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 game coverage

"Il-ya, Il-ya, Il-ya" leads Wild to the brink of the playoffs

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 7, 2014 - 11:18 PM

For some reason the Wild hasn’t been successful in the front end of back-to-backs (3-9 before tonight’s 1-0 win at Winnipeg; eighth shutout by the Wild to tie a team record), so defenseman Ryan Suter said this was kind of a “trap game” tonight with the hard-working Jets out of the playoff hunt, the Wild so close to clinching a playoff spot and the Boston Bruins, the top team in the NHL, waiting for the Wild in Minnesota for Tuesday night’s game.

But the Wild grinded it out. Its execution wasn’t good all night long offensively, but man, the Wild worked hard and defended well. Players sure had to with as much time as they spent in their own zone.

“That was the definition of grinding it out,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We battled hard. Structure-wise, we were good. Penalty kill was huge (4 for 4). The play of our defensemen in particular, really impressed.”

You have to give Yeo and his staff credit (I know, I know, players win games and coaches lose games).

Obviously, the four goalies who have been No. 1 this season for the Wild (Nik Backstrom, Josh Harding, Darcy Kuemper and now Ilya Bryzgalov) deserve credit, but this could have blown up at any time along the way if not for the Wild’s impressive defensive structure and Yeo’s system.

The Wild’s goalies are rarely peppered and when the Wild most needed it, it has gotten back to a defensive structure that has allowed 26 or fewer shots in the past eight games.

“This team right now, we’re going good places,” said defenseman Jon Blum, who had his best game since his callup. “We’re focused on defense first and you can see that. Whenever they get that big chance, Bryz makes that big save for us. We’re feeding off that.”

“Bryz” tonight made 24 saves for his second consecutive shutout. He’ll start against Boston and carry a shutout streak of 142 minutes, 15 seconds into a game against a team that is 13-1-4 in its past 18 on the road and 16-1-2 in the past 19 overall.

The Wild’s magic number is one point. Its magic number for the top wildcard spot is two.

Tuesday’s clinching scenarios:

-- Wild win or overtime/shootout loss

--Phoenix loss of any kind

--Phoenix shootout win

To not make the playoffs, the Wild would have to go 0-3 and the Coyotes would have to go 4-0 (no shootout wins) and then make up what would seem to be an insurmountable goal differential tiebreaker (plus-2 for Minnesota, minus-12 for Phoenix).

Six or seven games ago, it looked like the Wild was on its way to being toast. Now it’s 4-0-1 in its past five and closed its regular-season road schedule with a 17-17-7 record (7-3-2 since the Olympic break). Remember, before the Olympic break, the Wild was one of the worst road teams in the NHL.

“We went into a lot of tough buildings and I give our guys credit for the way they battled on the road,” Yeo said.

“It’ crazy how fast it can turn around,” said Charlie Coyle, who scored the winning goal 65 seconds into the second period on an even-strength goal that was basically a power-play goal. “Things aren’t going your way and you lose a game, it feels like the end of the world and when you win you’re on top of the world. You have to stay even-keeled.”

Coyle has 10 points in the past nine games and five goals. Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu set up his goal, and the line now has eight goals and 21 points in five games and a period since Yeo reunited them in the third period of that loss in St. Louis.

“I tried to find the open ice there and let those guys make plays,” Coyle said.

Bryzgalov is 6-0-3 in 10 appearances and nine starts with a 1.67 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and three shutouts. He’s been great and had some good quotes you can read in the game story. Also, check out the stuff about the Jets fans (see below) taunting him. Funny stuff.

“Very calm in the net, making a lot of very tough saves look easy,” Yeo said of Bryz.

What Yeo liked most about tonight was the battle level and defensive structure. Suter and Jared Spurgeon were solid all night yet again. Jon Blum may have played his best game with the Wild.

“All night our execution wasn’t very good. We know that,” Yeo said. “But you can win games where you’re not completely at your best” when you defend well and you’re structured and work hard.

The Wild’s penalty kill was 4 for 4 and is now 9 for 9 in the past four games after giving up 12 goals on 35 chances in the previous 13 games.

“That’s how it works,” Suter said. “You give up a couple cheesy ones and it turns around. It’s funny how the game works. It’s just like scoring goals. You don’t score goals all year and you get a hat trick. I mean, who would have thought (referring to his hattie back in January against Washington that helped turn the season around). That’s how the game is. Now I can’t buy one.

“Uh, uh, PK, back on point. Hopefully now we’re going up.”

This doesn’t read as funny as Suter sounded. He just went on a little tangent and then, … back to the penalty kill.

“Come playoff time, it’s got to be good,” Matt Cooke said of the PK. “Our whole game has to be good. We know we have right the system, we know we have the right components in this room. We have three games left to build.”

That’s it for me. Early flight home. Doubtful Wild has a skate in the morning, but if it does, I’ll blog afterward. Otherwise, talk to you pregame.

Check out the gamer, John Curry feature and Nino Niederreiter notebook in the paper Tuesday.

Wild shuts out Pittsburgh, moves closer to second straight playoff berth

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 5, 2014 - 11:30 PM

Big 4-0 win by the Wild over the Penguins tonight on many fronts.

As always, please read the gamer and notebook for all the details and my Sunday Insider on the Parise father-son trip that just took place.

First, it further strengthens the team’s hold on the top wildcard spot and strengthens its grasp on a second straight postseason. Wild’s got four games left and is now five up on Dallas (one less game) and six up on Phoenix. Magic number is three. It’s a little more complicated than this, but if the Wild gets one more regulation/overtime win, Phoenix would have to win out in regulation/overtime to even get it to a very complicated tiebreaker system. Basically, win two games and they don't have to worry about Phoenix.

Second, the Wild proved it can play well on home ice again. Who knew? In front of the largest home crowd in Wild history (19,409), the Wild jumped out to a 3-0 first-period lead and was outstanding defensively the rest of the way to win for the second time in seven home games.

The Wild has played better on the road than at home since the Olympics, but the players avoided the first-game-back-from-a-long-road-trip blues and as Zach Parise said were excited to play here again and reestablish home dominance.

The Wild plays its final road game Monday in Winnipeg. A win would allow the Wild to finish the regular season .500 on the road (16-17-7 now, and for all you Patrick Reusse’s out there, .500 in the NHL is point percentage, and 17-17-7 is 41 of 82 possible points, so .500!!!! whether you agree with it or not).

The Wild then returns home to close the season against Boston, St. Louis and suddenly-hot Nashville.

Jim Souhan was out here and wrote a column on rookie Erik Haula, the seventh-round gem that continues to impress with Mikael Granlund out of the lineup. He scored his first career winning goal tonight (and did his first career postgame arena cam on NHL Network) and has a three-game point streak since Granlund’s injury.

He was good tonight. Great on the PK and beat out an icing. Haula, who scored the tying goal in a shootout loss two nights earlier in Chicago, got things started with impressive hustle and speed en route to his fifth goal. He scored a 200-foot goal by weaving the puck in the D-zone, handing it to linemate Jason Pominville and then blowing by defenseman Robert Bortuzzo to run down Moulson’s chip-in.

Cody McCormick, the forgotten soul in the Matt Moulson deal and scratched in five of the past seven games, scored a goal and assist. His goal came when he stayed out late for a shift and kept Mikko Koivu on the bench. Charlie Coyle (two assists) fought through a big hit on the wall to get the puck up to Parise, who set up the goal.

“I stayed on a little extra when I saw the offensive chance,” McCormick said, laughing.

Coach Mike Yeo used McCormick at center tonight and I think that’ll likely continue. He was physical, strong in his own zone and obviously had two points.

Stephane Veilleux continued his strong play with a goal, Koivu continued his surging play with a goal (13 points in 10 games) and Parise had two assists to hit the 500-point milestone. Ryan Suter was awesome (plus-3, two shots, three hits, two blocked shots), as was his defense partner, Jared Spurgeon, who was plus-3. Ilya Bryzgalov made 20 saves for his 33rd career shutout. He is now 5-0-3 with the Wild with a 1.87 goals-against average and could be looking at back-to-back, road/home starts at Winnipeg and at home vs. Boston with Darcy Kuemper hurt. He had a couple awesome saves, one you'll be seeing over and over to rob James Neal.

Terrific job tonight by the Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Justin Fontaine line. They got the task of going up against Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Beau Bennett for much of the game. The line combined for four shots and a minus-2, and Crosby, the NHL’s leading scorer and likely Hart winner, went shotless for the second time this season and 23rd time in his career.

Brodziak also won 8 of 12 faceoffs, while Crosby lost 12 of 17.

So big win. Now onto Winnipeg. Wild practices here in the late morning and then fly to Winnipeg. I’ll come to you after practice at some point before or during my flight.

Wild loses shootout but returns home with five points out of eight on road trip

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 4, 2014 - 12:28 AM

Disappointing, of course, not to get the extra point in a 3-2 shootout loss, but considering a week ago players like Ryan Suter and Zach Parise were talking like the Wild’s playoff hopes were in dire straits after back-to-back losses against Vancouver and St. Louis, getting five of the remaining six points on this road trip were huge and may have saved its season.

With five games left, the Wild’s five up on Dallas and Phoenix. Dallas has played one fewer game and lost tonight at Carolina. Four of the Wild’s remaining games are at home, which normally would be huge, but the Wild’s been lousy at home lately (very unWild-like 1-2-3 in its past six at the X) and three of the upcoming opponents are powerhouses Pittsburgh, Boston and St. Louis.

So as coach Mike Yeo said, after being road weary after playing eight of its past 10 games on the road, it’s time to refocus and reenergize these final five games.

Couple thoughts after tonight:

1. In the past two games, the Wild has taken three shots to the melon – two in L.A. by Jake Muzzin on Nino Niederreiter and Jason Pominville, one tonight when Brandon Bollig clocked Zach Parise from behind.

Niederreiter didn’t play tonight supposedly for precautionary reasons. Pominville appears fine and played tonight. Parise returned to the game, but he said after the game he had a “little headache, but I should be fine.”

The only penalties out of this? To Matt Moulson as he flew in to defend Pominville. Other than that, no response from the Wild. I know the Wild wants to win. I get that. But the head shots are alarming, especially because there’s no meat in the Wild lineup to stand up to these players and their indiscretions. Clayton Stoner’s hurt, and coach Mike Yeo has scratched Cody McCormick the past two games and Mike Rupp has played four times since Dec. 31. Brad Winchester’s in the minors.

The Wild feels Rupp’s skating is a big, big problem after offseason knee surgery. He says he feels better than he’s felt all year. Here's a story I wrote on him March 22. The fourth line is playing seven, eight, nine minutes anyway. Maybe it’s time to put Rupp into the lineup in a limited role, play him five or six minutes and on the times you don’t want to skate him a regular shift, you double-shift another winger.

Rupp’s agent Allan Walsh certainly thinks it’s time:

2. Erik Haula scored the tying goal with 1:54 left and had a team-high five shots. That second line though with Haula, Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson was struggling the first two periods and the third line didn’t have much going either, so late in the second, Yeo moved Haula to the third line with Matt Cooke and Justin Fontaine and Kyle Brodziak to the second.

Haula scored off Justin Fontaine’s pass and in a large part because Cooke drove the net, which forced the D to open up his legs. Haula fired it through.

If Mikael Granlund’s going to be out indefinitely, this is an issue. The Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle continues to click. Coyle scored again tonight, his fourth goal in seven games. So Yeo doesn’t want to take Coyle off that line. So he’s either got to give Haula another shot or use Brodziak there.

The line was actually much more a threat in the offensive zone after Brodziak moved there, but as you know, Brodziak is not a playmaker and he has two goals in the past 31 games, six in 77 this year.

In L.A., he had oodles of chances, but hit a crossbar and was stoned by Jonathan Quick. Tonight he hit a post and executed a perfect deke into an open net … until Duncan Keith stick-checked him from behind.

“There’s no reason why Brodzy can’t step up,” Yeo said. “This is a guy that’s scored in this league. And his game has been coming lately. That game in L.A. was one of his strongest games of the entire year.”

3. A good sign is getting points in games where you’re not at your best, and Yeo and a number players felt tonight wasn’t their best performance. I personally think they didn’t play that badly. I do think they’re tired. I know I am from all the travel. They’ve been on the road for much of the past 3 weeks and starting Saturday play another three games in four nights, including a road-home back-to-back at Winnipeg and vs. Boston.

But now’s the time they just have to suck it up and get some home wins. They’re 6-3-2 since the Olympic break on the road, but at home, they’ve been pedestrian at best. Time to get some wins.

No practice Friday. Talk to you Saturday.

Granlund, Niederreiter injured, but Wild rallies for yet another come-from-behind win

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: April 1, 2014 - 9:02 AM

UPDATE: No hearings for either Muzzin hit.

As I keep saying, pick your poison in the West. It’s hard to say the Wild would be lucky to face Anaheim in the first round of the playoffs, but hey, it’s arguably better than St. Louis, which has beaten Minnesota nine in a row.

But maybe it’s good if the Wild heads over to that Pacific bracket, which includes a potential first-round meeting between L.A. and San Jose. The Wild improved to 12-4-5 against the Pacific Division tonight by snapping the Kings’ six-game winning streak with a 3-2 win here at the Staples Center.

It was the Wild’s first two-game winning streak since that five-game winning streak (Feb. 4-March 3) heading into the March 5 deadline. Mike Yeo picked up his 100th victory as the Wild head coach. It was the Wild’s third straight victory in which it rallied from a third-period deficit.

Wild’s magic number is down to 10 and Phoenix plays Tuesday (vs. Winnipeg) and Wednesday (at Los Angeles) and Dallas plays Tuesday at Washington.

Wild’s now five up on Phoenix and six up on Dallas heading into Thursday’s game at Chicago.

The Wild lost two players in tonight’s game to potential head injuries.

Mikael Granlund was hurt late in the second period when he went in for his fifth hit of the night against Jarret Stoll. Granlund, who has a history of concussions (just this year he's taken hits from Connor Murphy, Nazem Kadri and I can't remember off the top of my head, but somebody in Ottawa), had a nasty red mark below his left eye after the game. Nino Niederreiter was hurt three shifts into his night when he was clobbered in the neutral zone by a high, hard hit from Jake Muzzin, who looked to get away with a head shot in the second on Jason Pominville.

Muzzin wasn’t penalized on either high hit. Niederreiter pinballed into Jeff Carter and left the game wobbly.

Yeo didn’t have updates on either after the game other than saying the standard “upper-body” injury line. The Wild has a travel day to Chicago on Tuesday, so injury updates on both are not expected until after practice Wednesday afternoon. If neither can play in Chicago, the Wild has Dany Heatley and Cody McCormick waiting in the wings.

Rookie Erik Haula got a chance to step up in place of Granlund and was elevated from the fourth to the second line with Matt Moulson and Pominville. Pominville set up Moulson’s tying goal against his brother-in-law Jonathan Quick. Haula also drew an assist.

If Granlund’s going to be out for awhile, Haula may have shown the coaches tonight that he can fill that void.

“It’s nice to play more,” Haula said. “It’s unfortunate what happened to Granny. I hope he has a speedy recovery. He’s an important player for our team, but it’s all about winning. I got a chance to step up. It’s a confidence booster for myself and it’s a process. It’s my first year pro, and it’s a process to get going. I’ve taken little steps as the year’s gone and hopefully I can keep taking more steps down the line here.”

Sixty-two seconds later, Mikko Koivu, who is hitting his stride bigtime lately with a six-game point streak and 12 points in his past eight games, one-timed Charlie Coyle’s pass off the wall for the eventual winner.

Zach Parise also scored his team-leading 28th goal and 13th on the power play (tied for 3rd in the NHL) and had an assist on the Koivu winner. The Wild is 18-3-2 when Parise scores and 11-1 when Koivu has at least two points this year. I’m doing a story on Koivu for Wednesday’s paper, which I recommend (although I haven’t written it yet, so maybe it’ll be awful, ha). But Koivu talked to me this morning about how much last year’s playoff weighed on him last offseason and how hard it was for him to return initially after ankle surgery. It was a frustrating time initially, but he really is started to play well. He won 14 of 22 draws tonight, too, had two big blocked shots and two takeaways.

Coyle was a beast, too, with two shots and six hits.

"He's stepping up," Yeo said. "That's what we need. This is a guy that we can't just say he’s a second-year guy. He's a real important part of our team. What he’s shown us lately, we’re going to keep pushing him."

Poor Kyle Brodziak had four shots tonight and eight attempted shots. Good game but still can't score. Matt Cooke had six hits. 

Moulson really impressed tonight. He scored his fifth goal as a Wild, but most notably stood up for Pominville on the Muzzin high hit. Amazingly, Muzzin didn’t get penalties on either high hit, but Moulson wound up taking the extra two by going after him.

“That stuff builds team chemistry,” Yeo said. “Whenever you see somebody who goes outside what’s normal for them and they’re doing it for the team, the way I saw our killers go out on that kill and then for [Moulson] to get that goal, I thought it was great.”

Ilya Bryzgalov made 18 saves and is now 4-0-2 with the Wild with a 2.16 goals-against average and .916 save percentage. With Darcy Kuemper hurt, it could be Bryzgalov’s net for a bit.

So, painful trip to L.A. as the Wild lost three players to injury (two in the game). But very impressive win by the Wild against a great hockey team and a completely healthy hockey team.

Again, doubtful we’ll get injury updates until after Wednesday’s practice. That will also be the first time we’ll get a chance to talk with newly-signed defenseman Christian Folin, who chose to come to Minnesota over more two-dozen NHL teams.

The 6-foot-3, mobile, hard-shooting, two-way, right-shot defenseman from Gothenburg, Sweden, agreed to terms on a two-year, $1.85 million entry-level contract that begins immediately. Folin, 23, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, will join the Wild on Tuesday night in Chicago, will practice Wednesday and can play in any of the final six regular-season games.

He is not playoff eligible because he’s a free agent signing after the trade deadline.

“Physically, you don’t normally have a young man coming out of college or junior that possess his physical attributes,” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “We think he fits perfectly into our defense corps going forward. He’s what we need. We need a little more size, we need a guy that can shoot the puck and it’s hard to find right-shot defensemen.”

In helping lead the River Hawks to the Hockey East tournament title, Folin led UMass-Lowell defensemen with 20 points in 41 games. He scored 21 points in 38 games as a freshman. Prior to college, Folin played two seasons with the Austin (Minn.) Bruins of the North American Hockey League, scoring 41 points in 87 points.

The Wild had to burn a year of the contract. That’s what every team was offering. Basically, it means next year is his first real year of the deal and he becomes a restricted free agent next summer.

“He’s a physically mature man and he’s 23 years old,” said Fletcher. “He’s a very good skater. He’s got size and strength. Physically, we certainly feel he can make the jump right away. Whether he gets in or not will be up to the coaches, but at a minimum we’d like him to come in and practice and join the team and start to make that adjustment to the National Hockey League.”

Fletcher said scout Brian Hunter has been working hard on this for two years. The Wild invited Folin to last year’s summer camp, but he chose not to go to any.

“We’ve made our interest known for awhile,” Fletcher said. “It’s just really hard to find defensemen that possess his size, skating ability. He’s a right-shot defenseman, so there’s a lot of attributes there. It’s great when you can sign a guy like this. We traded our first-round pick last year, we traded two second-round picks over the next three years. We’re adding a real top asset to our group.

“We think he’s a good enough hockey player to play right away [this season]. I’m not saying where he’ll fit,” but Fletcher noted the Wild only has six healthy defensemen, although Keith Ballard may return Thursday, Clayton Stoner’s out for awhile, minor-leaguer Jon Landry’s out for awhile, “we just got [Steve] Kampfer back and [Matt] Dumba’s in junior. I’m excited to burn a year because we need the depth right now, we need more options.”

So, maybe Folin actually gets in a game or two before the end of the season. At the very least, he joins an impressive growing prospect pool of D that includes Olofsson, Dumba, Gunnarsson, Labbe, Seeler, Soucy, de Jong, Fletcher said.

As always, check out the game story on www.startribune.com/wild, the Kuemper injury story with some funny Andrew Brunette stuff and the notebook.

Gigantic comeback victory by the Wild in Phoenix

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: March 30, 2014 - 12:14 AM

To say this comeback win by the Wild was ginormous would be an understatement.

One week after coach Mike Yeo said the Wild was a “different team” and not in the midst of another late-season collapse, the Wild wasn’t giving anybody reason to believe otherwise.

The Stars walked into St. Louis two nights after the Wild was pummeled there and won 4-2 tonight. So if the Coyotes hung on to beat the Wild, the Wild would have fallen one point behind Phoenix with Dallas only a point behind the Wild.

Instead, the proverbial four-point game. The Wild got two third-period goals from Zach Parise and a winning goal by Jared Spurgeon to pull three up on Phoenix in the race for the top wildcard spot and stay four up on Dallas.

I’ll write more about this in my follow in Monday’s paper to advance the Kings game, but this came one night after Mikko Koivu, Parise and Ryan Suter called a players-only team meeting at the hotel to rally the troops. The idea came during a private captain’s breakfast Friday morning between Koivu, Parise and Suter.

The three then helped lead the Wild tonight. As always, read the game for all the details, but...

Koivu had three shots, two assists, the faceoff win that led to Parise’s tying goal and won 12 of 23 faceoffs. Plus-2. Koivu has nine assists in the past seven games.

Parise had two goals, passed his dad, J.P. in goals with 239, five shots, eight attempted shots, three hits and two blocked shots. Plus-2.

Suter was plus-3, had two shots and blocked two shots in 29:38 of ice time.

The Wild had 29 hits tonight, blocked 22 shots, held Phoenix to three shots in the third period and no shots during one 23-minute span and got 23 saves from Ilya Bryzgalov, who kept the deficit to 1-0 for almost 45 minutes. He made some huge saves in the second. Zero doubt Yeo now comes back with him in L.A.

I talked on the radio this morning how if the Wild gives up the first goal (good chance because Phoenix has scored first in 12 of 15 games this month), it can’t get dejected. In a very un-Dave Tippett-like way, the Coyotes have coughed up lead after lead this season, especially lately.

The Wild completely took over the game in the third period after a tough first period in which it spent most the time in its zone because it could hardly make a pass. But once the Wild started to get pucks deep, it was all Minnesota.

The Wild’s penalty kill, which has been horrible the past month, gave up a goal on its first chance to kill one after twice failing to clear. But Phoenix had three more chances and the Wild killed all three, gaining momentum from the last by tying the score 1:01 after killing a minor.

Mike Yeo did a good job shuffling his lines, reuniting his first two lines from earlier this year in large part because the Parise-Granlund-Pominville line not only dried up, it was on for a bunch of goals lately. Granlund was minus-5 in the two games leading into tonight.

So tonight, the Parise-Koivu-Coyle line had a ton of chances and tied the game. He started with Niederreiter-Granlund-Pominville, but Niederreiter had another up and down game, so Yeo made a clever move at one point by throwing Matt Cooke on the line during a stretch where the Wild was sustaining a ton of pressure with bigtime forechecks in the second.

Then, in the third, he tossed Matt Moulson back on the line and Moulson-Granlund-Pominville helped set up Spurgeon’s winner. Nice response by Spurgeon, who got a pep talk from Yeo this morning, to two turnovers in the past two games that led to goals.

The Wild has to keep it going though. It’s going to go down to the wire, there’s little doubt.

Yeo wants a “springboard,” saying, “We’ve had enough games where there’s been some bad feelings afterward. Let’s use this as hopefully one we can build something off.”

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