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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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.''
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.
The Wild has the day off Tuesday and will be back on the ice Wednesday in preparation for back-to-back games Thursday (vs. Chicago) and Friday (at Columbus).
But the accolades keep coming for Josh Harding, who won his career-high 14th game last night. He leads the league with a 1.45 goals-against average and is second with a .939 save percentage. Today he was named the NHL's Third Star for the month of November.
FIRST STAR – PATRICK KANE, RW, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Kane ranked second among skaters with nine goals, including four
game-winners, and 19 points, helping the Blackhawks win 12 of 15 games to
move into first place in the NHL standings (20-4-4, 44 points). He recorded
at least one point in 13 of 15 contests, including six multi-point efforts,
and posted a career-long, 12-game point streak from Nov. 3-27 (8-9—17).
Kane also scored the game-winning goal in consecutive games twice during
the month: Nov. 6-9 versus the Winnipeg Jets and Dallas Stars, and Nov.
25-27 against the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. He capped the month
with 1-1—2, his ninth multi-point performance of the season, in a 5-2
victory over the Phoenix Coyotes Nov. 30. The 25-year-old Buffalo native
and reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner ranks third in the NHL with 16
goals, including a League-leading five game-winners, and tied for fifth
with 30 points in 28 games this season.
SECOND STAR – EVGENI MALKIN, C, PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
Malkin led all players with 21 assists and 25 points, including a
League-leading nine power-play assists and 10 power-play points, as the
Penguins went 9-5-1 to remain in the top spot in the Metropolitan Division
(18-9-1, 37 points). He registered at least one assist/point in 14 of 15
games, including each of Pittsburgh’s last eight contests (4-13—17). Malkin
also posted eight multi-point performances, capped by a season-high 1-3—4
effort in a 5-1 triumph over the Florida Panthers Nov. 30. According to the
Elias Sports Bureau, his 21 assists were the most by an NHL player in one
calendar month since January 1996, when Wayne Gretzky recorded 21 helpers
for the Los Angeles Kings. The 27-year-old Magnitogorsk, Russia, native
leads the League with 28 assists and ranks second with 35 points, one
behind teammate Sidney Crosby (13-23—36), in 28 games this season.
THIRD STAR – JOSH HARDING, G, MINNESOTA WILD
Harding posted an 8-2-2 record with a 1.88 goals-against
average, .926 save percentage and one shutout in helping the Wild go 9-4-2
and move into the first Wild Card spot in the Western Conference (16-8-5,
37 points). He recorded his second shutout of the season (19 saves) in a
4-0 victory over the New Jersey Devils Nov. 3 and allowed two or fewer
goals in nine of 12 appearances. Harding also went 6-1-0 in seven games at
Xcel Energy Center, where he has a 32-10-2 record in 44 career starts. The
29-year-old Regina, Sask., native has appeared in 22 games this season,
leading the NHL with a 1.45 goals-against average and three shutouts (tied)
while also placing in the top three in the League in save percentage (.939)
and wins (14).
Good win for the Wild tonight against a Philadelphia team that was trying to get above .500 after a 1-7 start and had been 8-2-1 in its past 11.
The Wild snapped an 0-3-1 skid with a 2-0 victory thanks to Josh Harding’s 21 saves and goals 57 seconds apart early in the third period by Jason Pominville and New Englander ChAHlie Coyle.
This morning, coach Mike Yeo went on and on after how it’s been too many games that the Wild had allowed the game’s first goal (seven in a row) and that sometimes the Wild’s trying so hard to score that it does stuff that’s creating messes defensively.
So you just knew the Wild was going to go back to its winning blueprint and defend tonight. In the first period, just like the third in Colorado, the Wild almost always had the puck (well, except when it kept losing faceoffs) and that kept much of the activity in Philly’s end.
The crowd appreciated the effort, giving the Wild numerous ovations for rare sustained pressure on home ice of late. Problem is, as we all know, the Wild doesn’t score as easily as it would like and most the Grade A chances it sent slugger Ray Emery’s way was fired right into the Flyers logo on his chest.
The second was a snoozzzzzzzzefest and a half, but maybe the tight-checking Flyers, who have scored two or fewer goals in 21 of 27 games, was lulled into a catnap. That’s because the Wild stormed out to open the period with two goals by the 4:49 mark to force coach Craig Berube to use his timeout and kick his Flyers back into attention.
For Pominville, it was his team-leading 14th. For Coyle, it was his first in nine games and third in 17 games this season. Kind of ironic, too, because I was starting to wonder if Yeo should toss Coyle back on the top line and Pominville back onto the second, maybe with Erik Haula as center.
Even Pominville after the game said it’s weird how the Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Pominville line “do a lot of good things” and create chances, yet even since his trade last season, the line has trouble finishing. But this is two games in a row the Koivu line came up huge. In Colorado, it was Pominville and Parise assisting on Koivu’s goal.
Koivu tonight made just an awesome pass to set up Pominville. Koivu has made three or four, as Parise calls them, “world-class passes” this year.
Lot of unsung heroes tonight:
--I didn’t like Jared Spurgeon’s game in Denver. Tonight he assisted on Coyle’s goal, drew a penalty and blocked four shots. Also, the play Marco Scandella made down low to protect the puck and allow an entire line change, then get puck to Spurgeon while falling before Coyle's goal is a play to be re-watched over and over. Click this link and then play on Coyle goal to watch.
--The Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Torrey Mitchell line has been so good the past two games. Yes, everybody would like them to score on some of these bona fide scoring chances, but the key is every shift is spent in the offensive zone creating momentum. The three were all huge on the penalty kill in the third and Yeo credited them for getting momentum back after two momentum-killing, no-shot power plays tonight.
--Zenon Konopka, after an eye injury, going out there tonight, winning draws and getting offensive-zone time.
--Coyle, on the penalty kill in the third, going up against three Flyers and eating clock in the Flyers zone.
--And Mike Rupp, in his 600th game and third this year, standing up for his teammates and throwing down with Jay Rosehill after the player was running around creating havoc. Rupp has played a lot of games being in Philly’s division with New Jersey, Philadelphia and the Rangers. This was his 12th fight against the Flyers and his teams are 10-1-1 in those games.
-- And of course Harding making big saves in the third. He wasn’t tested often in the first two periods because the Wild was good defensively, allowing only 10 shots through 40 minutes, but in the third he made 11 saves, including a robbery on Jakub Voracek with Philly on the power play. Harding now has a career-high 14 wins and three shutouts. He is 11-1 at home with a 1.12 goals-against average and .949 save percentage. Yeo said it’s a long season and the Wild needs him to continue, especially with Niklas Backstrom’s game injury-riddled and the fact that Harding has sustained a couple leg tweaks this season.
The Wild is 9-3-2 against the East this season and 11-3-2 at home.
That’s it for me. Yeo went on and on in the postgame about how much-needed the next two days of practice would be, in large part to get some of the less than confident shooters some confidence by scoring goals and feeling the puck. But Tuesday's practice has since been scrapped with two days off before Thursday’s huge test against Chicago, which has won six in a row heading into Tuesday’s game against Dallas.
So I'll come to you next Wednesday.
The Wild hosts the Philadelphia Flyers tonight in the first of a two-game homestand. The defending Stanley Cup champ Chicago Blackhawks come to town Thursday.
Josh Harding will start for the Wild. The Flyers, who will start slugger Ray Emery, will be without veteran Vincent Lecavalier, who hurt his back in Nashville on Saturday night.
MIke Rupp is officially back on the roster. He was away from the team for a few days because of a death in his family. Zenon Konopka was also on the ice today wearing a visor after taking a puck to his left eye Friday against Colorado.
Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville
Nino Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Dany Heatley
Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Torrey Mitchell
Mike Rupp/Erik Haula/Zenon Konopka/Justin Fontaine
One of the above forwards will be scratched. Coach Mike Yeo said it's a gametime decision, but there's a good chance Haula will play because of the speed he brings, his ability to take faceoffs and because he's been responsible in his own zone.
Defense pairs will go back to normal. Yeo switched his top two defense pairs in Colorado and it didn't go well, so in the third, Ryan Suter was reunited with Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella was reunited with Jared Spurgeon to get back to some familiarity. That definitely worked for Minnesota during a dominant period.
Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard are again a pair, but they have been a little erratic and since Yeo said today that he skated up to Matt Dumba and Nate Prosser and told them that he doesn't plan on scratching them a bunch of games in a row and to get ready to play soon, it'll be interesting to watch Stoner and Ballard tonight.
Speaking of Dumba, as I wrote in Sunday's paper, GM Chuck Fletcher was strongly considering loaning Dumba to Team Canada for the world junior championships in Malmo, Sweden. It makes all the sense in the world because Dumba is barely playing here and the world juniors would be such a great developmental experience for Dumba, who has been cut the previous two years.
Barring a crazy amount of injuries in the next week, Fletcher has indeed made the decision to loan Dumba to Canada before its camp starts Dec. 12 in Toronto. The team will then head to Denmark to continue camp before the tournament starts Dec. 26. Again, if the Wild sustains injuries in the next week, Fletcher may change his mind.
Once Dumba leaves the team, that opens up a roster spot, which would also give the Wild more roster flexibility. Remember, when you carry eight defensemen, you have to make decisions like Sunday, when the Wild had to reassign Jason Zucker to Iowa once Rupp returned to the team. The Wild will also free up some cap space by Dumba not being on the roster. After the tournament ends Jan. 5, the Wild will decide whether or not to add Dumba back onto its roster or return him to Red Deer of the Western Hockey League.
The next threshold for Dumba to pass is 40 games on the Wild's roster. If he is on the roster for more than 40, his seven-year free agency clock begins to tick. With Dumba off the roster, that actually buys the Wild more time to make a decision. In other words, the games the Wild plays without Dumba won't count toward that 40-game mark.
In 1995-96, when Fletcher was assistant GM in Florida, the Panthers loaned defenseman Rhett Warrener to Canada. Warrener played 13 games before Christmas, being scratched most the time. Warrener came back from world junior, was added back to Florida's roster and was a huge part of Florida's run to the Stanley Cup final.
Coincidentally, Dumba has also played exactly 13 games.
Dumba will be Canada's go-to defenseman -- an absolute shoo-in to make the team -- and will likely get a letter on his chest from his former Red Deer coach, Brent Sutter.
"I think it’s going to be a good experience for me to go there and play my best and play a good role," Dumba said. "I hope that all works out for me. I'll work hard and do whatever it takes to reach our end result, which is getting our country gold again."
Pierre McGuire, a world junior expert, is here in Minnesota to work the NBC Sports Network telecast tonight with Doc Emrick.
"This is smart by Chuck," said McGuire. "It’s great for the kid and his time with Sutter and his connection to Red Deer is mammoth. Dumba's going to be a great player for Canada and for Minnesota in the future."
Konopka has a big shiner around his left eye and stitches on his eyelid, which had to be pleasant. He admitted that the eye doctor told him he was very, very lucky. He said he couldn't see for a few days. In that Colorado game, Konopka came back to the ice for a shift. Spurgeon sent him a pass, he knew the pass was coming, but his eye just couldn't focus, Konopka said. That's why he left the ice in a stick-swinging tantrum down the runway.
He said though he will not wear the visor permanently, that he just doesn't like it or feel comfortable with it.
That's it for now. Talk to you later.
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