternoon from the bowels of the X, where I've got a ton of writing in front of me. But here is a 2,000-word blog for your review. I will also host a live chat on startribune.com Tuesday at 3 p.m. CT. Be there or be square.
 
Today’s optional included, for the start of the skate, Sunday heroes Matt Cullen and Jason Zucker, and for all of the skate Pominville, Justin Falk, Jake Dowell, Matt Dumba, Nate Prosser, Marco Scandella, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Carson McMillan, Mikael Granlund, Stephane Veilleux and goalies Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper.
 
McMillan was called up today because there is a chance he could play Game 4. Dumba was called up because he basically had nothing to gather in Houston. The rest of the Houston vets returned there to pack up their lives.
 
On Tuesday, a handful more Houston players will likely be recalled, including everybody’s favorite UMD Bulldog, Justin Fontaine. The Wild, like all playoff teams, will have a lot of young guys around for the remainder of the playoffs. That doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily play, but they’ll be here to practice and get a taste of the NHL life. That includes everybody's favorite UMD Bulldog. Fontaine is a long way off from being put into his first NHL game.
 
My guess is either McMillan or Dowell play Game in place of Mike Rupp. Zenon Konopka didn’t play Game 3. Rupp played four shifts. Normally, you’d be on the ice for an optional if that were the case. Neither was today, meaning Konopka’s foot is an issue and Rupp’s knee.
 
“Might need some rest,” Yeo said, lying through his grinning teeth.
 
When I noted Rupp played four shifts, Yeo quipped, “They were hard shifts.”
 
Yeo said Rupp and Konopka might play. Or, might not.
 
Stephane Veilleux should earn a second straight game on the fourth line. Played a little under eight minutes, three hits – two on his first shift on menace (and I say that with respect because he’s been great) Johnny Oduya.
 
“We knew there would be energy in the building and we knew that he would contribute to that too,” Yeo said humorously of Veilleux. “Against a team like this, his skating ability was a big factor of why we chose him. He’s able to get in on the forecheck and he’s able to arrive and apply the pressure.”
 
Veilleux joked to me that he didn’t need to drink any Red Bull during the game. Said Yeo, “He’s pretty naturally wired. He does have experience. It’s not like we’re calling up a young kid that’s full of energy. He knows how to bring that energy without going over the line, too.”
 
The big message of the day from the Wild is it’s accomplished nothing so far.
 
It played in well in Game 3. It won. It’s still trailing in the series.
 
The Wild expects the Blackhawks to ramp it up, especially physically, and come with a shoot-from-everywhere mentality in Game. 4. The Wild needs to up its level, too.
 
“That’s the goal, that’s kind of what we’ve been striving for right from Game 1,” Yeo said. “That’s what we said with the playoffs -- you have to elevate your game. Looking at the video, there’s still some areas that we think we could be a little bit better. But at the very least, we have to be ready to bring a lot of the same things that we did last game. Part of the challenge for us next game will be to brace against their pushback. We know that they’re going to come hard and I’m anxious to see how we respond to that.”

There will be a heckuva lot more in the paper. One thing I plan to write about is Jonas Brodin not being named a finalist for the Calder.
 
As you can imagine, Brodin was humble today, seemed to care less and is just ready to keep logging big minutes to help this team win in the playoffs.
 
Yeo said, “I’m disappointed. And congratulations to the other players (Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher, Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau and Chicago's Brandon Saad). They’re great players. And I mean this with the greatest respect to them, but I’ve coached this guy all year and we’re here battling in the playoffs and it’s hard to say that we would be if he’s not on our team. This kid is a very, very good hockey player. So it’s disappointing for me.”
 
Basically, and real quick because I have a ton of writing to do for Tuesday’s paper, but members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association – I’m chapter chairman of the Twin Cities chapter and Vice President of the Northwest Division – votes on the Hart, Norris, Calder, Lady Byng, Selke and Masterton Trophies, in addition to All-Star (First- and Second-teams) and All-Rookie Teams.
 
Votes have to be submitted to an accounting firm in New York just prior to the first playoff game.
 
I talked with Kevin Allen of the USA Today this morning about the voting process this year. He is President of the PHWA (@ThePHWA on Twitter).
 
First, a little history. Ten years ago when Allen took over, there were three votes per chapter. In order to shrink the margin of error (that one or two bad ballots could ruin everything), Allen worked to vastly increase the number of eligible voters.
 
 Slowly, but surely, and in order to try to get a level of geographic balance, there wound up being about 68 votes in the West and 68 votes in the East, including what Allen called at-large votes (national writers that see everybody).
 
Today, the PHWA relies on recommendations from the Chapter Chairperson. To vote, you have to be a member. This year, there were 178 voters – the most in our history (every member doesn’t get a vote).
 
The breakdown of eligible voters this year, according to Allen, were 46.4 percent from Eastern cities, 32.8 percent from Western cities and 20.8 percent from international chapter members who cover no specific teams.
 
Allen doesn’t buy into the Eastern bias theory, saying, “Quality voter is a quality voter regardless of where he’s located. If you look at the way things have turned out historically, there’s no evidence ever to suggest there’s been geographic imbalance.
 
“I have great faith in our ability as an association to vote for what we think are the right people. This isn’t like the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s. This is the day of the Internet and the availability of NHL Network. I just can’t believe things happen in the NHL without our members knowing about it. I think our votes knew who he was and what he was about.”
 
“This year, Rookie of the Year was a little difficult. In my mind, our group didn’t pick the guys I thought would be finalists. That doesn’t mean we’re wrong. It just means people didn’t think the same way I did.”
 
Allen provided some examples to show there’s not an Eastern bias. Allen noted that in 2010, Duncan Keith won over Eastern golden boy Mike Green when there weren’t even 60 eligible Western voters. Last year, Shea Weber came within a whisker of winning the Norris. He was on 146 ballots (more than Erik Karlsson). Last year in the Calder, Gabriel Landeskog (Colorado) and Ryan-Nugent Hopkins (Edmonton) went 1-2.
 
One thing I personally think is flawed about our voting system is the imbalance among chapters. I don’t know how to fix it unless you go back to the same amount of votes per chapter, but for instance, Phoenix chapter has 1 person who votes, Nashville 2, Minnesota 7, Montreal 12.
 
Obviously, in a case like this year, you’ve got to see Brodin to really appreciate how good he is and how impactful he was to the Wild. And this year, there were significantly less Western voters.
 
I also think this was a very difficult year for members to vote. West writers only covered games vs. West, East voters only vote for East. There were 48 games in 99 days, so there weren’t a lot of off-days to watch other games between teams we don’t cover on television. Also, the large chunk of our voting members are not traveling beat writers.
 
So to me, it’s incumbent on writers to take voting seriously and do their homework. I didn’t have a good sense of many of the Eastern players this year because of what I wrote above. So I talked to scouts, a few GM’s and lots of Eastern writers for their thoughts on players.
 
Similarly, I received emails and a few calls from Eastern writers about what’s going on this West.
 
Personally, I’m not convinced every writer does the same thing.
 
As for Brodin not being a finalist, I look forward to seeing the final tabulations. I still believe a lot of members are very point-centric when it comes to voting. In other words, they scan the stat sheets and vote. If you do that, Brodin’s not going to jump at you. To disprove that, folks have noted Nail Yakupov to me. He wasn’t a finalist despite leading rookies in points. Of course, he went on a tear the last few days of the season and by then a lot of voters cast their ballots. That’s why I never vote until after the regular season is over. I want to see who makes the playoffs, how players performed through an entire 82-game season (or 48-game season this year).
 
So I’d be very interested to see how many ballots Brodin didn’t even appear on. And if that’s the case, then that’s disappointing.
 
I can tell you, the Wild’s real disappointed in Brodin not being a finalist, and frankly, this could have cost the team bonus money for him. Now, they are worried Ryan Suter will even be a finalist. We’ll find that out Tuesday.
 
Allen did plan to reach out to GM Chuck Fletcher today to discuss the PHWA’s voting process.
 
As for Blackhawks news, no Dave Bolland or Ray Emery for Game 4. Agitating, hard-hitting forward Dan Carcillo has been scratched for three straight games. It wouldn't shock me if he played as a response to the Wild outhitting Chicago last game.
 
Coach Joel Quenneville said he might play. And, he might not.
 
Quenneville and Yeo are speaking from the same coach’s handbook.
 
From Rachel Blount:
 
Here is Coach Q on Calder Finalist Saad: "He’s had a real nice year for us. He’s come into the NHL maybe under the radar when he started the season,  but the appreciation for what he contributed to our team game from start to finish was very strong. I think that line, his consistency, absorbing more responsibility as the season went on, being on special teams, getting quite a few minutes, the confidence that we used him was based on how well he played and how consistent he played. His strength and his size and his anticipation on both sides of the puck are going to make him a nice player going forward. But a real good start to his career."
 
The Blackhawks were careful to say Monday that they do not need to respond to the Wild's effort in Game 3 as much as they simply need to take care of their own business. While they stressed the need to be more physical, they also said that has to happen within the context of their style.
Chicago winger Patrick Kane warned that too much emphasis on hits could knock the Blackhawks off their usual game. If they stick with the speedy, skilled style that won them the President's Trophy and augment it with enough muscle to fight back, he said, they will be right where they need to be.
"You want to be physical, you want to ramp up the intensity and bring a little bit more to playoff hockey,'' said Kane, whose five assists put him in a three-way tie for fourth place in the NHL's postseason scoring race. "But sometimes if you're worried about bringing too much intensity and physicality, you're not worried about doing the things we did to score a lot of goals this year--which we did. We need to just try to get back to the way the Blackhawks play hockey.
"We want to play fast. Teams can try to be physical against us, but when we're playing fast and moving, it's tough to catch us. ... When we're playing well, we have a lot of players rolling. It's a shift after shift continuance where teams are struggling to contain us. Usually, when you bring that heat for a full 60 minutes, teams are going to struggle with that.''
Coach Joel Quenneville reminded his team that it showed flashes of that Sunday. It just didn't sustain it, so that will be the goal Tuesday. He does want to see a little more edge to his players as well. He used words such as passion, emotion, urgency and directness to describe what he wants from them Tuesday and said he does not think Chicago has "given (the Wild) our best.''
"I think we'll see a very intense team,'' he said of what he expects from the Blackhawks in Game 4. "I think when you watch other playoff series, you can see the animosity, the hatred, the battles. That's playoff hockey. That's the level we've got to get to, and we'll go from there.''
 
PREGAME PARTY

The Minnesota Wild of the National Hockey League (NHL) announced plans for a pre-game party from 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, prior to the team’s 8:30 p.m. faceoff against Chicago in Game 4 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals. The party will take place along the sidewalk between Gates 1 and 3 of Xcel Energy Center.

“Minnesota is the State of Hockey, and Saint Paul proudly serves as its capitol as we celebrate the return of Stanley Cup Playoff hockey and an invigorating Wild win on Sunday,” Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said. “With the later start of Tuesday 's game, we encourage fans to come and be a part of the playoff atmosphere. Festivities will include the Wild pre-game events at Xcel Energy Center as well as all the activity at the other downtown establishments.”

The party will include live music by Five Man Advantage, food and drink, including a beer garden, a Hockey Lodge tent with new playoff merchandise, along with a Beard-A-Thon tent. Fans can register to win one of two pair of tickets to Game 4 at the Beard-A-Thon tent. In addition, KFAN 100.3 FM will broadcast live from 3-8 p.m.

The Wild encourages all fans to get downtown early and visit the pre-game party and other downtown St. Paul establishments. Xcel Energy Center gates will open at 7 p.m. Tuesday. Game 4 will be broadcast on FOX Sports North locally, and NBC Sports Network nationally, in addition to CBC throughout Canada.

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