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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After taking Tuesday off, the Wild got back on the ice today with back-to-back home/road games coming up Thursday and Friday against Chicago and at Columbus.
The plan for now is to start Josh Harding against Chicago and most likely Niklas Backstrom at Columbus. Obviously, that's subject to change.
Judging by today's practice, Justin Fontaine, scratched in two of the past three games, will get back into the lineup. He skated mostly on the fourth line today with Mike Rupp/Erik Haula and Zenon Konopka and also saw action on the second power-play unit.
Good afternoon from the X. I will be filling in for Paul Allen on Thursday from 9-noon on KFAN (100.3-FM). Guests as of now: The always-entertaining Konopka will be joining at the top of the show to talk about the game against the Blackhawks, actor/comedian Erik Stolhanske during the entire second hour, most likely new Twins pitcher Ricky Nolasco, who coincidentally I happen to know, and former NHLer Ben Clymer.
Rachel Blount will be covering the Blackhawks game and I'll be picking up the team Friday in Columbus.
Also, Sunday's 5 p.m. game, former Wild center Wes Walz and I will be doing another Star Tribune Chalk Talk. Tickets start at $46 and you also get a ticket to that night's game against the San Jose Sharks and can attend the hour chalk talk, which starts at 3:30. For tickets, go to this link.
The big news of the day is center Mikael Granlund, who has missed five of the past six games and three in a row with a concussion, will remain on injured reserve and has essentially been shut down. It sounds like he must have had symptoms working out or after he got on the ice on his own Monday.
"We’re going to keep him off right now," coach Mike Yeo said. "He skated the other day and we’re at the point now where lets just take some time off here and make sure we get this right. ... I just know that we’re not making progress, and so what we’re doing right now, we have to take a different approach."
The Wild worked a bunch on the power play today. It hasn't scored in six games, but in that stretch, it's only 0 for 11. So one issue is because the Wild hasn't drawn a lot of power plays, it's having trouble getting into any kind of rhythm. Today are about moving the puck quicker and having more movement -- basically to stop being so slow and deliberate and predictable.
Earlier in the season, Dany Heatley was taken off the first unit because the Wild didn't want four lefties out there, especially in Heatley's net front/slot position. Heatley was back on the unit today with Charlie Coyle moving to second unit with forwards Fontaine and Nino Niederreiter.
Earlier in the season, the Wild had two good unit and spent a lot of season at or near the top on the power play. It's always tough being on the second unit because unless you're the unit that starts a power play, you're usually only getting 30 or 40 seconds a power play and almost always hopping the board when the puck's been cleared and the team is regrouping. Against Philadelphia the other night, the second unit couldn't even get set up in the zone.
The Wild must do a better job getting pucks through from the point. They're in the bottom half of the league in shot attempts from the blue line, Yeo said, both on the power play and at even-strength.
The Wild has only scored six goals from defensemen this season. Jonas Brodin has four and Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba one each. Other than Brodin, the Wild doesn't have a goal from a blue liner since Dumba scored Oct. 12 against Dallas.
The Wild's defensemen has registered 49 points. To put this in comparison, Chicago defensemen have scored 13 goals and 82 points. Chicago defensemen has 291 shots on goal, Wild defensemen 200.
Obviously, the Wild needs to draw more penalties too. In the past 10 games, the Wild has drawn 22 power plays (2.2 per game) and three or fewer in each. Now, I know the Wild's game has slipped recently and you have to skate and play in the offensive zone to typically draw power plays, but I truly feel the standard of officiating has slipped, too.
We see this all the time in the middle of 82-game seasons. Every game I watch I see clear obstruction and interference penalties go uncalled. Typically in a month or two, we'll see the standard pick back up when GM's and teams complain.
Against Colorado and Philadelphia, the Wild should have drawn more than two combined power plays with the amount of time it spent in the offensive zone.
Lastly, here is Mike Yeo today on Harding being named Third Star for November yesterday:
"He’s been such a huge part of us being able to win games, being able to find our game within games, being able to hang onto leads and doing it in such a confident manner that it breeds confidence to the rest of the group. When you see an empty net and you’ve got a two-goal lead and he dives across the net and makes that save last game, that’s a huge boost of confidence for the rest of the group that you’re going to seal the deal and win that game and that’s the way he’s been. I also think it’s also a compliment to the guys and the way they’ve been playing in front of them. The guys have recognized his efforts and they’ve rewarded him by playing well in front of him."
The last few sentences is a reference to the Wild allowing 23 shots per game in Harding's 14 wins.
Is Harding the Wild's No. 1 goalie, Yeo was asked: "I don’t get into that stuff, but he’s playing like he deserves it, let’s put it this way. We know we also have another No. 1 goalie in Backy. Couple the games he’s playing most recently, if we can get him healthy, he’s basically stolen two games for us, so he’s close to returning to form. We feel that’s a strength of ours that we have two guys that can go out there and give us a great chance to win a hockey game."
Here is Yeo on Fontaine:
"It’s just the way it goes. He’s a first-year guy and he’s still trying to carve his way into the lineup and become a regular. But for a first-year guy, I feel like he’s handled it really well. He’s had different roles, he’s been on the top line, he’s been on the fourth line, he’s been out of the lineup. The bottom line is for him, his game shouldn’t change. Where we put him, we have confidence in him and he should have confidence in himself that he can go out and he can perform the way he needs to and there’s no reason why he can’t. He’s got a good idea of who he is. He’s a smart player, when he’s playing well he’s very strong on the puck and he’s making plays and that’s what we want to see from him."
Do you feel his game slipped? "I think that a couple games before the scratch, yes I would say that. And some of that is that’s it’s not always easy for a younger player like that. Things aren’t going well for the team and all the sudden you find yourself on the fourth line. And certainly it doesn’t take long for the confidence to go a little bit and even just to kind of step up and make a play in those situations. So for him to have the chance to take a step back and watch the game from above and get refocused on his game and what he needs to bring is quite often a good thing."
Join me on the radio Thursday and talk to you again on the blog Friday.
Happy Thanksgiving from the X, where the Wild practiced, including Zach Parise. He lasted the whole thing, every now and then skating up to assistant athletic therapist John Worley to talk about his bum foot.
Parise is officially listed as questionable for Friday's 5 p.m. game against Colorado -- the front of a home and home. It'll be a tough challenge despite the fact the Wild has had Colorado's number for seven years or so -- 31-11-5 in its past 47 and 12-2-2 in its past 16 in Denver.
Coach Mike Yeo wouldn't reveal which goalie would start in goal. Josh Harding practiced and if he's healthy, I'd think he starts if for no other reason than his stellar home record. I'd think Niklas Backstrom starts in Denver.
Center Mikael Granlund has been placed on injured reserve with a head injury (officially upper-body, but I'm not blind), meaning he will miss at least a week or at a minimum three games -- probably more -- after three hard hits in the past eight games.
Granlund took a head shot from Toronto's Nazem Kadri, then took a hard hit four games later from Ottawa's Marc Methot where he crashed into the boards. He missed two games, returned to the lineup last night against Phoenix and was lost 29 seconds into his first shift when he was hit high by rookie defenseman Connor Murphy as Granlund tried to deliver a check.
Yeo said the Wild didn't rush Granlund back.
"To sit here and say in hindsight that I wish he didn’t play, of course," Yeo said. "But when a guy’s cleared to play, what are you going to do? You going to say no? He was cleared to play and obviously cleared to play with the idea that we wanted to be careful and think about the big picture. Sometimes things happen."
Left wing Jason Zucker, who played three games in Ottawa, Winnipeg and St. Louis before being reassigned yesterday to make room for Keith Ballard and Torrey Mitchell, has been recalled and should stay awhile now. Zucker scored twice in Iowa's win last night at Chicago.
He was sent down Wednesday with Darcy Kuemper. They had 3 p.m. flights that were delayed, they arrived for the game vs. the Wolves at 5:30 p.m. with only airport pizza in their stomachs and beat the Wolves. Zucker was pulled off the bus headed to Iowa after the game to go to an airport hotel for sleep, then a 4:30 a.m. wakeup call to fly back to Minnesota because of the Granlund injury.
Zucker's recall doesn't fill the center need though. Charlie Coyle has played better at wing than center, although we all saw in training camp that he has the ability to play the position. He won the second-line center spot outright until spraining his knee. Granlund filled in admirably.
Besides being more of an offensive-threat at wing, Coyle hasn't done well in the faceoff circle. He has won 38 percent of his draws this season. In his last four games predominately at center, Coyle has lost 30 of 43 faceoffs and 15 of 17 the past two games.
So in practice today, Yeo experimented with Justin Fontaine, who has rarely played center in his college or pro career, as second-line center, putting Zucker on the third line and Matt Cooke, goalless since Oct. 12, on the fourth line.
Lines: Parise-Koivu-Coyle; Nino-Fontaine-Pominville; Zucker-Brodziak-Heatley; Cooke-Konopka-Mitchell.
Why Coyle back to the top line as a winger rather than second line as a center?
"The games we've been winning lately, that line has been producing," Yeo said of Parise-Koivu-Coyle. "We were forced into a situation where we had to break it up, but I think what we have to try to do is look at it in a different way and keep that line together and fill some holes elsewhere."
Yeo made clear, "I’ve got no problem putting [Coyle] at center, but I think we have to try to give that line a chance to get back to the type of dominance they were having and the success they were having. Instead of breaking them up, let’s arm those guys with what they need to lead our group. We need people to step up, whether it’s a guy coming into the lineup like Zuck or whether it’s a guy biting off a little more ice time."
On Fontaine moving to center, Yeo said, "Just trying things. Thought we'd give it a shot."
Fontaine is looking forward to the opportunity. He is 2 for 2 on faceoffs this season and doesn't practice them much.
On Zucker on the third line, Yeo said it should elevate that line with Brodziak and Heatley and give it some speed. "Heater had one of his strongest games in a long time last night," Yeo said. "He was strong on a lot of puck battles and had three really good scoring chances and one goal. We'll use this as an opportunity to continue to help him grow his game, get it back to his top level."
By the way, I questioned yesterday why the Wild wouldn't just keep Zucker here and keep Mitchell on IR. Yeo said it was because the Wild needed Mitchell because of his role as a penalty killer.
On Cooke being demoted to the fourth line, Yeo said, "Many times when players haven’t scored in awhile, they start to do things that hurt themselves. We all remember how he scored his goals." He needs to get back to "doing the right things," Yeo said.
Today was a long, long practice with a ton of teaching moments. Yeo interrupted practice a lot with whistles, saying afterward, "there's a couple parts of our game that have slipped and we have to try to get it back."
There is no morning skate Friday because of the early game. I'll be back with you after Yeo's 2:45 p.m. availability. I will also be on Fox Sports North during Friday's Wild Live pregame show and first intermission.
Good afternoon from chilly St. Louieee, where the Wild faces the big, bad Blues on Monday night at the house formerly called, Kiel Center.
Josh Harding, who was hurt in warmups Saturday in Winnipeg, returned to the Twin Cities this morning on a commercial flight from St. Louis. The MRI on his left leg “checked out,” according to Mike Yeo, meaning it was negative. Harding had one more doctor’s appointment this afternoon.
Apparently, Harding sustained some kind of spasms during warmup. It didn’t happen from stepping on a puck, as some reported.
The team is hoping Harding lets them know later today if he thinks he can return to St. Louis on Monday and back up Niklas Backstrom. The reason why this is important?
The Wild’s at the max 23-man roster – 14 forwards (includes Mike Rupp; activated off IR to make him eligible for conditioning stint to Iowa), 7 defensemen, 2 goalies.
Mikael Granlund, who missed yesterday’s game in Winnipeg with an upper-body injury, didn’t practice for the second consecutive practice today. If he can’t play against the Blues, the only way the Wild can call up a forward is to place Torrey Mitchell (leg) on injured reserve. But if Harding can’t back up, Mitchell will be placed on IR so Darcy Kuemper is officially added to the roster to back up.
If that were the case, the Wild will either have to dress seven defensemen (Nate Prosser and Matt Dumba) again like Winnipeg or Rupp, expected to join the Wild after playing five games for Iowa on a conditioning stint that ended yesterday, would have to make his season debut. Reports are Rupp did get better every game but that he looked slow with his skating (not that Rupp’s ever been a speedster, especially with the recent knee issues).
“Everything seems good,” Yeo said of Harding. “If he feels good enough, we’re hoping he can back up tomorrow. But again, comfort wise, his pain tolerance, he has to be able to go out and perform if needed to.”
Yeo hasn’t ruled out Granlund against the Blues, but he hasn’t been on the ice since the Ottawa game. I asked Granlund to talk today, but he didn’t want to. He’s showing no signs of an obvious injury. I asked Yeo if it’s a concussion – he’s played four games since the Nazem Kadri head shot, but he was crushed into the boards by Marc Methot in Ottawa – and Yeo just said it’s an upper-body injury and wouldn’t say when it happened or how or what.
Jared Spurgeon didn’t practice today, but Yeo says he expects him to be in the lineup Monday night.
Yeo said in his mind, Keith Ballard isn’t ready, plus for Ballard to play, two players would have to go on IR.
Yeo said all lineup decisions will be made Monday, and again, a lot has to do with how Harding feels and if he returns to St. Louis.
Beginning Monday in St. Louis, nine of the Wild’s next 11 games come against the top five teams in the Western Conference and the current eighth-place team – in order, Anaheim, Chicago, St. Louis, San Jose, Colorado and Phoenix. Those six teams are a combined 95-26-14 (.756).
Of those teams, the Wild has only played Anaheim and Chicago this season, going a combined 1-1-1.
So by mid-December, we’ll all get a really good sense of the Wild.
The Wild flew to Winnipeg on Friday morning and practiced in the afternoon at MTS Centre. Making a bit of a surprise appearance: goalie Niklas Backstrom and defenseman Keith Ballard, both of whom had been out with injuries.
Backstrom had missed the past four games because of a concussion. He took lots of pucks in practice, as he and Josh Harding got most of the work while Darcy Kuemper watched along the boards. Harding will start Saturday against Winnipeg, coach Mike Yeo said, but he liked what he saw from Backstrom.
"I would say I'm pleased and also happy to see the way he looked out there,'' Yeo said. "He looked quick, he looked slick, but it’s one day, obviously, so we’ll keep an eye going forward.''
Backstrom said he has been skating for a few days and felt "pretty good'' after his first full practice in more than a week. "We'll see how everything feels after this,'' he added.
Ballard had missed seven games because of an upper-body injury. Yeo said he doesn't anticipate Ballard playing Saturday, but he said Ballard has "come a long way'' in the past couple of days and that his status is now upgraded to day-to-day. Ballard has been skating on his own and said he just needs to get used to contact again.
Torrey Mitchell (lower body) is still not with the team but could rejoin it in St. Louis, where the Wild plays Monday.
Other notes from practice:
--Matt Dumba will stay in the lineup. He was paired with Clayton Stoner in practice, and Yeo wants to give him a chance to play two in a row and establish some rhythm. "I liked his game in Ottawa,'' Yeo said. "Certainly when we’re playing in high-pace games he helps us with his skating ability, he helps us with his execution and his puck movement. He’s playing against a team that he’s played a number of times already, including preseason, so hopefully that gives him a little bit of comfort there.''
--Mikael Granlund did not practice but was simply taking a day of rest.
--Ryan Suter came off the ice with a towel to his face, surprising Yeo, who was in the hallway talking to the media when his workhorse defenseman walked past. Suter was smiling and had just a small cut to his lip.
As speculated in today's paper, the Wild did indeed flip backup goalies this morning. With Niklas Backstrom sidelined with a concussion, Johan Gustafsson was reassigned to AHL Iowa and Darcy Kuemper recalled for the two-game road trip to Montreal and Ottawa (actually a four-game trip, but the Wild's returning home Thursday before heading to Winnipeg on Friday for practice).
Kuemper will likely start Wednesday in Ottawa unless the Wild acquires another backup beforehand. Kuemper has had a very up and down year for Iowa, and that was epitomized this past weekend when he got lit up Friday night but came back Saturday and made 32 saves in a 1-0 loss to Milwaukee.
But Gustafsson is not ready for an NHL start. So Kuemper is the guy. The 6-5 former Western Hockey League Player of the Year and Canadian Hockey League Goalie of the Year went 1-2-0 with a 2.08 GAA and a .916 SV% in six games (three starts) with the Wild last season (excluding postseason).
In Toronto earlier this year, Kuemper gave up three goals on seven shots in 31 minutes and was pulled in a game the Wild absolutely dominated. The hope is that was an aberration because he was treated like a yo-yo during that time. Remember, he was up in Minnesota as a backup, was returned to Iowa to make his first start of the season, then flew to Buffalo to serve as backup to Josh Harding before starting in Toronto the next night.
We talked to Kuemper today and he believes it was just a blip on the radar. He's confident going into Wednesday's expected start. I'll put those quotes in Wednesday's paper.
As I've reported, if Backstrom is going to be out long, I'd suspect the Wild gets a backup in here via signing, trade or waivers. Jason LaBarbera was placed on waivers today by the Edmonton Oilers. It'll be interesting to see if he is of interest to Minnesota or any of the other teams -- Chicago, Islanders, Los Angeles, Nashville -- who suddenly need goalies. He has 60 NHL wins, although ... he'd be a true stopgap. The puck has a hard time hitting him and he doesn't exactly get my heart racing.
After doing a little digging, it would surprise me if the Wild put in a claim.
I talked to Josh Harding, and he told me his red pads won't be worn in games because his teammates say they see holes easier behind him. I then showed Harding pics of Trevor Kidd's infamous checkered pads in Carolina and Florida. Kidder was a treat to cover, by the way.
I'm doing a big story on Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund tomorrow. As I wrote in yesterday's blog, Team Finland's GM Jari Kurri and coach Erkka Westerlund were at the game watching them for the Olympics, and I talked to both men.
I'm also writing about Marco Scandella, who is playing great and is returning to play in his hometown of Montreal for the second time. He was real good today.
And, from the NHL:
Los Angeles Kings goaltender Ben Scrivens,
Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin and Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding
have been named the NHL’s “Three Stars” for the week ending Nov. 17.
FIRST STAR – BEN SCRIVENS, G, LOS ANGELES KINGS
Scrivens went 3-0-1 with a 0.66 goals-against average, .977 save
percentage and two shutouts to help the Kings improve to 14-6-1 (29
points), their best record through the first 21 games of a season since
1990-91 (15-5-1, 31 points). He relieved injured starter Jonathan Quick for
the final 1:20 of overtime, serving as the goaltender of record in a 3-2
shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres Nov. 12. Scrivens then started the next
three games, posting 23 saves in a 3-2 comeback victory over the New York
Islanders Nov. 14 and recording consecutive shutouts against the New Jersey
Devils Nov. 15 (26 saves) and New York Rangers Nov. 17 (37 saves). The
27-year-old native of Spruce Grove, Alta., has not allowed a goal in his
last 155:02 of playing time and leads the NHL with a 1.24 goals-against
average, .955 save percentage and three shutouts in eight appearances this
SECOND STAR – TYLER SEGUIN, C, DALLAS STARS
Seguin paced all players with five goals and tied for first with
seven points in leading the Stars to three straight victories. He scored
the insurance marker in a 3-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers Nov. 13. Seguin
then tallied a career-high four goals, including the game-winner, and five
points in a 7-3 triumph over the Calgary Flames Nov. 14, becoming the first
Stars player to register four goals in a game since Nov. 16, 2007 (Jussi
Jokinen). He capped the week by collecting an assist in a 2-1 victory over
the Vancouver Canucks Nov. 17, extending his point streak to four games
(6-2—8). The 21-year-old native of Brampton, Ont., leads the Stars, and is
tied for sixth in the NHL, with 12-11—23 in 20 games this season.
THIRD STAR – JOSH HARDING, G, MINNESOTA WILD
Harding posted a 3-0-0 record with a 1.38 goals-against average
and .939 save percentage to help the Wild improve to 13-4-4 (30 points),
their most points through the first 21 games of a season in franchise
history. He relieved injured starter Niklas Backstrom in a 2-1 win over the
Toronto Maple Leafs Nov. 13, stopping 19 shots, plus another two in the
shootout, in 54:29 of playing time. Harding then recorded 22 saves in a 3-2
victory over the Florida Panthers Nov. 15 and 21 stops in a 2-1 triumph
over the Winnipeg Jets Nov. 17 to extend his home-ice winning streak to 10
games. The 29-year-old native of Regina, Sask., is 12-2-2 in 17 appearances
this season and ranks second in the League in goals-against average (1.25),
save percentage (.946) and shutouts (tied, 2).
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