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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It’s weird, but after tonight, the Wild and Avalanche won’t play again until Feb. 7 and not again in Denver until Feb. 28.
These two teams have grown so accustomed to seeing each other, and as defenseman Jared Spurgeon said this morning, Denver almost feels like the Wild’s second home.
“We know where to go, that’s for sure,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We even said that on the way over [to the arena on the bus], it’s going to be weird going and playing somewhere else on the road because we’ve been here so much.”
The Wild and Avs play each other tonight in Denver (8 p.m. CT, FSN, KFAN; the Wild is holding a free viewing party at Xcel Energy Center, where it will show tonight's game on the new scoreboard) for the first time since the Wild fought back from a goal down four times to win Game 7 of the Western Conference quarterfinals in overtime April 30. It’s the second game of the season for each team after the Wild pounded Colorado, 5-0, in St. Paul on Thursday.
But, Yeo’s message again to his team, “Not a lot of thought’s going back toward last year. Not a lot of thought’s going back toward last game. Really just focused on this one.”
Avs coach Patrick Roy will scramble his lines tonight.
The top 3 will be Jamie McGinn-Matt Duchene-Jarome Iginla; Alex Tanguay-Nathan MacKinnon-Daniel Briere; Gabriel Landeskog-Ryan O’Reilly-Dennis Everberg.
On the blue line, Nate Guenin won’t play and Ryan Wilson will be inserted.
Top 3 lines, top 6 D and Darcy Kuemper are the same for the Wild, but Stu Bickel may get in on the fourth line, meaning Jason Zucker, Ryan Carter or Kyle Brodziak would be scratched if Bickel plays. He will at least skate warmups. If Brodziak comes out, Carter would have to slide to center.
Yeo really liked his fourth line of Zucker-Brodziak-Carter on Thursday, so I’m a little surprised Yeo’s thinking of cracking it at least for one night. It didn’t become apparent to me that Bickel may be playing until after Yeo’s availability, so my assumption is Yeo is thinking of playing Bickel because of all the talk the last couple days of redemption for last playoff’s Matt Cooke on Tyson Barrie knee-on-knee hit and Roy telling Denver Post columnist Mike Kiszla, “One day, it might be the opposite. One of our players will hurt one of their guys. And I'm sure everybody is going to be very happy to remind (Minnesota) what happened to Tyson Barrie.”
Kiszla offered this last line in his column: “Free advice to Cooke: Keep your head on a swivel. The first shot of the game might be a fist directed at a lowdown, dirty Wild man certain to be greeted in Denver by a chorus of boos.”
Cooke, with a grin, said he didn’t read the column. Cooke reads everything, so he surely knows what was said by Roy and the Denver writer.
I caught up to Cooke as he walked to the bus after the skate.
He said if the fans want to boo, “That’s up to the fans. I don’t control that kind of stuff. I just have to go out and prepare like it’s another game.”
As for keeping his head up like Kiszla graciously suggested, Cooke said, “I always have my head on a swivel. That’s the way I play the game. I hit guys and I expect to be hit. That’s part of the game and what I expect. Obviously emotions are high and things are said at times, but it really doesn’t have any effect on how I prepare to play the game tonight.”
If you didn’t see my Cooke piece prior to Thursday’s game, here that is again.
If you forgot, go to wild.com, but the last time Cooke was in this building, he was ecstatic in the locker room and greeted every teammate enthusiastically as they entered the locker room following the Game 7 win. Cooke says that had nothing to do with knowing that he would be able to return in Game 4 of the second round against Chicago. It’s because he was so proud of what the team accomplished, especially young guys like Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula.
Roy just wants his team to play better tonight than it did while being humiliated by the Wild two nights ago. He didn’t practice the Avs yesterday. Instead, they met.
“They were not happy with their performance,” Roy said. “I think it’s important to regroup. We talked about it. We know we’re going to have to compete better than what we did. That was the big difference in that game. They were sharp, they were moving the puck quick, they were first on pucks, they were winning those battles.
“If we compete in front of the net, I think it'll be a lot different tonight -- both nets.
“Tonight, in front of our fans, the start of the game will be key for us. If we can score a goal early, it’s going to help us even more.”
Yeo said, “I’m not going to spend a lot of time sitting around thinking about what to expect from them. I’m just a lot more focused on what we’re going to bring tonight. Our first road game of the year. I want to become a good road team and this will be a good challenge against a team that we know wants to come with a good effort, are going to want to bounce back and wants to have a good show in front of their home crowd.
“Last game is behind us. Last game was last game. This is a different circumstance. We’re playing a different team tonight. We’re playing in a different building. This will be a new challenge.”
Yeo again said he is not worried about playing rookie defensemen Matt Dumba and Christian Folin as a pair tonight. This will be Folin’s first NHL road game.
“Listen, if you’re going to be on our team, then you have to play in tough buildings and you have to play against good teams. We don’t want to have guys on our team that we feel we have to hide. There’s no other way to get that experience except to go out there and deal with it. Obviously we’ll pay attention to matchups like we always do. But there’s no easing into it.”
Niederreiter sat in the same stall he always does in the visitors’ room at Pepsi Center. The man who scored the Game 7 OT winner said, “It’s always a special feeling coming back here. The whole series was such a fun series. I felt like we played some great hockey in this building. We were always very close. And obviously I will never forget Game 7.”
He admitted that while he was on the ice for the morning skate, “a few things came to mind. I like to come here. It’s a great city. It’s a great atmosphere and great building to play in.”
Talk to you tonight on Twitter (@russostrib) and after the game.
The Wild's schedule is expected to be released Sunday afternoon, but I have heard a few details through the grapevine -- one that is expected to be announced later Saturday.
The Wild will open the season Oct. 9 with a home-and-home against the Colorado Avalanche, the Central Division champs the Wild defeated in seven games in the first round a few months back.
The Wild's supposed to continue to Anaheim and Cup champion Los Angeles after playing in Denver, but unless the Wild managed to get the NHL to squeeze another game in there, the Wild, last I heard, had five or six days off before playing its third game of the season in Anaheim.
Some other tidbits: The Kings come to Minnesota the first time Nov. 26. The Wild has a home-and-home with Winnipeg in December, plays in Columbus on New Year's Eve and closes the season with three games on the road in a bit of a meat grinder at Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis. That follows consecutive home games against the Rangers, Detroit and Winnipeg.
As I mentioned last week, no outdoor game this season. It was supposed to be in February against Dallas at Target Field.
According to an NHL source, the Wild is at the "top of the list" for a stadium-series game and was scheduled to have a game this year. What held it up was timing and logistics, the source said. The Wild wants to make this a huge event by having outdoor high school and college games accompanying the stadium series game.
The problem, I'm told, is the league wants the game to be here in February and for this upcoming season, the colleges had their schedules already booked and couldn't just insert an outdoor game into their schedules right before their playoffs. In addition, February is getting awfully close to Twins season and could cause havoc on Target Field's ... field.
The league source said, "At the end of the day, both of us determined that next year would be better. It's going to happen next year."
We'll see though. As we have learned, everything is subject to change (I reported during the playoffs the Wild would be getting a stadium-series game next season and now it isn't) and the Wild still would prefer the actual Winter Classic. The problem though is according to a league source the 2016 Winter Classic site has been determined. Although it hasn't been announced where, the game has not been awarded to Minnesota, so the soonest the Wild could host one is 2017.
Personally, I still hear there's more to this stadium-series thing that has nothing to do with the Wild and that's why the stadium-series games were scaled down this year to one. Next year, I'm told we're going to see more than one game again.
CELEBRITIES ANNOUNCED FOR 2014 WELLS FARGO MINNESOTA WILD ROAD TOUR
SAINT PAUL, Minn. – The Minnesota Wild and Wells Fargo have announced the celebrities and exact locations for the annual Wells Fargo Minnesota Wild Road Tour, set for Tuesday, June 24 through Thursday, June 26. The Road Tour will lead up to the Summer Bash/NHL Draft Watch Party on Friday, June 27, at Xcel Energy Center.
The Western Tour will feature Wild player Matt Cooke, alumni Wes Walz and Wild television analyst Mike Greenlay. The Northern Tour will have Wild players Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker, as well as Wild radio personalities Tom Reid and Kevin Falness. The Southern leg features Wild players Erik Haula and Stephane Veilleux, alumni Antti Laaksonen and Wild television play-by-play announcer Anthony LaPanta.
Western Tour (Cooke, Walz, Greenlay)
Tuesday, June 24
Moorhead: 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. at Moorhead Youth Hockey Arena (707 Main Ave. SE)
Fergus Falls: 3:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m. at Fergus Falls Community Ice Arena (340 Friberg Ave.)
Wednesday, June 25
Morris: 10:30-11:30 a.m. at Lee Community Center (101 S. County Rd. 22)
Marshall: 3:30-4:30 p.m. at Lockwood Motors Ice Arena (512 Fairgrounds Rd.)
Thursday, June 26
Worthington: 11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. at Worthington Arena (1600 Stower Dr.)
Blue Earth: 3:30-4:30 p.m. at Wells Fargo Bank (201 E. 7th St.)
Southern Tour (Haula, Veilleux, Laaksonen, LaPanta*)
Tuesday, June 24
Des Moines, Iowa: 11 a.m.-12 p.m. at Wells Fargo Arena (833 5th Ave.)
Waterloo, Iowa: 4-5 p.m. at Young Arena (125 Commercial St.)
Wednesday, June 25
Mankato: 11 a.m.-12 p.m. at All Seasons Arena (1251 Monks Ave.)
Faribault: 2-3 p.m. at Faribault Ice Arena (1816 NW 2nd Ave.)
Thursday, June 26
Rochester: 12-1 p.m. at Graham Arena - Rink One (1570 Fairgrounds Ave. SE)
Red Wing: 3-4 p.m. at Prairie Island Arena (370 Guernsey Lane)
*June 25 and June 26 only
Northern Tour (Coyle, Zucker, Reid, Falness)
Tuesday, June 24
Silver Bay: 12-1 p.m. at Rukavina Arena (129 Outer Dr.)
Hibbing: 5-6 p.m. at Fairground Arena (1100 E. 25th St.)
Wednesday, June 25
Duluth: 12-1 p.m. at Duluth Heritage Sports Center (120 S. 30th Ave. W)
Pequot Lakes: 6-7 p.m. at Breezy Point Hockey Center (7370 County Rd. 11)
Thursday, June 26
Princeton: 12-1 p.m. at Princeton Ice Arena (511 Ice Arena Dr.)
Buffalo: 3-4 p.m. at Buffalo Municipal Airport (1305 County Rd. 134)
The Wild will hold the Wells Fargo Summer Bash/NHL Draft Watch Party at Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul on Friday, June 27, from 6-10 p.m. There will be Wild player photographs and autographs, NHL alumni autographs, a live broadcast from KFAN 100.3 FM, as well as tours of the press box and Wild locker room.
Good day from partly cloudy, mostly humid Minneapolis. Here's a Wild update:
1. Preseason schedule has been announced: Six-game schedule with home-and-homes (so to speak) with Winnipeg, Pittsburgh and St. Louis.
Training camp is expected to begin Sept. 18.
Sept. 22 at Winnipeg, 7 p.m.; Sept. 25 at Pittsburgh, 6 p.m.; Sept. 27 vs. Winnipeg, 7 p.m.; Sept. 29 vs. Pittsburgh, 7 p.m.; Oct. 2 at St. Louis, 7 p.m.; Oct. 4 vs. St. Louis, 7 p.m.
Tickets will go on sale later this summer.
My guess is the Wild then heads to Duluth on Oct. 5 for a few days of practice. Just conjecture, but it fits before the opener later that week and the Wild loves the facilities and ability to do some team bonding up in UMD Country.
2. Last I heard, the NHL plans to release all schedules Sunday. Weird day to do so, but that's always a fun day. As I mentioned the other day, no outdoor game this year. The league is scaling back to one stadium series game. Also, for a change, I heard the Wild's on the road New Year's Eve!
3. I plan to host a draft/free agency live chat on startribune.com next Friday (Round 1 is later that night). Time to be announced.
4. The Wild's expected to sign undrafted free agent defenseman Guillaume Gelinas on July 1. The signing was first reported (I believe) by TVA Sports in Quebec. It's a verbal commitment right now because as of June 1, there was a freeze for undrafted North American free agents (the Wild signed undrafted forwards Brady Brassart and Zack Mitchell in March) until July 1.
Gelinas, 21, was named the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's best defenseman this past season after scoring 23 goals and 92 points in 67 games for Val-d'Or. He scored another 34 points in 24 playoff games for a team that lost the Memorial Cup to Edmonton.
Wild's trying to put an influx of skill on AHL Iowa after a very tough season in which the Baby Wild lacked skill, health and was probably too old.
Gelinas is skilled and competitive but 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, so initially the AHL will be a decent step.
So, it's a flier.
Maybe Gelinas turns out to be Jared Spurgeon, who also had a terrific junior career (139 points in his last three years; harder to score in the W than the Q, so apples and oranges in terms of stats) before not being signed by the Islanders and then going untouched through another draft.
Maybe Gelinas turns out to be Michel Periard. Who? He's just a name that kind of jumped into my head because he was of similar stature and had similar stats in the Q (100 points his last year, I think) to Gelinas probably 15 years ago. Chuck Fletcher's Florida Panthers took a flier on him and he never played North American pro hockey beyond the A.
My point: Risk-free move, but let's be realistic with expectations. Maybe he turns out to be a player. Maybe he doesn't. When the Wild signed Spurgeon, I probably put a single line into the paper. Same thing with Brassart and Mitchell. Heck, when the Wild signed Niklas Backstrom as the first-ever European free agent under the previous CBA, I put a single paragraph. All he did was become the Wild's all-time goaltending leader in games and wins.
It's just hard to know with undrafted players until the Wild gets its grip on them and has a chance to develop them.
5. The salary cap is expected to be close to $70 million when it's announced next week. The Wild's will be a shade under after a slight bonus overage. Fletcher told me during the playoffs that Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula and Jonas Brodin hit bonuses. Capgeek.come has it as Niederreiter and Haula earning each $212,500 for plus-minus and Brodin $425,000 for time on ice.
That's $825,000 in bonuses. But I'm told the Wild didn't go over the cap by that much, so the overage on next year's cap will be less. Either way, the overage shouldn't impact the Wild in its offseason business because Fletcher will always try to be at least $2 million or more under the cap so the team can make in-season injury callups and potential trades.
6. Lot of questions as to whether the Wild may pursue Cup champ Willie Mitchell in free agency. My guess: It makes sense if the Wild's unable to re-sign Clayton Stoner. Stoner and Mitchell seemingly would play the same role (third-pair, left-shot, physical D). As I mentioned last week, the Wild will try to re-sign Stoner, but maybe his solid postseason will allow him to cash in as a UFA more than the Wild's willing to commit. Stoner will have to decide that.
7. Some questions from you as to whether the Wild may pursue Shawn Thornton now that Boston's moving on from the rugged winger. I've heard through sources that the Wild would like to re-sign Cody McCormick, but Thornton is arguably a better, tougher player (more expensive, too), so maybe the Wild holds off on trying to sign McCormick just to see if it has a shot at Thornton. I don't see why there's a rush to re-sign McCormick, so if it were me, I'd wait to see what Thornton is thinking. I'm sure he'll have a lot of interest though.
Interesting dynamic to this year's draft. The free-agent interview period begins Wednesday. This is a new wrinkle thrown into this CBA where teams are allowed to court July 1 pending free agents, bring them to cities to check it out, etc. Well, the entire NHL will be in Philadelphia from Wednesday-Saturday night or Sunday morning, so one wonders if the draft becomes a free-agent recruiting party.
It certainly makes sense for agents to bring their free agents to Philly and line up meeting after meeting.
The Wild and Chicago Blackhawks play Game 6 tonight at Xcel Energy Center (8 p.m., CNBC).
A Wild win, and Game 7 at 7 p.m. Thursday in Chicago. A Blackhawks win, and they advance to play the winner of Anaheim-Los Angeles (Ducks are up 3-2). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Wild's looking to become the first NHL team to force consecutive Game 7s in one postseason without series lead since the 1987 Isles.
I’ll be on Fox Sports North tonight at 7:20.
The Wild has rallied from 0-2 deficits in each of the past two series only to lose Game 5. Last round, it forced a Game 7 and eventually eliminated Colorado.
“Our survival instincts have been much stronger than our killer instincts,” coach Mike Yeo said this morning. “Certainly it will be tested again tonight.”
Nobody can question Chicago’s killer instincts. The Blackhawks never want to take their chances in Game 7.
According to the Chicago Sun Times’ Mark Potash, they are 7-0 in Game 6 clinchers, including a 5-0 mark on the road.
In Game 6 against Colorado, Zach Parise had two goals and two assists.
“Just knowing that we’ve been here,” Parise said. “I think there’s a lot of similarities between the two series. The games that we’ve lost we feel like we may not have played great, but we’ve had a chance to win. I’m sure they’re saying the same things about the games here. We’ve played pretty well throughout and that was the same as last series. I think we feel good about it because we’re still pretty confident in here.”
The Wild is 5-0 at home this postseason, outscoring Chicago and Colorado 16-5, including 4-0 and 4-2 against the Blackhawks.
In the seven Game 6 clinchers according to Potash, Kane has seven goals, 12 points and is plus-6. Toews has five goals, 11 points and is plus-5.
Don't expect a big motivational speeck from Joel Quenneville tonight: "I'm not a very frilly guy with the motivational speeches. I might have tried one of those motivational speeches, and I probably blew it."
Two lineup changes for the Wild tonight:
Keith Ballard will replace Nate Prosser after missing Game 5 following the Brandon Bollig hit from behind. Darcy Kuemper will back up Ilya Bryzgalov instead of John Curry.
As for the Hawks:
#Blackhawks lines: Sharp-Toews-Hossa, Saad-Handzus-Kane, Bickell-Regin-Versteeg, Nordstrom-Kruger-Smith. That is the optimal lineup, IMO.— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) May 13, 2014
Ryan Suter missed the morning skate because he had a dentist appointment, according to Yeo.
“Scheduled cleaning,” Yeo said, smiling. “So that’s why he was not there.”
Frankly, I don’t think he was kidding.
On Kuemper backing up, Yeo said, “It’s been kind of coming about for the last couple days. It’s tough between Hards and Johnny Curry and Kuemps, obviously we make sure that Bryz gets what he needs every morning, and we don’t have a ton of quality practice time right now, so when you have three guys pretty much sharing one net, it’s kind of difficult for any of those guys to get the workload that he needs. But he had a real good practice yesterday, he felt really good, so this has been coming for a couple days and happy to have him back.
Matt Moulson skated during today’s skate but won’t play. He has a lower-body injury, but like I said yesterday, who do you put him in for?
“He's close,” Yeo said. “I think it was important for him to have a good skate today and hopefully we can take care of business and make a decision based on the next game. Obviously we've got to take care of tonight, first.”
On tonight’s must-win, Yeo said, “I'm excited. I would say that there's pressure on both teams, and if you don't embrace that, then there's something wrong. You don't coach or you don't play to play an exhibition game or Game 23 of the regular season. You do all that stuff to get yourself to this point. These are the games you dream of and, with that, we all have got to find a way to be at our best tonight and embrace that challenge. It's going to be a great one. They're going to play really well and, with that, we should make sure that we go all-in with our game. We can't play with any fear. We have to make sure that we're not afraid of anything, that we might lose. The only thing that should be entering our thought process is what's a possibility of being gained.”
Ballard is excited to be back.
“I feel fine. I felt fine for a couple days. I think we were being fairly cautious that night. By the time I got done seeing the doctors, it was in the third period. We were trying to be pretty smart about it. There was no chance that I would play if I had symptoms. I'd been through that before, been down that road a couple times, and the more you kind of learn about these things and the more information that's coming out, the long-term effects, they're not worth it to put yourself in that situation.”
On the awareness of concussions, Ballard said, “They've become more strict over the years and more aware of the effects of playing after without seeing a doctor and making sure there's no symptoms. They're doing their job.
“I think sometimes, you don't know how you're feeling unless you've been through it a couple times and understand the symptoms. You think, ‘ah, I don't have a headache, but I don't feel right. I'm a little bit out of it. I'm more irritable’ or whatever. There's so many different symptoms, and I've had over the years a couple concussions. I've become more aware of how I'm feeling and understanding what goes along with it.
“It's not an injury that you necessarily are in a lot of pain or anything. You get some headaches here and there. They can all vary, too. It's just more of when you know the long-term effects. I've got little kids at home. I don't want to be putting myself in a position where in 10 years I can't remember their names and can't get through a day functioning normally, so that's the scary part of these things.”
On Bollig’s two-game suspension, “I don't really care that much about it. I don't think it was a good hit, but I also understand the circumstances. It's a big game, and he's trying to generate some energy. I don't think it was a smart hit, but I don't think it was some of the worst things we see out there sometimes. I think sometimes the energy of the game, the emotion and the type of player -- everybody has those players -- they're out there and trying to generate some momentum and be physical, and it was just maybe a little bit over the line.
Asked if he heard from Bollig, Ballard said, “No. Too much gets made of the whole 'did he text you? … I honestly don't care. That's what happens, right? I've hit guys, and they've been injured. I don't think it was an overly malicious kind of hit. It was probably a dumb play, but that stuff doesn't really matter to me.”
The Portland Winterhawks blew a 2-0 series lead and lost in Game 7 to Edmonton last night, meaning no Memorial Cup for Matt Dumba.
He led the WHL in plus-minus with a plus-18 and led WHL defensemen with eight goals and was tied for second among defensemen with 18 points.
Today’s the three-year anniversary of Derek Boogaard’s death in his downtown Minneapolis apartment. Keep the big guy’s family in your thoughts.
Afternoon from the friendly sky, where I’m taking a quick hop over to Chicago for Game 5 between the Wild and Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday (8 p.m., CNBC, KFAN).
The Wild and Blackhawks mostly had the day off. The Wild had an optional but a good amount of players were around. The Blackhawks made coach Joel Quenneville, Marcus Kruger and Michal Handzus available, so slim pickings.
Coach Q said Andrew Shaw (lower body) is unlikely to play Game 5.
Similarly, coach Mike Yeo said Keith Ballard (upper body) and Matt Moulson (lower body) didn’t made the trip to Chicago. Ballard, two games after returning from two months off with a groin injury, was hit from behind by Blackhawks forward Brandon Bollig, who got away with a head shot in my opinion on Zach Parise in the final regular-season meeting.
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety got him this time, suspending him for two games. Not sure if that helps the Wild or not.
Yeo said that Nate Prosser will likely slide back into the lineup. The other option is Jon Blum, who played well down the stretch for the Wild when Clayton Stoner and Ballard were both out at the same time.
The Wild improved to 5-0 at home with last night’s 4-2 victory to even up the series. It has outscored opponents 16-5 at home, holding Colorado and Chicago to an average of 19.6 shots per game. The Blackhawks are 5-0 at home, having outscored opponents 20-7.
The Wild is 1-5 on the road, having been outscored 26-17. As we learned last round against the Avs, even though the Wild held a third-period lead and nearly won Game 5, it took its foot off the gas and lost. That put the pressure back on Minnesota, and the Wild had to win Game 6 at home and Game 7 on the road in order to advance to its first second round in 11 years.
By winning two games at home, the Wild has turned the momentum in the series. The players and coach Mike Yeo know that can easily change with a road loss on Sunday night. On the other hand, if the Wild can sneak out a big ‘W’ at the United Center against a Blackhawks team that is clearly frustrated right now, the Wild will put itself in position to win the series at home Tuesday in front of its raucous crowd in an arena where it has been dominant all postseason.
“Thinking back to Games 1 and 2, I said at that time, it’s not like we were that far off,” Yeo said. “We knew we could play a little bit better and I think we’ve picked our game up since then. Certainly when you look back to those two games, there were parts of it that were going well and then it was a big mistake that came back at us. I think we’ve cut down on our mistakes the last couple games and we have to make sure that we bring that in there. But with that, there’s been sort of a little bit more of an aggressive mindset in how we executed the last couple games and that’s allowed us to get on the attack a little bit more. It’s a fine line. We have to make sure that we’re playing smart, but we can’t be playing safe. We’ve got to take that attitude into their building.”
Big game, to say the least, which is why Yeo spent the afternoon reminding his team not to let its guard down. It’ll be a challenge, but the Wild has to somehow figure out a way to carry the same type of game it has played all playoffs long at home and carry it into the Windy City.
“It’s a huge game,” Dany Heatley said of Sunday. “But I don’t feel the vibe in here that we’re too confident or over-cocky right now. We know they’re a very good team, they play well in their rink. We’ll be prepared for that.”
The Wild continues to get tremendous play from its youngsters. From the Wild game notes, the five youngest forwards -- Wild rookies Erik Haula (23) and Justin Fontaine (26), playoff rookies Nino Niederreiter (21) and Mikael Granlund (22), and sophomore Charlie Coyle (22) – have combined for 13 goals (Granlund, 4), 27 points (Coyle/Granlund, 7), 81 hits (Niederreiter, 31) and 27 blocked shots (Granlund/Haula, 10).
“They’ve been great,” Heatley said. “Obviously a huge reason why we’re here. They've been great for us all year. Whatever role they’ve played, they’ve done a great job. Awesome to see the success there having in the playoffs. They’re all real good kids, they work really hard, and it’s been a lot of fun to be around them.
“I think everyone needs to step it up to win games in the playoffs. I thought towards the end of the year those guys got better as did our whole team. We went into the playoffs playing pretty well and those guys have taken it to another level.”
We always talk about the youngsters, but we rarely include Jared Spurgeon because he has been around for four years. But he is 24 and he has been dynamite since the first couple games of the playoffs. Look at the skill plays he made last night, having his head up to make the stretch pass to Coyle for the Niederreiter winner, the settling of Mikko Koivu’s pass and the patience to score the power-play goal.
“I think as we’ve asked our team to get better, he’s taken his game to another level,” Yeo said. “This is a guy that we have so much respect for as a coaching staff. Not just the way that he executes, the poise that he has, his ability to create offense with his execution, but he’s a very good defender. He’s got a great stick, he’s very smart, he’s a great skater and he’s sneaky strong. He’s a huge part of our team but again to see where his game is at right now obviously offensively this time of year especially playing against a team like this, you need some offense from your defensemen, you need to create some offense from secondary guys whether that’s from your defense or whether that’s from third or fourth line guys. If you’re going to have any success, guys like that are usually stepping up.”
And then there’s Niederreiter, who is coming of age this postseason.
It seemed to start in Game 6 last round.
“I remember that game that even his first period was sort of OK, but then something just flipped,” Yeo said. “He flipped a switch there, and it was just an opportunity for us to say OK, there it is, that's the blueprint for what we need night after night. It's been a work in progress, but certainly that game, for me, was one where obviously, he played a great game, had all of the heroics of the Game 7, but for me, a lot of that started in Game 6.”
In Game 7, on Spurgeon’s tying goal that he set up, Niederreiter gave Spurgeon a kiss on the helmet. Last night, after Ilya Bryzgalov made back-to-back huge saves in the third to rob Jeremy Morin and keep the lead at 4-2, Niederreiter similarly pecked Bryzgalov on the helmet.
Photo courtesy of Star Tribune photographer Carlos Gonzalez
“Yeah, that was such a big save. I was just so happy,” Niederreiter said, smiling. “It happened so quickly. Just being thankful I guess. I did that to Spurg when he scored the tying goal in Game 7. It’s silly but you appreciate stuff like that.”
The Wild leads the NHL with 16 goal scorers this postseason. Quite amazing for a team that lacked scoring depth during the regular season.
"Are you saying that we didn't see it during the year?" Yeo said, laughing, when I asked in probably a bewildered tone. "I feel like we're all improving. Everything's kind of cyclical, there's no question, but everybody's going out, everybody's contributing in the same way, but they're all doing it in their own way, too. The roles have been identified, guys have really bought into them, but just the team game, I think we've been very strong in that regard. Like we've asked of our guys, we've gotten better as a team, and that's what we want to keep doing here."
Talk to you after the morning skates Sunday. Enjoy your weekend.
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