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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The Wild will try to bounce back from Wednesday’s 4-0 home loss to the Los Angeles Kings tonight in Dallas, where the Wild won, 2-1, Nov. 15, behind Darcy Kuemper’s 27-save performance.
Prior to that Dallas game, Kuemper was pulled at home after giving up two goals on two shots in an eventual victory over Buffalo. Kuemper has now been chased in his past two home starts, so coach Mike Yeo will give him a chance to rebound a second time in Dallas.
So why return with Kuemper?
1) The above bouncebacks; 2) Kuemper has stopped 46 of 48 shots in two victories this season against the Stars; 3) Niklas Backstrom is 1-5-3 all-time at Dallas with a 3.75 goals-against average and .868 save percentage; 4) the Wild plays at home Saturday night against St. Louis, so Backstrom can start that game.
Kuemper getting rattled in the midst of tough games and letting it affect him is becoming part of his M.O. We saw it last year, we have seen it this year.
“Well, he’s a young kid who is proving himself,” Yeo said. “I said that from the start of the year, there’s going to be ups and there’s going to be downs. We’ll keep working on him. We’re trying to continue to develop a young player. Obviously, we’ve seen what he’s capable of and it’s up to us, it’s up to him to try to bring the consistency out.”
I didn’t cover last game, but I watched on my cell phone and I told my brother right at the second goal that Yeo would be kicking himself for not pulling him then. After the third and fourth goals, I said Yeo’s going to be really beating himself up because it was so clear early that Kuemper was in la-la land.
Yeo usually has a great feel on when to pull his goalies, and the Wild has rallied back in a couple lately after yanks. I knew why Yeo probably didn’t pull Kuemper, and he confirmed his reasoning today when I asked why he didn’t pull him at 2-0 (I understood 3-0; just trying to get him out of the period at that late juncture). Yeo brought the previous Buffalo start. Keeping Kuemper in was in Yeo’s mind another learning experience that a young goalie needs: Battle through tough moments in a game (obviously didn’t work).
“Part of it is I don’t want to just pull him every time that he lets in a bad goal,” Yeo said. “He’s got to fight through it, too. We’d pulled our goalies in the two previous home games, so after two goals just to pull a goalie again, in hindsight, sure probably would have done it, but that said it’s important for him to battle through that stuff. That’s part of your development as a player, is going through those hard times as well. We want to develop him. We know how important he is to us not only this year but the future and so that was part of it.”
Good afternoon from Dallas, where the Wild plays tonight at 7:30. Hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving. Wild is 5-0 against the Central (but hasn’t played Chicago or St. Louis yet) and the Stars are 0-5-2 against the Central (but hasn’t played Colorado yet).
Not sure exactly the forward lines tonight because Mikko Koivu and Thomas Vanek didn’t skate. I saw Vanek off the ice. I never did see Koivu.
Defenseman Jonas Brodin is expected to play for the first time in eight games tonight. He had been out since Nov. 11 with the mumps.
Brodin said he lost some weight (not sure from where since he’s a rail). The virus hit him bad, saying that he woke up in New Jersey and his jaw hurt. He still played and started to feel sicker during the game. The next day, he woke up in Minnesota and was completely sick with a very noticeable swollen jaw.
“I was pretty big and swollen,” he said. “It was bad. Head fever, I felt tired and exhausted for more than a week. I didn’t feel like eating and when I ate, it hurt really bad for like four hours.”
Brodin said he has felt good on the ice since Monday. “It’s fun to get back with the guys and fun to start playing again.”
Yeo didn’t divulge who would sit if Brodin returned. Obviously, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella and Brodin will be the top-four, so it’ll be either be Keith Ballard, Nate Prosser or Matt Dumba. If the Wild wants to keep Ballard in because he’s the only left-shot, it’ll be Prosser or Dumba.
A reporter this morning asked about Dumba’s progress and Yeo kinda hesitated and grinned before answering, and Yeo’s poker face sometimes is BAD (I’d be wealthy if I sat across the table from Yeo at a card table), so it could be Dumba.
On Dumba, Yeo said, “Again, with just another young kid, consistency’s always the big thing. I just want to keep seeing improvement in his game. The improvement, if you want to compare it to a guy like Zuck, the improvement’s not going to come from him shooting harder or skating faster or making a nicer play. The improvement’s going to come from all the other little things and we’re going to continue to work with that.”
Brodin has skated on his own and in two morning skates and only one full practice (yesterday). Ideally, that’s not enough practice time for a guy who hasn’t played since Nov. 11, but Yeo said, “Back-to-back games here and if physically he’s feeling fit, his skating ability and his execution [would be a welcome addition]. We wouldn’t expect a perfect game from him, but a good game from him we kind of expect, and a good game from him, it would mean a lot to our team.”
I talked to Zach Parise a lot this morning about his line with Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville. They haven’t been very good since being reunited the last three games. Parise scored a big goal in Tampa, but that was with Pominville in for ear repair and when he returned, they had a big defensive-zone breakdown that led to the winning goal. In Florida and last game against L.A., just not very sharp and lots of ins and outs of the o-zone.
Turns out Yeo brought them in for video clips this morning because he spotted bad habits creeping into the game.
Pominville has really struggled. He has one goal in the past 14 games and is tied for fifth among NHL forwards with 34 missed shots, and that’s only posts and missed nets, that’s not all the swings and misses and fans we have seen this season.
“There’s been some good and some bad,” Parise said. “I think we’re spending a little too much time in our D zone. We’ve been getting good chances. We haven’t been scoring as much as we’d like, and I think that’s causing us to start to cheat on offense. [Yeo] brought up how Pommer and I, right when we get the puck, we’re trying to fly and even if we do get the puck, it’s still a 1-on-2 or 2-on-2, and you can’t really generate much like that. So it’s more so coming up the ice together and timing a little better and in the offensive zone, we’re so good at retrieving pucks off of shots, but right now we’ve kind of stopped shooting and we’re trying to make that extra play and they’re breaking it up and now we’re backchecking rather than holding onto it a little longer and supporting and shooting. We haven’t shot.
“It’s just like second nature, when things aren’t going well, all of sudden you start to fan out to the perimeter. No one’s going through to the net, everybody wants something out here (motioning away from the net) and we’ve been guilty of that right now. It’s not working for us. I’m glad he brought it up because you don’t notice it when you’re in the game.”
Yeo on that line: “That line, when they’re on their game I don’t know that we have another group and maybe that’s because that they’ve played with each other as much as they have, but that uses each other and plays with each other as well as they do. It hasn’t been as much the last few games. … That confidence that doesn’t just come back magically. You have to work for it to come back and I think it will.”
I also talked to Parise about the old NHL Thanksgiving rule. Typically, if you’re in the top-8 at Thanksgiving, you make the playoffs. If you’re outside the top-8 at Thanksgiving, you don’t.
According to STATS INC., 77.3 percent of NHL teams since 2005-06 that are in the top-8 at Thanksgiving make the playoffs. Entering tonight (after Thanksgiving), the Wild is in ninth place in the West – three points behind second wildcard team, Winnipeg.
Interesting, two exceptions to the “rule” the past five years were the Wild. In 2008-09 and 2011-12, the Wild was inside the top-8 at Thanksgiving and ended up missing the playoffs.
“It’s funny, there’s such an emphasis on points at the end of the season and those races, but they’re so important early also,” PARISE said. “You don’t want to put yourself in that situation where you’re trying to chase or hoping people lose. But it’s still November. But we’ve got to get ourselves playing better hockey – bottom line.”
Parise also said, “It’s important to keep everything in perspective. I know there were fireworks we lost 4-nothing last game. It wasn’t pretty, but we were just come off winning four in a row. Win four in a row and you feel great, you lose one, you feel awful. Everyone just needs to relax a little bit. Do I think we were playing really well when we won four in a row? No, but we found ways to win the game. I don’t think we’ve been playing great as of late, but at the same time, in our last seven, we’re 5-2 maybe? Things aren’t always as bad as that 4-0 loss, which was ugly, don’t get me wrong, but everyone needs to slow down a little bit, tap the brakes.”
There really isn't much more to say about the Wild's 4-0 stinker against Los Angeles on Wednesday. It does seem interesting in retrospect that coach Mike Yeo seemed so nervous about the game when he spoke after the Wild's morning skate. He promised the game would be neither easy nor fun if the Wild didn't mind the details, which were sorely lacking in a sorry performance.
Goaltender Darcy Kuemper didn't have any real explanation for his poor play. He never looked right, which was magnified as he constantly faced odd-man rushes during the one period he played. Kuemper gave up four goals on 10 shots, including one that trickled through his pads, and sat glumly on the end of the bench for the final 40 minutes as Nicklas Backstrom finished up.
"It was an off night for myself,'' said Kuemper, who had gone 3-1-0 with a 1.60 GAA and .949 save percentage in his previous four games."I was off a little bit tonight, and it cost me.
"I felt good this morning, I felt good in warmups. It was just one of those nights where it doesn't really go your way. It happens. You've just got to get over it.''
Yeo said he considered pulling Kuemper after the second goal, scored by Dustin Brown on a two-on-one. Brown had winger Justin Williams open on his right, but he chose to hold the puck and shoot. That was the one that dribbled through Kuemper's pads.
"I thought about (pulling Kuemper after that goal),'' Yeo said. "I regret not doing that now. Even the third goal (scored at 18:18 by Tyler Toffoli), I thought, 'Well, there's a minute-thirty (left in the period), let's give (Niklas Backstrom) a chance to have a bit of a stretch between periods.' I thought we could get through that.
"The list of regrets I have now is very long. But at some point, you have to battle through that stuff, too.''
The Wild was caught flat-footed throughout the first period, which seemed to disgust winger Zach Parise. "We gave up what, 15 odd-man rushes in the first period?'' he said. "They capitalized on them, and it got away from us after that.''
The Wild outshot the Kings 28-22, but goalie Martin Jones was strong--despite having played in a shootout loss the night before--and his teammates supported him well. The Wild frequently turned the puck over in the neutral zone, and the Kings were all over them in the offensive zone. At one point in the third, Nino Niederreiter--who led the Wild with six shots on goal--got the puck at close range with a good look at the net. The Kings' Trevor Lewis swooped in and lifted Niederreiter's stick to spoil one of the Wild's best chances.
The Wild also missed the net 18 times, were outhit 23-16, whiffed on some good opportunities and were sloppy with their passing.
Yeo said the Wild's performance was "not even close to the way we're supposed to play the game ... We actually came out with some good energy, but execution, details killed us.'' He added that he wished he would have "done some different things to try to alter our focus and our mindset before coming into this game,'' but he declined to elaborate. While Yeo thought the Wild played better later in the game, he said, "I'm not going to try to get any moral victories out of that.''
The Kings were delighted to end a streak of road futility that had begun to play on their minds. They had won once in nine road games before Wednesday.
"This is important, not just for the two points in the standings, but for our psyche,'' Williams said. "It was big getting the lead. Mentally, we were exactly where we needed to be. (The Wild) played us hard in LA (in a 2-1 Kings victory in October). We wanted to show them what we're all about.''
The Wild will not skate on Thanksgiving day before traveling to Dallas. "We've played well on the road, so I think we're going to have some confidence,'' Kuemper said.
As the Wild prepared for tonight's game against Los Angeles, two players who won't be in the lineup made progress toward a return. Defenseman Jonas Brodin and winger Matt Cooke both skated Wednesday morning, and coach Mike Yeo said Brodin could be ready to play Friday at Dallas.
Brodin has missed six games because of an illness believed to be mumps. Yeo said his conditioning is not quite up to speed, but the coach doesn't think he's far off. "He's much, much better,'' Yeo said of Brodin. "He looks like a different guy right now. There's a chance we could have him Friday.''
Cooke has been out for 12 games with a hip flexor injury. He has begun skating without full gear and will need much more work to get into game shape. "At least he's touching the ice,'' Yeo said. "He's feeling better, but he's got a long way to go just to get him back up to speed.''
Though the Wild is coming off a 2-1 road trip in which it straightened out some problems that had plagued it away from home, Yeo cautioned against feeling too satisfied. The Kings--despite having a 1-4-4 road record and the fewest road wins in the Western Conference--are a balanced and solid team with no clear deficiencies.
"It's never an easy game (against the Kings),'' Yeo said. "And it's not necessarily a fun one, either, especially if you're not executing, you're not performing the way you need to. It will certainly be a good test tonight.
"I felt like (the Tampa Bay game, a 2-1 loss) was a bit of a step in the right direction. Despite losing that game, I felt there were a lot of parts of the game that looked right. (In the 4-1 victory over Florida), we took another step in the right direction, a bigger step. Our challenge is right now, coming off that trip--a feel-good win--we can't just assume things are going to start where we left them in Florida. We have a lot of work to do. We're not where we need to be, and this is a great team we're playing tonight. We've got to make sure we're ready.''
Today is defenseman Keith Ballard's 32nd birthday, and he is expected to skate in his 600th NHL game. The Baudette native will celebrate with family members coming in for Thanksgiving weekend. Ballard said the last 100 games have taken their sweet time, as he lost significant time to injuries and was a healthy scratch by Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault during Ballard's final season with the Canucks.
The former Gopher has played the past 54 games in a Wild sweater since being signed as a free agent in the summer of 2013. He has played only nine games this season after the mumps sidelined him, but he's grateful to still be on the ice.
"I enjoy coming to the rink,'' he said. "I have genuine excitement coming to the rink and seeing the guys. That’s the fun part about playing--getting to know guys and developing those bonds and close friendships. That’s what makes it fun going to the rink for me.
"It's gone by fast. When you're young, everyone says, 'Enjoy it. It goes by fast.' These 10 years have gone pretty quickly for me.''
Good win for the Wild tonight at Florida, taking advantage of a team returning home after a long road trip and taking a 4-1 victory to end its three-game road trip with a 2-1 record.
The team returned to Minnesota after the game for a brief pit stop to play the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday before heading to Dallas on Thanksgiving for a Friday divisional battle – the first of a road-home back-to-back that finishes Saturday against St. Louis at Xcel Energy Center.
Jason Zucker scored two goals, Nino Niederreiter one, Zach Parise an empty-netter and Mikko Koivu had one of his best games of the season with two assists. Also, Niklas Backstrom, an outing after blowing a 3-0 lead in the third period to Winnipeg (eventual OT win), rebounded by making some huge stops in a 16 for 16 third to cap a 29-save effort.
Backstrom improved to 6-0-1 all-time against the Panthers and 4-0 in Florida. He improved to 24-3-4 all-time in the first start after being chased and 20-1-2 since March 26, 2008.
Coach Mike Yeo felt Backstrom was dialed in right from the start, as well as his team, which he said brought real focus and an impressive battle level.
“Our guys put a lot into this trip,” Yeo said.
Yeo tweaked his lines tonight, keeping his first line intact, but then putting Thomas Vanek and Zucker with Koivu, Niederreiter with Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine with Kyle Brodziak and Ryan Carter.
Koivu and Zucker was dangerous from the start, with two great Koivu forechecks leading to two great Zucker goals. The first one, Koivu took the puck from Jimmy Hayes. The second one, coming after Florida cut the Minnesota lead to 2-1, came after Koivu and Zucker forechecked the heck out of Erik Gudbranson after a Nate Prosser dump-in.
Gudbranson’s outlet hit Koivu, who slyly backhanded the puck to Zucker, who tiptoed the line and scored a top-shelf backhander against the grain off the post and under the bar.
Pretty goal, and Zucker of course credited Vanek and Koivu after. Zucker had a career-high nine shots, although he said, “I don’t know who was counting them.”
I’ll likely write Zucker for Wednesday’s paper and how he has embraced everything Yeo has thrown at him, especially the penalty kill. Yeo and Koivu had high praise for Zucker after the game, and not so much about the goals and points, but the work ethic that is emblematic often by just how often the guy hustles down the ice to beat out an icing. That of course allows tired guys to get off the ice and avoids D-zone faceoffs.
“I just try to put my head down and skate as fast as I can and hope the [linesman] maybe misses a judgment here or there,” Zucker said.
A taste of the praise from Koivu: “His work ethic right now is another step of wherever he’s been. I think he’s playing his best hockey – not just the points and goals, but overall. If he keeps doing that, he’s going to be a great player, a big future from him.”
Zucker, who like Colorado earlier in the year stopped a potential comeback with that second-period goal, is now tied with Parise for second on the team with eight goals. Niederreiter is first with 10 and he scored an awesome backhand, top shelf breakaway goal in the first for his second winning goal of the season.
All that summer powerskating Niederreiter does in Portland, Oregon, paid off on that goal, but he said he won’t get overconfident and ripped himself for missing the net on three shots and being robbed in the third by Roberto Luongo.
Nick Bjugstad said of the Wild, “They were all over (us). They were on top of pucks and they were supporting each other. We just couldn’t find a way to get the offense going, which is tough. That’s a good team, we’ve got to play them physical and play them tougher than we did.
“They’ve got a lot of skilled players, a lot of fast players so we knew what was coming. We watched video on them and they were no different than any other team. They were ready to play so it was disappointing.”
Luongo said, “They’re a well-instructed team. They’re patient and they wait for the other team to make mistakes and they’ve got some good forwards.”
Said Panthers coach Gerard Gallant, “We had a ‘C’ performance tonight and it’s not good enough. We didn’t compete hard enough, we got outworked in the first two periods so it’s disappointing.
“We weren’t good as a group tonight. We had 20 guys that didn’t compete hard enough and I think you saw a team over there that was hungry to play tonight. … If we’re going to win hockey games we’ve got to outwork teams. We can’t get outworked like we did tonight. It wasn’t the skill of their team that beat us, it was the work ethic that beat us and that’s disappointing.”
That’s it for me. Yeo was deciding on the flight whether or not to practice the team Tuesday. It’s either practice Tuesday or practice on Thanksgiving before flying to Dallas.
If they practice, Rachel Blount will practice. Either way, I’ll have a story in Wednesday’s paper. Rachel is covering the game Wednesday, so follow her on Twitter at @blountstrib. Barring news, you’ll next here from me Friday in Dallas.
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