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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Most players and … all coaches were present and accounted for at Monday’s practice.
Hey, you never know after Sunday night’s meltdown at the X. The New York Islanders snapped an NHL-record 380 consecutive games of being down three goals or more without winning. That streak dated back to 1994.
In the social mediasphere and blog and article comments, coach Mike Yeo is under the gun. Today, Leslie Frazier was fired by the Vikings. I asked Yeo about that and how tough this is that eyes are starting to zero in on him.
“I feel bad for Leslie,” Yeo said. “I’m not a football guy, so I don’t know the ins and outs of that. But I do know he is a great human being. That’s part of it. Same as our team, same as everything else, I want our guys to look at me and say that’s how we’re going to deal with this. It’s adversity. That’s fine. But come to the rink the next day and you work a little harder.”
Sunday was the Wild’s fifth consecutive loss as it fell to 10th in the West heading into Tuesday’s New Year’s Eve 5 p.m. showdown with the big, bad St. Louis Blues. Remember, this 5-11-1 freefall down the standings began with a 3-0 loss at St. Louis on Nov. 25. That was the game Zach Parise had a bogus goal disallowed because of a high-stick (the shot wasn’t even over the cross-bar, so how could the puck be tipped with a high-stick?) in the first minute and the game the Wild actually outshot St. Louis 12-0 in the third period before Alex Steen scored an empty-netter.
It’s been downhill ever since. The Blues are real banged up but are 4-0-2 in their past six road games. Steen won’t play Tuesday, nor will Roman Polak or Jordan Leopold. David Backes (upper body) is skating in the optional practice going on now at the X, so his status as of now is questionable. He didn’t play in Sunday’s overtime win over Dallas, a game in which stud defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk scored the OT winner a game after scoring a shootout winner in an exhilarating game against Chicago.
Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon didn’t practice today. Remember, he missed much of the second period against the Rangers last week, was tripped up badly last night against the Islanders and missed part of the second. Coach Mike Yeo said it was just maintenance, but just in case, the Wild called up Jon Blum from Iowa with Clayton Stoner also hurt.
Yeo indicated that there is a chance Blum makes his Wild debut even if Spurgeon can play. If that were to happen, it’d likely be for Nate Prosser.
Blum, 24, was signed to a two-way contract last offseason and has played 91 games for Nashville.
Yeo said if Blum plays, he should add experience, composure in his own end, he makes a good first pass and should bring consistency.
With 22 players, Yeo said the Wild may call up a forward later.
Yeo said today’s practice was “understandably not joyous and chipper. But as practice wore on, we had some more life and had some more talk. Certainly we put the work in.”
Injured Zach Parise watched from the bench in workout clothes and sneakers.
He said viewing the tape again just reaffirmed the issues the last half of the game in an eventual 5-4 loss.
“You just lose some of the good things you did,” Yeo said of seeing the late mistakes. “For a team that’s struggling with confidence, there’s opportunities and things that are there that you would like to be able to grab onto. If we were able close that game out, you could talk about the way we were scoring goals and creating chances, some of the things that were ailing us before this last stretch.”
But Yeo said some new problems have crept in. He said the positive that the Wild feels it should be able to rectify these mistakes because it’s been a “very, very strong team in our own zone,” so it should have the confidence to get that back very quickly.
Yeo said the Wild just has to get back to being better in its own zone after a series of bad decisions and reads Sunday.
Again, I just think this team is in between in so many areas. It’s relying on three 21-year-old’s among its top-6 forwards. Mikael Granlund has had a tough last two games after two great games. There are times in games when Charlie Coyle is dominant and strong on pucks and times where he takes too long to make a decision or is easily knocked off a puck.
The epitome of good and bad last night was Nino Niederreiter, who had a goal and assist but was responsible for losing Thomas Hickey on the 3-3 goal early in the third.
These kids will get it, but they’re young and the good news is they want to get better. Every practice, the three of them are the last off the ice as they work with Andrew Brunette and Darby Hendrickson. But you can’t just magically snap your fingers and make them polished. It takes time.
It’s not just the kids. After Justin Fontaine made it 4-4 last night, the Wild let Kyle Okposo into its zone too easily. Then when Jonas Brodin went into the corner with him, Matt Cooke should have hung back seven or eight feet off the boards to create a layer. He didn’t, instead opting to go in for a check. When the puck took a funny bounce, Thomas Vanek was able to walk out with no Wild player between the boards and the net.
Josh Harding couldn’t smother the puck and Okposo beat the Wild to the net for the rebound.
The Wild just doesn’t usually give up goals like that.
The second goal by Cal Clutterbuck that turned the game around, Yeo said the Wild – Granlund, Stephane Veilleux, Torrey Mitchell, Marco Scandella and Spurgeon -- was in “borderline panic” mode. They were exhausted, running around and made bad decisions, exemplified best by Veilleux getting the puck six feet in front of the net and just freezing before turning it over moments before the goal.
“Every game against every team there are times in a game where you have spend a long shift in your own zone, but you have to be able to defend it,” Yeo said, adding that’s when you have to stay within your structure, keep things to the outside and simplify.
The Wild has given up 24 goals the past five games, has scored eight goals the past two and lost them both. This is not a team that is built to go run and gun. If it doesn’t find a way to get back to its defensive foundation, a lot like that 2-0 game earlier this month against Philadelphia, this losing streak will continue to grow.
The big thing now is finding a way to rebound against the Blues.
"Learn from it, tweak the minor mistakes that happened and get ready for [Tuesday]," Cooke said. "That’s the whole thing in this world as a professional athlete. You can’t let the highs get too high, and you can’t get the lows get too low. If you do that, you can usually find a pretty good measure of where to be and how to play.
"We all understand there’s a desperation level that has to be there [Tuesday night], but it’s not going to help us by fretting over last night. You can learn from it, but you can't hang onto it until tomorrow night."
I’ll have more on the losing streak, Yeo’s job security and whether maybe a trade is on the horizon to shake things up in Tuesday’s paper.
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