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, Blues look to take command of series; Matt Cooke in, Jori Lehtera "50-50"

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 24, 2015 - 1:24 PM

The Blues got taken to a clinic in Game 3 and responded more than impressively in Game 4.

We'll see if the Wild can do the same thing tonight.

Good day from St. Louis, where Game 5 is tonight at 8:30 p.m. This is the third consecutive playoff round in which the Wild has been tied 2-2. The Wild lost Game 5 on the road twice last postseason (it won Games 6 and 7 in the first round to beat Colorado) and has lost five consecutive Game 5s since 2003.

Scenario is simple: Wild win, it can close out the series at home Sunday. Wild lose, and it must avoid elimination Sunday and force a Game 7.

I'll be doing a live podcast from St. Louis with Jim Souhan today at 4 p.m. It can be heard at www.souhanunfiltered.com, iHeart Radio or easiest by subscribing for free on iTunes.

I'll be on KFAN at 5:15 p.m., KARE 11 with Dave Schwartz tonight at 10 and also on Bucky Gleason's TV show in Buffalo at 5:40 p.m. CT.

Pay attention at 6 p.m. today. We'll find out if Devan Dubnyk is a Vezina finalist.

You can tell the Blues expected the Wild to blow up its lines tonight. On the Blues' locker-room marker board before Game 1, the lines were set and exact.

Today, it read:

Parise-Granlund-Pominville

Niederreiter? Zucker?-Koivu-Stewart

Cooke? Carter? Fontaine? Vanek-Coyle-???

Bergenheim-Brodziak-???

Suter-Brodin

Scandella-Spurgeon

Leopold? Prosser?-Dumba

The Wild didn't blow up the lines though. The only lineup change expected is Matt Cooke in for Sean Bergenheim, meaning

Parise-Granlund-Pominville

Zucker-Koivu-Stewart

Vanek-Coyle-Niederreiter

Cooke-Brodziak-Fontaine

Suter-Brodin

Scandella-Spurgeon

Leopold-Dumba

Coach Mike Yeo said he liked Cooke's Game 2 effort, but because they lost, he went with the Game 1 lineup in Game 3, won that game, so they went with the same lineup for Game 4.

What do you have to bring tonight, Cooke was asked.

"I think it’s pretty obvious my game," he said. "The more time we can spend in the offensive zone, the better it is for our line and the more chances we’re going to get and the less time we spend in our zone. I think above all else it’s my experience, my emotional level that can come in and support the guys in a tight game and in a playoff type atmosphere because I’ve had a lot to pull on."

This was funny. You’re not used to sitting out playoff games, what’s that like sitting three of the first four games?

Cooke with a grin: "I did it last year. I did. Seven times. I did."

OK, different circumstances.

Cooke said, "It’s never easy sitting out a game at all let alone in the playoffs. I feel like my game is built for this time of year and these type of games. It’s tough, but I had a tough year with injuries and guys have come in and played well and they deserved and earned a spot to be out there playing. I didn’t expect to come in and just leapfrog everybody because they were a part of the success down the stretch and I had to watch from the outside looking in."

Blues center Jori Lehtera may not play tonight. Hitchcock called him 50-50 after being nailed by a Jay Bouwmeester shot in a third-period power play Wednesday with the Blues ahead 6-1. Marcel Goc, scratched in Game 4 for Chris Porter, looks like he will draw back in for Lehtera if he doesn't play and Porter, Zach Parise's best bud, would stay in.

Porter, who wouldn't be a bad guy for the Wild to sign this summer, is fast, aggressive, physical and seems to be St. Louis' secret weapon in the playoffs. Scratched often in the regular season, he always seems to come in and make a playoff impact. The other night in Minnesota, he made life difficult on the Wild's defensemen and assisted on the first goal.

Hitchcock had some interesting stuff to say today on the series:

Why has each game been different?
"I think it's what it takes to win a game in this series. It takes a lot, a lot of emotional and physical input and I think you let your foot off the gas a little bit because you have to put so much into it and the other team gets angry and they dial up their focus for the push-back. The series is where it should be at based on play. Both games should have been 6-1. We were outplayed, put so much into Game 2. We looked like a little bit of a tired team and they were angry and they pushed back hard. We did the same thijng to them (in Game 4). Both teams ... I've never seen shift lengths so short in my life since I've been coaching the NHL. From the opening buzzer to the end of the game, your shift lengths are in the 30's, I've never seen that before. Usually you get it down there in the third period, but this opens the game; that's how much has been put into each shift by each player. 
 
Is that coach-directed?
 
"No, that's not coach-directed. There's been two or three times where I haven't even gotten the next lineup blown back to the bench. There's physicality, but running around hitting people, this is every puck is contested at such a high level in this series that I think it's exhausting for the players. We've seen their players hunched over 20 seconds in, 18 seconds into a shift and I've seen the same with us because there's just no room. There's no space, there's no room. The third period for both teams in Game 4 looked like a breather. It was the first time there was any space on the ice for either side. It's just two teams that are so well-structured and so well disciplined in their play and they value checking so much that you've got no space, you've got no time."
 
Difficulty of carrying momentum?
 
"We've talked about that for two days now so we'll see. Winning is a relief when you have to put so much into it and we've got to get past the relief back into the hunger part of it. I liked the disposition of our team this morning. I know you don't play this morning, but I liked the disposition of our team yesterday and today we seemed more grounded, ready to compete again, ready to go at it again, so we'll see. I think this has the potential to be the best game of the series because both teams look pretty grounded, look pretty focused. Should be a helluva hockey game."
 
Score first goal, why so important (both teams 2-0 in that situation)?
 
"Because the value of both sides put into checking. Both teams strive or get their offense from their checking and you look at us, everything's connected. Everything's connected. We get so much of our offense from our checking and they get it the same way. They check different; we use more 1-on-1; they use more numbers but we both are very effective in what we do. It's just so hard to play against teams that are so committed to the details of the game. That's why both teams are so good because there's a strong commitment by both sides to the details."
 
Series coming down to emotion?
 
"Yeah. It's two things. It's the two teams that got their butts kicked. We lost 2-0, empty-netter but it felt like 6-0. We were mad. They let their foot off the accelerator a little bit, tried to take a breath; no chance, no chance. We're hoping we don't do the same thing because if you just take your foot off a little bit, because that's all it is, it looks bad, but all it is is just a little bit and the other team is ready to pounce and go at it. It also happens when you have so many players that are so similar. Mike uses four lines, we use four lines so there's no breathing room, there's no space, there's no three-line game where there's maneuvering going on. It's just all-out short shifts, get off the ice. All-out, short shifts, get off the ice. When you're in your mid-30's in the first period, a lot of energy going on."
 
Alex Pietrangelo's play so far?
 
"He's been our best player. Played unbelievable. All the little things that you love in his game have been there since ... started with about four games left in the regular season, carried through the playoffs; he's been outstanding. Every game. The better he plays, the more risk he plays with and then he gets away with it. Even with some of the risky stuff he's done, he's flaged down pucks, he's got back in; he's been outstanding for us."
 
 
No space for Jaden Schwartz?
 
Because they've got two players standing over him; not one, and that's hard to play. When you're a smaller player, it's even harder to play. I don't think it's been fun for Pominville at times either. Obviously Schwartz is a good player and he's getting covered over, but one thing happens, because he gets covered over, other people get space. There's a reason Tarasenko gets space, it's because of what Schwartz does to create it. It's hard. Both teams are just so committed to no space, no time, no play. Hard for people to fight through that unless you've got a real size area you can control. 
 
Why is Steve Ott more effective as center?
 
"He doesn't get enough credit for how smart he is. He's really smart, composed with the puck in tight spaces. When he plays center, he plays with more control. He plays a little bit of like a wingnut on the wing; I don't know if you can say that, but he plays a little bit like a wingnut on the wing and this way when he's had to play in control, he kind of calms down and plays a positional game where you need him with some structure and he's very effective there."
 
 

Hitch scrambles lines at morning skate as Blues try to stave off 3-1 series' deficit to Wild

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 22, 2015 - 2:37 PM

UPDATED

Game 4, Wild vs. St. Louis Blues, tonight at 8:30, Xcel Energy Center.

So, it’s hurry up and wait time for the late start.

I’ll be doing a live podcast today with Jim Souhan at the Liffey in St. Paul, so come on down or listen at souhanunfiltered.com.

I'll be on NHL Network's Arena cam live at 5:20 p.m.

I’ll be on KFAN at 5:55 p.m. and Fox Sports North during the pregame show and first intermission.

Good morning from the press room, where I’ll be hunkered down for most of the day except for my run over to the Liffey and to Starbucks, of course.

If you didn’t see today’s Star Tribune coverage, please head over to www.startribune.com/wild.

But here is a fun read on Matt Dumba through the eyes of his parents.

And here’s a column by Chip Scoggins on the Wild having a different kind of toughness that has made it successful thus far in this series.

Also, over at the Wild Star Tribune page, Rachel Blount’s story on what the Blues plan for tonight, the Wild-Blues notebook leading with, of course, Steve Ott hopefully for the last time and a column by Patrick Reusse.

Lots of queries about the Game 5 time Friday. My guess is it is dependent on tonight’s Canadiens-Senators game. If the Habs sweep, maybe Wild-Blues get a 7 p.m. time. If Sens force Game 5, that too would be Friday, so more than likely the Wild-Blues and their fans will have to guzzle coffee again for an 8:30 start.

Poor Central time zone teams and their fans and their beat writers. I found it humorous hearing the whining coming out of Pittsburgh for its 8:25 ET start the other night because of the draft lottery. Hey, welcome to the almost nightly playoff life of the Wild, Blues, Blackhawks, Jets and last year Avs and their fans and writers.

Can’t imagine the papers in Chicago and Nashville even had a final score today from last night’s 1:16 a.m. final.

But I digress.

Coach Mike Yeo isn’t watching the other series.

“I look at the scores, but I’m paying no attention to the other games whatsoever,” he said. “I’m probably 90 percent focused on my team and 10 percent on St. Louis, so there’s not a lot of room for anyone else out there. Obviously, it’s good hockey, the playoffs are exciting. Sometimes you have a game on when you’re eating dinner or whatever but for the most part, it’s all about trying to get ready for the next match.”

The Wild plans to release some tickets this afternoon. The team isn’t giving a time, so mosey on down to the box office or ticketmaster.com.

If you can’t get in the door and want to road trip in St. Louis, there are a TON of Game 5 tickets available at quality prices (even below face value) for Friday’s game. Go to this link.

Same Wild lineup tonight.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Blues respond tonight.

New lines at the morning skate from Ken Hitchcock, reuniting lines and pairs from earlier this season (I caution, Hitch warned us yesterday to bring an eraser, so we'll see if this was Hitch tossing a cloak and dagger at the Wild):

Steen-Backes-Oshie

Schwartz-Lehtera-Tarasenko

Jaskin-Stastny-Berglund

Porter-Ott-Reaves

Marcel Goc, whom I thought was miscast on that mayhem line anyway, wasn’t on a line, so Parise's buddy Porter seems to draw in.

"It got blown up there at the end because of the two significant injuries," Hitchcock said of the lines. "Then when we came back, Backes had good chemistry going with what they had. Then we just slipped Steen and Tarasenko in with Lehtera and they obviously played very well in the last game and have played pretty well, but ... these are the three lines that have been together the most during the year. We want to make them familiar with each other. We know it's going to be a hard game and there's great chemistry; there has been all year, especially with the first two lines and we want to stay with that."

Bouwmeester-Pietrangelo

Gunnarsson-Shattenkirk

Jackman-Michalek

No Robert Bortuzzo again. He may be secretly hurt. I thought he was good and punishing against the Wild in the regular-season finale.

"We've reached a stage with our own team where we've just got to expect a little bit more from guys, put them in positions to succeed, put them with the guys they've spent most of the year with," Hitchcock said. "Unfortunately, Shatty was out for a long, long time so things kind of got blown up on the back-end also. But they had great chemistry when they were together until he got hurt and we'll go back to it."

Of course, Jake Allen in net.

The Blues have lost nine consecutive road games in the playoffs since 2012, having been outscored 28-11. They are 3-17 on the road in the playoffs since 2003, having been outscored 55-31.

The Wild is 6-1 at home in the playoffs in 2014 and the one game this postseason.

Via Elias Sports Bureau, teams that go up 3-1 in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup Playoffs series hold an all-time series record of 249-27 (90.2%).

“We’re approaching the game the same way,” Yeo said. “We don’t go into the game saying, ‘Oh, it’s nice we got a 2-1 lead.’ And we didn’t go in last game saying, ‘Oh no, we lost the last game.’ It’s just about the next one. That’s our approach within the game, too. If you have a good shift, how do you bounce back from the last one or how do you come back and make sure you maintain it. If you have a bad shift, what do you do when you step over the boards to try to correct it and get things going back in your direction. Likewise, that will be our same approach tonight.

“We come in with no kind of assumptions of how the game’s going to play out, no kind of thoughts in terms of ‘Oh, if we win this is what it means. If we lose, that’s what it means.’ We put all of our thoughts and focus into the idea that we have to play the game a certain way. We have to bring certain things into the game tonight. If you do that, you give yourself a better chance.”

Wild expects Blues to respond in Game 2; No lineup changes for either team

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 18, 2015 - 10:00 AM

The Wild and St. Louis Blues practiced at opposite sites Friday. The Wild had an optional, one though where the majority of the team skated. The Blues had a full skate.

Coach Mike Yeo said all players are healthy from Thursday’s 4-2 Game 1 win over St. Louis and there will be no lineup changes.

“I don’t really see a reason to,” Yeo said.

Similarly, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said no lineup changes, although he reunited David Backes and T.J. Oshie with Dmitrij Jaskin and Patrik Berglund moved to the Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny line.

“We’re not making any lineup changes,” Hitchcock said. “We need to play better. We need to play our way at a higher level and if we do that, we'll be in good shape. I think every aspect of our game needs to be amped up a little bit if we expect to beat this team here. They're a real good team and we're going to have to be on top of our game to beat them.”

The Wild expects the Blues to respond and Yeo is interested to see how the Wild handles being up in a series for the first time in his tenure. Remember, the Wild trailed the 2013 series against Chicago, never led last year’s Colorado series until winning Game 7 and never led the Chicago series in the second round.

“It shouldn’t be hard to stay hungry,” Yeo said. “If anything, it should fuel it a little bit more. I think we still recognize the tough challenge we have ahead of us. We got the first game. Rhat’s great. But we there’s an awful lot of work to be done still.

“I would fully expect them to come out and play a real physical brand of hockey, try to impose themselves on us. I expect them to try to throw everything at the net and try to crash the net real hard. I don’t think that’s a real big secret, but we’ve just got to make sure we’re not sitting around watching and waiting to see what they’re going to bring at us. We have our own gameplan that we’ve got to make sure we’re aggressive in how we approach ourselves.

“I think the idea is when you grab the lead, you want to push harder and try to extend it. I think for us to feel any kind of satisfaction or be overly pleased with ourselves, I don’t think you’re going to see that with our group. We know it’s going to be a tough test. All we can do right now is make sure we put our best game on the ice and go all-in with the way that we have to play and see what that gives us.”

Hitchcock said, “I thought they outchecked us. Their determination to defend was greater than ours was. Both offensively and defensively they had more minutes where they made it hard on us. If you look at the 60 minutes, there were ebbs and flows. We were really good in stages, they were just better in more stages. They were much better than we were in the second period and we mounted a pretty big comeback in the third, but I think their checking and compete on the puck was at a higher level throughout the lineup than ours was.

I think they make you earn your stripes. So, it's our job to earn our stripes. They make you earn your ice whether it's in the D-zone or in the neutral zone, they make you earn your stripes. They check well. They're well-coached, they check well and I thought we had times where we let them off the hook when we didn't have to and that fed the engine that fed the odd-man rushes. We gave up too many odd-man rushes, but it was a lot of time when we had the puck and it was us having the puck in the offensive zone, getting checked off it, turning it over, forcing offense and then boom, they're gone and they got the foot-speed to go and we fed that engine a little bit too much.”

Zach Parise said, “From a mentality standpoint, the second one is so important for us and hopefully we can have the same type of game that we did.”

He said the pressure did not come off by winning Game 1: “That can be erased pretty quickly. We’d love to get out of here with a couple of wins. We did the first part of that last night and now we have to find areas to improve for the second game.”

Parise said, “Anytime you lose the first game in the series, you want to rebound and have a great second game. But at the same time, we can be better as well and we’re looking to put together a better second game.”

That was the theme in the Wild locker room today and clearly the message Yeo gave his team.

Nino Niederreiter: “[Saturday’s] a very important game for us. We know they’re going to come out even harder and that’s exactly what we’ve got to do too. We played some good hockey yesterday, but I think we can still crank it up another level.”

Charlie Coyle: They’re definitely not happy with their game. They obviously have more and we feel we have more too. You can never be complacent. We won. Put it behind us and stay levelheaded here. Bring that physicality back and it’s going to wear them down.”

Jordan Leopold: “We have a tough Game 2. Do we want it? Yeah. But it’s going to be a tough challenge. I’ve been in their room. I know they’re going to make some changes, look at video and do some things. I know what the mentality is and what the preparation’s going to be. It’s going to be right up there. They’re very focused. We need to be able to match it if not be better. They’re going to respond. We just need to stay with our gameplan.”

I talked to Chris Stewart and Niederreiter about Steve Ott, who was doing his best to get under the Wild’s skin last night. That’s Steve Ott. Just YouTube Steve Ott and Josh Harding to refresh your memory of his act.

But Stewart, Niederreiter and Jason Zucker (Ott grabbed hold of his collarbone real obviously) all ignored him, which could have the opposite effect, they said. Ignore him, smile and he and the Blues get more frustrated. Stewart said though don’t think for a second he won’t take an opportunity to return the favor at some point in this series after getting drilled by Ott yesterday.

More on that in Saturday’s paper.

Yeo on Jason Zucker today: “We needed speed to be a factor and I think we saw that last night. Speed for us is not about one guy and I think if you look at that one line, that line played fast all night too. That’s one thing, for sure he’s a guy that has the ability to break plays and push the D back and challenge them with his speed individually. But I think the thing that I was pleased with last night was the speed game that we played with and that’s not an individual thing, that’s how we play the game.”

I found this quote interesting on Zucker: “We’ve all know that he has the ability to finish, to create chances to score goals. His evolution has come and how he’s grown as a player and No. 1 how he plays without the puck. He finds himself in much better positions because of that, but his competitiveness is miles from where it was the first couple of years in here. He recognizes how he has to play the game, there is a conversation, I think we were in Long Island a couple of years ago (Russo note: this had to be last year) and just basically told him there is no reason you can’t play the game like Zach and that should be sort of a mentor for him in how he approaches the game, his tenacity, his work ethic his compete level and doing so, generate a lot more offense because of that.”

The Blues are 1-7-1 after long breaks. Yeo was asked about that: “We had the same break as them, so I wasn’t real concerned. We’ve got a lot of bodies right now. We had a period of time where we had a long break before we played the Rangers and we used that as a template of how not to use the week (chuckled). We kind of changed some things and I felt our guys would be ready to go. Plus, a long break in the dog days of a season are a different story than before you start the playoffs. Obviously you’re going to be pretty amped up and there was no shortage of intensity right from the start of the game. I was certainly pleased with how our timing looked right from the start.”

By the way, those changes he talked about? Basically that extra line of red jerseys were bystanders during a lot of line rushes.

Lastly, a cut and paste of Kevin Shattenkirk today. The always quotable Blues defenseman had a lot of good stuff to say, and you can sense the respect level he has for the Wild.

On the Blues being 1-7-1 when having three or more days off? It's a pretty weird stat. They had the same thing too. It's a matter of getting back into game form. Yesterday was a big game, there was a little bit of nerves there at the start. We just didn't get to our game right away, which ultimately hurt us, not being able to get on top of things early enough. We know what we did right yesterday and how we looked when we did and that's what we have to do tomorrow from the start.

Beating Minnesota? I think you just have to remember what the formula was. We were chipping pucks in, we were hard on our forecheck, the D men were getting shots to the net, that's important, they seemed to be playing passive in their zone, getting into shot lanes, not allowing anything to the inside, it's going to be hard ice to fight for, but when we did it, that's when we're successful. That's what we need to work on.

Hitchcock talks of keeping it simple? They can be a frustrating team at times because they're so patient in the neutral zone and their defensive zone. They're not really letting us into the middle and that can cause you to try to make plays that aren't there or force things. That's when we keep it simple, that's when we stick to our game of grinding things down physically and just trying to get pucks to the net and looking for those rebounds.

We know how to win at home. We still have the advantage on our side that we have a home game tomorrow. I think that's how we're approaching it. The first one slipped away from us, that's for sure, today we came with a fresh attitude. Tomorrow is important absolutely but we can't put too much pressure on ourselves.

Was the time off good for him? I felt good out there. I thought last night was the best I've felt since the injury. For me, that was the most promising thing out of yesterday, I felt more like myself than I pretty much have all year.

Back to the time off? That's part of it. They did it before too. They had three days off. I think when you're playing on the road it's easy not to force things and feel that pressure of having to get that game. I think we let that get to us a little early on. We settled in and that's the most important thing, that's what we have to remember and remember how we looked when we did.

Things you learned from seeing them in person, rather than on film or in previous games? I think just one thing that I've seemed to learn from them is you can't forget they played last year too and they had a pretty good playoff run. They showed a little more experience than maybe we knew they were going to have. They're a great team. They're deep like us, they play a very good team game, they have a goalie in net who's pretty confident and playing great hockey right now. We have to find a way to expose them and be able to pick on their weaknesses and open them up this series.

Puck possession a key to counteracting Minnesota's speed? That and not turning the puck over in those crucial areas, at their blue line, when we have possession in the neutral zone, making strong plays, that's what's key to really not feeding into that team speed they seem to have.

Wild faster than expected? It's the playoffs. They played to the best of their abilities and I think that's what every team does at this time of year. We knew they were fast, they showed it, they proved it, now we adjust to it, we know what it is, we know how to handle it.

I think the one thing we can work to do is with our size up front, we have the ability to get on those defensemen, younger guys, guys who aren't as big and physical as our guys, just really work and make them play hard. I think it's going to be tough for them to win battles against our big guys out front, that's why we have to get pucks to the net and work to find those rebounds because I think we can win those battles.

Getting more shots on Dubnyk? There was the opportunity to shoot pucks early and I was guilty of it early on, was having it on my stick too long and then trying to get it to the net. They were packing it in pretty tight, so when we get those pucks on the point we have to get it there quickly so they can't set their defense again. That goal was a good example of it.

Importance of scoring on Dubnyk? That's important for us. It's important mentally, to try to put it in his mind that we're coming and that's the way we're going to try to score goals. We did a great job last Saturday and we have to realize there's a way to do it. We need to stick with that game plan.

Talk to ya Saturday. I best write for the actual paper now. Plus, I’m going to the Cardinals-Reds game tonight.

Wild play what Devan Dubnyk calls "fantastic road game" for 1-0 series lead

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 17, 2015 - 8:46 AM

UPDATED

The Wild outshot, outhit and outblocked-shot (to make up a word) the St. Louis Blues in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.

The Blues pushed hard late and Dmitrij Jaskin fluttered a shot over the net with Chris Stewart pressuring in the waning seconds before the first of two Wild empty-netters, but the Wild held on for a 4-2 victory to take home-ice advantage and put itself in a position to take a stranglehold on the series Saturday at 2 p.m. (NBC).

Lots of great Wild efforts all over the ice. Matt Dumba scored and battled all night, Charlie Coyle played a big boy's game with Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker put St. Louis on its heels early, Sean Bergenheim provided solid shifts from the fourth line, Stewart was physical and blocked a Barret Jackman outlet that led to Dumba's goal, Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville line had a solid game, the defensemen looked good, etc. Wild scored two power-play goals (one was empty-net by Pominville, and gave up one shorthanded goal, the first shortie against since Jan. 3).

The Wild, 1-9 on the road in the past two postseasons, snapped a seven-game Game 1 losing streak with its first Game 1 win since the first-ever Game 1 way back on April 10, 2003, against Colorado.

The Wild was especially strong in the second period, holding the Blues to four shots and none in the final 8 minutes, 32 seconds. The Wild jumped out to a 1-0 lead 2:47 into the game on an awesome goal by Zucker.

With the Wild on a line change, Zucker caught Zbynek Michalek off guard by turning on his jets and flying into the offensive zone. Zucker took a tight-angle shot, Jake Allen kicked the rebound right to him and in one motion, Zucker sped to the other side of the net with Allen out of position and tucked the puck inside the post with the puck sticking to his blade like it was glued there.

“That guy's a speed demon there,” Allen said. “Good play by him. Wish I could have controlled the rebound a little bit better, but it was a good move by him.”

The Wild played an OK first. Five or six good chances, but a lot of one and done’s in the offensive zone and sloppy in its own zone. But in the second, after Matt Dumba scored his first career playoff goal on a power play, it was all Wild.

“They outplayed us in the second,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “They were quicker on pucks, they were faster in the zone. We took some penalties that gave them some momentum, gave them a chance to rest. We didn’t build on the good first period.”

Hitchcock said you have to play simple games in the playoffs, and when the Blues got frustrated being kept to the outside, they played a “very complicated game and it made us look slow.”

The Wild, on the other hand, looked fast for large chunks of the game. Even in the first, the Wild was able to get going with speed and that was especially the case in the second when it sustained pressure in the offensive zone.

Things got hairy in the third when Jaden Schwartz scored on a redirection, but Mikael Granlund scored with an empty-net. That was big because Alex Steen scored with 58.7 seconds left. Finally Jason Pominville scored with an empty-net to seal the deal.

Devan Dubnyk picked up the win with 19 saves in his debut. The Blues are now 4-13 in the playoffs and as I wrote in my gamer you can read on startribune.com/wild, the pressure is squarely on them now after their past playoff losses.

“We have to leave this one behind and take the good things out of it but move to the second one,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “We know the further it’s going to go the tougher it’s going to get. We have to enjoy this one for a couple minutes and start to prepare for Saturday’s game.”

Coach Mike Yeo said, “That’s a good start for us. I think we have to make sure that we use this game, we look at the video and there’s certainly some areas where we know we can be better. But a lot of good things to take from it, for sure.”

Dumba had a great game, and not just the goal. He battled all night. Yeo said, “He’s a strong kid. He’s a competitive kid, and certainly not afraid to go into the corners. He’s got the skating ability to escape and help us execute in certain situations, but he’s got that competitive nature that’s a huge part of it too, especially against a team like this. It’s one thing to say you want to execute, but they’re going to find a way to create some turnovers and you’re going to have to find some opportunities to separate guys from pucks. That’s not an easy team to do it against.”

Dumba, during his celebration, said some words into his left elbow. Dumba was coy about what he was saying and said he may tell us after the playoffs.

Here’s some of David Backes’ thoughts:

“They came out and played a solid road game and we needed to capitalize on a few more chances, create scrums around their net with loose pucks. We just didn't get to the inside enough. The result is they win the special teams battle by a goal and a 2-1 lead before the empty-netters.

“I think we got better as the game went along. I don't know if it was nerves or too much time off or what. We didn't bring our 'A' game from the drop of the puck and they were able to score a goal early and then add a power play goal after that. Combination of staying out of the box... I've got to block that or Petro's got to block that; Jake can't see it. We'll take blame and blame where it's due and need a much better effort on Saturday. But the good thing we know it's in this room to bring that better effort.

“I think it's a conscious effort by us to go set up shop in front of their net. We finally did. Schwartzy gets a nice tip and scores a goal there from getting there. That's what we need to do. We can't do it again until Saturday, but one game's in the books. They get a 1-0 lead. Now's the time for us to make a few adjustments and find a way to win the next one.

“He made all the saves he was supposed to and on some he shouldn't. The power play goal he can't see because we're in lanes but not blocking pucks. The wraparound, (Zucker) gets around there pretty quick. He makes a pretty good play.

“You get down one at home and you hope to pick it up a notch and that'd be a wakeup call. It almost took until the third period until we finally got our legs going and played our brand of hockey. We had great chances and created o-zone time, looked more like our game and we needed that for a full 60 in order to win games against this team and another chance on Saturday.”

Lots more in the paper from Chip and I, and quotes in the game story from Zach Parise, Dumba, Dubnyk and Yeo.

Good win. Lots of series still to go, but great start. Talk to you after Friday’s practice. By the way, I'll be doing a 2 p.m. live chat on startribune.com before Game 3 Monday.

Haula will play vs. Winnipeg; Zucker might return Thursday

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 5, 2015 - 1:35 PM

Afternoon. I’ll be on Rosen’s Sports Sunday tonight on Ch. 4 and on KFAN at 10:15 a.m. Monday (Vox in the Box with Paul Allen).

The Wild held an optional practice at Xcel Energy Center today in preparation for Monday’s big regular-season home finale against the Winnipeg Jets. Win in regulation, and the Wild clinches a playoff spot. Win in overtime, and the Wild would need the Los Angeles Kings to lose in regulation at Vancouver to clinch a playoff spot.

Sixteen skaters, including Jason Zucker and Matt Cooke and excluding captain Mikko Koivu (scratched cornea), and goalies Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom practiced.

The Wild still sounds as if it’s planning for a Cooke return Tuesday in Chicago. It sounds like the hope is Zucker can return Thursday in Nashville. Coach Mike Yeo said he honestly doesn’t have a plan, but Zucker hopes to get one or two games and Yeo said, “I don’t want to throw him into the playoffs in Game 1 having not played any game.”

The Wild isn’t practicing Wednesday in Nashville, but a Thursday return would give Zucker three consecutive morning skates to prep more and two games before the playoffs. I’m not sure you want Zucker’s first game coming against the rugged St. Louis Blues in Game 82.

For the first time Sunday, Zucker really ramped up the contact. Assistant coach Darby Hendrickson battled with him throughout practice, so Zucker said how he feels Monday will be a big indicator as how his week should go.

Yeo didn’t have an update on Koivu today. But the captain who missed last night’s game is expected to play Monday. If not, Yeo said the Wild will have a Plan B

Yeo did say regardless of Koivu playing, Erik Haula will be given a chance to respond from his poor game (a shootout loss) last night against the Detroit Red Wings. Yeo met with Haula this morning.

So if Koivu plays, I’d think Jordan Schroeder will be scratched because one would assume Ryan Carter needs to play against the big, physical Jets. If Koivu doesn’t play, Schroeder would likely play.

This is conjecture.

Yeo said, “I know that Haula can play better. I just want to get him to the level that he was playing at two weeks ago. I know it’s there. I know he’s capable of it and I know we can get him back there.”

Haula was such an important, impressive piece to the Wild’s postseason last year that Yeo badly wants Haula to get back to that level so he can play him this postseason. Right now, his game doesn’t warrant it.

“It would be easy to take him out of the lineup [Monday],” Yeo said. “But sometimes you have to make decisions based on the bigger picture. Sometimes those decisions you have to think a little bit deeper. We want to give him a chance to respond and see if he can get his game up to that level because we know what he’s capable of and we know how effective that can be in the playoffs.”

If I had a dime for every story I’ve written this year with Haula falling on the knife, I’d probably have … a dollar.

He did again today: “I know what it is and the things that I do well and when I don’t play well the things that I tend to do. Maybe as not as big of a guy and whatnot, I have to really focus on the compete part. It’ll be there next game for sure. I’ll make sure I bring that, the extra efforts.

“Everyone competes. But just those little things stick out. A good example was the penalty I took [Saturday], that was probably my worst shift of the game. I know it was a bad shift.”

Play against Winnipeg, and a player has no choice but to compete. So this will be a huge test for Haula to show Yeo something.

On wanting to be in the lineup in the playoffs, the former Gophers two-time leading scorer said, “Everyone brings something different. I just want to get back to that. I feel like I get that extra drive when the playoffs start. I’ve always been like that. Not to say that this year’s going to be like last year because last year was obviously top of the line, but I want to definitely be a big piece when we get there and be in the lineup.”

The Wild has the most points in the NHL since Jan. 15. It has won a franchise-record 10 in a row on the road. It had won five in a row overall, including big wins over St. Louis, Calgary and L.A. It took four days off and it has seemed to lost its mojo.

“If there’s anything we’ve done well over the past stretch, you put the previous result behind you and get ready for the next game,” Yeo said. “It’s tougher to do with losses than it does with wins.”

Yeo just wants the Wild to do all the things in Monday’s game that helps the Wild get to its game. You can’t just go on the ice and expect it to be there, he says.

“We know what’s at stake for them, we know what’s at stake for ourselves. We know it’s going to be an intense game. Our third period [against Detroit] was a much better indication of how we have to play the game, but it’s how we approach the game that’s going to be important,” Yeo said.

Yeo said all week he tried to guard against a lost desperation level that naturally may come with a cushion and the fact there’s no motivation anymore about being able to catch the second- or third-place teams in the Central.

“We’re stuck in between a little bit and that’s the way the last couple games have played out,” Yeo said. “We’ve got to invest in the game.”

I talked to Thomas Vanek a lot about his around the world shootout move this morning, and I’ll squeeze that into Monday’s newspaper.

On Monday, Vanek said, “We just need to get back to our game and controlling the game. After those four days off, I don’t know, I don’t think we lost anything, but we wanted to win so bad to clinch a spot that sometimes when you think too much it goes backwards.”

He said those days off will help the Wild in the long run, but now it has to get back to the mindset of just playing well. “We didn’t worry about [being so close to the playoffs] the last two months. We just knew we needed to win and play well. We have to get that mentality.”

See you on Rosen’s tonight and talk to you tomorrow.

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