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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The day after Tuesday's deflating 4-3 shootout loss to Edmonton, the Wild spent much of Wednesday's practice at Braemar Arena working on its power play. It also worked on something more nebulous but equally important: developing the chemistry that coach Mike Yeo said his team is struggling to find.
Since the personnel shift that occurred at the trade deadline--when the team shed fourth-liner Torrey Mitchell and gained forwards Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick--the Wild is 0-1-2, including Tuesday's clunker against one of the league's worst teams. Yeo said that rebuilding team chemistry with those new pieces will happen with repetition, and he has impressed upon his players that working toward that goal is critical.
Yeo did not make any changes to his line combinations in Wednesday's practice, though he said he would reevaluate that Thursday morning as the Wild prepares for Thursday night's home game against the New York Rangers. He did say that Darcy Kuemper will get the start in goal.
"When we made the trade, the first thing I said to the group was, 'We've got work to do now,''' Yeo said. "The work is not skating up and down the ice. It's not watching video. We do that stuff all the time. The work is building chemistry. The work is, you're almost starting from scratch again to build your team game.
"We've got different guys in different roles now, and different positions. So that’s our task. That’s up to us as coaches to make sure all our players have an understanding of what their role is, but also to players, the only way to build chemistry is to go out and do the things your teammates are expecting you to do, and know they're doing it for you. And that’s when it happens.
"The harder you work at it, the quicker it comes. The players know we have to keep working at it. We're not that far off.''
Forward Zach Parise--who was perturbed Tuesday by what he saw as a lack of energy and intensity as the Wild lost a three-goal lead--said he does not think chemistry is an issue. He described Tuesday's loss as "a weird game'' and "an off night,'' saying he does not think it is indicative of a problem.
"I don’t think there's a chemistry problem at all. That’s just my opinion,'' Parise said. "I thought we played a very good game against St. Louis. We had a lot of opportunities to win in Dallas. Then we played a bad game last night.
"Everyone wants to search for solutions. Really, we just played a bad game. That's it. That's why it's important to look at the big picture. I know when you lose a couple, it's easy to jump on things. In all reality, we're fine.''
The Wild spent time Wednesday working on 4-on-3 and 5-on-3 situations. They failed in both of those at two critical points of Tuesday's game, and Yeo said he liked the puck movement he saw in practice.
"We're still trying to build chemistry with those guys, the same way we are with our lines,'' he said. "When you add a couple new players, it obviously has an impact on line combinations, and there's going to be an adjustment there. Likewise with the power play, the more we can get out there and work these things in practice, just getting the reps and getting out there, knowing where guys are, knowing their tendencies, knowing where their sticks are going to be and reading off each other, it's going to help more and more.''
You’re all Wild fans (at least I assume since you read this blog), so you should be well accustomed to this by now.
For as long as I’ve covered this franchise at least (nine seasons), the Wild is absolutely incapable of doing things the easy way.
So there’s just no chance you really believed that when the Wild built a nine-point playoff lead on ninth place eight days ago that it was going to actually soar into the playoffs.
So naturally, the Wild blows two points in Dallas and then gets only two points in its next two games. Sunday was forgivable because it at least outchanced and arguably outplayed one of the best teams in the NHL.
But tonight wasn’t. There’s just no excuse to build a 3-0 lead at home and end up losing in a shootout to one of the worst teams in the NHL, the Edmonton Oilers. The Wild got what it deserved when it couldn’t pick up that extra point.
Up 3-1, the Wild managed one shot on a 1:24 5-on-3. Then, to start overtime, the Wild gained a 1:51 4-on-3 and couldn’t muster a shot.
Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu scored in the shootout, but three of four shooters beat Darcy Kuemper, who gave up a couple regrettable goals in the third, including the tying goal with 4:53 left to Jordan Eberle.
So, the Wild’s lead over Dallas is down to three and lead over Phoenix is down to four.
The Wild better figure out a way to salvage the rest of this homestand with the Rangers and Blue Jackets coming to town Thursday and
Friday Saturday because what’s staring the Wild in the face is eight out of 10 games on the road.
Coach Mike Yeo always says he doesn’t care about the teams behind him, that the race is how many points you need to get to make the playoffs. And that’s accurate. But right now, the Stars and Coyotes are flying and the Wild, a team that was on a 9-2-2 run only eight days ago, is 0-1-2 in its past three and coughing up 3-0 leads at home to the Oilers.
The momentum has turned south for the team you care about the is heading north for the other two teams.
The Wild’s chemistry has run afoul. Chuck Fletcher and Craig Leipold made moves at the deadline as a show of faith to the team. But the Wild’s responded by being winless in three since and the mojo that was there is now MIA.
The moves to bring in Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick caused two lines to change, Dany Heatley to drop to the fourth line and 12-goal scorer Justin Fontaine to be removed from the lineup. With seven healthy defensemen, Yeo has also tinkered with his third defense pair for three straight games. Koivu’s also trying to jump into a playoff race after not playing in two-plus months.
So right now the Wild is trying to find the right mix and the right chemistry and better do so fast.
But tonight’s loss wasn’t about cohesion. It was about an alarming amount of players lacking energy and urgency. It was about an alarming amount of players being completely off early. How many times in the first period did Wild players have pucks slide off their sticks or misconnect on passes?
“I thought we were a little bit lucky to be up 3-0. You could tell we weren’t on it right away,” Yeo said.
The one area where the Wild passed well was the power play. Unfortunately though, it didn’t shoot, and these were the big guns, the go-to guys.
On the two-man advantage, it was Parise, Koivu, Suter, Pominville and Moulson. On the 4-on-3, it was Parise, Koivu, Suter and Pominville.
Pominville said the 5-on-3 was easy to defend because with two lefties at top, the Oilers didn’t have to respect the one-timer.
I know most coaches have to defer to the big guns, the veterans, but it is a shame in a game like this that Mikael Granlund wasn’t used. He set up goals by Parise and Pominville in the first period on terrific passes and looked to be feeling it. Hey, if you’re going to pass all power play, you may as well use your best passer to actually set up a scoring chance.
“We’ll talk about these things for sure,” Yeo said. “In that situation, those guys are leaders on our team and high-skilled guys, so we wanted to give them the opportunity to put it away for us.”
Yeo pointed out how there were questions about not using Parise and Koivu in shootouts or at least fiddling with his shootout order and Parise and Koivu both scored back-to-back in the shootout tonight.
“Sometimes you have to be careful not to overreact and sometimes you have to make hard decisions,” Yeo said.
There were a couple quality efforts. One guy who had a ton of energy and was a constant threats shorthanded was Erik Haula. He also assisted on Jared Spurgeon’s goal. Maybe Haula should have gotten more ice time.
But the Wild just lacked urgency tonight and besides the momentum-killing 5-on-3, the Wild took three minor penalties – two by Charlie Coyle, one by Kyle Brodziak – in the second. The Oilers didn’t score, but it just gave the sense that they were back in the game. And then in the third, they eventually got back in the game.
The Oilers had nothing to lose and didn’t quit.
“We were trying to challenge the group with that,” Yeo said. “And I actually mean it as a compliment to Edmonton, where they don’t care if they win or lose right now. They’re just going to keep playing hard. We knew they were going to keep coming.
“We’ve got to be on our game, doesn’t matter who we play, and we weren’t.”
“This is one game. We can’t overreact. We didn’t lock it up, we weren’t tight enough, we weren’t strong enough, it was the back end of three in four, we have to find ways to win games where we’re not perfect.”
Read the gamer for some of the other quotes. Parise was pretty candid. That’s it for me.
Rachel Blount is actually covering Wednesday’s practice and I’ll be back with you Thursday. I am co-hosting Common’s show on KFAN from noon-3 live from the car show. We’ll be talking some hockey and NFL draft. Some of the hockey guests include Rangers play by play man Kenny Albert and the Wild’s Matt Cooke.
I’ll also try to line one of my reporter pals who covered the GM’s meetings.
Until this morning, I hadn't had a chance to talk with Wild rookie Erik Haula since his major penalty and game misconduct for charging Saturday night in Dallas.
Haula, the Wild's fastest player, gained speed coming into the offensive zone, blew by a defender, cut to the net and crashed hard into Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen.
Lehtonen's mask popped off, his head hit the crossbar and he sustained a concussion. He also emerged with blood on his head. Haula was assessed a major for charging and Stars stud Tyler Seguin scored the tying goal in an eventual win.
Replays did show Haula was tripped by Stars player Cody Eakin and Haula wasn't disciplined by the NHL.
Understandably frustrated Stars coach Lindy Ruff called it a "dirt play" by a "fourth-liner," although those of us who know Haula also know he's not your typical fourth-liner. It's just his current role as a first-year NHLer, but he's a past scoring star at the University of Minnesota with blinding speed, not a thug. Before that game, he had eight penalty minutes in 28 games.
Still, Ruff was frustrated just like Mike Yeo would have been if a Dallas player did that to Darcy Kuemper.
On the incident, Haula said, "After a play like that, when I go to the locker room, first I want to see it myself. I think it’s pretty clear that my intention is definitely not to run the goalie or anything like that. I think it’s self-explanatory. We’re up 3-2 and I’m going hard to the net, I’ve got a lot of speed, my foot gets tangled up with [Eakin], I basically fall forward. I’m trying to score a goal. That’s my main intention. It’s unfortunate when I go into the locker room and see that [Lehtonen’s] hurt. It’s not a good feeling ever. I wish all the best for him and hopefully a speedy recovery."
Was he worried he'd be suspended? "I wasn’t thinking about it. I was so nervous about the game. I didn’t feel too good about the penalty and then the team losing. I was really disappointed about that. Having a tight race like it is, the points are crucial. That was my only focus at that point. I knew that everything was going to take care of itself. If the league saw it as a dirty play, they would have suspended me. But I think that everyone can see – even if you want to or don’t want to look at it that close – that I do get tripped up and was kind of helpless (meaning he had nowhere to go)."
That's my feeling on the play. I don't think he had intent to run Lehtonen. Just look at the replay in real time. The kid was absolutely flying, he cuts to the net, tangles skates and next thing you know, he's at the crease with uncontrollable speed. He just ran out of room and had nowhere to go.
I also think it's a tough call for the ref there. It was a scary site seeing Lehtonen get crashed into. There's an obvious injury. If you don't see the trip or you think Haula could have still avoided Lehtonen, a major there is probably the right call. Like I said the other day, I do think the only thing that was in dispute is Trevor Daley probably should have gotten two for roughing, which would have made it essentially a 3-minute major.
Either way, Lehtonen is hurt and hopefully he gets better quickly. Thank goodness from Dallas' perspective that it traded for Tim Thomas three days before.
I will be hosting a live chat at www.startribune.com/wild at 2 p.m. CT and if you didn't see my previous blog, there's a Josh Harding update.
But when the Wild drops the puck on its game tonight against the Edmonton Oilers, Matt Cooke will play in his 1,000th regular-season game. He will become the 286th player in NHL history to hit the milestone and fourth to do so in a Wild sweater (Keith Carney, Andrew Brunette and Matt Cullen).
Cooke, 35, has scored 162 goals and 384 points in 999 games with a plus-61, 2,013 hits and 1,120 penalty minutes.
His first NHL game, first NHL goal and 1,000th game have come against Edmonton.
His career have been full of ups and downs, going from a super-pest (somebody many considered dirty) to reinventing himself after a 17-game suspension (including playoffs) for elbowing the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh on March 21, 2011. He knew that if he didn't change the way he played the game that he would be out of the NHL in a jiffy.
Nobody can watch him now with unbiased eyes and say he’s the same player he once was. I can tell you from my standpoint, I definitely had a previous perception about what kind of player Matt Cooke was (I was just reading two columns I wrote on Cooke after the McDonagh incident and a Nick Schultz kneeing incident) and thus what kind of person Cooke must be. My opinions have changed after watching him and talking to him for three-quarters of a season. I can tell you, from a teammate standpoint, he’s very much a respected leader in the Wild’s room. Some of the “kids,” like Charlie Coyle, were going on and on about Cooke today.
I know that doesn't change some of his previous acts and doesn't help guys like Marc Savard, but there's no doubt he's a different, much more effective player today than he was in yesteryear.
Cooke has 24 friends and family members in town to enjoy tonight’s game. His wife and three children will be on the ice with him when the Wild and NHL honors Cooke in the pregame.
Here’s a pretty candid Q and A with Cooke from this morning:
On 1,000 games: “It’s a huge accomplishment for me and my family. You don’t get here by yourself. I’ve had great people around me who have supported me through thick and thin. And I think those will be the things I think of during the ceremony.”
You don’t think about 1,000 games when drafted? “I’ll go back even farther than that. I was a 10th-round draft pick to junior (Windsor Spitfires), 144th overall. Crazy enough, I was a sixth-round pick, 144th overall in the NHL.”
How does a player drafted that late twice make it? “You don’t get hindered by the draft pick number. My biggest thing was at the end of the day when I leave training camp, I don’t want them to go, No. 46, who’s that? When they see my number or my name, I want them to have a visual image of what kind of player that is. I was fortunate enough to have some great coaching along the way to help me out. If you want your dream, work at it. Just because you’re a high draft pick doesn’t mean you’re not going to make it.”
How’d you go from a three- or four-minute a night guy who would run goalies to a 15-minute guy trusted on the ice late in games? “That was the [Mike] Keenan-[Marc] Crawford transition for sure. He put a lot of faith and trust in me, believed in the way that I played. His big thing was there’s a style of play that I play. For me to be most effective is to be underneath at least three or four guys’ skin and quite often that led with us skating around in the morning skate and him mentioning last names of players on the opposing team. But that also led me to playing 12 to 15 minutes a night and getting opportunities with seconds left needing a tying goal. That gave me a lot of confidence and belief in the way I was playing.”
Have you thought that you would have gotten to 1,000 quicker without the suspensions? “In reality, I have 20 [regular season] games of suspensions, so it still would have been this year. I probably missed close to 100 games with injury and I spent the first two years half and half, which is another 80 games and a lockout and a half and that gets me to today. I can’t really look back. I can’t change any of that and that’s made me the person and player I am today. I’m thankful that I’m in a great organization to celebrate this with.”
Are you surprised how quickly Wild fans embraced a former detested Vancouver Canuck? “We all know the history that was there and we all know my interviews when I first signed here were not the most generously questioned, even by yourself (laughs), but I expected that. And I believed that with the Wild logo that they would appreciate me just as the fans in Vancouver did back then.”
And in Pittsburgh, you seemed to be beloved? “It’s a very blue-collar town, a very hard-working city and they love their sports there. I was fortunate to win a Cup there. I think anybody that’s done that there is an icon in that city and will be for the rest of their lives. That’s a cool place to be and it’s my goal to do that here.”
How gratifying is it that you admittedly reinvented yourself the past three years? “There’s been times throughout my career where you’re injured and you’re like, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this.’ But the last three years have been a lot of fun for me. With my change in approach has come a lot of realizations and understandings of emotions and events that happen in a game that I never even knew took place because I was putting myself somewhere else to be that player. So the last three years have made me feel like I have a lot more to give, and that’s fun for me, that’s exciting.”
Some fans and critics still look at you like the old Matt Cooke, like in Dallas with the tripping minor Saturday? “I’ve always been a guy that said people are going to have their opinions and they’re entitled to them. I don’t hold it against them. That’s their belief and understanding and that’s their right.”
Are you happy with your new approach? “Absolutely. I can go out and play 18 minutes fairly easily without feeling like I might not make it through the next week. Five years ago there’s no way I can do that with the stress I put on my brain and my body. I enjoy my teammates more, I enjoy the game more. Just everything is in a better place with me.”
Also, I talked to Erik Haula today about his major penalty on Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen this morning. I'll toss those quotes up on the blog later. Please join the chat in a matter of minutes.
Josh Harding, who still technically leads the NHL with a 1.65 goals-against average and is second with a .933 save percentage, took the ice at Xcel Energy Center this morning for the first time since January.
Harding, who hasn’t started since Dec. 31 because of the effects of multiple sclerosis, has been feeling much better in recent days.
“I saw him this morning, and I can’t say that I have a plan right now,” coach Mike Yeo said. “The first step was just to see him at the rink and I know he was here last game and I had heard how much better he was doing. And when I got a chance to talk to him this morning, you could see it. You could see it in his face, you could see the relief. You could just see he’s in a much better place right now. I think it’s great. It’s great to have him around. The next step is getting him on the ice and talk more about what the plan is. We haven’t discussed that.”
Harding, indisputably the Wild’s first-half MVP with an 18-7-3 record, had an adjustment to his treatment after beating Vancouver on Dec. 17. He missed the Wild’s four-game road trip and returned to start two games Dec. 29 against the Islanders and Dec. 31 against the Blues.
He missed the next smattering of games, came back to practice, but then had to leave again because he wasn’t feeling well. He has missed the past 22 games.
Obviously, Harding taking the ice is a great sign, but obviously there’s a long road yet to getting back into a game. Still, outstanding news that Harding is feeling better.
Also, Niklas Backstrom, one week after being “shut down” by GM Chuck Fletcher, skated today in pads with Harding. Apparently, this is part of Backstrom’s treatment plan from a Toronto specialist.
So, is Backstrom shut down?
“I don’t know with Backy,” Yeo said, laughing. “We don’t want to shut him down because you never know, he might all of a sudden come back and feel great. We don’t have a plan there. I know that he’s still not feeling great, so he’s going out there and keeping sharp just in case he can come back.”
Darcy Kuemper vs. Viktor Fasth (Oilers debut and first game since Nov. 18) tonight against the Edmonton Oilers.
Clayton Stoner, Justin Fontaine and Mike Rupp will be scratched for Minnesota. Oscar Klefbom will make his NHL debut for Edmonton.
Matt Cooke will skate in his 1,000th game and I’ll return soon with his thoughts.
I will be hosting a live chat at startribune.com at 2 p.m.
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