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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First off, to answer a question I have received a lot, I asked Bob Waterman from Elias Sports Bureau, historically, is the Wild's seven-point playoff deficit this late in the season a surmountable one?
The biggest comeback came in '93-94 by the Islanders when they were 12 back after 47 games. Last year, Dallas was seven back through 53 games and made the playoffs. The Wild's seven back after 46 games.
As I wrote in today's article here, the Flames, whom the Wild play Thursday, are on pace for 92.4 points, meaning the .500 Wild (46 out of a possible 92 points amassed) would need to grab 47 of a possible 72 points (.653) to eclipse that.
Devan Dubnyk, a 2004 Oilers first-round pick, vs. Viktor Fasth tonight when the Wild and Oilers play their first games after the All-Star break.
Dubnyk is 2-1 in four games with the Wild with a 2.34 goals-against average and .896 save percentage. He got a no-decision in his last start at Detroit, getting pulled after allowing four goals on 10 shots before Darcy Kuemper came in and technically got nailed with the shootout loss because of the Wild’s third-period comeback.
Dubnyk is 11-6-2 this year with a 2.66 GAA and .914 SV%. He is 3-0 this year against Edmonton (all with Arizona) and stopped 90 of 93 shots for a .968 SV% and has a 0.97 GAA.
Fasth is 4-10-2 with a 3.37 GAA and .888 SV%.
Taylor Hall blocked a shot in Monday’s practice and won’t play tonight. The Wild gets Mikael Granlund back tonight. Wild’s completely healthy tonight for the first time in a long time except for Keith Ballard, who remains out indefinitely.
The Wild has won eight of its past nine games in Edmonton.
I’ll be on Fox Sports North during Wild live at 8 p.m. CT and the first intermission. I’ll be the guy with a scratch on his face … from a toothbrush injury. I was brushing too hard because my Uber was waiting yesterday morning and it snapped in half. Luckily it missed my eye and more importantly my typing fingers and nailed my cheek. But I’m going to tough it out tonight because I'm a hockey writer.
Same lines and D pairs as yesterday’s blog.
First game for the Wild in seven days, so coach Mike Yeo said the big emphasis in yesterday’s practice and today’s skate was battle and attention to details and system work.
“You’d expect probably both teams execution wise to not be completely sharp right off the hop,” Yeo said. “Where you’re going to see which team is most successful is how quickly they get to their game.”
This game is always a weird one. I’d presume it’s awfully hard for the goalies, who have seen no pucks for a week besides yesterday and this morning. And you can always tell pretty quickly in a game which players enjoyed the buffet and didn’t hit the workout room during the break, too.
The Wild’s power play has been connecting more and more lately. I’ll update the blog later with the numbers, but it’s pretty much only the No. 1 unit of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville scoring.
Yeo has not been happy with the second unit, but as long as the first unit is scoring, he’s not looking to break them up for now. So his hope is Granlund’s return will help.
I’ve got to think it’s tough for the second unit to get into rhythms when they’re only getting 35-45 seconds a shift it seems, and that always starts with a regroup obviously.
But besides the lack of production, the failure to protect pucks or just throw them away has been troublesome.
That also is an area where Granlund may help because he has the ability to get the puck up ice on breakouts with speed and control pucks on the half wall.
“If we could get a little more production from that second group, I always like the competition,” Yeo said. “If you have a minute, make sure you get the most of it. With that said, if you’ve got 30 seconds, that’s 30 seconds that somebody else on the team would like to have, so make sure you take advantage of it.
“Getting set up has been tough enough for that group, that’s where I think Granny will make a big difference.”
Granlund was on the No. 2 unit today with Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Jason Zucker rotating in and out at the morning skate, so we’ll see which two forwards gets the majority of the ice time tonight. The pointmen are Jared Spurgeon and Jonas Brodin.
Spurgeon is on the left for the one-timers. Why Brodin instead of Marco Scandella, who leads the team with nine goals?
I asked Yeo, and he said, “There will be times where Marco is out there as well, but … if we were setting up on the other side, then it would probably be Marco. But as far as that strongside, it’s a little bit easier for [Brodin] to walk the line and get to the middle of the ice. When we can do that, we’re much more dangerous. Marco is a left shot as well, but he’s a little bit more of an offside shooting guy.”
I'll update those power-play tallies later this afternoon. Talk later tonight.
Morning from the Joe Louis Arena press room. Hustled down to the rink from my flight to grab coach Mike Yeo heading into tonight's game against the red-hot Red Wings.
Reminder, I will be hosting a live chat at startribune.com/wild at 1 p.m. today.
Here's a very quick blog update:
Devan Dubnyk gets the start for the fourth time in four games and second in two nights. Darcy Kuemper, sidelined since Jan. 6, will back up. Niklas Backstrom will be a healthy scratch for I'd guess the first time in his NHL career.
As I've been reporting all week, the Wild is considering sending Kuemper to Iowa during the All-Star break to play a few games on a conditioning stint. I talked to GM Chuck Fletcher yesterday on the phone and he said he planned to talk to Kuemper and his agent to see if they'd accept.
Yeo said by him backing him up tonight, that would not prohibit a rehab stint and they'd let us know their plans afterward.
Nate Prosser returns. Yeo felt they missed him last night from a penalty killing standpoint. Matt Dumba is scratched. Fletcher said yesterday that if Yeo wants Dumba for the game in Edmonton next Tuesday, Dumba will have to miss the AHL All-Star Game in Utica. Yeo said he's not thinking about that yet. However, the AHL does need to know its roster fairly imminently, so we'll see what happens there.
Mikael Granlund has not been cleared by docs to return tonight. Yeo hopes to have him back by Edmonton.
The top-4 D will be reunited tonight, meaning Ryan Suter with Jonas Brodin, Marco Scandella with Jared Spurgeon and Prosser with Christian Folin.
The plan yesterday was to lower Suter's minutes. However, assistant coach Rick Wilson threw Suter out for 30-plus minutes in the front end of a back to back.
That definitely wasn't Yeo's plan, but he said the way the game unfolded and the way the D pairs weren't as effective as hoped, it's just the way it occurred at the end of the night. There is no doubt the plan is to start to lower Suter's minutes.
With his two-game suspension over, Ryan Suter took part in Monday's optional morning skate to get ready to play tonight against Columbus at Xcel Energy Center. The defenseman said he is rested and ready, though he did get into one game while he was off: a knee hockey battle with his son, Brooks, which took place in a suite at Xcel during the Wild's victory over Arizona on Saturday.
"(Thomas) Vanek's kids didn't show up, so I had to play hockey with them,'' Suter said. "I was the goalie.''
Trying to stop pucks himself, Suter said, made it hard to watch that game. He also wasn't in the best of moods as a forced spectator; Monday, he was still irked by the suspension he got for elbowing Pittsburgh's Steve Downie in the head. "I was very surprised (to get suspended),'' Suter said. "I don't hit that often. That was probably my first hit, and it cost me two games. I probably won't be doing that any more.''
Still, it was much easier to watch a team that pulled itself up from the floor and won its past two games. Suter said the time off recharged his battery, though he and coach Mike Yeo also were happy to see development in the Wild's defensive corps. Suter said he's content to keep logging huge amounts of ice time--he's averaging an NHL-high 29 minutes, 34 seconds per game--but the improved play of other defensemen means those minutes can be spread around.
"The guys, over the last couple of games, have really shown they can take on more minutes,'' Suter said. "I think that will bode well for our team moving forward. Honestly, personally, I feel fine. But guys have shown they can take on more, and that’s a huge thing for our team, to be able to have more guys playing more.''
Yeo plans to pair Suter with Jonas Brodin, Matt Dumba with Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella with Christian Folin to start Monday's game. The combinations, though, will be adaptable, changing with the circumstances of the game. Nate Prosser will be a healthy scratch.
"If everyone is on their game,'' Yeo said, "that gives us the possibility for the first time in a long time to almost roll three (defensive) pairs, or at least to get a little more consistency in pairings going out on the ice. These things are always fluid, but that’s the initial plan.''
Devan Dubnyk will start his third consecutive game in goal. Niklas Backstrom will be the backup tonight. Yeo said he believes Darcy Kuemper is healthy enough to play Tuesday at Detroit; it's possible Kuemper could get in, to prevent wear and tear on Dubnyk as the Wild plays three games in four nights. All three goalies will go on the trip.
"Right now, we're just going day by day, and this is the way we're going into the game tonight,'' Yeo said. "After the game, we'll determine what we need for tomorrow. We're bringing everybody (to Detroit), at the very least to get the workload. If we don’t feel that Devan can play tomorrow, then we'll make that decision.''
Yeo sounded much more certain about getting Mikael Granlund back into the lineup. The center wore a yellow no-contact jersey at Monday's morning skate, his second practice since he had wrist surgery on Dec. 29. Yeo would prefer that players have a full-contact practice before rejoining the lineup, but in Granlund's case, he said he doesn't want to wait any longer than necessary.
"I think there's a chance (that Granlund plays Tuesday),'' Yeo said. "We have to see how that goes. He was skating for a good amount of time before he rejoined the group.
"Obviously, we would make sure we have full confidence based on what we hear from doctors and full confidence that he's fully healed and ready to get in there. But this is a guy that is a huge part of our lineup, a huge part of our team, and certainly, we've missed him while he's been out. We don’t have that luxury (of taking more time). I think it's just something we're going to have to deal with. We're lucky we're talking about a guy who’s very smart. The conditioning part, I think, will be a challenge for him as much as anything else, because when you're not in the corners and you're not battling, that’s certainly a different type of conditioning you're dealing with. But unfortunately, it's not like we have three or four days here to give us that opportunity.''
Dubnyk happily talked to the media after the skate today, a bit of a shocker for those of us used to goaltenders who routinely refuse game-day interviews. He's really an affable, modest guy. He spoke about how grateful he is to have the chance to play regularly, downplayed his role in the Wild's recent revival ("I don't think I'm a savior of any sort,'' he said) and mentioned that after Sunday's practice he found a place to live, meaning he will not be a permanent hotel guest.
A reminder from Mike Russo: He will be hosting a live chat Tuesday at 1 p.m. at www.startribune.com. Get those questions ready!
Happy Hockey Day Minnesota everybody.
Man, am I getting old. Just got out of the Coyotes locker room, where I was shooting the breeze with Connor Murphy.
I remember him as a toddler learning how to skate at Gold Coast Ice Arena in Pompano Beach, Fla., when I covered his dad, Gord Murphy, on the Panthers. Across the room was Sam Gagner, who I remember as a kid dominating youth hockey at Incredible Ice in Coral Springs when I covered his dad, Dave Gagner (the former North Star).
Connor said there are actually pictures of he and young Sam together on the ice as kids.
Wild and Coyotes tonight – two struggling teams, with the Coyotes about to begin a severe rebuild that was started with Devan Dubnyk being dealt to Minnesota and Keith Yandle and Antoine Vermette at least likely to be traded this season.
Dubnyk, three days after being traded from Arizona, vs. Mike Smith (the NHL’s worst qualifying goalie in SV% and GAA, tonight.
“He was just solid,” coach Dave Tippett said this morning of Dubnyk. “I’d like to say he came in and just reinvented himself, but he just came in and played a solid, simple game. I don’t think anybody anticipated Smitty’s struggles and when Smitty was struggling, he just came and stabilized things. Probably that’s why Chuck [Fletcher] thought he’d be a fit here right now. There’s nothing extraordinary about his game. He’s a big guy, just plays strong position and is very settling in there.”
Dubnyk was only in Arizona half a season, but he created quite a bond with his ex-teammates and went to dinner with a bunch of them last night.
“I made a lot of good friends there in a short period of time,” Dubnyk said.
But he said this is a great opportunity in Minnesota and said the Buffalo win was “One of the best games I’ve ever been a part of.”
He said he came to Arizona hoping for an opportunity at some point, whether it be this year or next and to get the opportunity to “get in the net and play again and to get it so soon, it’s real exciting to think about.”
Niklas Backstrom, one of the best pros around, was treating him royally today despite his future is in severe flux. Darcy Kuemper was back on the ice today with a new hipster haircut. I said, “Did you ask for the Scandella?” Turns out he did go to Scandella’s barber.
He’s getting close. Mikael Granlund has a doctor’s appointment today to see if he can get cleared to return for tomorrow’s practice. Ryan Suter has a game left in his suspension. And Scandella will be surprisingly put in the lineup tonight, so Yeo said, “We’re getting close to what our group should look like.”
Yeo does not have an answer yet how he’ll manage the three goalies once it arises. Only one can start, only one can back up. He said the most important thing is to make sure they’re all getting the reps, so to speak. Rachel Blount will have more on the goalie situation most likely in Monday’s paper because it’s expected they’ll make Backstrom available tomorrow.
Scandella did have a concussion from that puck to the head Jan. 6 and missed the past five games.
“Extremely frustrating. Team got a big win last game and just want to come in and hopefully help out,” he said. “I’ve been skating a bit, so you just go out there and play simple. I feel good, my head’s good. I’m just ready.”
On returning with zero practices under his belt and only a few days of practice, Scandella said, “That’s the luxury that sometimes you don’t get. But I worked hard on my way back. I feel great. Head, mind, everything, body feels great. Little rested too because the time off obviously helps with bumps and bruises.”
Yeo said he’s “very happy to have him back. I thought the defense did a great job last game, but he’s a huge part of our defensive group.”
On playing him with no practices, Yeo said, “He’s got a good base. He’s been skating,” and that he hasn’t been out for three or four weeks like Granlund, “so the fact that he hasn’t been out very long and given where we’re at in this season, I think we’re confident that he’s OK.”
Yeo has a busy day.
He was sprinting over to the airport to watch his son, Kyler, play for Hill Murray outdoors against St. Thomas Academy. His daughter, Braeden, has senior night at 3 for East Ridge against Roseville. Yeo had to go there to take part in the opening ceremonies and helped last night with her senior night posterboard.
“I’m pretty good with the arts and crafts,” he joked. “Typically on a gameday I go home and get my beauty sleep, but these are things you can’t miss as a parent.”
Yeo said most important is the Wild must get back to being a good home team tonight. This is a team that has won once in the past eight home games. It also hasn’t won two in a row since Nov. 16-20.
“Since I’ve been here we’ve always had stretches where we get on six-, eight-game runs,” Yeo said. “I guess one positive is we haven’t done that yet. I am optimistic that will happen at least once this year and hopefully more than once. Generally when we play a consistent game,” it gives them a chance to win every night.
We talked to Suter today about his time off and he had a lot of interesting stuff to say I’ll put in Sunday’s paper. Great stuff on what it’s like to watch the game from upstairs and also if he thinks the time off will help him. Also good stuff on Dubnyk.
Same lines tonight, meaning Jordan Schroeder is scratched.
Blum is scratched. Shane Doan is hurt for Arizona.
Yesterday was J.P. Parise’s funeral. Suter lost his dad, Bob, in September.
“It was a good tribute to Zach’s dad,” Suter said. “It’s so sad and brings back memories to see him going through that, good friend, close friend. It went smooth. Hopefully it starts the healing for them.
“For him to be playing and then go bury your dad, it would have been hard to do. Now that’s it over, hopefully we can all move on.”
Yeo said, “It really hurts to see a teammate hurt.”
Devan Dubnyk, after taking a red-eye from Phoenix to Buffalo via JFK, arrived in Buffalo at 8 a.m. and despite the long night and early morning, he’ll make his Wild debut tonight against the Sabres.
The Sabres, the NHL’s worst offensive team, have lost a franchise-record eight in a row. The Wild is 0-5-1 in its past six and has lost 12 of 14.
The Wild will be using a mishmash blue line with Ryan Suter suspended and Marco Scandella and Justin Falk hurt. Five right-shot D’s play tonight, so as of now, the pairs are:
Spurgeon (left side for first time in his pro career)-Prosser
Blum (who has struggled every time the Wild has seen him on the left side)-Dumba
Jordan Schroeder is scratched for a third straight game.
If you didn’t see the advance stat blog that our Michael Rand wrote on Dubnyk today, check that out here.
As advertised, Dubnyk is very affable and the Wild abandoned at least for today its team policy that the starting goalie doesn’t talk on a game day.
Dubnyk, who wore his Coyotes mask and pads in the morning skate, said the trade from the Coyotes to the Wild was a “bit of a roller coaster. I didn’t see it coming. I was aware of rumors and whatnot and I was just driving home from the rink and got a call. As the day went on, it settled in and I just got more and more excited. It’s an opportunity for me to come play. The way that things were in Arizona and Smitty (Mike Smith) there and they’ve got a great goalie locked up for a lot of years, to get a chance to come somewhere and play games is exciting for me. I’m looking forward to that.”
Honestly, in my opinion, Dubnyk has to look at this as a no-pressure scenario. Just play. The Wild has struggled. The goalies have struggled, so just get in there, play and try to allow the Wild to rediscover its game.
Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is the Wild’s game started to erode once the goaltending turned south. They started to cheat defensively to protect the goalies better, they started to get down in the dumps once the bad goals started to occur and now the game is MIA. There have been signs recently in the home game against Chicago, first period against Nashville, first and second periods against Pittsburgh that the structure is still there. So maybe tonight can be the beginning of the tonic, so to speak. We shall see.
Dubnyk, who has a wife and 17-month-old, wanted to make it here for the skate so he could get as much of a normal gameday routine as possible.
He said he got a little sleep on the red-eye, but he said laughing, “I’m 6-5, so I don’t fit on planes that well. I crunched up into a ball as best as I could. I think my tailbone will be reminding me of that flight for a couple weeks to come.”
Last year was “tough,” he said. As I wrote in my coverage in today’s paper, he lost his job in Edmonton, was traded to Nashville and Montreal and ended up in the minors.
“If you asked me before the start of last season what the absolute worst outcome of a season could be, I probably wouldn’t have told you half of what happened,” Dubnyk said. “That’s the way the things can go in professional sports. It was a long and difficult season for me. I was able to take a step back in the summer and I was fortunate to get a great opportunity to go to Arizona and get to work with [goalie coach] Sean Burke and an organization that gave me full confidence and an opportunity to go in and just get my game back. To feel fortunate to have an opportunity to play in this league, you realize how quickly it can be taken away from you, whether in your control or not. And to come back and just be grateful to be at the rink every day, maybe it’s a good thing in the long run.”
Burke and I are fairly tight. I covered him in Florida. In fact, I told a story to Dubnyk today about me sharing a cab with Burke coincidentally to a morning skate in Buffalo in the final week or two of one season. Burke’s hip was a mess and he told me he was shutting it down after that game and Kirk McLean would take over.
He told me he’d go out fighting that night. I didn’t take him literally. Early in the game, Vaclav Varada came within a few feet of the crease and Burke went to town on the Sabres agitator. Just pummeled him. Burke, when I covered him, had more fighting majors I believe than any active goalie at that time.
“I don’t have that side,” Dubnyk said of Burke. “I wouldn’t pick a fight with him. I’ve seen him in the gym, so I’d probably stay away.”
On how he resurrected his career this year and frankly played better than Smith, Dubnyk said, “It was very simple. It was a combination of going in there with [Burke] and [Dave] Tippett and all the coaches in that organization and them just showing me the confidence right from the day I showed up there. That was never in question for me, which after a season like last year was one of the most important things. For them to show that to me was a great start and it’s real simple with Burkie. He’s a big guy, he played a similar style, so it’s about beating the play and being set for the play and being patient on your feet. He told me he had all the confidence in the world that I could stop the puck from there, so if we put in the work to be ahead of the play, then I can just go play goal and have some fun.”
Yeo said that Dubnyk looked good in the morning skate.
“We’re just excited. I know from playing against him that I really do believe that this is a guy who can come in and be successful here,” Yeo said.
Yeo said he hopes Dubnyk’s arrival would give the team confidence going into games.
“Sometimes just adding an NHL player, whether it’s goaltender or any position, it does something to the psyche, does something to the confidence, and particular with the goaltending position, and this is not to place blame on Backy or Kuemps, our game has not been good enough,” Yeo said. “I think a lot of times the goals have been going in and for whatever reason our game starts to deteriorate after we let in one or two goals and this could gives a chance to reset and focus on our own jobs.”
Yeo continued, “The way things have gone lately between Backy and Kuemps, there’s no doubt that their confidence is not high right now. Part of the fact that both guys have not been quite on top of it doesn’t really give the other one an opportunity for a break. I think one other guy coming in here and hopefully he can find his game quickly and establish himself right away, I know that it’ll help the other guys as well.”
I assume John Curry has been reassigned. He was working off the ice with injured Justin Falk as the Wild skated.
“He’s got a lot of facial hair, so he definitely matured a little bit while he’s down there,” Yeo kidded. “We know he has a chance to come in and be impactful in areas of his puck play and his execution on the back end, [especially offensively]. I definitely want to see the consistency … in his defensive game, his position, his reads and that’s what I’m excited to see. From my understanding, he’s been playing more of a controlled game and we’re going to need that from him.”
Dumba, on his goatee, said jokingly, “That’s what I was going for. I needed to grow a good goatee just like him. It’s been a good experience down there. I’ve been playing lots of minutes and I think my game’s coming in a good way. Just want to keep going on that, keep improving every day.”
On Iowa, Dumba said, “It’s been fun, get back to playing all those scenarios (power play, PK, No. 1 pair). It’s been good. With those guys down there, too, it’s been fun. A lot of guys my age and friends I’ve made over the last couple years, so it’s fun. It’s all working back to this and trying to get your game to the best it can be so you can be here.”
Suter didn’t want to talk today. He’s very disappointed the league didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt after years of clean play.
But he does have a minus-21 in his past 20 games, so Yeo said, “Mentally as much as anything, a chance to reset. We’ve talked a lot about his plus-minus and how frustrating and disappointing that is for him, [so this is a chance] to clear his head a little bit on that. But physically, we demand so much from him, especially when Marco’s been out. It seems like we’ve had one of our top-4 Dmen out almost all year long, and with that, we’ve asked an awful lot of him, especially with him coming back after being sick. So typically what we would do on a day like today, we would skate them into the ground. But we’ve instructed our coaches that he really does basically no extra work today. Tomorrow [with J.P. Parise services], another off day for him. Two good rest days.”
Yeo said Scandella is hitting the ice today. He took a couple days off because he wasn’t progressing.
Yeo said Kuemper is close, and Mikael Granlund is close. The Wild is 2-6-1 since he broke his wrist. Granlund and maybe Scandella and Kuemper will be able to join the team at Saturday’s morning skate and practice Sunday.
Again, as I wrote in yesterday’s blog, the Wild may talk to Kuemper about going to the All-Star break for a brief rehab assignment. Let’s be honest: He could use it, but he’d need to accept if the team goes that route.
Yeo said one positive: “We do have some help on the horizon.”
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