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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Afternoon from the Xcel Energy Center press room, where I’m dragging after my early-morning flight back from Chicago.
I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m. and again at 10:15 a.m.-11 a.m. Tuesday.
I feel like the story I wrote for Tuesday’s paper is one I’ve written once or twice or three or four times before. This is the fourth time in the past five Wild playoff series that it has faced an 0-2 hole, including the previous two years as well to Chicago.
Last year, the Wild won Games 3 and 4 in both the Colorado and Chicago series when down 0-2. It went on to beat the Avs in seven games and lose to the Blackhawks in six.
We’ll see if the Wild can figure out how to repeat history.
“I think the experience is always good when you’ve been through that and you know from the experience,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “A lot of guys have been here for that. But at the same time, you need to create those experiences again. It’s a new year, a new series, so we can’t just think that it’s going to happen. It’s about the preparation right now and making sure we’re ready to go for when the puck drops and play the way we can. We can’t look too far ahead of ourselves. I think that’s what we’ve been good at the last couple months and that’s what we need to do right now.”
The Wild didn’t practice Monday. Instead, coach Mike Yeo had a team meeting and video session to go through the laundry list of mistakes the Wild committed in Sunday’s 4-1 loss. The Wild didn’t play its game, something Yeo and player after player repeated today. Thomas Vanek said the Wild got lured into playing Chicago’s style with the long stretch passes instead of getting pucks deep and going to town on the Blackhawks’ D.
Remember, that’s how it was successful in the first half of the second period in Game 1 when it rallied from a 3-0 deficit to tie.
The Wild got sloppy, careless with the puck and the Blackhawks feasted on the mistakes.
Yeo wouldn’t talk about potential lineup changes today. Remember, he made a few before Game 3 against the Avs last year like throwing Justin Fontaine and Dany Heatley into the lineup and they seemed to have the desired effect. Could we see Jordan Schroeder? Could we see Ryan Carter? Who knows?
Yeo did say he thinks Chris Stewart, who has no goals and only nine shots in eight playoff games, is OK from crashing hard into the end boards in the second period. He returned to the game.
Yeo wouldn’t talk about any players individually today when asked. Stewart has no goals. Koivu has one goal on 11 shots. Vanek has no goals on 15 shots. Ryan Suter is really struggling and is minus-4 in the series.
Vanek, a minus-4 Sunday, was one of the many guilty parties with forced passes. Monday, he said constantly that the Wild needs to get pucks deep. His failure to do that late in the second period led to Patrick Kane’s winning goal with 20 seconds left.
“When we’re on our game, we’re tough to get countered,” Vanek said.
On the lack of goals from himself, Stewart and Koivu, Vanek said, “We’re all three big guys, we have to get more to the front of the net. Sometimes I think – I don’t want to talk about their game, but my game is about setting guys up more than I should. Sometimes I’ve got to take it myself and take it to the net or go to the net more and get those ugly goals.
“For us to produce is to get back to our team game and that’s getting the puck low and getting our D involved and getting pucks on the net and getting those dirty goals.”
Koivu, on if he feels pressure with the lack of goals (none in 13 playoff games against Chicago now), said, “There’s always pressure, I think, in hockey, in sports, in general. You can’t think that. You can’t go into a game and think I’m going to score a goal. To me it starts playing good defensively and making sure you do the things you’re supposed to do individually to help the team. The goals will come after that. It’s a lot of things need to happen to score a goal. But if you’re starting to think about that, the pressure and just think about scoring a goal, I’m not a believer it’s going to happen like that. You need to work as a unit and do the right things to get there.”
Yeo said, “The approach that we took right from the drop of the puck was not the right one, and so it was about, we looked at why and tried to figure out why and now is the how. What do we do now for tomorrow. To me, number one, it’s got to start with some excitement. I know it’s frustrating to be down 2-0 but at the same token, the fact of the matter is it’s not like we played our game. If we’re going to be frustrated with anything we should be frustrated with ourselves a little bit here. It would be far more frustrating if we played two good games and came out on the short end. When you look at it, we’re one of eight teams still competing here and so we’ve still got a heck of an opportunity that we have to get excited about that challenge tomorrow.”
Asked what the why was, Yeo said, “It’s the way we played the game. It was the way we turned pucks over. The list of things is really long, and the ingredients that go into us being a good team, and the things that we do that makes us a very tough team to play against were missing.”
On playing at home, Yeo said, “I don’t think we should just assume that because we’re coming back home that all will be right in the world. That’s a good team over there and I’m expecting them to come in with a real strong effort tomorrow and I’m expecting a hard game. As much as anything else it’s how we prepare, the thoughts we put in our heads today, as far as how we want to play the game, not the result that we want to have. Obviously, we want to win. We wanted to win last game, too. But that’s the challenge of the playoffs and dealing with the emotions and keeping your focus and preparing to play the game, preparing to do the little things that are required [and] not preparing for the end result because that won’t come unless you do those things.”
Here’s some excerpts of some player interviews today:
On if Chicago’s speed has caught the Wild off guard after the Blues series: “It’s a different series, we know they know how to win hockey games and we know how good of a team they are. We gotta make sure we focus on us and yesterday I feel like we were thinking too much about them instead of playing our game and the hockey we know how to play. I think we played the game in their favor and we gotta make sure we bounce back tomorrow and play our game.”
What do you mean by “thinking too much about them?”
“We didn’t get the pucks in deep, we know we have to,” Niederreiter said. “I feel like we had too many turnovers at the blueline and we weren’t sharp enough in the defensive zone. Like I said, we gave them presents; pretty much two breakaways and we don’t usually give any team those kind of chances. That the way we lost.”
You’ve played well with backs against the wall: “We know we have done it before so I feel like that’s going to give us confidence. At the same time, we have to sharpen up in those areas and we have to play smart tomorrow night. We’ll see what’s going to happen after that.”
Jason Zucker “We need to get back to our game. Obviously, Game 2 wasn’t the Minnesota Wild. We didn’t play our game and it’s definitely not good enough. We have to make sure we come out in Game 3 and really play our game and battle hard.”
Did they get you out of your game: “I think it was more us. Our mentality, for whatever reason, from the start, we weren’t doing the right things. We put ourselves in that position.”
“Obviously, it’s our third year playing these guys and we want to beat them but we can’t let that affect us, we have to play our game, whether it’s Game 7 or Game 1, it doesn’t matter, we have to play our game and we didn’t do that last night.”
“We have great leaders in this room, a lot of guys have been through a lot of stuff and really help us out and the older guys really help the younger guys in a lot of different ways. We’re looking to them again, we have a lot of respect for those guys and confidence in them and they’re really going to help us out tomorrow.”
Responded to backs against the wall: “Yeah, I think so. Before Game 2, I thought for the last three months we’ve always responded pretty well. Last night obviously wasn’t the way we wanted to play the game and now we’re down two. We’ve got to regroup today and be a lot better tomorrow.”
What attribute to sloppiness and mental errors: “I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s because of the way Chicago plays. It’s a different game than St. Louis. They play such a fast, long pass game where I think we got trapped into it thinking we have to play the same way as them to beat them. But we’ve got to get back to our game.”
Do you need to be more physical? “I don’t know if it’s more physical. For us, physical is being down low, working the puck, using our dman. And I think we kind of got away from that.”
Think chicago’s speed caught you off guard after playing big, bad st. Louis? “I don’t know. Again, in the second and third period of the first game, I thought we got back to our game, getting pucks deep and creating chances. For whatever reason yesterday, we were trying those long plays like them and that’s not the kind of team we are.”
With Chicago’s top players producing, do you and your top guys need to match that? “Sure, again for us to produce is play our game. I think their game is those long plays like they showed yesterday. It’s a good team. Give them a couple chances and we saw what happens. For us to produce is to get back to our team game and that’s getting the puck low and getting our D involved and getting pucks on the net and getting those dirty goals.”
How do you, mikko and stewart get more shots? “We’re all three big guys, we have to get more to the front of the net. Sometimes I think – I don’t want to talk about their game, but my game is about setting guys up more than I should. Sometimes I’ve got to take it myself and take it to the net or go to the net more and get those ugly goals.”
What is the demeanor around here today? “I think that’s what we talked about today. I think no one was too thrilled about coming here today, but we knew it would be good to look at our mistakes and kind of regroup from that. we’re down 0-2, but we’re down 0-2 because we didn’t play well. We played our game for two periods out of the six. Again, we have to get back to basics and play our game, get the puck deep and create from there.”
Do you have to play a perfect game against them? “Again, when we’re on our game, we’re tough to get countered. When we try those long stretch passes, that’s when they pick them off and go the other way and that’s not us. we have to come as a five-man unit through the neutral zone and not have two, three guys leaving the zone and try to play their game. that’s what I think we did yesterday and that didn’t work so well.”
Benefit being at home? “For sure it is because when we get the puck deep, the crowd gets into it, puts teams on their heels. Mike had a great meeting today, got us back focused and we’ll be better tomorrow.”
Message in the meeting: “Play our game (laughs). Again, you don’t beat teams by playing their way, especially not Chicago. If you play their way, it will look like we did last night. We have to find our game here quickly and I’m sure we will.”
Wild right wing Justin Fontaine will miss Game 2 with what I'm told is a groin injury.
Coach Mike Yeo said it's the type of injury that could be day-to-day or a week or so. Fontaine was being seen by Wild doctors during the Wild's optional practice today after Friday's series-opening 4-3 loss to the Blackhawks.
Yeo said there are several options, but he wouldn't divulge who will play for Fontaine.
Normally, Yeo would put the right-shot Jordan Schroeder in that spot, and he has played well against the Hawks and had one game with seven shots this year against them.
But Yeo also reminded that Erik Haula had a great series against Chicago last year. He hasn't played yet in the postseason as he's been deep in the doghouse after a tough regular season.
If Haula were to play, my guess is Kyle Brodziak would move to right wing. Yeo also said there's Ryan Carter and Sean Bergenheim, but my guess is Yeo will want to put a speedster in the lineup, so I'd think it would be Haula or Schroeder. Haula would be able to play penalty kill for Fontaine. Schroeder is an offensive weapon, but there is no doubt the Wild hasn't been pleased with his play in his own zone.
"It’s been tough for sure, but I’m so full of excitement," Haula said. "It’s hard to describe what it feels like being out and feeling kind of helpless. But I’ve been working hard. If they call upon me, I’m going to give it my all and make sure it’s going to be tough to take me out."
The Wild's looking to respond Sunday. This is the first time it has trailed in a series this postseason and it has fallen behind 2-0 in a series in three of its past four series.
"We still feel fine," Zach Parise said. "We’re not freaking out or anything. … We’re not sitting here thinking, ‘Oh here we go again.’"
The Wild hasn't lost consecutive games in regulation in the Devan Dubnyk era and he responded impressively from two losses in the St. Louis series.
"All year, we’ve done a good job of putting things behind us and moving on – win or loss," Dubnyk said.
The gist of today is the Wild felt the first period was not nearly as bad as a 3-0 deficit would seem to indicate and that the pushback in the second period off a terrific forecheck and more speed has the Blackhawks' attention.
"I know one thing against this team, I think we have their attention probably a little more than we have in the past," Yeo said. "But with that comes maybe a greater sense of preparation on their part going into every game and I think we’ll see that again tomorrow."
"It took us to go down 3-0 and start from scratch and start building," said Chris Stewart, who is still looking for his first goal this postseason. "We know we’re going to get our chances against them. The more we get in their zone and grind them down and make them work 200 feet for their chances and frustrate them will play more into our gameplan.
"They won the game, but they're probably not feeling too well about the pushback we had. We came here to get one and hopefully we get one."
Added rookie defenseman Matt Dumba, "Our first period [Sunday] night will be a lot better than that. I think we’re going to bring a lot more speed to our game. I think that’s going to be a big one and that will play a big role in the game. I think we weren’t up to speed where we wanted to be and we need to pressure them into situations they don’t want to be in."
Yeo said, "Looking at the game again, there are a couple things we can do a little bit more consistently on a little bit more throughout the entire course of the game. I think speed is number one. We only saw it enough in spurts, so picking up the pace of our play, but also the forecheck, pressure, the physicality. Once that started to come into play, we started to find our game a little bit more.
"Our first period, I would say, was actually pretty decent. But pretty decent’s not going to cut it. I think we spent more time in their zone than they spent in ours. We had some shots, we had some moments, we had some opportunities, but I would say the assertiveness of our start and making sure we’re not giving up quality chances that we did early in the game, I think being a little bit more whether it’s aggressive or physical in the puck strength battles, I think that’s something we have to be a little bit more prepared for. Whatever the case is, whether it was rust or whether it was just not being ready from the drop of the puck, we have to make sure that we change that for tomorrow."
On the Blackhawks' rush goals, "They’re a great team, but again I’m not overly concerned about those two plays that developed. I don’t know that there should have been a penalty on the play, but they tried to chip it in and [Brandon Saad] grabs [Ryan] Suter’s stick and kind of slingshots himself past him. That’s an odd play on that one. And on the second one, we got caught in a little bit of a bad gap. That’s something we’re a little bit more prepared for now. But again, maybe the rust, maybe the time off – normally we’re a very strong 1 on 1 team so that’s not a big concern."
On the importance of Game 2, Yeo said, "That’s a good question. I don’t really want to get into what ifs to be honest with you. If you ask me if I want to win that game tomorrow I would say yes I would definitely like to. Being 1-1 would definitely be better than being down 2-0. Last year we proved that being down 2-0 doesn’t mean the end of you. We were able to come back, but certainly we are putting a great emphasis on that game tomorrow. It’s a much different situation if you can grab a game and go back, as we saw last series."
On Thomas Vanek's game, "If you’re talking to him, you hear his comments, our thoughts as well, not to say that this is the type of series where he could be more of a factor but certainly when a player has that type of feeling it leads to a lot more confidence and I think we saw that confidence from him right from the start. He was involved in an awful lot of scoring chances for us last night and he certainly is a guy, if you want to call him an X factor, he’s definitely a guy who can be a difference maker in a series like this."
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville expects the Wild to push hard Sunday.
"Minnesota’s going to make you deserve everything you get," he said. "They’re not going to give you anything. We’ve got to be ready for a hard game. You’re going to be seeing progression the emotion, the intensity, every game we’re going to be playing. And I would expect the pace to be like that, as well."
Most shocking about the start of Game 1 was just how rusty the Wild's defensemen were. They quickly learned the Blackhawks have a different push the pace rush style than the chip and chase Blues.
“I think their defense and defensive schemes as a group of five defend better than anyone, beating guys one-on-one or getting those situations,” Quenneville said. “You have to take advantage of them but don’t anticipate getting many of them. We cashed in on them. … But getting scoring chances against Minnesota is not easy."
Couple interesting Blackhawks things:
Antoine Vermette won 11 of 14 faceoffs in Game 1, none bigger than the defensive-zone draw that Brad Richards turned into a Patrick Kane goal in seven seconds.
It was like the perfect storm of bad for the Wild just because the way its set faceoff play was being deployed, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella were on their wrong sides.
Vermette shoveled the puck forward toward the Blackhawks blue line for Richards to skate into. Scandella never looked comfortable and took a strange route to Richards and the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner took advantage of the poor gap.
Vermette indicated the shovel ahead was because he noticed that Wild center Mikko Koivu looked to be trying to win the draw to Spurgeon for a one-timer.
“The way the centerman was taking his draw, I gave a look to Ritchie and fortunately enough it worked out,” Vermette said.
Also, prior to Saad’s goal 75 seconds in, Suter (as you read above, Yeo) felt Saad ripped his stick out of his hands. By the time Suter caught it, Saad was behind him before scoring Chicago’s first goal.
Asked if he had a hand in Suter losing his stick, Saad said, “It’s a hockey play and it worked out.
Finally, the wait is over. As much as coach Mike Yeo appreciated the time to prepare for the Wild's second-round playoff series against Chicago, he seemed antsy to get going Thursday. The Wild held its last pre-Round 2 practice at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday morning, then flew to Chicago in the afternoon.
Yeo said the Wild would have a team dinner Thursday night, then watch some hockey and relax. Everyone on the active roster remains healthy, and everyone participated fully in practice. Jason Pominville, who sat out Wednesday because of illness, looked up to speed Thursday. Yeo said Pominville was given the day off to ensure he got "all his energy back.''
Despite the Wild's 0-6 playoff record at United Center, several players seemed excited to kick off the second round in that raucous arena. The Wild does have a 14-12-2 record there and defeated the Blackhawks 2-1 at United Center on April 7 in the game that clinched its playoff spot.
Charlie Coyle said he gets chills during the ultra-loud national anthem in the building, and he doesn't expect the Wild to be bothered by the rowdy environment.
"It’s just how you look at it, really,'' he said. "You know they’re going to be loud. Chicago’s a great building to play in with their crowd. They’re into it. They love their hockey. So it’s going to be fun. We always look forward to playing in their rink.
"As of late, we’ve been doing pretty good over there. We’re not really worried about what happened in the past. It’s a new year. We’ve got a new team here. We’ve got a different mindset. This group has so much confidence in our team, what we have in here, and what we can accomplish. We have to keep the mindset of going into this building, it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a good atmosphere. We’ve been a good road team as of late. So we want to keep that going.''
The Wild worked on several phases of its game in Thursday's practice, which lasted a little more than an hour. That followed a long, detailed practice on Wednesday. Yeo said it had been a productive week, and the long layoff prevented players and coaches from having to scramble to get ready for a new opponent. They could spread out preparations over a few days, so players weren't overwhelmed by a flood of information in a short period of time--and as the week went on, Yeo said, they had the time to focus on their own game.
Matt Cooke also was happy to have more time between the first and second rounds. Last year, he said, the Wild was "still hung up'' on its first-round victory when it traveled to Chicago for Game 1 of the second round, only two days after defeating Colorado in an emotional Game 7 on the road.
"I think it’s been good for us,'' he said. "It allows us to get time for preparation, and it allows us to heal a little bit. Last year, we rushed right from Colorado to Chicago to get started. This year, we were able to come home and refresh a little bit, enjoy the first-round win, but really get focused for the second round.''
Cooke said he thinks the Wild have a great matchup in the Blackhawks, and he added that the Wild will be looking to control the pace of Game 1 on the road. While his team shouldn't overemphasize Game 1, Cooke said, it shouldn't underemphasize it, either. He stressed that it's important for the Wild to be assertive in the opener.
Mikko Koivu said the Wild has a better understanding of how to advance in the playoffs, now that the team has won a series in each of the past two years. "I think that makes a difference, when you know what it takes,'' he said. "You’re not going to get anything with luck, or if you’re hoping you might get away with something; it’s not going to happen that way. You need to play really good hockey for a lot of games.
“(Chicago has) been there. They know what it takes. You have to be ready from Game 1 and be ready to do what it takes to even win one hockey game and stick with that. I think we’ve done a good job with that lately. We spent the last couple months day to day, just getting ready for the next one. That’s what it’s all about.”
Russo was in Chicago for today's Blackhawks practice and reports that winger Kris Versteeg--who wasn't expected to play in Game 1--sat out the practice because of a lower-body injury and is day-to-day.
I feel like a kid on a long car ride asking repeatedly, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
I’m sure you feel the same way.
Let’s get this series started already.
Two more days until Wild-Blackhawks, Part 3.
Good afternoon from Xcel Energy Center’s press box. A reminder, I’ll be doing a podcast with columnist Jim Souhan today at 5 p.m. at the Liffey in St. Paul. Come on down or listen at souhanunfiltered.com, iHeart radio or iTunes.
If you didn’t read it, here was my latest of many Nino Niederreiter profiles I have written.
Just an fyi: follow Rachel Blount on Twitter (@blountstrib) Thursday. She’ll be covering the Wild’s practice here in Minnesota before it departs in the afternoon and I’ll be tweeting away, I’m sure, from Blackhawks practice in Chicago.
By the way, make sure you follow @schustee (Blake Schuster) on Twitter. He’ll be covering Games 1 and 2 with Souhan (@souhanstrib) and I from Chicago. Also, some Blackhawks scribes to follow are @MarkLazerus, @TramyersCSN, @ChrisKuc, @BrianHedger and @ESPNChiPowers.
The only bit of news from today’s Wild practice is Jason Pominville, whom I mentioned last week was playing sick along with at least Devan Dubnyk, did miss practice today because he was “under the weather,” according to coach Mike Yeo.
Jordan Schroeder took his spot on the Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund line today. As long as Pominville is OK by Game 1, the Wild’s lineup to start the series is expected to be the same as its Games 5 and 6 lineups against St. Louis. That would mean Schroeder, Erik Haula, Sean Bergenheim, Ryan Carter and Nate Prosser would start the series as scratches.
The big question going into this series is whether there will be a different outcome.
The Wild had a great second half, a great second half on the road. It has the goalie, more experience with the youngsters, good balance, depth up the middle. Lots of reasons why it should be different, but will it be?
“Nothing’s different right now,” Yeo said. “They’ve beaten us two years in a row and so it’s up to us to prove that something is different. It’s up to us to make something different. In other years we’ve gone in and we’ve said we’ve played pretty well against them. Last year we went in thinking we were pretty good against them, but nothing was different. I think it’s up to us to find something and make something different.”
On the Hawks, Yeo said, “One of the real challenges with them is it’s real tough to get a team like that to break. Part of that is their experience, what they’ve gone through, the fact that they’ve won. Maybe in different series you feel like you can frustrate a team or you can get in their head pressure-wise. I don’t think they feel a lot of those things. I think that maybe in-game from time to time there might be some of that, but I think it’s a team that regroups well. I think it’s got great leadership, great coaching. There’s many moments in the game where they’re able to withstand a lot and bend but maybe not break. But also very opportunistic where if you’re not extremely strong at those times, you open up just a little bit and that’s where they kill you.”
So it’ll really be imperative not to get into a track meet with them, in my opinion. I think it’s important the Wild tries to go in there and play it’s normal patient, frustrating, stick to it, gameplan, kinda like the way the Wild played in that building April 7 when it finally pounced with two quick goals by Jason Zucker and Mikael Granlund in the third period.
The Wild’s fast and deep, BUT, it doesn’t have the starpower that the Hawks have and if you get into that type of game, more times than not the Hawks will outskill you.
One player who could produce more is Thomas Vanek. He hit a crossbar and set up a couple plays for Charlie Coyle in the first round, but he had no goals and 10 shots in six games. Defensively, he was good, Yeo said.
But I felt he could be stronger on the wall and shoot more. I really feel this Zucker-Coyle-Vanek line could be an X factor against Chicago because you know the Hawks will really focus on shutting down the Granlund and Koivu lines. Zucker led the Wild with three goals in five games against the Hawks this season.
“Actually, I thought Charlie and I for the most part were pretty solid,” Vanek said. “I don’t think we got the bounces necessarily to score a big goal. But overall, I thought out line played a good role. Sometimes you don’t get the points and you think your series wasn’t that great, but overall I thought whatever line we were matched up against we did a good job. Offensively, I thought we could have contributed more, especially in Games 1 and 3. We hit some posts. But it’s a long playoffs and with the way our team is, we don’t rely on one or two teams to score. We score in bunches in lines. That’s what I told Chuckie – ‘We just need to stay positive and our turn will come.’”
On the Chicago series, Vanek said, “If you want to advance, we need depth and I think we have that. Obviously it’s frustrating when you don’t get on the board especially considering for the most part I thought we were pretty good. But our moment will come and we’ve just got to keep playing our game and making sure we’re good defensively which I thought for the most part we were. Offensively, we’ve just got to do a better job of putting them in.”
Against the Hawks, Vanek feels there could be more chances than the defensively-suffocating Blues.
“Against St. Louis, the focus, especially for our line, wasn’t to be creative,” Vanek said. “It was to be good defensively. We played a lot against the Lehtera, Stastny line so it was making sure that we made it hard on them. At the same time, we countered hard on them a few times, especially when Zucker got to our line. But again, the focus wasn’t to create much, it was more to make it tough for them. But Chicago is different. They have four lines that can score and they can create. Creating is going to be more of a premium in this round.”
This quote is kind of funny. Asked if he measures success by points, Vanek said, “I think when the goals go in, you measure it by points. When they don’t, you try to be positive and look at the chances. Against St. Louis, there weren’t many chances; the premium was on defense and checking. I thought our line did good. We shut them down and played well for the most part. Offensively we created a few chances and they just wouldn’t go in for us. Chuckie got one finally. But I told him, we just need to stay positive and our time will come.”
Asked if there’s pressure on him in his first postseason with the Wild to make a difference, Vanek said, “Sure. You want to be a difference maker this time of year. The St. Louis series was tough. There wasn’t much there. There were a lot of guys with open net goals. The score didn’t necessarily reflect the series sometimes. But Chicago is two-time Stanley Cup champs. To me, they’re still the best team in the league. For us, it’s a tough task but I think we’re up for it. For our line, we have to create like we have been and even more.”
Asked if he wants to prove people wrong after last postseason with Montreal, Vanek said, “Each postseason is different. Last year was tough for me. I got there at the deadline and found my niche early on and got away from that. I think you bring that experience of playing a little bit less and make sure you’re sharp, where last year I don’t think I was as good as this when my ice time was a little bit limited. I wasn’t as good as I should’ve been, but I’ve learned a lot from that series and that’s what I take away from it.”
Vanek said he’s motivated to win a Cup, something you appreciate as you get older in your career and you’ve had previous playoff success without getting to the pinnacle.
“That’s my message to young or old,” Vanek said. “I’ve been on three teams now where I went to the conference final and haven’t once advanced to the Cup. It’s hard – don’t take it for granted because you don’t know when you’ll get that chance again. We have something good going here, so let’s make sure we leave it all out there.”
Devan Dubnyk is getting excited for this round. He was in a typically jovial mood today, and I’ve got to say, he was awesome in practice.
“It’s all new stuff for me,” he said. “I tried as hard as I could to just treat it like I’ve been treating all the games and I felt pretty good about being able to do that. Same thing going forward. It’s good to get that first taste and that first series win out of the way. Keep moving forward.”
On his playoff beard, he jokingly asked, “Are you impressed with what’s on my face right now? I don’t think anyone’s impressed with what’s on my face. I’m enjoying it. It can just keep getting greasier.”
On how to beat Chicago, Dubnyk said, “I think just staying with how we play and the strengths of our game is our defensive game and our speed. A lot of our defense comes from puck possession in the offensive zone and being aggressive and using our speed to make turnovers. It’s all over the ice for us. Both teams are real good puck possession teams. It was the same thing with St. Louis. We’re going to continue to work on that and make sure we’re pressuring and not giving a lot of time and creating turnovers.”
Good late afternoon from Xcel Energy Center.
I trust you’ve seen the schedule. Games 1 and 2 on Friday and Sunday in Chicago, Games 3 and 4 on Tuesday and Thursday in St. Paul.
Get your beauty sleep early because they’re all going to be late nights.
Any single-game tickets released for home playoff games in Round 2 will be made available through Ticketmaster and the Xcel Energy Center Box Office. The Wild encourages fans to frequently check ticketmaster.com for availability and visit wild.com/ticketexchange to locate legitimate tickets being re-sold.
I will be hosting a live podcast at the Liffey at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, so come on down or listen on souhanunfiltered.com or iHeart Radio or subscribe on iTunes.
This will be another fairly large cut and paste quote blog toward the bottom because this day got away from me and I need to get out of here because I have tickets to a thing tonight and I’m already LATE for dinner.
If you didn’t see today’s stuff, go to startribune.com/wild for my advance on the series, a Blackhawks notebook led with Bryan Bickell and his Wild killerness, a Chip Scoggins’ column on the job Mike Yeo did this season as coach and a look at this year’s Blackhawks-Wild series.
In Wednesday’s Star Tribune, I wrote a feature on Nino Niederreiter, Patrick Reusse wrote a column and there’s a notebook with a lot of the stuff you’ll see here.
The gist of today?
The Wild’s just happy to take a few days to breathe.
Part of the benefit of finishing a series before seven games is a team can decompress before hitting it hard the next round. Last year, the Wild beat Colorado on April 30 and opened with the Chicago Blackhawks two days later. The Wild got smoked in Game 1, 5-2.
That same two-day scenario would have occurred this year had the Wild won Game 7 against the St. Louis, a game originally scheduled for Wednesday that won’t be played because the Wild took care of business Sunday in Game 6.
“It’s nice to not have to rush, to get a little extra time,” Yeo said before the Wild opens in Chicago on Friday. “It’s nice to have an opportunity to collect yourself after. Whenever you go through a hard series like that and come out with the win, there’s a lot of emotion involved.”
The Wild took Monday off. On Tuesday, it had an off-ice workout and an optional practice in which Mikko Koivu, Jason Zucker, Matt Cooke, Chris Stewart, Kyle Brodziak and Devan Dubnyk didn’t skate. A couple of those guys are banged up, so it’s good they’re getting time to rest.
Wednesday, Yeo will be looking for a “quality” practice from everyone.
“It’s an opportunity to rest here,” Yeo said. “Part of it is the physical part, but part of it is the mental part as well.”
Behind the scenes, the coaches have begun prepping for the Blackhawks, a team the Wild has played the past two postseasons.
“It can be overkill, too, if you bombard your players with too much information,” Yeo said. “So we’ll present the things we need to present. A lot of it is very familiar with this.”
Other highlights of today?
Yeo’s admiration for Dubnyk has grown throughout the season, as the coach has seen his goaltender meet challenge after challenge. It reached new heights last week, when Dubnyk absorbed a postseason battering for the first time in his career and came back with two magnificent performances.
Yeo admitted Tuesday that he was not certain how Dubnyk would handle his poor outing in Game 4 against St. Louis, when he was pulled after allowing six goals on 17 shots. Based on what Yeo had seen from him during the regular season, he was hopeful that Dubnyk would move on quickly, but the goalie had never been in such a situation. Dubnyk remained unflappable, stopping 36 of 37 shots—and frustrating the Blues with several highlight-reel saves—in a Game 5 victory that staggered St. Louis. In the Game 6 clincher, he stopped 30 of 31 shots.
“One critical thing for me—and I can say it now—is the way he responded after Game 4,’’ Yeo said. “I think that was a real important bounce-back for him.
“He’s had to battle through many things. There were reasons why we could believe that he would bounce back from that, but you never fully know until you’re faced with that—especially because there are more emotions in the playoffs. You’re dealing with a lot more. But the way he got through that was extremely impressive.”
For the third year in a row, the Wild will be starting a playoff series in Chicago. It has yet to win a postseason game at United Center, going 0-3 there in a first-round loss in 2013 and 0-3 in a second-round loss last year.
The Wild was outscored 11-4 at United Center in last year’s playoffs, with all three games drawing deafening crowds of more than 22,000. In 2013, the Blackhawks rolled up a 12-4 scoring margin.
While the players are well aware of their postseason victory drought at the arena, they have hope that things will be different this time around. The Wild went 24-15-2 on the road during the regular season--including a 12-game win streak that matched the NHL record—and won two of three first-round games at St. Louis.
“It’s a tough rink to play in,’’ winger Zach Parise said of the Hawks’ home. “It’s not a secret; we haven’t had any success there in the playoffs the last couple of years. It is a hard building.
“But like we’ve said, the last little while and the last (playoff) round, we’ve been playing well on the road. That’s a good sign for us.’’
The Blackhawks were off today, so the below quotes are smatterings from today’s availability:
How important will discipline be this round like last round? No question that will be a big factor. That was one of the keys to the last series was the discipline, and that comes in a few different forms and it’ll be a challenge again this series. First off, power play, you don’t want to be putting them on the ice. The discipline to take care of the puck, to play with the puck a certain way, to not feed into their rush game and obviously the discipline to make sure you’re moving your feet, keeping your sticks down, those little things.
Seems no animosity and hatred against Chicago as there is against St. Louis and Colorado? Well, probably a different [animosity]. I mean, I don’t think, I don’t think that we love them (grins). They knocked us out a couple years in a row here. It’s a different intensity in the game. There’s not the scrums, there’s not as much as that stuff going on after the whistles. That’s probably a little bit more because the two teams are built differently. But it is a good rivalry. It’s been that way. We certainly remember the feelings of getting knocked out twice by these guys.
How important is center play in this series: “It’s going to be huge through the middle. We always talk about goaltending, we can talk about defense, and our centermen are going to be key. They’re going to be key because you have to be good at both ends of the ice. We’re playing against a very well-rounded team, a very good offensive and defensive team, so they’re going to challenge you at both ends. It’s not like you can go into a shift in the offensive zone and just let your guard down; you’ve got to be ready to go.
“But again, because of their well-roundedness, because of their depth, this not just about our centermen, this is not just about one position. This is about our team. That’s how we were successful last series, that’s how we’re going to be successful this series.”
On the team’s defense: “It’s team commitment. First off, you have to have capable players -- especially the defensemen. But it’s very well-rounded, it’s very connected to every part of our game. For us to be effective defensively, there aren’t a lot of things that can be missing. We like to say we play as a unit of five on the ice. The better we execute, the better we play with the puck, the easier our defensive game is because we’re defending less. But I think it’s like everything else: It’s an aggressive mindset on how we play the game. We’ve got some speed, we’ve got some guys that really compete hard. But as a group, as a unit of five, we like to think we get on teams quickly and pressure them hard, and we like to think we do that with a good structure.
On Chicago: “They have some guys that are going to finish checks, but they have a lot of guys that are far more physical than you realize, and physical in their puck strength and their puck battles and how they’re going to get to the hard areas and compete on the boards and to get to the net. They’re heavy in that area for sure. They also play with a lot of pace.
“When you have a team that’s won a couple Cups, like they have, and they’ve had to play off success like they have, you have to be able to play different types of games and beat different types of opponents. They’ve demonstrated that.”
On the time off: “It’s nice to have that little break. It was a pretty physical series so everyone gets some bumps and bruises. It’s nice to have couple days off, mentally, especially, forget about hockey for a day or two and then come back fresh. The break is good.”
Help to be so familiar with them: “It helps, you’re familiar with them, they haven’t changed the way they play, their systems are the same, their players for the most part, it’s all the same guys. We know them really well throughout the regular season and the playoffs, we’re familiar with them.”
How do they compare to St. Louis: “It’s a different style. They’re a much more puck possession style team. I think St. Louis is more a lot of quick up, dump it in and try and get on the forecheck where Chicago makes more plays off the rush and holds onto the puck a lot more. Their [defensemen] are really mobile.”
How far have the Wild come since the first playoff series against Chicago: “A long ways. I think just the development and improvement of all the players. There have been some different personnel changes. But from the guys who are still here who were there for that first year, it’s a lot different. We’re playing better, we feel like we’re playing better and I think we’ve improved over the last couple of years.”
Is this a way for you to gauge how you are as a puck-possession team: “They’ve been the team to beat, them and LA, in the Western Conference, they’ve been the teams to beat the last couple of years. When you get a chance, yeah, you see where you’re at. If you want to get out of the West, you have to beat them. It seems like they’re in the conference finals every year and playing for the Stanley Cup. It’ll be a good test.”
Is there something they do to slow you down personally: “They’ve got a good checking line that’s tough to play against. They handle the puck really well, their [defensemen] can skate, so they don’t give you a lot of room. That’s something that we have to look at and be better with the puck and when we get chances. But the last couple games, as a line, we played well against them.”
Importance of depth: “Throughout the whole postseason it’s going to be important, and these guys, they’ve got a lot of scoring throughout their lineup and it seems like if one line’s not going then the other one is. And if that one isn’t, then the other. They’ve got a lot of good scorers up front, and they get a lot of contributions from their defensemen throughout, so you have to know who you’re out against and you have to beat the line that you’re playing against. That depth for us has been a big part of our success the last little while and it’s going to be from here on out.”
is there more respect for Chicago than hatred? There’s definitely not going to be that stuff after the whistle. I think they’re a good team. They play hard, they play smart. I think they’ve been successful the last couple of years, I think they like to play during the whistle and not after, that’s how they’ve been successful. It’s going to be a good series. We’re just looking forward to the first one, getting ready, we know it’s a good team over there we’re going to face.
On the Hawks: “We obviously respect them. We know how good of a team they are. But we’re pretty confident in what we’ve got over here. It’s going to be a good battle for us. They’ve knocked us out the last two years, so we want some sort of payback here. We want to be on the winning end of things this time around. So I think that’s what we’re looking to do. We’ve got to focus on that first game, and that’s what’s nice about this time, is to prepare for that first one. We have plenty of time to do that.”
what do they throw at you offensively vs. what you saw from St Louis? I think as far as our game, nothing’s changing. There are little things we have to go over. St. Louis, they’re not afraid to put it behind you, go get it, bang in there. Chicago, they like controlling the puck. They like making plays. They have enough skill over there, they have skill and speed, kind of similar to us, I think. They’ve got some guys over there who like to have the puck on their stick and make those pretty plays. It’s gonna be a little different, yeah. But for the most part, I think we’re just gonna focus on our game.
How important is playoff experience to the young players, and how far do you think you’ve come since your first experience? It’s been huge. We have a lot of young guys in here who already have two years worth. So it’s just to gain that experience and carry it with you, to know what to expect. Just the whole atmosphere of the playoffs; the intensity ramps up. So just to know what to expect. I think coming in, everyone felt a little more confident, not worrying about what to expect or what not to expect. Everyone just kind of knew and carried that confidence, and I think that helped us in the first round here to kind of just jump at them right away. I think the last couple years, we’ve gotten off to slow starts. I don’t know if was inexperience or what. It’s a new series here, and we’ve got to keep carrying that confidence and keep it building.
Looking back at the first playoff series vs Chicago two years ago, does it feel worlds different? Yeah, it does. I think we’re pretty confident in our group right now. I think in years before, we had a good team. We were just happy to be in the playoffs, to be honest. I think this time around, we know we have a team that can do something special, to make a run. And we have the confidence to go with it, I think, and that’s huge. We just have to keep building that. The group we have in here, we like our chances. You just try to enjoy the process. I think that's just what we're trying to do. I don't think we're surprised by the way we beat St. Louis; we were pretty confident. They're obviously a great team and finished the year in a great position, but the second half of the year, we were one of the top teams in the league, if not the best. I think we just kind of carried that with us. You do look around. You just try to enjoy it. We have a great team, and we know that, and we're going against a great team. So it's going to be a good battle; we're just trying to prepare for it.”
More on Chicago: We know what to expect from them. We've seen them before. And I think facing them the last two times, I think the team we have right now, we just feel so much more confident with what we have here. We've gotten better, and you can see that by we got knocked out the first round two years ago, we made it to the second round last year. So we've taken steps, but we feel like this group can do a lot more, and I think that just comes with our confidence here. We've got to just put that in our mindset. We're a good team, and like I said, we're going against a great team in Chicago. They're always out there at the end of the year; they never leave early. They're always there, and they definitely have a ton of experience, but we're so happy with what we've got here. We're looking to do more, and we know we have more to give. That's the scary part, too. It's going to be fun. We're ready for it.”
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