Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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Posts about Wild practice

Wild message for the day: Don't take its foot off the gas

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 23, 2015 - 3:03 PM

Afternoon from the Xcel Energy Center press room.

Apologies with the late blog, but I was working on a bunch of stuff after practice, which was a well-attended optional. Only some of the banged-up and/or big-minute players didn’t skate.

The Wild hosts the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night before heading out on a two-game trip to President Trophy-frontrunner Nashville (first of three visits to the league’s best home team; 25-3-1 at Bridgestone) and Colorado.

The Wild is a league-best 13-2-2 since Jan. 15 and league-best 11-1-1 since the All-Star break. The Wild is 20-2-1 against the Oilers at home since Jan. 16, 2007 and has beaten Edmonton twice in Edmonton this season, including two games ago, 4-0.

Devan Dubnyk will make his 18th consecutive start Tuesday. That’s two from tying Niklas Backstrom’s team record, which was set in 2009.

Dubnyk is 5-0 with a 0.79 goals-against average and .970 save percentage (128 saves on 132 shots) against his old team this season. He is 13-2-1 with the Wild with a 1.64 goals-against average and .936 save percentage.

Wild left wing Zach Parise now ranks 10th in the NHL with 25 goals. He is one of three players in Wild history to hit the 25-goal mark twice (Marian Gaborik, 5 times; Brian Rolston, 3 times).

Captain Mikko Koivu has 12 points in the past 10 games. Defenseman Jonas Brodin is on a career-best four-game assist/point streak and is tied for eighth among NHL defensemen with a plus-17. Defensemen Christian Folin has three assists in the past two games and Matt Dumba two goals in his past three. Defenseman Ryan Suter is a plus-9 his past 13 games and continues to seem much more effective in the 26-minute range nightly. Defenseman Nate Prosser is a plus-8 in his past 13 games and an even or plus in each one of those 13. The accolades go on and on for players throughout this 11-1-1 streak particularly.

The Wild will be without defenseman Jared Spurgeon for a third consecutive game Tuesday. Spurgeon was hit by a Mark Giordano shot on his second shift last week in Calgary. He remains day-to-day. Coach Mike Yeo said today there’s no update and no change.

“Just continue to monitor it and consider it day to day,” Yeo said of Spurgeon, who by all indications has concussion-like symptoms.

Yeo said he’s not ruling him out for the road trip, but if Spurgeon doesn’t practice Wednesday, I’d guess he’s out for the trip because the Wild has a scheduled day off Friday in Denver (although it does have ice reserved in the burbs if it chooses to change that schedule)

On Ryan Carter (upper body believed to be shoulder) and Matt Cooke (sports hernia surgery), Yeo said, “I need to get more on Carts. I was talking to Cookie this morning and we’re still a little ways away here, for sure, on both guys. I would say they’re still week to week, both of those guys, but I don’t have a firm timetable.”

I chatted a little with Jason Zucker in the press box last night. He’s in good spirits for a guy that just had his clavicle snapped. He was in sweats in the locker room today, so it appears he has started working out. But again, the timetable given was three months, which takes the Wild into mid-May.

On being in the top-8 (Wild can move into the top wildcard spot if it beats Edmonton and Winnipeg loses in regulation to defensively-terrible Dallas on Tuesday), Yeo said, “Well, I think our backs are still against the wall. It’s a logjam in the Western Conference. The message today is pretty simple: it’s nice to be in the top-8, but 69 points is not going to get you into the playoffs. We’re going to have to continue at a real good pace. That’s the challenge right now. I think that we’ve had a real urgency to our game and it hasn’t been real difficult to have it, the fact that we’ve been outside looking in and the fact that we knew we had to catch teams; knowing the importance of every game, every point in the standings and that hasn’t changed. Just because we’re in a better spot today, that stuff hasn’t changed. I think that our guys have a pretty good understanding of that, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be good there.”

Good philosophy, and let’s be honest: I’m not taking anything away from the admirable job the Wild has done since Dubnyk arrived, but the Wild has had a cupcake schedule for the most part. The schedule toughens up in March with much more difficult opponents and four sets of back-to-backs.

Yeo talked today about the way some guys like Justin Fontaine, Jordan Schroeder, Nino Niederreiter, Folin, Dumba, Prosser, etc., have stepped up: “We felt like they had the potential to [step up]. It’s always difficult when you lose guys. And certainly the way that you’re making up your lines, there’s a lot of things that change and guys have stepped up. And with that, it’s not just those guys stepping in, it’s how they affect the players that are playing with and I think those guys have done a good job incorporating the new lines or incorporating new players onto their line. It’s been a relatively seamless transition.”

Starting in Calgary, Yeo astutely broke up his top line of Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville so No. 1 D pair Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie, with last change, couldn’t play the entire night against that line. That line was completely bottled up in Vancouver and that was with the Canucks’ best two D injured.

Since the line changes, the Wild has gotten more balanced scoring than it has all year. All four lines have contributed on the scoresheet.

“It was something we were looking at before the Vancouver game, to be honest,” Yeo said. “Just as far as, spreading the wealth or balancing things out and with the pieces we have right now, we just felt it was something we were capable of doing as far as, not necessarily having two scoring lines or loading up a top line. We felt that we had with the group, the possibility of, and certainly you look at the line of Brodzy, Haulzy and Steph Veilleux, it’s great that they scored a goal last night, but we’re not counting on them to score a goal every night, that’s not their role. If they create that, that’s the way they should do it, going to the net, creating off shots, creating off the forecheck in the offensive zone play. But the other three lines have the ability to create offense on a nightly basis. And in doing so, making sure they’re playing well responsibly and playing well defensively as well.” 

Yeo has talked lately about how Niederreiter and Schroeder seemed to change their game when they’re in top-6 roles. We saw that again last night with Niederreiter, who did seem to be throwing pucks away left and right. But Yeo loves the fact that Fontaine, a guy who has been in and out of the lineup, always seems to be able to step into a top-6 role and not alter his game.

In fact, if you think about it, considering he has been a scorer his entire life at UMD and for the Houston Aeros, it was probably a bigger transition changing to a bottom-6 role for Fontaine. So because he has the skillset, he looks the part whenever he plays in a top-6 role. I talked to Yeo and Fontaine about that and will write more about it in Tuesday’s paper.

On Fontaine, Yeo said, “He’s a smart player. I think that’s the biggest thing for me. He’s got skill. I think that’s why he’s an adaptable guy who can play on different lines, play on different roles. Whether it’s maturity, whether it’s the fact that he’s a little bit older, he’s been doing a good job of not changing his game. If you move him up to the first or second line, he’s not going to change his game. He’s going to play the same game. And if you move him to the third line – even though that line might have a different role he’s going to continue to play the same game and be effective in it. And I think that’s been the biggest thing for me.”

On Dumba’s improved play, Yeo said,  “More consistency. That’s the biggest thing. Coming off a bad shift, he’s able to get back to his game. Coming off a good shift, he’s able to remember what he did well and likewise from game to game. The power-play goal last night’s a great play and it’s a great shot, and he has the ability to make those plays and has the ability to make very impactful plays through the course of the game, especially on the offensive side of things. But we need him to be, when those home-run plays aren’t there, we’ve got to make sure you’re not making mistakes trying to make those plays. He’s been managing the game better that way.”

Yeo was asked about the trade deadline and how he balances the way the team is playing with maybe the need to add players, and he said, “If my opinion is asked of [by GM Chuck Fletcher], then for sure I will give it. But right now it’s just looking at our group and operating the same way we have been the last three weeks. Right now I’m just going over our video again against Edmonton and just doing what we can to get ready for that game.”

I ran into Fletcher this morning (truthfully ran into him, not my usual “run into” when I’m actually stalking) and took the opportunity to check in on the trade deadline, which I’ll write about Tuesday. And he basically confirmed what I sorta wrote last night. If he can upgrade he will, but the way the team is playing and the way certain defensemen like Folin, Prosser and Dumba are playing, the most important thing may be for him to add a depth defenseman and forward at the deadline.

Before, it seemed like the Wild may have to go out and make a bigtime rental defenseman move. But now, it may be most important to at least get a depth guy in here in case of injury. As we’ve seen the past two games, there have been scares with Brodin and Marco Scandella, who did get banged up late in the second yesterday but is fine for the Oiler game.

More on this in the paper. OK, I better write for the paper now. Also, Chip Scoggins is doing a column for Tuesday.

I’ll be on KFAN from 10:15-10:45 a.m. Tuesday and on Fox Sports North during the next three FSN telecasts. It must be sweeps week!

Spurgeon out against his hometown Oilers

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 19, 2015 - 3:53 PM

Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon, a native of Edmonton, will miss Friday's game against the Oilers with an upper-body injury.

Spurgeon is home seeing his family today, but it's believed he sustained concussion-like symptoms after taking a Mark Giordano shot to the chin last night. Spurgeon didn't see the puck coming until it was like four feet away, and by then, it was too late.

With all head injuries, the timetable of his return is up in the air.

Coaches were discussing whether or not to play Stu Bickel against the Oilers, but it sounds like the team will recall a defenseman later today. Right-shot defensemen Christian Folin or Jon Blum make the most sense.

Devan Dubnyk will make his 16th consecutive start tomorrow.

"He was playing in a backup role earlier in the season, so it's not like he's already played 40, 50 games already this year," coach Mike Yeo said. "Where we're at in the schedule, looking at the days off we have in between games, if we feel he needs rest, if we feel we need to protect him and make sure he's at his best, then we'll [give him a rest]. But right now we don't feel like there's that urgency."

Heading into Calgary game, look for the Wild to break up top line, maybe recall a forward

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 17, 2015 - 4:46 PM

The Wild woke up this morning in Calgary, the sun was out, the sky didn’t fall, life moved on and they got right back on the horse to combine a bunch of bad clichés, sayings, analogies, whatever.

Afternoon from Calgary, where the Wild just got done with practice at the Saddledome prior to tonight's Western Hockey League clash between the Calgary Hitmen and the Medicine Hat Tigers.

As you know, the Wild, which was 8-0-2 in 10 games since Jan. 19, lost one game against Vancouver, then looked at the highlights and discovered the Flames rallied from three down to beat Boston on a fluke goal with 2.4 seconds left in OT and that the Winnipeg Jets rallied three times from a goal down to beat Edmonton in a shootout and that the L.A. Kings rallied to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning.

So the Wild enters tonight’s play in 10th, four back of the Canucks and Flames, three back of the 8th-place Sharks and one back of the Kings.

“It’s tough because you lose one game in three weeks in regulation and it feels like you’ve lost probably four or five in a row,” coach Mike Yeo said. “But that’s part of the challenge, that’s part of the journey of getting there. We’ve had some experience of going through things like this. I know we did last year, and we understand you have to be able to get right back on the horse.”

Last night’s bad outcomes magnify Wednesday’s game against the Flames, but goalie Devan Dubnyk said the Wild can’t go into these games thinking every one’s a must-win.

“We’ve done a really good job of just approaching each game as its own single challenge,” Dubnyk said. “Last night’s loss was very disappointing and yeah you look at the standings and think, ‘That’s a blow,’ but there’s a lot of points left to be had. The simple fact is if we keep winning games, we’re going to be in the playoffs.

“If we keep playing the way we have and keep winning hockey games, we’ll be where we need to be at the end of the year. We can’t look at the game last night and [Wednesday] and approach them like, ‘Oh my God, we can’t lose this game.’ That’s not a way to be successful.”

Zach Parise concurred, saying yesterday is “going to happen, but when it does, it’s a crummy feeling.”

But the Wild, he said, can’t now feel like all the good it has done the past three weeks went down the drain, saying, “we’re back in the mix when for awhile it was looking really thin.” He said every game is important the rest of the way, not just when it plays teams it’s chasing like Calgary, but when it goes to play Edmonton on Friday.

“They’re all really important for us,” Parise said.

Thomas Vanek missed today’s practice due to a lower-body thing he has been dealing with for some time. Yeo said he’s expecting Vanek to play, although the Wild may recall a forward if Vanek can’t play or if Yeo just wanted to change the lineup.

The fourth line of Stephane Veilleux-Erik Haula-Kyle Brodziak was on for the winning goal against the Canucks and Yeo said, “The idea behind a checking line is to make sure you don’t get scored on.” Yeo did say they have been doing good things though and have been good on the Wild’s 26 for 26 penalty kill since the All-Star break.

The Wild will likely break up the Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville line against the Flames because if the Wild doesn’t spread the wealth, with last change, Flames coach Bob Hartley can just continually throw out top-pair, Norris Trophy candidates Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie against that line.

“It’s something we’re thinking about. But nothing concrete yet,” Yeo said.

In practice, Parise and Mikael Granlund were on a line together with Jordan Schroeder on the right. My guess is Schroeder was just a placeholder for Vanek.

That line was together in the Wild’s win at Calgary a few weeks ago, although the always-honest Parise said, “We scored, but we didn’t get a lot of offensive-zone time and we were pretty careless with the puck if I remember right. We happened to score on a turnover and that’s pretty much all we did.”

But after last night’s lack of chances and the need to get the three best offensive players away from Giordano and Brodie, he understands why the coaches are considering breaking up the three vets.

Nino Niederreiter was back on a line with Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville like last Tuesday’s game in Winnipeg. As I think I mentioned on yesterday morning’s blog, it seems like every time Niederreiter is moved into a top-6 role, he’s not nearly as effective and changes his game.

Yeo said in Vancouver that Niederreiter is a lot more comfortable in his skin playing with guys like Charlie Coyle and Schroeder because he doesn’t always defer to the vets. Niederreiter actually said the same thing to me the first game after the break in Edmonton.

So Yeo plans to meet with Niederreiter in the morning and implore him not to change his game. Be strong on the puck, be good along the wall and go to the net like he did on his two goals in Vancouver.

The Parise-Koivu-Pominville line had a good amount of offensive-zone time in Vancouver but not a lot of scoring chances. He said it was tough playing against Vancouver because the Canucks do a good job collapsing down low or doing those swarms in the corner. He said playing against Vancouver without its two top D and only having 17 shots before that last-minute flurry, “That’s not very good and that’s part of why they’re line changing.”

The Flames are the best third-period team in the league. They have rallied 10 times in the third period for wins, a team record and two off the NHL record.

“They play a good game and they don’t break,” Yeo said. “They’re disciplined in their game. They’re a well-conditioned team. They’re a pressure team and quite often it leads to a lot of frustration for the opposition and the opposition may change their game a little bit. We saw it last game [against Boston], they can be down 3-nothing and they’re just going to keep on coming. They’re a young motivated group, so it will be a good test.”

Last month, the Wild held the Flames off in the third from rallying in large part to Dubnyk’s great goaltending.

As I said, I’d expect a callup. It may be somebody like Brett Sutter though (the Wild had seven hits yesterday and the fourth line was on for the winning goal) instead of rookie Tyler Graovac.

“These games are pretty rich right now,” Yeo said when I asked about maybe recalling Graovac. “That’s not to say he’s not an option, but to throw somebody in without a lot of experience playing this time of year can be a tough thing for somebody, too.” So Yeo said they’re talking about Graovac, somebody else or maybe going with the status quo. If there’s a change, I don’t see it being Stu Bickel though.

Wild wants a player who can play somewhat of a regular shift.

Surprise! Ballard returns for light practice

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: February 15, 2015 - 3:42 PM

It was so unexpected, it was almost a little hard to believe. The handful of spectators at Sunday morning's optional Wild practice kept staring at the guy with the 2 on the back of his helmet, making sure we really were seeing Keith Ballard on the ice at Xcel Energy Center.

The defenseman has been out since he was crushed into the boards Dec. 9 in a victory over the New York Islanders, sustaining a concussion and facial fractures. He wasn't planning to skate Sunday. But Ballard has been taking part in off-ice team activities and felt good when he came to the arena Sunday morning, as the Wild got ready for its road trip to Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton. Knowing it would be a light practice, he asked athletic therapist Don Fuller if he could go on the ice.

Fuller cleared it with team doctors, and Ballard put on his hockey equipment for the first time in two months. It was a simple workout, just skating, doing non-contact drills and making and receiving passes. But it was a significant step for Ballard, even though he isn't sure where it will lead.

"It was fun to be out there,'' said Ballard, who has missed 29 games. "I'm not looking too far ahead or reading too far into it. It was one skate. For me, it was just fun to get out on the ice for a little bit.

"We'll see how I feel today and how I feel going forward. This past week has been encouraging, just being able to do something.''

Ballard has been doing light workouts for about a week. He wasn't sure how long he would last Sunday, but he stayed on the ice for most of the practice and skated for about 35 minutes.

Until last week, he had been largely inactive other than running errands and doing home and family chores. Ballard said he knew things were improving when he felt energetic last week; until that point, he typically grew tired and sluggish in the afternoons and wanted to sleep. After the practice--and for the next few days--he will be monitoring how he feels, watching for symptoms such as headaches and fatigue.

Ballard doesn't yet know whether he will return to hockey at all, let alone this season. Coach Mike Yeo said it was good to see a well-liked, well-respected player back on the ice, even if there were only 10 other players and two goalies going through a short and simple practice.

So now the Wild go west again, with a chance to finally move back into the top eight in the Western Conference standings. Yeo said goalie Devan Dubnyk will start at Vancouver, running his streak to 14 games.

A few other notes from Sunday:

--Yeo liked Justin Fontaine's game Saturday, when he got two assists in the Wild's 6-3 victory over Carolina. He thought Fontaine worked well with linemates Mikael Granlund and Thomas Vanek, playing to his personal strengths.

"I thought he had a strong game,'' Yeo said. "It's not an easy assignment when you get moved up and have an opportunity to play with guys like that. First off, you want to take advantage of the opportunity and stay in that kind of role, so you start thinking about points and you start thinking about making plays. And that’s good; you have to be aggressive.

"But at the same time, you have to make sure you're playing your own game. You can't just be trying to get the puck to (linemates) and force plays to them. I thought he did a good job of that. I thought he showed a lot of confidence and composure with those guys. He thinks the game at a high level, which is something very important.''

Yeo said when Jordan Schroeder was playing with Granlund and Vanek, he was forcing things. That affected his speed, negating one of his primary assets. When Schroeder was teamed with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter, Yeo said, he relaxed and began relying again on what he does well.

"He seems to have some comfort with those guys and some confidence that he can just go play his game,'' Yeo said of Schroeder. "I think we've seen that the last couple games that line has played together. Hopefully that can continue.''

--Yeo lauded the Wild's penalty kill, which has been a perfect 25-for-25 in its past nine games. The Wild has been highly disciplined lately, defending aggressively without taking careless or ill-advised penalties. When the penalty kill is called upon, it has been sharply focused, starting with Dubnyk and extending to a surrounding cast that takes pride in its work.

"They deserve a lot of credit,'' Yeo said. "(Dubnyk) deserves an awful lot of credit. We have the confidence we can be a little bit more aggressive up ice and he can help with our clears; also, we can be a little bit more aggressive in the zone and know that he's going to be back there to make the saves when there is a breakdown. So it's been a good joint effort.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

   

Wild recalls Kuemper on a low-key Sunday

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: February 8, 2015 - 3:13 PM

Only five players--Justin Fontaine, Jordan Schroeder, Matt Dumba, Christian Folin and Niklas Backstrom--took part in the Wild's optional practice Sunday morning at Xcel Energy Center. Coach Mike Yeo stayed off the ice, too.

With his team riding a five-game winning streak--and two critical games looming, against Vancouver and Winnipeg on Monday and Tuesday--Yeo gave his players only one directive. He reminded them not to look back at either the recent victories or the long slide that put them in such a deep hole in the Western Conference standings. The only way to emerge is to keep looking forward, Yeo said.

The coach plans to keep the current lineup intact when the Wild plays Vancouver on Monday at Xcel. That means Fontaine, who missed two games because of a groin injury before resuming practice Friday, will remain out of the lineup for the fourth game in a row. Folin has been a healthy scratch for the past four games.

Goaltender Darcy Kuemper was recalled Sunday and will be back in Minnesota on Monday. Devan Dubnyk will start against the Canucks, but Kuemper could get the call Tuesday at Winnipeg. Dubnyk has started all nine games since he was acquired on Jan. 14, and Yeo wants to be careful with him now that the schedule is ramping up with three games in four days, including a back-to-back.

"You want to ride the hot hand, and he's playing great,'' Yeo said of Dubnyk, who has four shutouts, a 1.31 goals-against average and .948 save percentage with the Wild. "That said, we want to make sure we're giving him a good chance to be successful and we're not burning him out. And on top of that, (Kuemper) has played well against Winnipeg.''

Kuemper went 2-3 in his five games in Iowa with a 3.22 goals-against average and .891 save percentage. He stopped 28 of 30 shots in a 3-2 home victory over Winnipeg on Dec. 29.

Yeo said he isn't frustrated that the Wild hasn't climbed much closer in the standings, despite a five-game win streak. After Saturday's games, the Wild was five points behind Calgary for the second wild-card playoff berth and six behind Winnipeg for the first wild-card spot.

"That’s just the reality when you're chasing as many teams as we were,'' Yeo said. "Somebody's going to be winning. We've been able to pass a few teams and make up a little bit of ground, and we also have some games in hand. We knew with where we were three weeks ago, when you're chasing that many teams, it wasn’t like we were just going to go win five games in a row and all of a sudden be where we need to be. We put ourselves in a pretty deep hole, and it takes a lot of time to get out of that.''

Yeo reiterated that the Wild cannot fall into the trap of feeling too pleased with itself, particularly with two more games this week against teams it is chasing. "Obviously, these games are huge,'' he said. "We're still taking that same approach before the road trip. We can't get caught up looking at the standings. We can't get caught up looking at three games from now. We certainly can't get caught up looking at what we've done in the past five games. The only thing that matters is tomorrow's game, and that will be a tough test.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

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