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'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.

Wild returns home on the brink of elimination to the defending champs

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: May 12, 2014 - 1:27 AM

The Wild’s backs are against the proverbial wall yet again.

The Wild, which has still yet to lead either playoff series (well, other than Nino Niederreiter’s OT winner that gave the Wild a 4-3 series win over Colorado last round; but you know what I mean), lost 2-1 tonight to the Blackhawks to return to Minnesota down 3-2 in this best-of-seven second round.

The Wild is 5-0 at home, having outscored Colorado and Chicago 16-5. Game 6 is Tuesday night at 8 p.m. (CNBC).

The Wild had control of this game tonight after one period, carrying a 1-0 lead into the second on Erik Haula’s awesome end-to-end goal and making the restless Blackhawks fans squirm as it resembled the hard-working, stingy team that won Games 3 and 4 in Minnesota.

But the Blackhawks came out a different team in the second and suddenly forced the Wild into turnovers, several long shifts in its own zone and very few offensive chances. The Wild couldn’t win any battles, couldn’t skate, was soft on pucks, etc.

Nino Niederreiter said the Wild got loose in its game and lost its focus. Zach Parise said the Wild stopped skating and moving its feet. Kyle Brodziak let slip some of its desperation level.

You can read the gamer for most the details, but coach Mike Yeo said, “We got a little bit soft in our game. I don’t know if we had the mentality that we were going to try to sit on our lead or what. I didn’t feel that we were pressuring, I didn’t feel that we were finishing checks, I didn’t feel that we were competing on loose pucks and moving our feet like we were in the first period.

“It’s not [the] gameplan. The players don’t want to do that. We just fell into the trap of trying to hang on to something that we want to have happen (being up 3-2 in the series and advancing to the conference finals) and we fell victim to it.”

If not for Ilya Bryzgalov, the Wild would have been trailing going into the third. Instead, he held it to 1-1 after Bryan Bickell deflected Patrick Kane’s shot on a power play. It was the third time in the series that Chicago scored with Jonas Brodin in the bin.

The third period, the Wild’s fourth line came out with a real good shift to try to get some momentum back. Brodziak stole two pucks and set up a Cody McCormick chance, but Corey Crawford made one of his 27 saves.

Then, at 4:33 in, Jonathan Toews scored the go-ahead goal. It came at the end of a 52-second shift, one in which Marian Hossa made a great move in the corner to evade Mikael Granlund. Hossa, who has nine points in five games this series and 15 in 10 playoff games against the Wild, then skated away from Ryan Suter, who was beaten to a loose puck earlier in the shift.

Suter went to the front of the net. Hossa passed to Patrick Sharp, who fired. The rebound popped in the air. Suter gloved it into the slot, but Hossa put it back on net and Toews, who had no trouble getting free of Granlund, scored by putting the rebound off Nate Prosser’s stick and in.

Heck of a shift by the captain.

Wild captain Mikko Koivu wasn’t as noticeable. He had no shots, two giveaways and lost 17 of 29 faceoffs (59 percent). He has seven shots in five games during the series.

Jason Pominville also had a tough night. I don’t know if he’s hurt or what, but he has been banged around a few times this series and just looked slow and tired. He had two shots but lost some glaring board battles and puck battles, especially in the third period.

Parise had four shots, some turnovers.

I see a big topic on Twitter after the game was the Wild’s alignment in the final minute of the period.

Yeo pulled Ilya Bryzgalov with more than two minutes to go in the game, so Koivu, Parise, Pominville, Granlund, Suter and Brodin were gassed and went to the bench for a line change. Yeo had already used his timeout, so his next set was Brodziak, Charlie Coyle, Niederreiter, Dany Heatley, Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon.

Obviously, it’s tough to stomach when you lose a one-goal game and your best players are on the bench.

Yeo explained Brodziak was out there because they needed a right-shot center on his strong side (Haula lost 5 of 8 draws) and Koivu and Granlund were tired. Coyle and Niederreiter are obviously big bodies.

On Heatley, he said, “He’s a guy that scored goals and he’s one of our leading scorers in the playoffs and he’s a great net-front presence, so … you’ve got to make sure you have fresh bodies on. That’s what happens when you pull the goalie with two minutes to go.”

(Of course, when Paul Stastny scored with 13 seconds left in Game 1, that was at the end of all six guys being on the ice for all three minutes with the net empty; lots of stoppages in there, to be fair).

I get the Brodziak explanation, but I'd still prefer Haula somewhere on the ice somehow. Of course, Wild may not even be in this series without Heatley to Brodziak to Niederreiter. So, whatever, the last alignment is not why the Wild lost.

Yeo tried to scramble lines in the second to give the Wild a boost. Most notably, he flipped Coyle and a struggling Pominville. A few times he reunited Parise-Koivu-Coyle, and that led to some good shifts. But the momentum never carried.

“We weren't generating anything and more on that, I didn't feel we were generating any momentum,” Yeo said. “It's not like we were generating chances. More so, we just weren't getting any kind of sustained pressure, any kind of zone time.”

On the loss, Yeo said, “Obviously when you lose, you're frustrated, you're mad. But I think there's been enough in this series where we should feel confident still. That said, we also recognize that we'd better be ready.”

Chicago Sun-Times beat writer Mark Lazerus tweeted that the Blackhawks have not lost a playoff game after a series has been tied 2-2 in the Toews/Kane era. They’re now 13-0 in Games 5 and 6 in such series.

Toews said, “We know it’s going to take our best game and we know we haven’t played it yet, so it’s perfect timing.”

More Toews: “I think as a group we always recognize when we don’t bring the right effort. I don’t think we were flat by any means, but slowly as the game went on we found ways to play better as a five-man unit. Once one line would go out there and generate a good shift and get us some energy, the next line would follow it right up. That’s when we’re an effective team. We got that more in the second. That’s the way we want to play and the way we’ve been looking to play the last few games.”

You can read the Wild gamer for some more Wild quotes, but the Wild was in this position before and rallied to win. It must do so again, and we know, the Wild has been dominant at home. We’ll see if it can at least force a Game 7 Thursday here in Chicago.

“Same situation as last series. That’s it,” Haula said. “Just like last series, we just have to forget about it and go home and get it.”

Haula, on his goal where he blew by Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith and scored on his own rebound, by the way: “Once I got past the blue line I was just thinking quick shot. And then I got the rebound and got a lucky bounce to get it in. He made a great save and the puck just went up in the air.’’

Here’s some postgame Blackhawks quotes compiled by our stringer, Blake Schuster (@schustee19)

Hossa

·      (Toews)

o   He’s unbelievable. That’s why he’s a superstar. He’s a greta leader on and off the ice and he finds a way to score big goals. Tonight was a great example, he goes hard to the net and we had the puck there and then put it in the net.

·      (more shots on goal this game, what changed in 2P?)

o    We just talking about, they do such a great job blocking shots, and it’s really hard to get A-plus chances on this team. So from the corner, just put the puck on the goalie’s feet and go for rebounds. A good example on the second goal.

§   

o   The crowd was frustrated, we were frustrated. We knew after the first one we just came to dressing room, we just had to relax, come back. We knew how we need to play, so we need to just take a deep breath, relax and play hard. I think in the second and third, we were better, and everybody’s happy after the game.

Regin

·       

·      I thought it went all right. I was a little nervous before the game but I tried to focus on the positive things. I’ve been rested and tried to be excited instead of being too nervous about having not played in a while. I tried to think positive and just go out and play pretty much.

·       

o   Talk about the play the drew the penalty

·      Duncs made a good play back in the middle to me. I was kind of expecting it actually, such a good player. I knew he saw me. Once I got it, you kind of just go by and see a couple guys coming at me. You just go by instinct and try to get by them.

·       

·       

o   Getting that penalty, emblematic of effort you want?

·      Overall, I thought we got the net more, shot more pucks at the net. I tried to get to the net. I tried to get by the guys but I think everybody across the board tried to get the puck to the net more than we did in the previous games.

Corey Crawford

·           (on Toews)

·                      “An amazing goal. They play hard defensively, they box out pretty good. We need to get pucks and bodies to the net and score on rebounds or screen shots. Battle in front of the net, and that’s what Jon did. 

·      A great goal right there.

                “He’s done it a bunch of times, so many you tend to forget a little bit. He’s definitely relentless, and scores in so many different ways he’s hard to stop.

Talk to you after Monday’s Wild availability in Minnesota.

Blackhawks showing signs of frustration as Wild even series with terrific effort

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: May 10, 2014 - 1:03 AM

Brand new series.

Just like the first round, the Wild has rallied from an 0-2 deficit to even the best-of-seven series with the Chicago Blackhawks at 2 wins apiece following tonight’s dominant 4-2 victory.

Game 5 is at the United Center on Sunday night (8 p.m., CNBC).

Justin Fontaine, Jason Pominville, Nino Niederreiter (second playoff GWG, tying Wes Walz for first in Wild history) and Jared Spurgeon scored the goals and Ilya Bryzgalov made 18 saves, including a huge stop on Patrick Sharp’s second-period breakaway to preserve a 3-2 lead (came right after Mikael Granlund had a goal disallowed because the ref blew the play dead prior to puck entering the net) and a huge stop in the third on Jeremy Morin to preserve a 4-2 lead.

The pressure is on the Blackhawks now. Obviously things change by the series heading back to Chicago, but they cannot feel good about what’s transpired in this series. The Wild is frustrating the Blackhawks to no end defensively. For the fourth consecutive game, the Blackhawks registered 22 or fewer shots.

“I think it’s reflecting of our intensity,” Jonathan Toews, who was shut down in Minnesota largely by Mikko Koivu’s line and Ryan Suter. “They worked for their chances. They worked for everything they got. We have to do the same. I don’t really know how to explain it, we have to be better. It’s frustrating to not get a win the last two games on the road. Could have put ourselves in a great spot had we played the way we need to play to try and get a win these last two games. But we didn’t. This series is long from over. That’s the good news. We have a chance to redeem ourselves and be better than we have been.”

Added Duncan Keith: We played them during the regular season and it was different games than last year. We have a lot of respect for these guys; we know they’re a good team.”

Matt Cooke made an immediate impact. He had five hits, three blocked shots, were causing Blackhawks players to dodge checks left and right and stole a puck from Michal Rozsival to set up Fontaine’s first career goal for the first goal of the game.

“You never know the way it's going to go or how it's going to play out, but I felt like I had a lot of jump,” he said. “I should have fresh legs. I've got to go out there and lead the way and hopefully my energy is contagious and I felt like we were ready to go before the drop of the puck.

“I wanted to make sure when I got the opportunity to play again, I didn't want to be a guy on the perimeter that wasn't able to go help my team. They helped me a lot, so I wanted to go out and return the favor.”

Added Niederreiter, “He’s such a physical guy. I don’t know how many hits he had tonight, but I feel he had five-plus hits and that shows the kind of player he is. He’s playing very hard down low and he’s a guy that is definitely frustrating to play against.”

Added Charlie Coyle, “We love the way he plays here. He gives us a boatload of energy out there and he gets the guys going no matter what he does. He's always hitting, playing physical and that's what we need. He knows how to play to our strengths and it feeds into us.”

The Wild did lose Keith Ballard to head injury. He was boarded by Brandon Bollig and left clearly dazed. Ballard was only two games back from missing almost two months with a groin injury. He has had his season devastated by injuries this year with a concussion and broken ribs and a groin.

If Ballard is out, which I’d suspect he will be, Nate Prosser will probably slide back into that spot instead of Jon Blum.

Wild players know they have to figure out a way to bottle up this pace and this stinginess and bring it to Chicago. The good news is the Wild played a pretty decent Game 1 there and even though its game wasn’t up to par in Game 2, the Wild could very easily have won either game. So it knows it can play in Chicago, and it won there this season.

“We have to play smart, not give them any freebies,” said Zach Parise, who is second in the NHL with both 10 assists and 14 points. “Just play pretty stingy like we have been in our rink.

“We’re always making them come through five guys. That gets them frustrated. We’re working hard. We’re making it tough. We’re just playing a good defensive game and that is in turn letting us have the puck more.”

Most amazing about tonight is how different tonight’s pace was to Game 3.

“It seemed like it was a little more open, a little more in-zone play, especially for us,” Parise said. “Some more cycles, some more puck possession time in zone. Not as much choppy neutral-zone play as there was last game.”

In the third period, Parise actually stood up Patrick Kane at the blue line. Not something you see everyday – 1) Parise crushing somebody; 2) Kane getting smoked. He’s so good at being slippery.

“That doesn't happen often,” Parise said. “He's a hard guy to hit. I think I guessed right.”

So many good performances on the ice. Spurgeon had a goal and assist. Marco Scandella again was great. The young kids like Erik Haula, Niederreiter, Fontaine, Mikael Granlund, Coyle were very good. Koivu was stellar defensively against Toews.

Here’s Yeo, courtesy of Rachel Blount:

YEO

The atmosphere in the building tonite was amazing.

(Cooke) he’s a playoff performer. He’s brought in here obviously to do a lot of things and help you get to the playoffs. But the experience he has, the way that first goal was created, that’s what we’re looking for. We want him to finish checks, we want him to play an honest, hard game, and he’s got the ability to make plays, the ability to be a hard guy to play against defensively, but also to help you create some stuff offensively too.

(first goal, how set up) we need everyone doing that. We’re playing a great team, a team that plays with a lot of structure. Even in the first period, breaking up a lot of plays off the rush, a lot of entries that are broken up, and they’re scary because they turn things back so quickly. So when it’s not there, you have to be willing to get in on the forecheck, and you have to be strong on the forecheck because it’s a good team. You can do the right things, but if you’re not following up with a good forecheck, then they’re going to break it right out and come right back at you again. You gotta be strong in a lot of areas. For the most part we saw that tonite.

(nino goal) It was big. There was a lot of responses tonight. There was a great response by Bryz, too. There was a possibility of a momentum swing. We think we go up by 2 goals, then all of a sudden, they have a breakaway and he makes a huge save on the breakaway. He made another huge save in the third period, so I thought that was a great response from him. I felt we were playing very well. We got a 1-0 lead. It’s tough to give up a goal in the last minute of any period, that’s always tough for a team. I liked the way we came out, the focus we had the way we started the second period. You grab the lead and then it doesn’t take long and they tie it up. But we stuck with it, that’s the key for us.

(team growing) it’s a step but the next one’s bigger. That’s the key. We’re not here to just try to make a series of it. We know we’re playing a great team. We know we’re playing a team that won the stanley cup last year. They know the grind, they know how hard it is, and they’ve been through it. This is an extremely skilled team, but that said, we think we have a really good team. We’re playing because we think that we can win. We know it’s hard and we know the hardest is still yet to come, but we’re taking steps.

(gaining confidence) It goes back to what we’ve seen from this group over and over again, just as far as when you’re faced with some adversity, when our backs are up against the wall, this group comes out fighting. I point to our leadership. For me, most of all, I really like the way we played the game. We have to play smart but we haven’t been playing safe. We’re getting on the attack. That was an exciting game, it was going back and forth, it was high paced, there were a lot of scoring chances. If we keep playing like that, we’re giving ourselves a chance, but that’s all we can focus on right now. We played a good game tonight, but we have to know that going into that next one that we have to play even better.

(showed team film this morning, making plays) For us, we won the last game. We’re gonna look at some things we did well and we need to keep doing and look at some things we can do better. That changes from game to game, as the series goes on. Hopefully you start to get to know the other team a little bit better, but it changes from game to game. It’s just a real challenge for us now to put this game aside. Listed, the last series we played a great game 4, our 2nd game at home, maybe the best game we played in the series. Then we follow up with a loss in Colorado. We have to be careful how we handle this. It was great we won the game, I’m real happy about that, I’m real happy to be even in the series. But we know there’s a lot of work ahead of us still.

Ballard—I don’t have an update for you, I’ll have a better one for you tomorrow

(parise hit on kane) We want to be a physical team, and we’re kind of asking everyone to play a certain way. And when you see skilled guys blocking shots and finishing checks, and your leaders doing it, obviously it has an impact on the rest of the team.

(lot of changing line combos in third period) I had no idea what I was doing. What was happening is we were having trouble catching up because we had some guys that were getting caught on long shifts and we had some other guys that were coming on. So yeah, it was sort of just trying to have the freshest guys on the ice.

(still played well despite changing line combos) We talked at the start of the year that we wanted to make more changes through the course of the year so we’d be able to be more used to it when the situation called for it. But mostly we have a way we’re supposed to play as  a team, where every guy goes out there and whether you’re a 1st line guy or a 4th line guy there shouldn’t be a big difference as far as what the intentions are. Obviously that helps chemistry wise when we’re going out there like that.

(bryz, how impt to have 2 good games) Important for him and important for our team. I said after game 2

he needed to get a win, we needed to get a win for him. What I like about Bryz  right now is he’s just part of the team. He’s doing everything he can for his teammates. After the last game I’m reading his quotes and all he does is praise his teammates, all he does is talk about what a great job they’re doing in front of him. For us that makes us want to play harder for him. Getting that win for him was big for his confidence, I think he showed it tonight. And then get a 2nd one. Like everybody, like our team, we have to make sure that we can’t get too satisfied on this. It was a big win for us, but the next one’s gonna be harder.

(is the key to come out hard in first period at Chicago?) The first 2 games there was a lot of things we were doing that were similar to what we’ve been doing at home, but it’s just making that one big mistake. What we’ve been trying to do and what we’ve been trying to build on is to build on the things that we’re doing well but limit the mistakes you’re making. Our guys have been doing a good job. What we’re trying to do through this entire playoff series and through the whole playoffs so far is we’re trying to get better every game. You don’t always do that by making nicer plays. You do that by making the best plays you can make, but also getting rid of the worst plays and you bring your game up that way.

That’s it for me. Wild has noon availability, and then I’ll have to hustle for my flight. So not sure when I’ll blog, but for real-time updates, follow me at Twitter at @russostrib.

Four-goal third period by the Wild makes it a series with Chicago

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: May 7, 2014 - 12:30 AM

In the first two periods Tuesday night, the goal light on the 7th Street end zone got a workout, but only because it was broken.

But the Wild, after cracking in Chicago, didn’t crack in this patient, make the neutral zone look like I-94 at rush hour, hockey game. Nothing was happening in the first two periods. Nada.

But then, out of nowhere, thanks in large part to its young talent, the Wild broke through with speed and skill during a four-goal third period to take a 4-0 Game 3 win over the Blackhawks.

Ilya Bryzgalov silenced his critics for a few days by making 19 saves for his first shutout in almost eight years to the day – May 7, 2006. It was the second Wild playoff shutout in history (Darcy Kuemper in Game 3 vs. Colorado last round).

“Today was a tremendous team effort,” Bryzgalov said. “We played nice hockey. We tried to avoid big mistakes, tried to not let them play where they play best.”

With two off-days, the Blackhawks flew home to Chicago and will return Thursday afternoon. The Wild has Wednesday off, will then practice Thursday before Game 4 Friday at the X. Remember, the Wild won Game 3 against the Blackhawks in the first round last year but lost Game 4 and then the series in five games.

The goals/tidbits:

1. Erik Haula arguably should have been awarded a penalty shot in the first period when Duncan Keith hooked his right wrist on a shorthanded breakaway. Haula lost the puck, but he created a chance for himself again to open the third. In a 0-0 game, Erik Haula crossed a neutral-zone pass to Justin Fontaine (Matt Moulson first intercepted it), then flew into the offensive zone. When Fontaine made a flip pass, Haula flew by Patrick Kane and caught the alley-oop and buried it. It was an awesome pass, especially when one considers it was his first career playoff point. Haula, who won 5 of 9 faceoffs, has four points in his past five games.

2. Less than three minutes later, Ryan Suter hit Zach Parise at the blue line for a 3-on-2. A tic-tac-toe later, Jason Pominville fed Mikael Granlund. Granlund skated right and scored a sweet back-hander from the slot just inside the upper part of the right post.

3. Parise scored his first goal of the series to cap a multi-goal night on the power play. It snapped a 24 for 24 Blackhawks PK against the Wild in the past two playoffs. Parise pretty coolly raised his stick to let Suter see he had position for a redirection. Suter flipped the puck in, Parise deflected it off the post and then buried it. Pominville got his second assist of the game, too.

4. The “Future” – or as some Wild fans tweeted me, the “Present,” scored an empty-net goal. Nino Niederreiter, who was awesome again tonight, took Charlie Coyle’s pass, then made a sweet move to get into the offensive zone and then unselfishly passed to Granlund for the 4-0 lead.

5. Suter looked to get hurt late in the second when he was taken down by Marian Hossa. Suter skated slowly to the bench and down the runway not moving his left arm. Maybe it was a stinger because much to the relief of the fans, he came out to start the third. Coach Mike Yeo said it was nothing. Marco Scandella took Suter’s spot briefly and Keith Ballard, who played well in his first action in almost two months, moved up to take Scandella’s spot. Ballard logged 11:26 of ice time.

6. The Wild’s seven goals in this series have come in the third period.

7. From Wild PR, since 2003, the Blackhawks have been held to 22 or fewer shots in a playoff game just 7 times – 3 of those 7 times coming in this series 

Hard game to watch for 40 minutes, but like I said, the Wild stayed with it. The Blackhawks did their best to make the neutral zone a cobweb as the two strong defensive teams waited for the other to break.

The Blackhawks did first.

“When you can get a shutout against that team, it’s good,” Parise said. “It felt like a lot of neutral-zone play, a lot of bouncing pucks. It was tough to really sustain a lot of end-zone time.”

“We were playing against a really good team,” Granlund said. “It was a tough-checking game. Neither ream doesn’t get a lot of chances, a lot of room. That’s playoff hockey. You need to be able to play that.”

Check out the gamer for the full story, and of course all the coverage on startribune.com/wild.

The Wild has Wednesday off. Coach Mike Yeo is available, as is Matt Cooke, who will be returning for Game 4. For who? My gut says Matt Moulson, who had an assist tonight, one shot and only play 9 ½ minutes. He is playing in what will be Cooke’s spot on the Erik Haula-Justin Fontaine line, and the Dany Heatley-Kyle Brodziak-Cody McCormick line has been good.

I am off Wednesday. I need a day to do errands and decompress and sleep, so Rachel Blount will be covering the Cooke and Yeo press availabilities. Follow Rachel on Twitter at @blountstrib.

Here is some of Mike Yeo’s presser, courtesy of Rachel:

We just stayed strong. That was a challenge, they were playing really well. We were playing really well too, that was as tight a checking game as there's been, that I've been a part of. Neither team was getting a lot of shots, neither team was getting a lot of scoring opportunities. Both teams were playing incredibly disciplined and strong on their checking game. We just stayed strong. It was a challenge. You're down 2-0, you know you've got to win. But to stay strong with our game, to stay focused on the process, and obviously it's been a big part of the series one way or the other, both teams have defended really well. You look to capitalize, you look to attack when you get a chance and that’s what we did on our first goal and likewise on our second.

(regarding the team's response)

I just kind of expect it, that’s the leadership we have. The adversity thorough the course of the game, it might not be visible, but we knew we had to win this game. You can't fall down 3-0 against that team. You're 0-0, the outcome is not as clear as you want it to be at that time, but the leadership of our guys to continue to push forward, to continue to stay strong, for a guy like zach and pommer to make the plays they made, but mikko, as far as I'm concerned, we kind of got him going, in the matchups, he was outstanding too. The big guys definitely came through tonight.

(about the young players)

We talked about this last round. If we had young guys and we're trying to hide them on the 4th line or something, these guys played prominent roles. And we need these guys to be really good, and they're learning on the fly. This whole experience through these entire playoffs, we're growing right now. This game is another opportunity for us to grow and so is the next one. Now we've got a couple days, that's good, that we can sit around tomorrow and enjoy the day off. We know we've got another really big challenge. We're not sitting here patting ourselves on the back. We're still not leading the series, they are, so our goal is to come back and even it up.

(suter) I'm not surprised (he came back in). From what I heard it was really nothing. This guy, he's a pretty tough individual.

Wild in familar spot, down 2-0 to Chicago. But this has different feel than Colorado series

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: May 4, 2014 - 8:11 PM

The Wild trailed 2-0 against Colorado last round, too. This 2-0 series to the Chicago Blackhawks has a different feel though.

Against the Avs, the Wild had the puck 65 percent of the time. Against the Avs, the Wild forced turnovers galore and often put together sustained pressure and suffocating forechecks. Against the Avs, the Wild scored 22 goals (3.1 a game) and 14 in four games in Denver (3.5 a game).

In Friday’s Game 1, 5-2, loss to Chicago, the Wild missed the net 18 times and maddeningly couldn’t score timely goals when it was controlling play. In Sunday’s 4-1 loss to Chicago, the Wild had 25 shots blocked … and maddeningly couldn’t score timely goals when it was controlling play.

The Wild got off to a terrible start, being outshot 7-2 in the first, behind responding to some necessary line juggling in the second. But, as is its MO, the Wild couldn’t score, was the victim of a suspect hooking penalty on Justin Fontaine and that’s all it took for Brandon Saad to make it 2-0 two seconds after the Blackhawks power play expired.

Like I said, this series has a different feel. First of all, the Wild’s playing against the defending champs, a team experienced in the playoffs, not the newbie Avs. Second of all, the Wild’s playing against likely Norris winner Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson, four solid, experienced, mobile defensemen, not the newbie Avs who could be exposed easily.

The Wild seemed flat in several areas, and coach Mike Yeo concurred afterward, saying the seven-game series caught up to Minnesota in Sunday’s afternoon game. That’s why I felt Game 1 was integral to win. Against the more rested team when you’re the team coming off a long, draining, emotional series, it usually catches up to the tired team later in the next round.

So Yeo will give the Wild Monday off and pray to the Hockey Gods that his running-on-fumes players, especially his big guns who were all missing in action Sunday, refuel.

“To me, one thing that was clear right from the start and I’m surprised we didn’t see more of it last game, but I thought we didn’t have the legs tonight and that was a big factor,” Yeo said. “You could see it in our puck support. You could see it when we get a puck and we weren’t taking two, three strides before we made a play. We were making a lot of stationary plays, wide stance.”

Zach Parise was minus-3 today and is now minus-10 in seven playoff games against Chicago dating to last year. Mikko Koivu was minus-2 and is now minus-9 dating to last year against Chicago. Koivu slowed long enough on the backcheck of Marian Hossa’s breakaway that Jonathan Toews, who had hooked Koivu at the blue line, was free to score the game’s first goal after Ilya Bryzgalov made a great save on Hossa’s initial shot.

Yeo gave Koivu a pass at least publicly. He blamed Nate Prosser for not getting the puck deep and turning it over and he blamed Clayton Stoner for being unaware that Hossa was cherry-picking behind him.

“The first goal is a breakdown,” Yeo said. “It’s not on Mikko because he’s joining and supporting a play. It happens. But we turned the puck over and we weren’t counting numbers. And then unfortunately there were a couple other breakdowns along the way. That one wasn’t on Mikko. There were
three other plays before that.”
 

One major, major issue is Matt Moulson. Yeo can’t find a foot for the slow-footed forward who seems to be decelerating any line he’s on. Moulson’s a forechecker, but his puck support was poor today like many and he’s not getting to the net enough.

Asked about Moulson, Yeo said, “We were mixing up a lot of things trying to get guys going. We’re
going back home and us as a staff will make sure that we do what we have to do as far as not just standing pat. But at the same time, we do have to have a bit of a short memory here. This is a good team we
played. You can’t let them get in your head. They found a way to win two games, well, you know what we have to do our job now. Let’s go win our two games at home. We can’t get caught in two big of a picture
here because we’re right where we were last series. And I know that we’re playing a different eam but the last team that we played was pretty good. Next game only thought, only challenge.”

Remember, when the Wild trailed 2-0 to Colorado, it returned home and Yeo made a couple changes, putting in Dany Heatley and Justin Fontaine for Kyle Brodziak and Stephane Veilleux.

With Matt Cooke suspended until Game 4, the only extra besides Mike Rupp (who is likely not an option because of his skating) is Veilleux, so my guess is Yeo gives Moulson another chance to make an impact and if he doesn’t, Cooke gets in for Moulson in Game 4. But this is a serious issue right now. Moulson’s turning pucks over and has been completely ineffective all postseason.

“You can’t let yourself get frustrated,” he said. “You have to play your game, and for me, that’s getting around the net and putting in those dirty goals. You just have to tell yourself to keep working and try to raise it up another level.”

What was so frustrating about the two games in Chicago is the Wild did play well for stretches. But every time it got chances, it couldn’t score and then the Blackhawks would come down and somebody like its white whale, Bryan Bickell, scored. Bickell scored another back-breaker today and has six goals in seven playoff games against the Wild. This guy was awful during the regular season, but it’s become his MO: Every time the calendar turns from regular season to playoffs, he earned his regular-season salary.

The Wild? Its big guns are no-shows (when Justin Fontaine, Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter and Cody McCormick are your best forwards, you’re in trouble) and the Wild aggravatingly misses empty-nets like there’s no tomorrow. If the Wild could have scored on one of those 18 missed nets or three posts in Game 1, it’s a different game (see Mikael Granlund). Today, Haula and Dany Heatley missed empty nets.

““We weren't that far off,” Yeo said. “Even though, again I know we can play better. We weren't that far off. That game was hanging for us. It's a 1-0 game, and we got a couple empty nets. We can't find a way to put it in. I didn't agree with the call to put them up 2-0. Then you're chasing, and it's hard when you're chasing. We've been chasing for three games now. One of these games we've got to find a way to grab a lead and play with it.
 

“We know we have to be ready to go when we get home. We have to make sure we get the rest that we need. We have to make sure we do what we have to do. Last series, I thought we did a great job staying positive. Despite the fact that we were down 2-0, we still believed we could win. That to me is the No. 1 thing. When I look at these last two games, I know we can be better, but we're not that far off. We're a play or two each game away from being at least with a split right now. I think there's positives in that. The fact that we've been a good home team. That should bring confidence. I know our fans are going to be jacked up. It's going to be a loud building, it's going to be exciting. We look forward to that opportunity.”

Yeo made clear that even though the players have Monday off, the coaching staff will be working trying to make tactical changes and other adjustments. He made clear that Bryzgalov is the guy in net with Darcy Kuemper hurt and Josh Harding not an option right now.

“We’re not going to sit around waiting for another option,” Yeo said. “This is the guy. So let’s quit even talking about it right now. We shouldn’t even be talking about who’s backing up. This is the guy for us right
now. We have to find a way as a team, not just one guy. It’s on him, for sure, but it’s on our group too. It’s on our staff. It’s everybody to find a way to get a win.”

Here’s some other postgame quotes:

CHARLIE COYLE

On Hawks defense: “No, there’s not much room. We knew that coming into here. They’re a tight, defensive team. But we’ve got to get ways to get pucks in behind them and just go to work in their end and just wear them down. We didn’t do enough of that tonight.”

Down 0-2 for second series in a row: “Same mindset. I think we have to put that in our heads that we can still come back, we’ve done it before, and that’s it. We’ve got to put these games behind us. It’s not going to do any good to worry about them now. So just think ahead and we’ve got to win that next one.”

MIKKO KOIVU

“We’ve got to find another notch to win one game and then come back in this series. They’re doing the little things better than us and we have to dins that.”

On being down 0-2, “We have to make it feel like that. We proved that last series, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Game 3’s a huge game. That’s the biggest game of the year for us.”

On the big guns not scoring: “We recognize we have to create more to be a better team. I thought we did that in the second and the third. We have to find another notch to create, but then to score goals too. It’s not easy. That’s a tough team defensively and their goaltender is playing very well right now. We have to find it. We have to be better around their net and find those pucks.”

ZACH PARISE

On Blackhawks defense: “They’re good. They play a good system, they’re mobile D, they block a lot of shots, they’re so good with the puck ,they make good plays and they spring their forwards, and I think we can probably do a better job against them, making them work more.”

Locke room atmosphere: “I’m disappointed that we’re here down 2-0, frustrated. But tonight we understand that we didn’t play nearly well enough to win. I think that’s what we’re upset about, not so much being down 2-0. That’s not fun either, but the way we played tonight wasn’t good enough, and definitely not good enough to beat the Blackhawks.”

Will rest help? “I think it will help. I do think we were a little slow and not as aggressive. I feel like we weren’t moving our feet as well as in previous games. I don’t know why that was, whether we were slow or we just weren’t handling the puck well – sometimes that makes you look slow. I think a day off will help.”

Silver lining going home: “We do feel good there, we’ve played well there and shown we can win there. Bottom line we know we have to play better than this.”

Feel personal pressure for one point in the series? “It’s a team game. We’re down. We should all feel pressure that we’re down 2-0. That’s all.”

Disappointing that you didn’t’ play best game and still had chance to win? “There was still the opportunity. Tonight we didn’t play nearly as well as we need to, and there was still the opportunity, being down 2-1 and having some looks. We’re still down 2-0 in the series.”

TOEWS ON SAAD: "I keep telling him every night he's a monster with that puck. When he's on his game, he keeps his feet moving through traffic and he's slippery. For his size and power, he's able to somehow get around guys and keep the puck on his stick. He's making some great plays. I think when he plays like that, he's opening up room for everyone else. I think that's why he's had so many helpers, so far, but it's nice to see him get on the board. To see one go in is a good feeling for anybody."

SAAD: "You want to take advantage of home ice. It's good to get these two here under our belt and then try to steal one at Minnesota."

You’ll hear plenty from Bryan Bickell in Monday’s paper. Our stringer, Blake Schuster, wrote a good story on him.

COACH Q

BICKELL ON THE TOP LINE: His play all year long was ordinary until the end of the year when he was trending, looking like he was going to play in the playoffs. In the playoffs (last year) we gave him a lot more responsibility and he just seemed to grab it. Got more and more quality and quantity of ice time in big games. He earned it, deserved it, got rewarded I the summer and now he’s playing exactly the same way. We’re happy with the contribution we’re getting from him but I thought he and that line had a special game today.”

2-0 SERIES LEAD: “They’re going to be excited to go home, crowd will be as loud as any building in the league. They’ll have enthusiasm playing in front of their crowd. We want to make sure we go in there, try to get a reasonable start and put ourselves in the game. There are no easy games, no easy series. Never get ahead of yourselves, particularly in the playoffs.”
 

On Nick Leddy getting benched in the third: “Coach’s decision.”

OK, that’s it for me. Wild has Monday off, meaning we’ll get three players via conference call and coach Mike Yeo in the afternoon. Good day.

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