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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Shaky goaltending, scoring woes lead to another Wild home loss before critical road trip

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: March 26, 2014 - 11:22 PM

As they say in pro sports after a bad defeat, it’s a good thing the Wild can push this one aside and get right back at it the next night.

Unfortunately for Minnesota, the unenviable task of putting a 5-2 home defeat to Vancouver in the rear view mirror is by walking into one of the most intimidating arenas in the NHL and beating one of the most intimidating teams, the St. Louis Blues, on Thursday night.

Good luck with that.

The Wild has not only lost eight in a row to St. Louis (0-5-3), it is 3-6-2 in its past 11 at St. Louis. Those three wins? All shootout, meaning the Wild hasn’t won in regulation in St. Louis in 11 games since Oct. 20, 2007, having been outscored 34-19 in that stretch. In the past 11 visits, the Wild’s power play is 3 for 37 (8.1 percent).

And you thought I couldn’t make you feel worse after tonight.

Biggest concern after tonight?

Goaltending. We’ve seen signs lately of Darcy Kuemper of wilting. It’s not that he has been bad, but there have been bad, untimely goals, like the first one in Boston, those third-period ones to Edmonton, not holding a 2-0 shootout lead to Columbus.

Tonight, he gave up three goals on 12 shots through 40 minutes until getting the heave-ho by coach Mike Yeo. Now, it’s not like they were terrible goals.

The first, David Booth made something out of nothing by chipping a puck out of the zone, getting by Marco Scandella and then not only using Jon Blum as a screen, he used a charging Canucks player up the middle as a decoy and blew a shot through Blum’s legs.

But, Kuemper was in the middle of his crease, not on top. Second goal, he can’t be faulted. Came out of nowhere again when Jared Spurgeon “felt [the puck] roll over the heel of my stick too late.” Booth gobbled up the puck and blew it by Kuemper.

Then, third goal off a faceoff, Charlie Coyle was outmuscled to a loose puck by Zack Kassian and he blew it by Kuemper, who was blinded by a screen. Again though, Kuemper was in the middle of his crease instead of on top. I don’t proclaim to be a goalie expert, but Kuemper is 6-5. He’s challenging, and those pucks may hit him by default. Also, all three goals went glove hand.

Now, Kuemper wasn’t happy with his game obviously, but he says he still feels good about his game technically. He has won two times in the past eight starts and has given up three or more goals in five of his past seven starts. He says tonight was a bad game. He said the other games, after watching video, he felt good about his game, but it seemed every one there was just a bad bounce that was ending in his net.

But here’s the thing: the Wild doesn’t score enough to handle ordinary goaltending. That’s what made the job Kuemper did this second half and the job Josh Harding did the first half so impressive.

But, on the other hand, even though eight goals have somehow gotten by Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgalov in the past two games on only 35 shots, Yeo says there’s another level the Wild can get to defensively.

“I’m not saying we can’t be any better between the pipes, but there are some quality chances we’re giving up,” Yeo said.

The sigh in the soldout Xcel Energy Center, which turned to boos in the third, after Vancouver made it 3-1 was audible. At that point, the Wild trailed by 2 despite a 24-12 shot lead. At 2-1, it was 23-9.

Kuemper says he’s still confident, but he did look rattled after Kassian scored. Yeo said it’s up to the coaches to help rid that from Kuemper’s melon and Yeo reminded how earlier this season, Kuemper gave up eight goals at Colorado (pulled in that game, too) and Calgary. The Wild returned home and Yeo called this the “biggest challenge” of Kuemper’s season.

Kuemper responded by making 34 saves in a 2-1 win over Tampa Bay, the first of five wins in a row.

Of course, those came against Tampa Bay, Nashville, Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary.

The Wild now heads to St. Louis, Phoenix, L.A., Chicago and come home to play Pittsburgh. Gulp.

Yeo didn’t say whom the Wild will come back with – Kuemper or Bryzgalov – Thursday in St. Louis.

Honestly, I usually have a good gut feel. I honestly don’t know whom the coaching staff chooses.

Yeo talked like he wanted to see how Kuemper would respond, but to me, what if he gets shellacked again? What will his mental state be going into the mammoth Phoenix game on Saturday?

I still think if the Wild’s going anywhere, it’s going to have to be Kuemper who leads them there. I’d give Kuemper a few mental days off, come back with Bryzgalov in St. Louis and plan on Kuemper starting at Phoenix and Los Angeles, where he was so superb Jan. 7 in that shootout win. If for some reason Bryzgalov walks into St. Louis and performs incredibly, then maybe you change it up.

Goaltending isn’t the only issue, of course.

The Wild again had unbelievable chances tonight, but frustratingly offensive-challenge team managed two goals, and one of those was a meaningless goal by Nino Niederreiter, who was demoted to the fourth line, scored with the Wild trailing 5-1.

The Matt Moulson-Mikko Koivu-Coyle line buzzed the first two periods and got a Koivu to Coyle goal. Moulson was robbed a few times.

“We just couldn’t put the puck in the net,” Koivu said. “That’s the difference. When you fall behind like that, you just can’t get the momentum back for some reason. It’s a tough way to play the third especially. It’s tough to find a reason right now why we didn’t score. But we can’t allow five goals either. We have to be better in front of our goalie.”

The Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund (minus-3, with Marco Scandella)-Jason Pominville line couldn’t buy a goal either.

Parise had a tying goal robbed from the goal line on a power play in the second by Alex Edler.

“We’ve got to score. Our line in particular, we had some good chances, some good looks,” said Parise. “We have to be better, we have to score.”

This game did have a different feel than the overtime win in Detroit on Sunday, a game the Wild forechecked like no other game this season. The Wild is 1-2-3 in its past six, unacceptable for a team that’s supposed to be good at home.

Look at the first period tonight. The Wild was attempted all these fancy plays around the net, quite astonishing from a team that ranks 26th in the NHL in scoring.

“There’s no question that we’ve almost approached these [home] games with, I want to say a bit of an arrogance almost,” Yeo said. “We talk before the game about the need to establish momentum, to get pucks behind their defense early in the game and we come down pretty much three of the first four shifts and turn a puck over just inside their blue line [for] … odd-man rushes.

“We come into these games sort of just believing in the outcome. Part of that is good. But you better understand what it takes to make that happen.”

Yeo said that the urgency level from the Detroit game “slipped back.” Offensively, the team was missing that fight around the net.

“We have to have a mentality that we will not be denied,” Yeo said.

Tonight’s power play was terrible. It was 0 for 4, and the second Booth goal off the Spurgeon turnover came at the end of an ugly power play.

“Coming into a game like this, every power play is an opportunity to be a game changer,” Yeo said. ““We sort of went out there with the idea that we were just sort of going to grab the puck and make a couple plays and shoot it in an empty net.”

Also reflective of the urgency drop, Yeo said the Wild’s defensive game was poor after giving up 16 shots in Detroit.

He said the good news is “it’s hard to imagine we’d go into a game in St. Louis without the urgency level that we need.”

So, the Wild is six up on Dallas. The Stars have a game in hand. IF, the Wild loses at St. Louis and Phoenix wins in Jersey, the Coyotes will be one point back of the Wild going into Saturday’s clash in Glendale.

Is it getting tense in here, Zach? “No. I know you guys like to make them tense and create them tense. We feel kind of down on ourselves right now from that game, but we have to shift our mindset to [Thursday].”

Added Koivu, “We’ve got to move on and bounce back [Thursday]. Right now it’s frustrating, but the only way to get it back is play a good game [Thursday] night. Big challenge, but we’ve got to find a way to get better as a team.”

With a second of a back-to-back, availability Thursday will likely be before the game, so there may not be a pregame blog until we talk to Yeo and some players before. I’ve got to get home and pack.

Huge four-game trip coming up, to say the least. It's gut check time. The Wild, with seven of its nine final games against teams in playoff spots, have by far the hardest schedule between them, Dallas and Phoenix.

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