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 on this beautiful Saturday here in the Twin Cities. Not a cloud in the minus-8 degree sky.
The Wild practiced down at St. Thomas Academy today since it took the day off Friday in Columbus. The goal today was to reset after its 4-0 beating against the Blue Jackets.
“It looked like we were ready to put it past us,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We had a good, crisp practice out there. Guys were sharp executing. There’s no point dwelling on it, but you certainly do want to use it too at the same time.”
The Sharks took the day off after back-to-back road losses at Pittsburgh and Carolina, and both the Wild and Sharks should expect motivated opponents during Sunday’s 5 p.m. game. I just watched coach Todd McLellan’s postgame news conference here from Raleigh.
He was not a happy camper, saying the team is lacking energy, jump, has been sloppy, not making defensive reads that it should be doing in its sleep. He says it’s either laziness or fatigue and they have to figure out which.
Tough talk from one of the best teams in the NHL, so the Wild may want to buckle up and do the engaging Sunday rather than the reacting because the Sharks will likely come out hard. The Wild plays the Sharks in two of the next three games as it opens a three-game road trip Wednesday in Anaheim. It then plays in San Jose on Thursday.
Josh Harding vs. Antti Niemi Sunday. Zenon Konopka, scratched in the past two games, will center the Wild’s fourth line. In practice Saturday, Yeo rotated in and out Mike Rupp, Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine, so one of them will be scratched because Yeo’s plan is to go with the same top three lines of recent games.
That means despite a poor game by the Nino Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Dany Heatley line last night, the three won’t be broken up to start Sunday’s game.
“If we’re going to ask our players to throw that game in the garbage and get refocused and reset, we have to be willing to, too,” Yeo said. He noted the Wild scored four times Thursday against Chicago, so he doesn’t think it’s time to start scrambling his lines based on one clunker.
He said he met with the three forwards today and say they must recognize how they’ve been successful and that’s playing deep in the offensive zone.
“They got away from that bigtime in that game last night,” Yeo said.
Heatley especially was turning pucks over and Yeo said he met with him specifically about that.
“He’s a goal scorer at heart and that’s part of what’s made him successful, but at the same time, when you’re focused on that, you can lose sight on some of the things you need to do to be effective. Even talking to him this morning, I told him the strength of his game lately was playing in the offensive zone, below the top of the circles and around the net and ‘you’re just hurting yourself. The more turnovers, the more time you’re in the defensive zone.’”
Yeo said Coyle, who has three goals in 19 games, is just not playing with the same “confidence level” as last year, but “this was the best he’s looked in practice in a lot time. I talked to him this morning and I think he’s just playing with his head right now too much. He’s got to go out there and remember what makes him successful, and that’s winning battles, being strong on the puck, aggressive on the forecheck and being hard around the net. He’s got to focus on those things.”
Coyle has won 34 percent of his faceoffs this season. In the past seven games, he has won 23 percent and lost eight of nine last night. After practice today, Konopka and assistant coach Darby Hendrickson, a former center, worked with Coyle on faceoffs. Konopka has the NHL’s top faceoff winning percentage since he has been in the NHL (65 percent).
“I just told him he has the resources to take a lot of draws in practice against me and Brodzy (Kyle Brodziak). Repetition is, I think, the best thing for him. The more he can take against us, the better he’s going to get. You see it all the time with young players in this league, it takes awhile to adapt to the faceoff circle. You see it throughout the league.”
The best example is Sidney Crosby. His first two years in the NHL, he was at around 45 percent and 49 percent. He has worked hard on draws since, has been above 50 percent every year since and routinely takes the most draws in the NHL.
“I told Charlie if things don’t go well in the circle, don’t reinvent the wheel,” Konopka said. “Just understand what works and what’s your highest percentage to winning that draw.”
Konopka said he talks with Brodziak and Mikko Koivu all the time about faceoffs and “we have to get Charlie more involved with those discussions He’ll be fine.”
And, you know he will.
Coyle said, “Faceoffs are a big part of the game and if I’m not winning them and the team’s not winning, it’s less possession for us, so it’s a huge thing. Definitely something I have work on. I haven’t been the best at it. I just have to get back to being confident in the circle.”
Coyle also said of his line that they’re a bunch of big bodies and they just have to get back to getting down on the forecheck, working the puck down low and on cycles and play in the offensive zone.
“We didn’t do a lot of that last night,” Coyle said.
That’s it for me. No morning skate with the 5 p.m. puck drop Sunday. Remember, if you want to come to the Chalk Talk with Wes Walz and I and attend the Sharks game, go to www.wild.com/chalktalk.
Michelangelo wouldn’t have been able to sculpt or paint the Wild’s display into anything slightly tonight.
One night after rallying to beat the defending Stanley Cup champ Chicago Blackhawks at home, the Wild walked into Columbus and had the letdown of all letdowns during a 4-0 loss.
The Blue Jackets dominated, setting an early tone by testing the Wild physically, and honestly it was real obvious early that the Wild 1) had trouble finding its legs after playing the night before, wasn’t clean coming out of its own end, had trouble generating anything through the neutral zone and other than the top line, there was just no decent pressure all night.
Read the game story on www.startribune.com/wild for most of Mike Yeo’s quotes (he said it was the worst game of the year and one for the garbage) and some good ones from Keith Ballard and Zach Parise, but here’s a good one that describes the night from Clayton Stoner: “Coming out of our end, it was always chip-chip with them finishing the body. In the neutral zone, we weren’t even that clean there. We had trouble getting any momentum.”
The Wild looked like it may have found its legs late in the first on a couple chances by Jason Pominville and Nino Niederreiter, but nope. Niklas Backstrom gave up a knuckling goal 1:17 into the second and it was all Columbus from there.
The Wild gave up a season-high 41 shots one night after Chicago registered a season-low 19. It was also a season-high shots for Columbus, which has two straight shutouts. But Curtis McElhinney barely had to exert himself tonight in place of injured Sergei Bobrovsky.
The second line of the Wild was lousy tonight. Dany Heatley was minus-3 and is now minus-10 on a mostly plus team. Niederreiter was minus-3 and Charlie Coyle was minus-2. Jared Spurgeon, who turned the puck over for the first goal, and Marco Scandella were each minus-2.
The Wild just lost battle after battle tonight and was so sloppy coming out of its end.
Prior to the game, Yeo talked about how anxious he was to get Backstrom back in the net for his seventh start since Oct. 8.
“The biggest thing for us now is to try to get him into a rhythm, to hopefully get him to play more than one out of every three weeks,” Yeo kidded beforehand.
Backstrom’s performance won’t lessen Josh Harding’s workload. He just isn’t as clean as the Backstrom of yesteryear. He served up rebounds and allowed four goals – two long ones. Yeo said the way the Wild played in front of him, “we didn’t give him a chance.”
Backstrom said, “I feel OK out there. You have to find a way when you get a chance to play to be at your best. I approach it the same way, whether I play every night or every second week.”
On the fact he just doesn’t look like the Backstrom of old (rebounds, not swallowing pucks), he said, “I feel good. Some games it’s tougher to swallow the puck when you don’t see it or they’re tipped. Other nights it’s easier when you see it. It’s always what happens in the game that affects you.”
But Backstrom was hardly the lone culprit on this evening.
The Wild fed right into Columbus’ aggressive gameplan by turning pucks over, which allowed the Jackets to continually get pucks behind the Wild and wear down the defensemen. It just got harder and harder to execute, and it started with retrievals and exits.
Finally with the game out of reach, Ryan Suter was kept on the bench to give him a rare rest. He logged 23:37, his second-lowest ice time of the season by 10 seconds.
“The easiest thing to do is sit here and make that excuse,” Yeo said of a big, emotional win the night before against the Blackhawks. “We’ve all seen games where there are letdowns after emotional wins, we can sit here and point to the fact that we played last night, but I don’t think we should allow that to be an excuse at all for us. We’ve proven in back-to-back games that we have the conditioning and the game where we can be effective.”
Yeo said with and without the puck, “this is the worst game we played this year.”
Yeo praised the top line but said, “We needed a lot more from the whole group tonight.”
Wild has now been down by a 2-0 score in five of the past seven games and six straight losses. The Wild is now 0 for 5 this year on 5-on-3’s. The Wild had a 72-second one tonight with the chance to rally from 2-0 down and didn’t even get a shot on goal.
This was the first of eight of 10 away from the X for Minnesota. It is now 5-6-3 on the road. One of the rare home games coming up is Sunday’s 5 p.m. date with the high-powered, fast San Jose Sharks. Wild has some regrouping to do during Saturday’s important practice.
I’ll talk to you after that one.
Good morning to ya from chilly, snowy Columbus, although I know it's nothing like Minnesota right now. Wild visits the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight. Due to playing last night and the team's early-morning arrival into the Buckeye State, there is no morning skate. Mike Yeo's pregame availability is later at 4:45 p.m. ET., so I'll tweet out any lineup changes then.
Guess what! My planned Sunday Insider suddenly fell through, so I need your help.
I thought this would be a good opportunity for another Russo's Rants Blog Q and A.
Here's the rules as always: Ask away.
But remember, space is a premium in Sunday's paper -- this Sunday especially -- so make the questions short, snappy and easy to answer. Please also scour the questions so there aren't repeats. Also, please don't use this blog to comment (this way, I can easily pick out questions). If you want to chat about the team or last night's game, check out Rachel's postgame blog last night below this one.
As always, I reserve the right to edit your question (shorten for space).
Thanks so much and ASK AWAY because this will be an expedited one since I need to get my Sunday Insider in this afternoon.
Over the past several days, the Wild has discussed and worked on a number of troublesome issues. It resolved so many of those in Thursday's 4-3 comeback victory over Chicago that coach Mike Yeo joked, 'Anything else wrong with our game?'
He said that with a smile. It was clear that many messages got through, as the Wild looked much sharper on the power play, got scoring from its defensemen, scored a first-period goal for the first time in six games and stuck to its system when the game began slipping away. The result was a victory that fueled enormous pride in the locker room, as the Wild rallied late to beat the NHL's best team.
Yeo said his team can't feel too giddy for too long, with a game at Columbus on Friday. Both before and after the game, Yeo talked about the Wild still being a work in progress, with consistency one of his primary goals. He warned them before that recent four-game winless streak that they couldn't be complacent, and that same theme cropped up after Thursday's dramatic victory over a division rival. But while he didn't want to attach too much significance to this single game, it certainly felt like a big stride forward.
Read the game story here: http://www.startribune.com/sports/wild/234693261.html
Yeo said the team spent a lot of time recently talking about the shortcomings that took some of the shine off a November that started with a 9-1-1 record. "There's parts of our game that we have to work on,'' he said. "Parts of our game are going to be up and down through the course of the year. We know we have a good power play. We know we have defensemen on the back end that can help us create offense. They're not always going to be there, but these are things in your game that through the course of the season, if you're struggling a little bit, you've got to pick them up.
"I've got a lot of confidence every day I come to the rink and have a chance to coach this group of guys. It's ongoing. Every day is a new challenge, and we've just got to stay on top of it.''
Yeo lauded his team's leadership, noting that the top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville contributed to the tying goal by drawing a penalty (Pominville was hooked by Chicago's Brent Seabrook). The defensemen did a better job of getting pucks to the net, generating nine shots on goal (at least one from everyone except for Ryan Suter) and scoring the tying and winning goals. The defense was sturdy for most of the game, holding Chicago to a season-low 19 shots on goal (including a paltry four in the third period).
Parise said the Wild had a "good shot mentality'' on the power play and cited shooting the puck and creating traffic around the net as the keys to scoring twice on three opportunities. He also was glad to see the Wild retain its composure when it lost the lead.
"(The Blackhawks) were able to erase a two-goal lead pretty quickly,'' he said. "I don’t think we strayed too far away from what we were trying to do. We didn’t go away from our game plan, and that’s what was working for us. We were able to get back into the game.
"Any time you beat a team like that, it's important. Everyone knows how good they are. It's been a tough stretch for us; some games we didn’t play as well as we need to. I thought we played with a lot more energy, and we handled the puck much better. Coincidentally, we scored more goals. Those two things usually go hand in hand.''
Marco Scandella, who scored the winner with 1:48 left, was particularly proud. "It feels great,'' he said. "We were relentless tonight. We never gave up.''
A few other tidbits:
--The Wild is now 8-0-1 when leading after the first period and 13-0-3 when leading after two.
--Brodin has five goals and five assists through 27 games and is one point off last season's total of 11 points, which came in 45 games.
--Parise has six points in his past seven games. His power-play goal was his seventh this season, tying him for second in the NHL.
--Josh Harding did not allow a goal through the first 39 minutes, 43 seconds. Jeremy Morin's goal 17 seconds before the second intermission ended a shutout streak of 131:36 over three games, the longest of Harding's career. Harding is 12-1-0 at home this season.
That's it for tonight. Russo returns Friday for the festivities in Columbus.
At the Wild's morning skate Thursday, former Gophers forward Erik Haula skated on the fourth line with Justin Fontaine and Mike Rupp. Haula will be in the lineup tonight against Chicago, playing his fourth game in a row since being recalled from the Wild's AHL affiliate in Iowa.
Based on the morning skate, it appears Zenon Konopka will be the odd man out at forward, and Nate Prosser and Matt Dumba are the likely scratches on defense. Josh Harding will be in net. No changes to the top three lines.
Wild coach Mike Yeo wanted Haula's speed in the lineup against the Blackhawks. "We're playing a fast team,'' Yeo said. "I expect it to be a high-paced game. I think (Haula) is going to give us a little bit of flexibility with how we work things with our fourth line tonight.
"He's just a young kid. We're still trying to figure out where he's going to fit, how he's going to fit. But through the games he's played, he's shown he can be versatile and can have a positive effect on our lineup.''
Haula said he's feeling comfortable after three games, though he saw limited ice time (6:34) in his last game, against Philadelphia. He knows what to expect in the faceoff circle and is absorbing the many pointers given to him.
"It's awesome,'' he said. "It's everything I expected it to be. I'm learning every day.''
Yeo said it's been nice to see the Wild rediscover its form in the past two games, but he cautioned against the team losing sight of the details as it did during a four-game winless streak. Chicago, which leads the NHL with 44 points and 105 goals, presents a particularly stiff challenge.
"They’ve got a lot of weapons over there offensively,'' Yeo said of the Blackhawks. "We've got to be sharp in all areas of our game. How we defend without the puck is going to be crucial tonight. They're a very dangerous team off the rush. They're very good in the offensive zone. They shoot the puck, they go to the net. There's a lot of challenges there.
"On top of that, we've got to make sure we're executing the right way. They defend well, so to generate anything, you've got to make sure you're doing the right things. But if you're not executing, not getting to the offensive zone, if you spend too much time defending, it doesn’t matter how well you defend. Eventually, it's going to come back to haunt you.''
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