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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Posts about Wild game coverage

Pominville's hat trick leads Wild to preseason win; Bryzgalov takes selfies with fans

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 30, 2014 - 11:11 AM

Tuesday update: Jon Blum, Justin Falk and Joel Rechlicz cleared waivers, officially assigned to Iowa.

Ilya Bryzgalov, always the character, was a riot tonight during the Wild's 4-1 exhibition victory over the Pittsburgh.

Bryzgalov, who had a sensational attitude all camp even though he's on a tryout and will likely be released from that tryout unless something unexpected happens with Darcy Kuemper or Niklas Backstrom, took selfies with fans during the third period through the glass as he sat on the Wild bench.

In fact, a line began to form during play and finally the ushers had to put an end to it.

Here are some pics from Twitter:

Then, after Jason Pominville's empty-net goal -- the third in the third period by Pominville for the natural hat trick -- Bryzgalov threw his toque on the ice as part of the celebration.

“What’s he think he’s a model?” joked equipment manager Tony DaCosta, who stood next to him. “Then he starts waving them all down! Then he throws his [toque] on the ice when Pommer gets his hat trick. That's our last one!”

Tonight's game was dreadful at times to watch, so naturally, my first question to coach Mike Yeo in the postgame presser was about Bryz.

"No comment. No comment," Yeo said, laughing, when asked about the selfies and throwing his toque on the ice.

Man, Bryzgalov can be refreshing to cover sometimes. I ran into him at a restaurant in Pittsburgh the other night and had a tremendous conversation about real-life world stuff. The more I cover him, the more I truly think he is pretty misunderstood. A lot of people have asked me if he'd take a two-way, but I can't imagine him riding the AHL buses and regional jets.

And after tonight's 32-save effort by Kuemper in a game his teammates were pretty bad, I don't think there's any concern from management to put him on the team. In fact, after the game, Yeo went on and on about how good Kuemper is at controlling rebounds and making plays die by freezing pucks. That key strength could be his inside track toward being the eventual No. 1.

Yeo said he doesn't mind stoppages in the D-zone because the Wild's such a good faceoff team.

And Backstrom is on the team, so since there's only one goal and preferably two spots for goalies, Bryzgalov is likely what he thought he would be -- Kuemper/Backstrom insurance.

Onto the game:

With the score tied 1-1 entering the third period, the fourth line of Stephane Veilleux, Cody Almond and Zack Phillips had a good momentum shift early in the period for what honestly was the first sustained pressure by the Wild in the entire game.

Then, finally the Wild got going.

Zach Parise, who scored a first-period power-play goal from Mikael Granlund and Matt Dumba, dropped a pass for Pominville. He unloaded the tee-up by Jeff Zatkoff at 8:39 of the period. Four minutes later, after a tremendous shift by Parise in every zone, Pominville gobbled up Jonas Brodin’s shot off the back wall and scored on a wraparound. Finally, Pominville took Granlund’s pass for the natural hat trick empty-netter.

Parise on the game: It wasn’t great. Special teams was good again. It was solid, but I thought 5-on-5 wasn’t very good. They did a good job. They were in our face a lot in the neutral zone, but we were doing a lot of swinging, we were trying to hit stretch plays and a lot of turn our back through the neutral zone and because of that we spent a lot of time in our zone.”

On Pominville and his line: “Great preseason. We all need to be a lot better. Our line needs to be a lot better and play a little more consistent. I think right now we’re to some extent still playing summer hockey, a lot of stick checking and you’ll see flashes of playing normal hockey, but we need to do that a little more often.”

The Thomas Vanek-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle line wasn’t very good, at least not nearly as good as they were in Pittsburgh last Thursday. Vanek didn’t have a great debut. He actually had a breakaway but tried to drop a pass that went right to a defender.

The third line of Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Jordan Schroeder? Yeo said they weren’t great all game and Schroeder was placed on waivers Tuesday for the purpose of sending to Iowa. Phillips was also reassigned, although Yeo said while he’s not ready yet to make the Wild, he’s much improved and this was the best game he has seen Phillips, the 2011 first-rounder, play. Yeo said he has come to camp in much better shape, which has made him move better on the ice. Both of those – fitness and skating – has been his professional downfall so far, but it seems like he got the message this summer.

The Wild’s roster is now at 30 (Brandon Whitney was returned to his QMJHL team today). Technically, with Josh Harding suspended, it’s at 29. Technically, with Gustav Olofsson expected to be reassigned to Iowa once he’s healthy, it’s at 28. Remember, 23 can make the team.

The roster as of now:

Forwards (17): Charlie Coyle, Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Cody Almond, Justin Fontaine, Jason Zucker, Stephane Veilleux, Kyle Brodziak, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Cooke, Thomas Vanek, Brett Sutter, Jason Pominville, Michael Keranen, Curt Gogol, Erik Haula, Mikael Granlund.

Defensemen (9): Keith Ballard, Stu Bickel, Christian Folin, Marco Scandella, Ryan Suter, Gustav Olofsson, Jonas Brodin, Jared Spurgeon, Matt Dumba.

Goalies (4): Ilya Bryzgalov (tryout), Niklas Backstrom, Darcy Kuemper, Josh Harding.

Matt Dumba flashed some stuff again. He’s a risk-taker and plays with flair and pizzazz. He has got guts and had an assist for a third straight game.

“I feel like I’m doing a lot of good things right now,” Dumba said afterward. “My skating, just everything, is all coming together and feels really good. I’m really on top of my game right now. I’m happy with the summer I had and happy the way I came in. I just have to continue doing that. That’s what it’s about being a pro, that consistency. If I can just keep doing that over the next couple weeks, I think if all goes as planned, hopefully I stay here.”

Frankly, not a couple weeks. A couple days. The final roster is on the horizon.

On Dumba, Yeo said he saw “a lot of good” tonight. “There’s a couple plays I’m not thrilled with, but at the same time, we understand that he’s trying to make our team and he’s not going just make our team by being a safe player all night long, too. He has the ability to create some things and do some things that are definitely at the NHL level and there’s some parts as far as game awareness and understanding the situation that he still has to work on, but it’s easy to sit here and nitpick on a guy like that, but we had a lot of guys that were making mistakes tonight, so overall I thought he was good.”

Pominville on Dumba: “He’s a good skater, moves the puck well. He can shoot. He defends well, too, I think a lot of times he’s aggressive and he’ll create things offensively by being aggressive. It’s fun having a guy out there, you know he’s going to move the puck and he’s going to join and create things offensively. He brings a lot to the table. Obviously he’s still young, but he has a bright future with us.”

On the game, Yeo said after I pointed out that the first two periods were hard to watch: “Third period was very tough to watch in spurts, too. That’s preseason. You end up being pleased with some players, disappointed with some players, but at the same time you’ve got to make sure you don’t overreact or get too excited when things are going well, too.”

The three players Yeo raved about were Kuemper, Parise and defenseman Marco Scandella, who “was a horse all over the ice.”

Pominville, after a tough game I felt in Pittsburgh last week, had a second straight good game. Yeo raved about the job Parise is doing in these preseason games. His work ethic is ridiculous when you consider he’s a vet and vets often mail in the preseason or at a minimum are in do-not-get-hurt mode.

“Go watch that goal, Pommer’s second goal again, and watch Zach that shift,” Yeo said. “It was a great play by Pommer to bury it, but Zach, he knows he’s here, his position’s not really in doubt with us (Yeo said that sarcastically obviously), but he does the right thing in D zone, then he wins a battle, then he wins a race, then he’s the first forechecker, then he continues to stay on the hunt. He was just relentless that shift.”

On Scandella, Yeo said, “He’s walking tall right now. He’s playing the game that way. He’s standing his ground. He’s playing hard in front of the net. He’s a big, strong guy and we need our big, strong guys to play big games.” He compared it to the late-season conversations he had last year to challenge Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle, saying it has nothing to do with fighting, it’s about them playing big games.

Yeo said of Scandella: “He took a huge step last year in his game and up to this point in camp he’s been in another level from that.”

That’s it for me. The Wild has the day off Tuesday, which means I can work ahead. I’ll update the blog once it’s known whether Jon Blum, Justin Falk and Joel Rechlicz clear waivers. Again, when those guys clear, Schroeder will go on waivers for 24 hours before he is officially assigned to Iowa.

The Wild is 2-1-1 in the preseason now with two games left against St. Louis -- Thursday in St. Louis and Saturday at home. Opening night will be here before you know it.

Again, if you want a good taste of what Yeo and GM Chuck Fletcher are thinking about the blue line right now, see the previous blog. That also has a link to the new podcast with myself and the Denver Post’s Adrian Dater.

Have a good Tuesday folks.

Postgame: Wild scores 3 power-play goals in win over Winnipeg; Dumba, Keranen impress

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 27, 2014 - 10:54 PM

The Wild scored three power-play goals and registered 10 shots on four power-play attempts during Saturday’s 4-3 preseason win over the Winnipeg Jets.

Jared Spurgeon’s snipe with 4 minutes, 51 seconds provided the winner. Nino Niederreiter scored a goal and assist, Mikael Granlund scored a goal, Erik Haula scored on a penalty shot and Michael Keranen assisted on two goals.

Before I get going on the game, please give my Sunday story a read.

J.P. Parise is going through the fight of his life with treatment for Stage 4 lung cancer. I talked with J.P. and his son, Zach, about what they’re going through. It’s a sad but, in a lot of ways, uplifting story. Let’s all keep J.P. and the Parise family in our thoughts and prayers. J.P., who was at tonight’s game, is a wonderful man and it meant a lot that the Parises were willing to share such a personal story with me.

As for the game, the Wild was impressive on the power play. It had a shooter’s mentality right from its four-shot first one, one that ended with a Granlund goal from the slot off passes from Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu.

The Wild did a great job working the half wall and using that man, whether it be Koivu, Granlund or Keranen, to draw defenders to them to free up open ice around the net. The Wild constantly moved the puck and got pucks to the net with traffic. Parise said systematically there have been no changes.

It was just a mindset tonight, he said, and maybe a sign of things to come.

5-on-5, Parise said, “Until almost 10 minutes left in the third, it seemed like a preseason game. I think we were pretty sloppy. We weren’t that great with the puck and we didn’t get a lot of good chances off the rush. To me, it seemed like a mindset. Once we kind of turned it on, almost got serious, we got a lot better. But up until then, we were swinging away from the puck and reaching for a lot of pucks, not really too much determination to get pucks back. It’s an easy fix, but we should start thinking about it now.”

I loved Granlund’s game tonight. Obviously there was the one play in the third in the slot where he tried to force a pass instead of shoot, but he was real good.

Ryan Suter was solid for his first game. Nothing to worry about with this guy.

Matt Dumba was very impressive. He made a tremendous play to set up Niederreiter’s goal and he was physical, which I think is a sign of confidence and feeling more comfortable. Remember, besides his big shot and playmaking, his trademark when drafted was physicality. We didn’t see a lot of that during his 13-game taste last season, but he looked good.

I’m on record that if he’s not getting power-play time here, I think he should go to Iowa and develop. But if he plays like he did tonight, he adds a big threat to that second unit on the point. He certainly showed Mike Yeo and the brass a lot tonight as he likely battles Christian Folin for that third-pair spot.

Keranen is an interesting one. Is there a place for him on this team if he’s healthy? Frankly, maybe not.

If Thomas Vanek is healthy and the Wild’s healthy coming out of camp, your first unit forwards are Parise, Granlund and Vanek with Pominville at the point. On the second unit, likely Niederreiter, Koivu and Coyle, and that’s skipping pretty good offensive players like Haula, Jason Zucker and Justin Fontaine.

So where does Keranen fit? One thing for sure, last year’s Finnish Elite League co-leader in points is super-skilled with great vision. Yeo didn’t like his first two periods. Yeo said Keranen, 24, showed him a different level in the third period, that he earned himself another game because of that, and in the next game, Yeo wants to see consistency for a full 60.

Yeo really liked Gustav Olofsson’s game tonight. He said he has stuff to learn, “but he’s got some NHL poise with the puck and vision.” Olofsson did suffer “a bit of an upper body injury at the end of the game,” Yeo said, and the team will reevaluate him Sunday.

If I remember, Olofsson was checked awkwardly and had trouble getting to his feet.

Niklas Backstrom gave up three goals on 17 shots. The first goal was off poor angle but a perfect shot. The second goal was a weird deflection. The third goal was with Adam Lowry camped in front and Yeo said the toughest thing for a goalie early in camp is tracking pucks through traffic. Yeo noted that Backstrom made a number of clutch saves in the second period.

Overall, I see a much different-looking goalie than we saw in camp last year. In practice, he just looks better.

Joel Rechlicz only played five shifts. Yeo said he brought a good vibe to the bench, joking that he likes to chat.

Great line by Yeo on the new scoreboard: “I always stare at the scoreboard after the other team scores. Bit of a clearer picture on the mistakes that we made (laughing).”

That’s it for me. I’ll talk to you after Sunday’s practice.

I had to trim this out of the notebook in Sunday’s paper, but,

There was a special scene on the ice after Saturday’s morning skate. Goalie Darcy Kuemper was part of a marriage proposal.

As the skate ended, goalie coach Bob Mason slipped an engagement ring into Kuemper’s glove. As he was leaving the ice, a man named Jack Baker -- a former neighbor of Mason -- asked for Kuemper’s autograph. Kuemper said he actually had something for Baker’s girlfriend, Alaina Olson (Esko, Minn.).

Kuemper handed over the ring and Baker, a Bloomington native, popped the question.

“She was shocked,” Kuemper said, laughing. “It was pretty cool to be a part of it.”

Parise, Vanek score, Kuemper solid in Wild's exhibition overtime loss

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 25, 2014 - 10:42 PM

Evening from the friendly sky following the Wild’s 3-2 overtime exhibition loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Pretty choppy game after some early flow in the first 10 minutes.

Brandon Sutter scored two goals, including the overtime winner after Ilya Bryzgalov couldn’t handle Simon Despres’ shot off a faceoff. The puck hopped up in the air and landed on the ice for the easy Sutter slam dunk.

“Maybe the brass will get confused which Sutter got two tonight,” joked Wild center Brett Sutter, Brandon’s cousin, as he stretched on the Wild’s locker-room floor after the game.

Brett Sutter, the son of L.A. Kings coach Darryl Sutter, played a solid game and coach Mike Yeo was happy with the “momentum shifts” he got from the fourth line of roster hopefuls Sutter, Cody Almond and Stu Bickel.

He said for the most part he liked what he got from his big guys, too, and Mikko Koivu set up Thomas Vanek for a second-period power-play goal and Mikael Granlund set up Zach Parise for a nice goalmouth tap in after some good battle and cycling from Parise, Granlund and Jason Pominville.

Here is my article in Friday's paper on Parise and Koivu being split up to start training camp. Here is my notebook from the game.

Darcy Kuemper stopped 14 of 15 shots and had no chance had denying Sutter’s first goal, which was set up by Beau Bennett. On a 3-on-5, Marco Scandella picked off a pass and took off with Matt Cooke.

Paul Martin hustled to break it up, so it became a 4-on-1 heading the other way. The Wild recovered, but Scandella was perhaps so out of gas that he fanned on his clearing attempt. That left Jared Spurgeon and Kuemper stranded and Bennett set up the easy goal.

But Kuemper, other than a couple miscues with the puck, was happy with his game, as was Yeo.

“He looked in control, comfortable and definitely didn’t have any chance on the one he gave up, Yeo said.

Said Kuemper, "It was a good starting game and now I just have to keep getting better and preparing for opening night."

On Vanek’s goal where he established position at the goalmouth and scored off a redirection, Yeo said, “He’s got a knack for that, that’s for sure. This is what we talked about, how he’s able to position himself, free his stick up. There were a couple others where he got sticks on pucks where a lot of people can’t get their sticks on. He’s a threat there and it’s nice when Mikko recognizes that.”

Vanek was also a pest in the offensive zone, forcing a couple turnovers and near scores with Koivu and Justin Fontaine. The line combined for seven shots.

“They had some good moments,” Yeo said. “I thought Fonzie did a good job, they had good pressure going. I think we were able to generate some good shifts in the offensive zone. We didn’t shoot particularly well tonight [as a team]. I didn’t think we shot quick enough. I think we ended up getting a lot blocked and a lot that went off sticks, and we missed the net a lot. But overall we generated some chances.”

Matt Dumba had two shots in 24-plus minutes and made a nice play to Koivu before Vanek’s goal. But Yeo noted how prior he passed up a shot.

“These are the things that we’ll teach him and things that we’ll work on, just scanning the ice and recognizing there was an opportunity. He could have grabbed the puck and taken a couple strides toward the end and really let one rip, but he’s got that quickness to jump backdoor and jump into holes and he’s a threat to shoot back there.”

On the Parise-Granlund-Pominville line, which had a bunch of good plays around the net, Yeo said, “They were good all night long. I liked a lot of our top guys tonight. First game, you always know that these guys, … the pace of play picks up from the scrimmages, so now getting that first game, I’d expect us to keep getting better.”

Erik Haula had a tough night. Had some glaring turnovers and appeared to get hurt late, although he stayed in the game. Jason Zucker also had a tough night physically. He took an uncalled high stick, got run a few times and got into a fight with Despres, who is 6-foot-4. Zucker is not 6-4, so he took a pretty good whipping and was seen walking into the medical room after the game.

But he stayed in the whole game and had a strong second half of the game, especially on the penalty kill.

This is key because the way the Wild shapes up, Zucker is unlikely to get No. 1 or 2 power-play time if he makes the team. Yeo wants everybody to typically play a special teams role and he’s played Zucker on the penalty kill the first two preseason games. Zucker has performed quite well.

“He’s playing hard. He’s just showing he wants to be here,” Yeo said. “We’re trying to give him every chance and he’s buying into it and doing a good job.”

Defenseman Keith Ballard sustained a lower-body injury. He had soreness in the area where he had his surgery to repair a sports hernia, so the team was just being cautious.

When Ballard left the game, Bickel, who was playing wing, slid over to sit with the defensemen. But he ended up not playing (in overtime, the Wild went with three forwards for part; Pominville), but it was another area where Bickel provides value.

On Dumba and Christian Folin, Yeo lumped them into the same category, saying, “Both of them showed strong moments and both showed some young moments.” Yeo said Dumba and Folin, vying for that sixth D spot, will see more preseason action so the team can help them “get rid of the young moments.”

I am actually off Friday because I need to sit down to write a big story for Sunday’s paper that you will all want to read. Rachel Blount will cover practice for me. I’d suspect Friday will be a fairly significant cut-down day because Iowa’s training camp starts up.

Backstrom perfect; Zucker, Folin, Olofsson shine in preseason loss

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: September 23, 2014 - 1:10 AM

Wild lines were:

Jason Zucker-Charlie Coyle-Nino Niederreiter

Michael Keranen-Tyler Graovac-Jordan Schroeder

Stephane Veilleux-Cody Almond-Brett Bulmer

Curt Gogol-Brett Sutter-Kurtis Gabriel

Defense pairs were:

Keith Ballard-Christian Folin

Gustav Olofsson-Stu Bickel

Justin Falk-Jon Blum

The Wild lost 2-1 Monday night in a preseason-opening loss at Winnipeg.

Center Tyler Graovac scored the Wild’s lone goal on a 6-on-5 with 13.6 seconds left. Jason Zucker and Christian Folin set up the goal.

The big storyline for the game from a Minnesota perspective was that Niklas Backstrom, making his first start since Jan. 30 and his first start since abdominal and hip surgeries, stopped all 12 shots he faced in 30-plus minutes.

His best save came on a first-period power play with he stone-cold robbed Mathieu Perreault with the glove from point-blank.

“Great performance for him,” coach Mike Yeo said. “That was a great start. Huge save on the PK there early. I thought he looked really good.”

Backstrom, 36, said, “It’s fun to play. It’s been a long road. Five months since my last surgery. Just to be able to play this early in camp, that’s a first step. There’s still a lot of work I need to do to get where I want to be, to where I need to be.

“It’s fun to see where you are and what you need to work on. Still a ways to go.”

Backstrom says he still doesn’t feel 100 percent, both in the cage and physically. But it’s early in camp, there hasn’t been a lot of practice and he’s coming off some operations.

“You have to take small steps,” he said.

On the game, Yeo liked Folin, Jason Zucker, Nino Niederreiter, Stu Bickel. “We had some guys that had some strong games. Olli (Gustav Olofsson), for a young kid, first game, I thought it was pretty impressive the way he showed himself tonight too.”

Zucker had a real strong game. He’s coming off two surgeries and hadn’t played since February.

He took an awkward hit in the second period but brushed off the pain. He did block a shot with his left foot and had ice on it after the game.

But he didn’t lose his speed, was setting up plays all game and he didn’t shy from contact. In fact, he initiated a lot, including his first shift.

“I thought all game long he was competing hard, he was going to the hard areas, his speed was a factor in generating some chances. We were using him a lot. We were trying him out on the PK, we were using him on the power play and he showed well,” Yeo said.

Zucker said, “It was a start. There were some things I definitely need to work on. I need to get back in some battles a little more. Speed wise and skating, I thought I was fine there. First game, just build off of that.”

On his first shift, as I mentioned above, he won two battles to set up a scoring chance.

“That was a lot showing myself that I can do it again after that long of a time soon,” Zucker said. “That’s something that I need to do to be on this team.”

Speaking of which, Stu Bickel got into two fights, and has been often mentioned, the Wild lacks physicality from the back end. So the door is open for Bickel to make the Wild as a third-pair guy or seventh defenseman.

“I was happy with his game,” Yeo said. “The fact that he’s making a statement, saying I want to be here, I think he’s smart enough to realize that if there’s maybe an opportunity to be on our team, it might not be on the second power-play unit (laughs). It might be by bringing something special to the equation and he was ready to show that tonight. On top of that, I thought his game was solid too.”

Bickel said he felt the Jets were taking liberties and running around early in the game, so he got into the scraps.

“That’s something I’m perfectly willing to do,” the former Gopher said. “It’s not the only side of my game. If I feel like liberties [are being] taken against us, I’m not going to take a step back. That’s a natural part of my game. That’s the way I’ve always played. That’s the way I’ll continue to play.”

On the game, Yeo said, “It looked like it was Game 1 of the exhibition season. All in all, about what you’d expect.”

Folin was solid after the first period. Yeo said, “I thought first period was sort of very average. I liked that he picked his game up a lot. I thought he got stronger in his own zone. I thought he got more assertive through the neutral zone as far as his gap control, playing a little tighter, creating some turnovers. He showed me a little bit more in the offensive side than I realized he had. I knew he had a big shot, but as far as vision, the play at the end of the game, the play to Zuck when crashing the net, these are heads-up plays. I didn’t know that he had that in him.”

Justin Fontaine missed the game with a sore groin, so the only regulars from last year to play were Keith Ballard, Charlie Coyle and Niederreiter, who had five shots. Coyle hit two posts.

Yeo gave Coyle, Niederreiter and Zucker first-line minutes and played all three on the power play and penalty kill.

“It’s good for them,” Yeo said. “You use these games to try to figure out and answer some questions as far as who’s going to make your team. Some of it’s rewarding guys and giving guys an experience, but for [Coyle, Niederreiter and Zucker], it’s about getting them ready. It’s an opportunity to build a little confidence. You want them playing big minutes.”

Yeo really liked Coyle’s game in the third period. Before that, he didn’t like Coyle’s game defensively in his own zone. He felt he wasn’t “as quick and assertive as I’d probably like.” But Yeo went on to say that in fairness to Coyle, he played no center the first four days in camp, so there was a little natural hesitation and he was thinking instead of reacting. But as the game went on, Yeo said, his skating was real strong and his power game emerged.

The power play went 0 for 6. As I’ve mentioned, the Wild will begin special teams work this week.

“It looked like we hadn’t worked on it a while lot. And obviously we haven’t, so we have to get on that for sure,” Yeo said.

There are five exhibition games left. The next one is in Pittsburgh on Thursday. That should be Matt Dumba’s exhibition debut. Yeo said he didn’t play tonight because of the way the special teams breakdown, uh, broke down and the way it breaks down in the next five games. He said he’s very happy with Dumba’s camp as well as other guys competing with him.

Olofsson was real good tonight.

He said he had butterflies in the first period, but once he got into the game, his mind took over.

“Overall, it was a lot of fun,” the 2013 second-round pick said. “Totally different than what I’ve been used to. From now on, just adapt and try to play a higher pace.”

Lots of questions on this guy, but I do like Michael Keranen, the Finnish star free-agent pickup who recently signed with HIFK, the Nik Backstrom co-owned team. Very skilled, very smart, but he needs to get stronger.

So, 15 preseason periods left.

Good sign tonight that Nik Backstrom looked so good.

Jason Zucker helped himself tonight. Stu Bickel helped himself tonight. Christian Folin helped himself tonight.

The group that played tonight has the day off Tuesday. There will be a 10:30 a.m. practice for everyone else. There should be cuts, too.

Wild's season comes to an abrupt, stunning end thanks to a fluky bounce

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: May 14, 2014 - 2:51 AM

The sound of that stanchion may reverberate inside the heads of every Wild player, coach, front-office person, Wild employee, arena worker and fan for a long time.

The second I heard that hideous clank, I took a big gulp because I knew something abnormal was about to happen, and that it did.

What a brutal way to end a hockey game and certainly a season for the Wild.

The Wild earned a lot of respect around the league for how it performed this postseason. Tonight, the Wild outplayed the Blackhawks but just couldn’t finish and fell because of it, 2-1, in overtime thanks to yet another Patrick Kane big moment.

“It hurts to lose, and we really believe that we were capable of doing more than just winning this game tonight,” coach Mike Yeo said.

So many glorious Wild chances left on the ice will haunt the Wild this offseason, whether it would be shots Corey Crawford saved (about time he gets the respect he deserves league-wide) or shots that hit the post (Mikael Granlund) or shots that were swung at and missed (Dany Heatley and Jason Pominville) or shots that were blocked with wide-open nets in front (Justin Fontaine and Mikko Koivu).

That just left a bad feeling about how this one may end, and it sure ended with some bad puck luck.

Brent Seabrook dumped the puck and stepped onto the bench (he didn’t even get a plus on the goal), it hit a stanchion behind Ilya Bryzgalov and bounced in front.

Ryan Suter tied up Peter Regin and the two overskated the puck, but Kane, who got loose of Matt Cooke on his backcheck, drove and roofed a backhander.

The arena turned eerily silent. The guys in the GM’s booth just stared at the ice for what felt like an eternity. The players and coaches on the bench were in shock before finally hopping the boards for the always-classy handshake line. The fans, who were so loud throughout and stood for large portions of this game, gave the Wild a loud ovation as it dawned on them this would be the last they see of the Wild until September.

“We got lucky on the bounce there, but we didn’t get lucky with the way he scored it,” defenseman Duncan Keith said. “That’s a skilled player.”

That’s for sure, and the playoffs are often when Kane shines. The 25-year-old, who scored the Cup-clinching goal in Philly in 2010, has four playoff overtime winners, 11 playoff winning goals and 35 playoff goals.

Zach Parise said what every teammate felt after the game -- that a playoff series and season shouldn’t end like that.

The Wild’s lack of finish though is the real reason why the Wild didn’t win this game. I think that we’re going to find out that a lot of players were playing with significant injuries. Pominville has to be hurt. I know for a fact Charlie Coyle’s playing hurt because I’ve seen him wrapped in the upper body. We know Ryan Suter’s hurt. Mikko Koivu, since ankle surgery, really slowed and had one point this series. Nate Prosser had been playing with a broken finger since Game 5 of the first round.

And so on, and so on.

“We lost,” Yeo said. “You never sit here and nobody’s feeling good when you lose. ... What could we have done? I don’t know. It’s hard to even think about that right now. Young players improved. I believe that our veterans had a huge part to do with that. The character that our leaders have, I believe that we’ve created a culture here, an identity and an attitude and they should be proud of that, but it never ends. They just have to keep working ... and build on it.

“The way that our young kids performed, I’m very proud of them. ... You’ve got guys that are getting needles to numb the pain. They’re battling through an incredible amount so what you see out there is only scratching the surface of the way they’re paying the price, physically, mentally emotionally, like I said it’s hard to win. Sometimes a bounce when things are that even comes into play.”

Life goes on, and like I said, the Wild earned respect this postseason run and especially this series. It’s not like the defending champs walked all over them. In fact, it was often quite the opposite. The Wild outskated and outchanced the Hawks for good chunks of most every game just like it outplayed the Avalanche for the majority of the first round.

“They are a tough team to play against, especially in this building,” Kane said. “We saw that in the first round against a really good Colorado team that plays similar to us offensively. You can’t get too frustrated. They have a great record here at home and they really feed off the energy of the crowd. I don’t know what it is against this team, but we never really seem to play our best.  It’s exciting to say you didn’t play your best and still won a series in the second round of Stanley Cup Playoffs.”

I’ll write more in the coming days about what’s next because it’s so hard to break it down this close after the series and this late at night.

Don’t stanchions stink???

As I was riding up the elevator after postgame access, I don’t know why, but this little story on stanchions and a quote from former assistant GM Tom Lynn popped in my head from the 2007 playoffs against Anaheim. Since, the NHL has made every team get this type of glass and stanchion system.

-- First issue: Re-signing Yeo and his coaching staff. I would think that would be a priority now after they were left dangling all season long. All they did was help save the season in January when Parise, Koivu, Josh Harding and Jared Spurgeon went down all at the same time, all they did was navigate through a crazy goaltender carousel thanks to the defensive structure that helped make the playoffs and frustrated Colorado and Chicago to no end, all they did was help guide the Wild to the final-eight.

I know the leaders on this team believe in Yeo and want him back.

“I think he did a great job,” Suter said. “There were times where the wheels could’ve come off and he kept it together. He was always level-headed. I think he did a great job and I think we’re going to have a bright future with him.”

Parise said, “I think they all did a good job. We were prepared. We made adjustments when we needed to make adjustments. We switched lines when we needed to switch lines. I thought they did a good job.”

On how much the Wild grew through the playoffs, he said, “A bunch. I think when you go through the playoffs, when you go through the first round like we did, when you go through the second round like we did, you're bound to become closer as a team and a unit. I think we did that. We grew. I think the players got better just in this playoff run.”

How much did this playoff run do to change people's perception of the Wild? Parise said, “What's most important is how we feel internally. Those guys are the champs, and we felt we were right there with them. I think for us, we feel like we were just as good as anybody. We raised the expectations. I think we showed we were capable of going even farther than we did.”

Added Erik Haula, who came of age this series, “We have a great group here. I hope people realize that.”

On a side note, I cannot even convey how many members of the Blackhawks media came up to me the past few days asking, “Is Yeo always like this?”

“Like what,” I’d say?

“Accommodating, … patient, … respectful, … even-keeled, … funny … good to deal with.”

He definitely earned a lot of respect from the media, that’s for sure.

-- Second issue: Chuck Fletcher will have to figure out the goaltending situation. Darcy Kuemper is a restricted free agent who will likely warrant a one-way contract. Josh Harding has a year left on a one-way contract. Niklas Backstrom has two years left on a one-way contract.

The Wild can’t re-sign Ilya Bryzgalov or another goalie until Fletcher tackles this because there’s no way the Wild can have three or four guys on a one-way contract on a 23-man roster.

Bryzgalov, by the way, did everything he could do the past two games.

“It’s tough to lose. We played hard. We gave it all,” Bryzgalov said. “At the end of the day, when you’re not getting the result you are seeking and wish, it’s disappointing.”

On his time in Minnesota, Bryzgalov said, “Great. I’ve been so happy here. I wish we can accomplish more. It is what it is. My personal experience was probably the best team I’ve played (for), best organization I’ve been [in].”

Yeo on Bryz: “I’m really proud of him, what he brought to our group. You know we all heard stories about Bryz and all I can say is this guy was an unbelievable teammate and came into some really tough situations and he was incredibly bought in to our team. So yeah definitely a tough one the way it ended, but he should be very proud of what he did.”

-- Third issue: Best way to spend the money this offseason, and this is an issue that won’t be an issue until July 1. Basically, the Wild brass just needs to decompress, go to Exuma, sit at Craig Leipold’s beachfront pad and decide how to best spend its money.

Does it go out and give another lucrative long-term deal to a 30-something veteran like Thomas Vanek or does it spend money elsewhere. Remember, the kids grew bigtime. They will continue to grow – the Granlunds, Coyles, Ninos, Haulas, Fontaines, etc. Jason Zucker’s still in the mix. These guys will all warrant raises on their next contracts and in a salary-cap world, Fletcher better make sure he can afford these guys.

More on that in the coming days.

Obviously, some guys will likely move on – Dany Heatley, who has been a great guy to cover the past three years, Matt Moulson (I can’t see the Wild re-signing him unless it’s very clear whatever lower-body injury he had is really what rendered him ineffective in the playoffs), Mike Rupp (another great guy), maybe Prosser (another great guy, but I think Christian Folin takes his spot) and maybe Clayton Stoner and Cody McCormick, although I could see the Wild being interested in re-signing both.

Like I said, more in the coming days. The Wild, as of now, hasn’t announced when it’s end-of-the-year access will be. The wound was too fresh, the hurt too painful after the game for the team to figure that stuff out.

Obviously, it stinks that the season has come to an end. It was a fun little postseason ride and I think it’s clear the future is bright, especially when you look at the way some of these kids stepped up when it most mattered.

Hope you enjoyed the Star Tribune’s team coverage throughout the regular season and postseason. Lots of hard-working people beyond me make this thing churn.

Believe it or not, the 2014-15 season will be my 20th year covering the NHL and 10th covering the Wild. Time flies when you’re having fun.


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