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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Slip-sliding Wild humbled, exposed in St. Louis

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: March 28, 2014 - 7:19 AM

EDITED, REVISED FRIDAY MORNING

Just 2 ½ weeks ago, the Wild took a moral victory from a home shootout loss against the St. Louis Blues, claiming it proved it could play with St. Louis, that it made a statement.

“I think [the Blues] thought they were going to take it to us physically, and our guys responded,” coach Mike Yeo said after that game. “I’ve seen this from our group a lot. When people try to play like that against us, usually we’re able to find another gear.”

It’s safe to say the Wild was brought back to reality Thursday. The Wild suffered its ninth straight loss to St. Louis (0-6-3) and after a strong start that didn't result in a goal, the game in St. Louis resembled most of Minnesota's games in St. Louis - a decisive beatdown from the Blues. The Wild has struggles in a number of arenas - Dallas, San Jose, Vancouver off the top of my head. But almost every time the Wild goes to St. Louis, the losses are painful. It's been 12 games now since a regulation win. 

The Wild has lost 9 of its past 12 games (3-5-4) since the trade deadline and this has the feel of a team very capable of blowing its season.

The Wild had a good start to tonight’s game, jumped out to an 8-1 shot lead, took five shots on its first power play, naturally couldn’t score and then boom, T.J. Oshie scored an easy one.

The Wild continued to play well, but then on a late double minor that was a gift because the refs missed what looked like an elbow by Cody McCormick on Kevin Shattenkick, the Wild not only didn’t register a shot in the entire four minutes of power-play time, Jared Spurgeon, for the second game in a row, coughed up the puck and Oshie scored a back-breaking shorthanded breakaway goal (the second of his three) in the waning seconds of the first.

It was the second time in two games Spurgeon “assisted” on the second goal of a game by the same player (David Booth) in the final seconds of a period. Talk about momentum-turning. The one against Vancouver wasn’t officially shorthanded, but it may as well have been.

As disconcerting as Spurgeon’s gaffe was the play of Dany Heatley before the turnover.

Mike Yeo, who has to know he will undoubtedly go down with this ship if the Wild misses the playoffs, continues to let Heatley play and play and play. Heatley has no goals since Feb. 27, 12 in 74 games and is a team-worst minus-18. He was on for both first-period goals Thursday. He is a minus-7 the past five games. But Yeo continues to put him in the lineup despite the fact that he’s not able to function in a third- or fourth-line (four shots in the past 11 games).

But he plays him because he can paint it like he’s a power-play contributor (more PPG’s than anybody in the league since 2001). But not only has Heatley not had a power-play goal since Feb. 1 or a power-play assist since Feb. 6, tonight he twice didn’t get the puck deep on entries. The first time, he didn’t catch Ryan Suter’s pass, the second he turned it over. Moments later, Spurgeon gave the puck to Oshie.

Yeo keeps saying that if Heatley’s not going to score, he’s got to be responsible defensively, get in on the forecheck, be physical because he’s a big body, be strong on pucks (he wasn’t on this particular power-play shift). This is not Dany Heatley’s game. He cannot function in a third- or fourth-line role, and as much as it pains me to say because I like Heatley and I’ve long admired him as a player (I used to watch him light up opponents in Atlanta as a writer in the Southeast Division), he’s not the Dany Heatley he used to be.

So, at some point, Yeo’s got to pull him from the lineup. And Yeo did make it sound before the game that it is coming. After the game, Yeo didn’t want to talk about individuals and said it was a “team loss.”

Here's the thing: Phoenix just pulled off five of six points on its road trip, including consecutive wins at Pittsburgh and New Jersey with a backup goalie in net. Dave Tippett, Yeo's mentor, scratched veterans with long pedigrees - Mike Ribeiro and Derek Morris - in those 2 wins. Sometimes as a coach, you have to make difficult decisions with veterans. My guess is Yeo is worried if Heatley handles it poorly and it becomes a soap opera. Heatley is a proud vet, a popular teammate and nobody wants to embarrass him at this stage of his career. But guess what? The Wild has lost nine of 12 and its season is on fragile footing. 

The Wild, since the trade deadline, looks like a slow team for many reasons, so it’s time to get Justin Fontaine back into the lineup. Fontaine scored a hat trick last time the Wild went to Phoenix, so put him in there. And maybe get Stephane Veilleux and his speed and energy into the lineup. McCormick did suffer a bad cut over his left eye and missed the second half of the game after the Shattenkirk, Max Lapierre (Alex Burrows Jr.) retaliation).

But the Heatley turnovers were unsettling because the Wild talks on and on about getting pucks deep and going to work.

Even Zach Parise said after tonight’s game of the Blues, “They’re very disciplined. They don’t turn the puck over at the blue line. I mean, every time they’re making our D go behind and get it and they’re finishing them every single time. They’re very disciplined like that. They wear you down.”

Parise’s eyes were looking right at me when he said this. This was a subtle message that the Wild has not been committed to doing the same, and that’s something Yeo has been preaching.

The Wild’s power play was 0 for 6. It gave up a shortie and another two power-play goals. If you’re counting at home, that’s 11 power-play goals on 31 chances in the past 12 games.

“Our special teams have been terrible,” Suter said. “We have to figure that out, or we’re not even going to make the playoffs.”

The Wild is now one point up on Phoenix going into Saturday’s clash. The Wild is six up on Dallas and the Stars have two games in hand and a much easier schedule than Minnesota down the stretch.

This is not trending the right way.

The Wild, believe it or not, has no practice Friday even though it has not had a full practice since last Friday. Remember, even after Monday’s day off, Yeo gave eight big-minute players the day off.

Suter said Yeo’s done a great job giving guys a chance to recharge their batteries, but he almost wishes they could practice Friday in Phoenix just so the Wild players can get feeling good about themselves.

Unfortunately, there’s no ice at Glendale Arena. If I’m Yeo, I get these guys together for some team activity. I joked in the postgame maybe ball hockey. Hey, it worked for Canada in the Olympics (kidding).

The deal is the Wild needs to do something to relax, get rid of the tension and as Suter said feel good again. Because this team is walking on pins and needles right now. It is so palpable when you stroll through the locker room.

Tonight, the Blues sent a painful message to the Wild. If the Wild does make the playoffs and backs into the Blues, the Blues wanted to let them know how quick and painful that series could be.

There were unbelievable battles tonight, scrums, David Backes trash-talking Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper from the bench after Kuemper cross-checked him in front of the net.

“I haven't had a lot of rookie goalies with disrespect like that in front of the net,” Backes said. “That's where I've played a long time. When I feel disrespected, I'm going to stand my ground and see if there's any response. The result was our guys scored I think like three, four minutes after that. Schwartzy (Jaden) puts one in the top corner and that's enough talking for us. We'll keep playing and keep going and great job by our guys to respond.”

That’s it for me. I wrote about Darcy Kuemper in my game notebook, so please give that a read, and of course the game story for more details. I get why the Wild started Kuemper, and I think it was an organizational decision. BUT, as I wrote after the Vancouver game and said on the radio before the game, I didn't like the move. I would have given Kuemper a few mental days off to get his mind and body ready for the Phoenix game. The Wild was bound to lose in St. Louis game no matter how well it played and who was in goal. Now the Wild threw him to the wolves and his confidence may be further shaken. This kid has won twice in the past nine starts now, has allowed 3+ goals in six of eight starts now. 

I have a crazy travel day Friday and a wakeup call in 4 ½ hours, believe it or not. No practice Friday, so likely no blog as I work on my advance for the big Phoenix tilt.

Wild better figure out a way to get its game back. A “W” would be nice, too.

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