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

Wild postgame: More of the same

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: December 21, 2014 - 1:57 AM

While the Wild locker room is supposed to be opened to the media about five minutes after each game, it was closed considerably longer than that Saturday. When it did open, only a handful of somber players remained to discuss another upsetting loss.

The Wild fell 6-5 in overtime to Nashville, losing an opportunity to gain ground in the Central Division. The evening started with an unfortunate surprise for the Wild when center Mikael Granlund was announced as a late scratch because of illness. It ended with an unassisted goal on a nice move by the Predators' Mattias Ekholm--his first goal of the season--to extend the Wild's winless streak to three games.

It was another poor outing for Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper, who was pulled after allowing three goals on 14 shots in the first period. He's gotten the hook in four of his past five home starts; in those games, he's given up 14 goals on 44 shots. But coach Mike Yeo kept his criticism soft, acknowledging his team's goaltending issues while chastising Kuemper's teammates for not protecting him better.

He has a point, but Kuemper did not look sharp. Calle Jarnkrok fooled him when he skated in from the left side, got Kuemper to drop and then easily glided around him to score. Craig Smith's goal, which gave the Predators a 3-2 lead and was scored with 1:46 remaining in the first period, hit Kuemper's glove and got past him.

Niklas Backstrom fared better, with three goals allowed on 30 shots. Here's what Yeo had to say about the goaltending and what the Wild can do about it:

"I'm not going to sit here and say it's been good enough. But I don’t think we're doing a great job in front of them to help them get on top of their game. So I would say (goaltending) has been an issue, but at the same time, we've compounded things.

"We (need to) pull together as a team and play the type of game we need to in front of them. Our goalies have given us lots of good games this year. We know they're capable of it. When things aren't going well, what do you do for that person? A good team would band together and have a real strong defensive effort in front of them. That has to be our mindset right now.''

Yeo didn't elaborate on Granlund's illness, simply confirming it appears to be the stomach bug that has afflicted several other players recently. When asked if Granlund's absence affected the team, Yeo said, 'We should be way stronger than that. I wouldn't accept that as an excuse.''

While Nashville consistently got pucks behind the Wild defense, Yeo lamented that his team's weak play in the neutral zone led to lots of turnovers and an inability to break through a solid Predators defense. Zach Parise, who scored two goals, pointed to the same problem. "We spent a lot of time in our own zone,'' he said. "They had a game plan to throw everything at the net, and we spent too much time in our zone. You lose your offensive flow.''

Still, the Wild did score five goals on one of the NHL's best goalies, Pekka Rinne. That's the most Rinne has given up all season, and Yeo said when the Wild scores five, a win should be "automatic.'' But the Predators made it a "track meet,'' which isn't the Wild's strength. 'We can't give up (44) shots,'' Parise said. "They had a shooting mentality.''

Captain Mikko Koivu said the Wild needs to stop talking and start doing. "We've got to come back and win these games,'' he said. "It's about the whole picture. We're not where we want to be. It's on us. It's on us being better each and every day, not just one day or one period or one shift. We've got to be consistent and help each other and start building. It's not going to happen overnight. In this league, we have to work each and every day if we want to be a good hockey team.''

Middling Wild continues to tread water, and frustration has officially set in

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 17, 2014 - 11:34 PM

It was crystal clear after tonight’s 3-2 overtime loss to Boston that frustration is consuming the Wild locker room.

It has been crawling along for a month now, painstakingly chasing eighth in the conference from the outside just like it chases most hockey games.

It has been a month now since the Wild has won consecutive games. Tonight, it lost consecutive games for the first time since Nov. 8 and 11 and is a mediocre 5-5-2 in its past 12 and a yucky 2-2-2 in its past six at home. I think that's the definition of middling.

Zach Parise, who has voiced anger lately with the way the team has lacked excitement in its game, could barely get words out after the game. His simple message was the Wild needs to stop losing.

Jason Pominville talked about a lack of confidence inside the team and frustration, which coach Mike Yeo actually first mentioned before the game when he discussed just how hard it has been for the Wild to get any kind of traction.

Tonight, the Wild dominated the second period but fired 20 shots and still couldn’t beat backup Niklas Svedberg. It couldn’t score on Grade A chances, breakaways, crashes of the net and players hit three posts. In the third, the Wild rallied on a Pominville lucky goal, finally getting the puck luck it so lacked in the first two periods.

An atrocious overtime followed, the Wild couldn’t win a draw, spent 90 seconds in its zone and Loui Eriksson ended things.

Still, two months ago, the Wild may have found the silver lining in a game in which it had the wide margin in better chances and battled back to get a point. Not anymore. Not when the internal expectations are to be near the top of the conference, not 10th, not when you’ve been treading water for a month with a sensation that things could start to sink.

“It’s a fine line even for us as a staff right now,” Yeo said. “Normally what you do is you look at that game and you say, ‘If we play that way you’re going to get rewarded,’ and that’s what you focus on. And obviously we know that we need wins, so it’s tough. Like I said, it’s a fine line between trying to find positives and trying to build our game to try to build our confidence and to build the feeling, that winning attitude feeling, between also not being satisfied, not accepting losing and not getting the end result that we want. So we have to try to walk that line.”

Told how players in the room said they’re lacking confidence, Yeo said, “There’s no doubt. 100 percent it is. And it’s easy to say we’re big boys; we’ve got to toughen up. Like I said, that’s the line that we have to walk as a staff, that we have to find that right balance. We can’t just sit here and feel sorry for ourselves that we didn’t win that hockey game. We did a lot of good things. Well, if it wasn’t enough, we’re better than that. Let’s be even better next game. We did a lot of good things. We hit three posts. We made a play to tie up the game. But we can still do a little bit more, and that has to be our mindset. If we keep doing that, I’ve seen many stretches like this in the past where, you know what, you play good hockey, not great hockey, you play good hockey but don’t get the result that you want, the next game you come back a little bit better, the next game you come back a little bit better and before you know it you get on a roll. And that has to be what we understand right now.

“The balance right now that we have to find, and hopefully a couple days in between games will be good here, there’s part of it where we have to push through that and we’ll earn our confidence. It’s not just going to magically appear for us, but at the same time we have to look at the things we’re doing well. We have to concentrate on those and we have to figure out what we’re not doing well enough and get rid of those things. That’s how we’re going to get better.”

One thing the Wild’s not doing well are power plays in clutch situations, like tonight’s 1:13 5-on-3 in which Parise, Pominville, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund managed one shot, lots of attempts blocked and one blown attempted backdoor pass in which Koivu didn’t shoot despite half the net open.

The three lefty setup down low to me seems ridiculous and Pominville said the Wild was also caught off guard by the Bruins’ 3-on-5 setup.

Pominville said usually teams would use two guys to front the Wild’s point guys, but the Bruins’ high guy was trying to deny the pass between Pominville and Suter, “which not a lot of teams do. It’s one of those if you know it’s coming you might be able to adjust.”

Yeo said, “I didn’t like out 5-on-3. We scored the game before (he’s talking the Anaheim 5-on-3 goal) and we came back and I thought we had a different mindset to this one. It’s not a personnel question, it’s not an x’s and o’s thing. It’s just the mentality that we went out with.”

Yeah, but it’s the same personnel coming out with this supposed mentality, so…

As for the Bruins’ apparent strange PK, Yeo said, “They played it a little bit differently. They played it a little bit high, but I think there were shooting lanes there and I didn’t think our net front was good enough. Bottom line is, where you can outnumber them the most is around the net, and I didn’t think that we took advantage of that.”

Like I said, this was a game the Wild played well for the most part. The second, the Bruins couldn’t come close to contain Minnesota and the Bruins admitted how the Wild took it to them.

But, when you’re 5-5-2 in the past 12 and absolutely average lately at home, almost isn’t good enough when you’re on the outside looking in and there’s obviously problems surrounding this team right now.

There’s just not a good feel at all. Of course, there wasn’t a good feel last December either and the Wild completely turning things around.

The Wild is off Thursday and practice Friday in preparation for Saturday’s game against the Preds. Matt Cooke should return that night, which could give the Wild a much needed energy buzz.

Maybe Darcy Kuemper will be healthy by then, too. Jared Spurgeon did come back from that stomach bug tonight.

I am out of town this weekend. Rachel Blount will cover Friday’s practice, Saturday’s game and Sunday’s outdoor practice at the Roseville OVAL. Hey, when you’re a team that’s had the mumps and now a stomach virus, they’ll definitely avoid pneumonia, right?

Right?

Other than a story in Friday’s paper and my Sunday Insider, you may not be hearing from me again until Monday. Enjoy your weekend and Rachel’s capable coverage.

Both goalies sick, and a late penalty had the Wild fuming after its comeback fell short in Chicago

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 17, 2014 - 12:37 AM

Well, the star got the call.

Many in the Wild dressing room was spitting mad after tonight’s 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild rallied from 3-1 down in the third to tie the mighty Hawks, then superstar Patrick Kane got the benefit of a referee’s call on what the Wild felt was a ticky-tack penalty that should not have been called that late in a tie game.

In a game where Brent Seabrook got away with a blatant elbow on Justin Fontaine that basically caused the Wild to be short a man when Seabrook scored the tying goal in the second, in a game where there was reaching and hooks uncalled all game long, Erik Haula was called for hooking Kane at the blue line with 4:35 left in a 3-3 game.

Kane, one of the game’s great puck-handlers, lost the puck out of the zone, then motioned exasperatedly.

Referee Dan O’Rourke’s arm went straight up.

The Blackhawks were given a power play, and proving you’ve got to be good to be lucky, Kane intended a pass for Patrick Sharp and instead the puck caromed past Niklas Backstrom off Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin’s skate with 3:28 left for the winning goal.

“I thought they played well, but getting that power play with 4-5 minutes left there was nice and were able to bounce one in there,” said Seabrook. “It was a lucky one, but we’ll take it.”

Coach Mike Yeo let O’Rourke have it on the bench, both after the call and after the loss. Then, in the postgame, Yeo was still hot about the call.

“That time in a hockey game in a tie game, a one-handed hook on a dead play, pretty frustrating,” Yeo said.

Haula agreed.

“I don’t agree with his call at all,” Haula said. “It’s four minutes left and he decides to decide a good hockey game with a weak penalty like that. I’m definitely not happy about it.”

Haula said it stings even more because the Wild rallied from 3-1 down in the third on Nino Niederreiter’s penalty-shot goal (same move he tried in Dallas but couldn’t score on, he said; team-leading 14th in 29 games after a career-high 14 goals in 81 games last season) and Marco Scandella’s blast 2:50 apart.

“To come out and put it out on the line and overall play a great hockey game and it comes down to that, it’s frustrating,” Haula said.

More on the game in a moment, but the Wild has a goaltending problem on its hand.

Darcy Kuemper was supposed to start tonight’s game. After Niklas Backstrom arrived around 5:15, he was told to get ready because Kuemper had the same stomach issue that has sidelined Jared Spurgeon the past two games and Charlie Coyle from a recent practice.

Well, guess what? Backstrom got the same stomach bug in the first period. But knowing the Wild had nobody to put in to replace him, Backstrom battled through the rest of the game, Yeo said.

The Wild frantically called Iowa and John Curry was pulled by coach John Torchetti with a 3-1 lead after two periods in an eventual win over Rockford.

Kuemper still looked awful after the game. Backstrom was at least upright and drinks lots of colored liquids. But it’ll be interesting to see who starts for the Wild when it hosts Boston on Wednesday.

Remember, Josh Harding is back in Minnesota seeing specialists because of complications with multiple sclerosis. He was hospitalized two weekends ago in Charlotte for dehydration that occurred during a game.

So depending on how Kuemper and Backstrom are feeling, Curry, the former Boston University goalie, could make his second start. There’s also Johan Gustafsson, who relieved Curry tonight. Obviously who starts depends completely on the health of Kuemper and Backstrom.

Originally, Kuemper was supposed to start tonight and Backstrom against Boston. He’s 5-0-1 all-time vs. the Bruins.

Kuemper must have gotten sick in the afternoon.

After the Wild’s morning skate, Kuemper seemed perfectly healthy as he did his normal pregame stretching on the locker-room carpet and joked about the time he lost a “personal-record 10 pounds of water weight” during a start.

In fact, during Yeo’s availability two hours before the game, Yeo confirmed Kuemper would start at the exact moment Backstrom walked out of the locker room to begin his pregame “turtle trot” (super-slow walk) routine he does only when he starts.

In hindsight, that was the giveaway something was amiss. GM Chuck Fletcher wouldn’t say before the game that anything was wrong with Kuemper, largely because he didn’t want the Blackhawks to know the team was potentially without a backup. As it turns out, it wasn’t Andrew Shaw running Backstrom or something. It was the stomach flu that Backstrom had to fight through.

The Wild played a solid first period, took a 1-0 lead on a great Mikael Granlund to Thomas Vanek goal. But then, after Seabrook tied the game, it turned. The Wild stood around the rest of the period and watched the Blackhawks skate and gave them time and space to do whatever they pleased in the Wild end. The Wild went nine minutes without a shot at one point and Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews gave Chicago a 3-1 lead.

But the Wild was outstanding in the third to tie the game before the Blackhawks won it.

In the end, guys like Scandella, Niederreiter and Backstrom said it was the horrible second period that cost the Wild the game, not the Haula penalty and fluky goal Kane scored.

Backstrom noted how the Wild did everything right in the first and third periods, from getting pucks deep to pressuring the Blackhawks everywhere to not turning pucks over at each blue line. That all changed in the second and he said until the Wild, including himself he said, is able to do all the small details right for 60 minutes, it won’t be able to beat the Blackhawks, etc.

The Wild is now 0-5-1 against Anaheim, Chicago, L.A. and St. Louis. Chicago, Nashville, St  Louis and Winnipeg, all of Minnesota in the Central, all got two points tonight. Not good for a Wild team out of the playoff picture.

“You just have to find a way to be better so it’s not going to be about one call or one bounce,” Backstrom said. “Look at that team, they’re doing all the small things every night. That’s why they’re always on the top of the standings. It’s always a challenge to play against them. We want to measure and learn from them so next time we can be better.”

In a shocking turn of events, the power play lifts the shorthanded Wild to a road win

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 14, 2014 - 12:29 AM

For a change, the Wild power play helped win a road game.

After entering with one power-play goal on 44 chances in 14 previous road games, the Wild went 2 for 3 tonight at Arizona, the last coming off Zach Parise’s slam dunk with 5:53 left in regulation to force overtime en route to a 4-3 shootout win.

Playing against a team that is now winless in nine straight at home, the Wild was forced to play a man short with 17 skaters because Jared Spurgeon left warmups sick. He was actually sick beforehand and tried to take some IV’s, but it didn’t work. It sounds like he has a similar stomach virus that forced Charlie Coyle to miss a practice last week at Ridder.

Spurgeon’s absence coupled with Marco Scandella serving the final game of a two-game suspension really put the Wild in a tough spot tonight. Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin took a lot of the responsibility, logging 33:47 and 31:54, respectively (Brodin’s first time over 30 in his regular-season career).

On the second pair, Christian Folin moved to his off side and was paired with Nate Prosser. Justin Falk was paired with Stu Bickel, who was supposed to play forward for injured Ryan Carter, but Bickel only played 10 shifts. So in a lot of ways, the Wild played with 16 skaters.

But after Coyle, who played a strong game despite lots of struggles lately, kept a power play alive, Jason Pominville set up Parise.

Then, in the shootout, Parise and Mikko Koivu each scored their 38th shootout goals for the win. That’s a tie for first in the NHL in career shootout goals, and Koivu used the same move he has scored on three times this season (including the preseason) and several times in his career.

I’m planning to write on Koivu for Monday’s paper and I’ll have another real cool story in Tuesday’s paper that you’ll want to check out too, I think.

Back to Koivu, he has been real good for two or three weeks. I talked to him about “Angry Mikko,” which you know what I mean if you follow me on Twitter, his early season point struggles and leadership.

Jason Zucker had another fine game. He scored on the same breakaway move he scored on in October against Tampa Bay – basically the Koivu shootout move. He also scored with his dad and big bro, Evan, in the crowd. He said it’s the first time Evan has seen him play live, and coincidentally, I talked to Evan for my hockey in Vegas column that is running in Sunday’s paper. Here’s a link.

Suter two assists tonight, four hits, four blocked shots. Brodin, six blocked shots. Folin four blocked shots. Coyle four shots, (eight attempted) two drawn penalties and three hits.

Brodin has been ridiculously good lately. Plus-8 in seven games since returning from the mumps. His plus-14 was tied for fourth among NHL blue-liners. I wrote about Brodin and Coyle in my game notebook.

Yeo praised all the defensemen for stepping up in the absence of Scandella and Spurgeon. First time in the NHL Yeo said he coached a game short a player. He also praised the leadership for helping leading the way after Friday’s “stern” message Yeo provided.

Again, the hope is the power play is a start tonight. Parise said it all started with good entries, a net-front presence, a shot mentality and retrieving pucks, all stuff the Wild doesn’t do when it doesn’t feel good about itself on the power play. He said when you’re feeling good, it’s instinct.

That’s it for me. Just filed for the paper. Short blog, I know, with not a lot of detail about a fair unimpressive game despite the comeback win, but I wasn’t in the locker room long after the game because of a problem I had to deal with out of the blue. So apologies, but I need to get going.

The Wild flew back to Minnesota after the game and is off Sunday. I’ll blog if there’s news. Like I said, I plan to write about Koivu for Monday and a cool story for Tuesday. Kent Youngblood is covering Monday’s practice in Minnesota. Matt Cooke, who has missed 20 games, is expected to practice. We’ll see if Spurgeon or Carter practice as well.

On the blog, I may not be talking to you next until after the morning skates in Chicago. I'll will be on KFAN at 9:35 a.m. Tuesday when our very own Lavelle E. Neal The Third fills in for P.A.

If the Wild can manage to win at Chicago, it'll be .500 on the road after starting the season 2-6 away from St. Paul.

Maddening odd-man rush and power-play execution doom Wild in San Jose

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 12, 2014 - 12:50 AM

Very winnable hockey game for the Wild tonight, yet just 45 seconds after Christian Folin’s first NHL goal tied the hockey game 63 seconds into the third period, the Wild gave up the eventual winning goal to Joe Pavelski.

Just a terrible shift after the tying goal, after supposedly getting the momentum back.

Darcy Kuemper fell on the knife for misreading Joe Thornton and thinking he was going to throw the puck at the net. But Thomas Vanek’s lack of defense was costly when he first hit the brakes and didn’t check Pavelski when he had the puck along the boards, then let him skate into the faceoff circle all alone.

Thornton crossed a perfect pass to a wide-open Pavelski and he nailed the open net. Kuemper said by the time he recovered from the misread, Pavelski had the puck.

But the story of this game was an atrocious 0 for 2, shotless power play (I know, what else is new?) and maddening inefficiency on four shotless 2-on-1’s. So, in total, six shotless 2-on-1's and power plays.

On three 2-on-1’s in the first period and one in the second, the Wild didn’t register a single shot on goal.

Minutes in the game, Zach Parise flubbed a Mikael Granlund pass with virtually the entire net open. Later, Kyle Brodziak rang the crossbar on a shorthanded rush. After that, Granlund led Vanek on an odd-man rush, but they fouled each other up with a miscommunication. Actually, it was no communication when Granlund expected Vanek to go left down the wall, and he instead crossed to his right in front of Granlund. Granlund just coughed up the puck almost like he was passing to an official.

In the second period, Parise set Spurgeon up on a 2-on-1. Despite a point-blank chance, Spurgeon seemed stunned by an aggressive Alex Stalock and his pass back for Parise was broken up by Logan Couture.

Earlier in the period, Couture’s extended reach denied Vanek of a wraparound goal.

“That’s the story of the game to me,” coach Mike Yeo said. “You get one or two 2-on-1’s, you’re thrilled. You get four 2-on-1’s and don't get shots on them, it's tough to generate those type of opportunities, especially on the road. You've got to capitalize.”

The Wild also failed to register a shot on two power plays, one with a chance to tie in the third, and the Wild is now 1 for 45 on the road on the power play.

Yeo said it’s simple. The Wild’s goals the past few games, particularly Tuesday against the Islanders, have come by getting pucks to the net and crashing it. The Wild didn’t attempt to do either on those power plays.

The one thing the Wild was good at was dumping the puck and watching the aggressive Stalock come out each time to ruin the forecheck. The other thing the Wild was good at was failed passes on one-timers.

The power play setup of the first unit is bizarre. I think it’s supposed to be an umbrella or something, but Mikael Granlund just seems miscast up top and when he got the puck tonight, he was either sending soft passes or … not shooting. Vanek on the second unit turned over three pucks on the power play.

On the penalty kill, the Wild gave up a goal to former Wild defenseman Brent Burns, who leads NHL blue-liners with nine. It came after Stalock came out to nearly the blue line to stop Erik Haula’s soft clear. That trapped Ryan Suter, Spurgeon and Brodziak, and their 55-second shift ended with a Burns deflected shot and goal.

Stalock, the second Minnesotan to ever play the Wild, got the win with 18 saves. Barely tested in my opinion with the missed chances on odd-man rushes and shockingly little sustained pressure in the offensive zone, but he did rob Spurgeon with 2:40 left.

Yeo liked the way the Wild defended, but offensively, he wants more to the inside. And when I say harder, those 2-on-1’s are basically what I’m talking about where we’re looking for the nice play. I look at how we scored our goals last game and when we score goals, we’re a team that’s hard to the net and that I think opens up plays to our skill more often. If we’re not aggressive to the net, it’s too easy to defend.”

Disappointing because of Folin’s bomb through a Jason Zucker screen to tie the game early in the third.

“I just remember getting the puck on the blue line and I shot it,” he said. “I got it pretty good and it just went in. I’ll take that as my first goal. It’s very exciting to score your first goal. I’m not really a goal scorer, so it’s always fun to get a goal here and there.”

Only 19 shots on goal by the Wild. Nino Niederreiter had none and Charlie Coyle just continues to, well, not get points and only had one shot.

In the meantime, the Wild, which yes has played fewer games than every team ahead of it in the standings, is now five points behind eighth-place San Jose in 10th place.

Saturday’s game at Arizona is big. The Coyotes are reeling. They have lost seven of eight, are in the midst of a franchise-worst eight-game home losing streak and were smoked at home tonight by Nashville. The Wild needs to go in there and get itself a confidence win.

If not, things could get pretty stressful heading into Tuesday’s game at nemesis Chicago.

On to Arizona. 6:01 a.m. flight, so adios and talk to you after Friday’s practice.

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