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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Hitch on what Blues need to rebound vs. Wild: "Messier, Gretzky ..."

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: April 21, 2015 - 4:42 PM

Ken Hitchcock, his Blues down 2-1 in their series against the Wild, was in a surprisingly jovial mood today except when that obnoxious Jeremy Rutherford from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch kept asking about possible lineup changes or line alterations.

“You've got to stop asking me those questions,” Hitchcock, with a big smile, said to my pal JR. “You're going to end this press conference and I'm in a good mood right now. ... You're right, I'm not going to tell you, nor am I going to show you in the morning at the pregame skate, so you're going to have to bring an eraser tomorrow.”

Afternoon from the Xcel Energy Center press room, where this is take 2 of this darn blog. I goofed up by writing it in the platform and then accidentally hit the home button of my browser. Then I threw the laptop against my cubicle.

So, now I’m really behind in writing for the paper and a lot of this rewritten blog will have to be cut and paste quotes right now (some really good ones from Hitchcock), so forgive me today that you won’t be getting a ton of my own thoughts and writing.

Check out www.startribune.com/wild for all our Star Tribune team coverage from today’s paper.

I’ll be on Dan Barreiro’s show on KFAN at 5:15 p.m.

On Wednesday, I’ll be on with Paul Allen on KFAN at 10:15 a.m. and with Barreiro at 5:55 p.m. I’ll be on Fox Sports North at 8 p.m. and during the first intermission.

I’ll also be hosting a live a podcast with Jim Souhan at the Liffey in St. Paul at 4 p.m. Come on by or listen live or later at souhanunfiltered.com or iHeart or iTunes or spreaker or whatever.

Coach Mike Yeo said all Wild players came out of last night’s win healthy and he didn’t anticipate any lineup changes, although he was coy. He expects Blues adjustments, which Hitchcock talked a little bit about today.

Hitchcock went on and on about how good the Wild is today and kiddingly said when asked what they needed, “Messier, Gretzky, I'll take an Anderson, Kurri's fine. What we've got, we've got enough to play. Let's play our game and let's play our best game, the way we can play and then we'll get a better judgment.”

The Wild does Blues do need better play from its best players. Guys like David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Paul Stastny, who lit the Wild up in last year’s playoffs, and Alex Pietrangelo don’t have points.

“We're playing a team that's played the best hockey in the league since the goalie change and everybody is trying to catch up to them,” Hitchcock said. “I knew they were playing like this when we came in here and got beat right at the end of the regular season. It was our first experience at watching them play. They're on top of their game and it's our job to catch up.

"We had some really good things happen in the end of Game 1 through Game 2 but then they got their speed burn-and-go back yesterday. They caught us again and took advantage of it. They're a great team through the neutral zone and if you give them opportunities to use that element, you're just feeding - especially the Granlund line - and that's what we did. They took advantage of it.”

I couldn’t agree more. The Wild is dominating the neutral zone right now. The Wild did an efficient job all game exited its zone with 90-foot stretch passes or lob passes, and it seemed to cause the Blues to stand still, have poor gaps, look apprehensive.

“Playing Minnesota is a lot like playing Tampa,” Hitchcock said. “They've got a lot of team speed, they've got a lot of agility, so we have to play a game that's different than theirs. And when we get them in our game, it's extremely difficult for them. But when they get loose, they're awful good, awful good. We've got to get them more into our game. We've got to get our game out there for more minutes than we played yesterday. We had flashes of it in the first period, some good stuff and didn't finish at the net with shots. I think one of the things you can't lose sight of right now is that we haven't even reached double digits in three games on even-strength scoring chances for. That's the job that they're doing against us and they've done it against a lot of teams. That's something for us to get better, we have to have more scoring chances even strength, 5 on 5. And we don't have enough right now. We don't have enough to sustain a lot of pressure. We're going to have to find ways to create more 5 on 5 scoring opportunities to maintain control of the hockey game. Otherwise it just into what it did yesterday, which is back and forth, which is not to our advantage."

What are Wild doing to prevent Blues' opportunities?

"Well, they play for the goalie. Since the change, they play for the goalie. When you play for the goalie, you block every shot, you get in front of every puck, there's no gap, no space, no room, they play for the goalie. We're going to have to get through that."

Look for matchup against Granlund line?

"Well, I'm looking for it, but Mike (Yeo) won't give it to me. We've got a little bit of an issue. I'll have to talk to him about that tomorrow ... get a free one from him."

"Look we came here to win a hockey game. If we win the game tomorrow, we've got home ice. It's all doom and gloom, but it was a 2-0 hockey game. They played very, very well. We can play better and we'll play better. But they've got another gear in them too, so it'll be an interesting game. But if we win tomorrow, then it's advantage us. That's why for me, for the home team in every series, Game 4 sets us as a lot. And that's what tomorrow is, it's a big game for both teams, but I like our ability to rebound and play a better hockey game. But we're going to have to do some things that are really relevant in our game at a much higher level because they're team ... I don't see any change for the last three months in their team. It's playing the exact same way it was in January."

When the Blues are bad, why are they so bad?

"Impatience with the puck. Checking does that to you. When you get checked hard, you feel like there's 12 guys on the ice and what you do from there becomes relevant. It's not like guys aren't trying hard and all that stuff. You just become impatient, so you chase the game. We've chased the game. We chased the game because we gave up the puck too easily and allowed them to get into their transition. Now we're chasing them back down the ice and that happened in Game 1 also. Their checking sets up their offense, they're great at it, so are we, but they've been a little bit better at it so far."

“We’re losing the race to the red line ... I know what you're saying. So the gap looks like the d-men are on their heels, but we're losing the race to the red. That's the whole thing. When you're involved in a team that plays with a tight gap, you've got to win the race to the red. You've got to control all three lines; we're not controlling the red line and it's forcing us to be uncomfortable because we're not sure if some pucks are coming back at us, so there's no gap. We're anticipating that we're moving north and now we're going south right away. There were seven of them in the second period and we lost the race to the red. We had the puck, didn't get the red line, next thing you know, big gap coming back at us.

On Wild's lack of engaging in physical activity; annoy you guys (I love this quote): “Hits aren't relevant. If you're talking like us running them over, it's not relevant. Every player in the NHL takes a hit in the playoffs; doesn't matter. You just get up. Their physical play has been with numbers. They're winning the physical numbers game. We got one, they got two; we got two, they got three. They're winning the swarm game. So we have to figure out a way to adjust. Their physical play is different, but it's still very physical. They press up on you, they lean on you, they work low to high, they do a helluva job with it, and they're very good at what they do. They're winning that part of the game. I think that's been the difference in the series. The big hits and everything, they have a tendency to wear on teams as the series goes on at times, but as far as running people over and knocking people on their arses, it's not relevant. What's relevant is when the battle's on the boards, who comes out with the puck, and they're winning more of that than we are right now. That's an element that has to change for us.

Steve Ott's impact: “That's how he plays. You all are talking about him, it's good for us. You stop talking about him, that's not good for us. He's an agitating guy, he's got great moxie on the ice, he's a guy if you're writing in the newspaper today, you probably hate him (JIM SOUHAN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and you talk about him. If he's on your team, you love him because he has a way of getting your attention. If you're just talking about him, he's got your attention because it means somebody has to be aware when he's on the ice. He's a real good teammate.”

Here is Mike Yeo from today, and I’ll try to return later to tidy this stuff up and give you some thoughts from some players today:

As good as you’ve exited zone? In the series. Yeah, that was really important for us. there were some factors involved with that. I think our D did a really good job going back executing, but I think some of our play through the neutral zone was a factor in that. I would expect them to try to look at some things and some areas that they can try to get in on the forecheck a little bit more and maybe build a little bit more speed to get in on the forecheck with. It’ll be a fun one just as far as they’ll be looking to make some adjustments and maybe we’ll make a few in anticipation of that.

How do you weigh where you want to do what you did well knowing you may need to react to what they adjust? A little thing here and a little thing there, and I would expect it would be similar with their team. Basically our game is not going to change. I don’t want all of our attention going towards one specific thing. That’s only part of the game. they are going to establish some control in the offensive zone. We’re going to need to be good in D-zone. We’re going to need to be good with our execution. We’re going to be good as far as how we get to the offensive zone and spend time there. So it’s a complete game that we have to be ready to play tomorrow.

Different type of toughness? This is one thing that I highly respect with our group. It’s the way a dman goes back and takes a hit to make a play, it’s the way a guy blocks a shot, it’s the way when teams try to impose themselves physically on us we keep on our playing our game. that’s our mindset, the approach that we have to have.

So dismiss Spurgeon getting jumped or need to be a response? We dismiss it. we get ready for the next game. we did our job last night and now we have to get ready to do our job against tomorrow night.

On packing defensive zone? No, again, I think it’s most important this time that we continue to play our game and do the things that got us here, the things that we do well. If we start thinking out there too much, if it’s not habit, then you become very reactive. I think our greatest strength is our speed. It’s the quickness that we can close, the quickness that we can execute, but it’s also the quickness that we can think with, and I think that’s relying on your habits.”

Handle being up 2-1 in series as opposed to trailing or tied for first time at home: “Well, again, we’ll get another chance to see tomorrow. Obviously we know what to expect from them. I think both teams recognize the importance of the game, so I think it’s going to be up to which team can go out there and execute their game plan the best at the end of the night, which will tell the story.”

On sensing Blues frustration: “No, I think in every game, especially when your team’s trailing, there’s always some signs of frustration, but I think that this is an experienced group over there. They’ll collect themselves today, and I certainly would not expect them to carry anything of what happened last game into the next one. I think they did a good job of responding in Game 2 of the series, and I would expect them to collect themselves tomorrow as well.

I’ll be back maybe.

Wild's discipline, speed, defensive effort leads to shutout, 2-1 series lead over Blues

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: April 20, 2015 - 11:59 PM

The Wild wasn’t kidding when it prepped its players before the series to know what to expect from Steve Ott and to just skate away laughing at him.

There was a lot of laughing at the Blues agitator again tonight.

One game after Jason Zucker and Jordan Schroeder laughed in his face, two games after Chris Stewart laughed in his face, Matt Dumba did the same tonight when Ott almost landed in the Wild bench after missing a check on Jonas Brodin and 19,165 fans laughed in his face when Ott had a chance to actually do something useful by scoring on a third-period breakaway and instead lost the puck.

So, of course, on his last shift, Ott assaults Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon to earn a second 10-minute misconduct in three games. He literally went out scratching and clawing, according to goalie Devan Dubnyk.

“We’ve got a lot of hockey to play, so I don’t want to comment yet,” Dubnyk said of Ott before humorously going on to comment. “That’s two games now – both wins – that he’s ended up with a 10-minute misconducts at the end of the game, so we know why he’s out there and that’s what he’s looking to do. Our guys are fully capable of protecting ourselves, and we’ll stick together and get out of the way of him. That’s what he’s out there to do. Lot of hockey to play, so we won’t comment on any of that.”

I asked why he raced out of the crease to referee Jean Hebert during the Ott-Spurgeon incident: “He’s scratching at Spurgy’s face,” Dubnyk said. “He’s on the ice with his glove in his face and I could see his fingers moving, he’s pulling at his mouth and his nose and eyes. I don’t want our guy to end up hurt with his eyes or whatever. And the ref was standing there, so I just told him to grab, to get his hand. I could see his hand scratching at his face, so I just don’t want Spurgy to get hurt and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what he was trying to do.”

So, as the Blues were showing their frustration during and late in a 3-0 Game 3 loss that put them behind 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, the Wild skated out with zero penalties for the first time ever in a home playoff game.

That had to also be frustrating for the Blues because not only did they lose their discipline, they were so on their heels tonight that they couldn’t draw a penalty. It felt like the Wild had the puck the entire night skating by flat-footed Blues players.

Vladimir Tarasenko, coming off a Game 2 hat trick, was minus-3 with no shots on goal as coach Mike Yeo’s intent tonight was to get Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville out against Alex Steen-Jori Lehtera-Tarasenko as much as he could.

As I tweeted in the first period, the Granlund line was so-so close to breaking through after a couple tough games in St. Louis. The line finally did in the second when Pominville and Parise scored 2:05 apart. Nino Niederreiter added an empty-netter and Dubnyk only had to make 17 saves for the third playoff shutout in Wild history.

Now, the Wild plays Game 4 on Wednesday ahead 2-1 in a series for the first time ever at home.

“We were a lot better with the puck tonight in the offensive zone, holding onto it a little longer, making some plays,” Parise said. “We were better off the rush, attacking the middle of the ice. Teams look fast when you can do that. I thought we were tough to play against.”

On the Pominville goal after Granlund flew by Tarasenko and lost the puck on a nice Carl Gunnarsson poke-check, Parise said, “It was a little bit of a broken play. It was smart of him not to do a fly by past the post and stay there. I think everyone got a little puck focused and I saw him by himself.”

On his goal, Parise said, “I tried to pull it through Bouwmeester’s feet about four times with no success. Finally, I just tried to shoot it and caught up him upstairs.

On the 17-shot defensive performance, Parise said, “It feels good. I thought our forwards did a good job coming back and pushing them into our D and our D got up and had some good gaps. Once we do that we can get back on the counterattack. That was a big part of the reason we had the puck a lot.”

On his line: “It feels good. I wasn’t too excited about the way our first two games went in St. Louis. I thought we could do a lot better. Fortunately tonight we scored. That’s the big difference. We had more puck time, more zone time, better rushes -- just better plays. And I know the three of us wanted to have a better performance than we had in St. Louis.”

On the defensive performance, Dubnyk said, “I’ve seen that a few times actually this last half of the year. I’ve seen some pretty incredible performances here at home by us, and that ranks right up there with it. There just weren’t any mistakes. It was just line after line supporting each other, making good plays and being there for each other.”

On the home crowd: “Certainly didn’t disappoint. It was crazy toward the end of the second period there. You can’t hear anything, you can’t hear whistles, you can’t hear the pucks hitting sticks. You’re moving around deaf. We fed off of it.”

On the Wild’s speed: “That’s when we’re at our best. That’s the strength of our team. We play like that, I don’t think there’s one team that can avoid turning the puck over because we’re there. Every time a pass is made, our guy’s there. We’re reading off each other, we’re all moving our feet. We’re right there, so it forces turnovers and we try to capitalize after that. that was impressive. Every single line, every pairing was on top of the puck.”

Charlie Coyle, who played another strong game and took some punches in the second by David Backes, said, “You can tell they got frustrated with stuff after the whistle and tried to get into that, and us just walking away. Continue to play hard, play with speed and be physical, and yeah, you can tell it frustrated them.”

“We’re here to play hockey. We’re not here to fight and do all that. That stuff after the whistle doesn’t win you games. So, we’re just focused on playing our game and playing it smart. They want that stuff after the whistle and big hits and all that. We just stay grounded, stay level-headed, keep our emotions in check and just, like I said, play hockey.”

On Ott, Coyle said, “Just let him be a non-factor out there, that’s all. That’s his game and that’s what he’s got to do. We don’t focus on that. We don’t pay attention to it. He doesn’t do much out there.”

Mike Yeo said, “We knew we were going to have to be on top of things tonight and we were ready to start the right way. We talked about being ready for whatever follows. I thought our guys did a good job – we had a pretty decent start – of just staying with it, not getting frustrated. Obviously that first goal is huge.”

On the after whistle extracurricular stuff by the Blues, Yeo said, “We prepped for this, we expect it and I think our guys have done a good job of handling it so far, but we have a long way to go here.”

On the team effort, “We need everybody. That’s a very good hockey team, a very talented hockey team, four lines deep, and six d deep. If we have one particular line going that’s not going to be enough. Tonight was a good team game and we were playing the right way and somebody different is going to have a chance to have their name in the headlines the next day a little bit more than some others.”

On the Wild’s speed, “Well, we were excited to get in front of our crowd, that’s for sure. We were expecting our crowd to be a lot like they were, and our guys feed off that. We talked about that last year, and we knew that we were going to have some pretty good energy, as far as how we wanted to play in front of them, giving them reasons to be loud. But that’s got to be our game. That’s got to be the way that we’re playing. We’re built around speed. Our game’s built around speed. It’s not just a personnel thing. So we have to be playing fast.”

On taking no penalties, Yeo said, “We needed that. We knew that. As far as keeping our sticks on the ice, as far as moving our feet, we played the game the way that we needed to as far as staying out of the box, but I also think a big factor was how we played with the puck. That was very important, just as far as spending a little bit more time with the puck, spending a little bit more time in the offensive zone. That was crucial. We have to have that mindset. They’ve got a very good power play, and you don’t want to give those skill guys a chance.

On the quality Bergenheim-Brodziak-Fontaine line, Yeo said, “I thought they did a good job again. It’s a good team win. If you want to keep asking me about players, I’ll keep telling you I think everybody did a good job. I’m not trying to be a jerk about that, but again I thought the guys within their role were strong. I thought we were four lines deep. I thought all the ‘D’ did a good job tonight. But for sure, we need that line to bring us good energy and they had a couple really good shifts that got the crowd going and that’s what we’re looking for from those guys.

“As I said this morning, our guys are all in for each other right now. We know that we’re playing a good hockey team, but we are a very motivated group and we have pretty decent confidence that we’ve been working for a long time here. So again, we feel good about this game and now we’ll just get ready for the next one.”

Here’s some Pominville:

“We fed off the energy the crowd gave us. We knew it was going to be good, and it was even better than what I expected. I thought every line was going. We controlled play for the most part and we made some good plays. And our D did a really good job tonight with their gap and made it tough on them. That led to us having the puck more.

“We were able to play with the puck more, we were able to make more plays and more zone time. That gives us momentum and obviously gets the crowd into it.

We played a pretty solid game overall. We’re obviously happy with it, and we’ll enjoy it tonight and put it behind us and get back to work.

“I wasn’t sure if it was going to get through or not, but he made a good play. He froze the goalie, and I was able to kind of settle it down and put it in. So it was nice to get that one for sure.”

On his line, “I think for our line to be successful, we’ve got to be moving. We’re not the three biggest guys physically, but we can move well, and we can make plays when we need to, and our forecheck game has been pretty good. I thought tonight we were moving and we were making plays. It makes it tough to defend when you’re always moving and making plays when you have the puck. So it was nice to get rewarded the way we did for sure. “

Here’s some Blues stuff from our media quote loop:

Barret Jackman

Tonight we helped them beat us. We didn’t stick to our game plan, we weren’t going to the net like we did in Game 2. We weren’t getting puck s through and we were trying to get a little bit too cute from the top of the circles out. We’ve got to get pucks deep and get them to the net. We had a lot of problems doing that tonight.

We weren’t putting pucks deep. With this team you have to get the puck in behind the D-men. They like to have a tight gap and feed their transition, and we were feeding right into it. We were trying to make plays in front of them instead of putting pucks behind them and that just fed to their offense and let them get the momentum in the first period.

(Allen) We let him down, some back door plays. He made some big stops for us but when you put a big goose egg up on the board, it’s hard to win.

(Game 4) Come to play, come to execute what the game plan is. If we put in a solid effort then we have a chance to win. If we’re kind of all over the place like we were tonight that team’s going to beat us every night.

David Backes

It was reminiscent of Game 1 I think, where they skated a lot and wanted to assert their game and we let them by sitting on our heels and playing passive. We let them come at us, come at us, come at us and the Granlund line scored two goals for them. They’re dynamite on the rush, they’ve shown that all series and they made us pay tonight.

We’ve got to get to our game. I thought it was a lot better in the third again, but you can’t play 15-20 minutes against this team and expect to win games. We need a full 60-minute effort like we had in Game 2. We have another chance on Wednesday to play a 60-minute game with 20 guys on the ice and get a job done.

We have to learn our lesson, put this behind us and remember it’s a battle out there, it’s a war and it’s going to take a great effort every night against this team.

Cute and on our heels. I think if we’re on our toes and more assertive and more aggressive, trying to put our game out there instead of trying to see what they’re going to bring with their crowd and energy, then trying to react to that. Then it’s too late and they’ve already carried the play for 10-15 minutes at that point, gotten a couple power plays.

We don’t draw a single penalty tonight and for good reason, because we’re not on our toes, we’re not carrying the play in their zone and making them take penalties. All those things add up to 3-0 against.

Their team speed, when you let them have time and space to make plays and zip the puck around, it’s dangerous and they’ve shown that the whole second half of the year.

They got to show their speed and skill and abilities tonight and we were playing catch-up all night really after the first period with only four shots.

Jake Allen

I just think play for 60 minutes. We did that in the second game and we came out on top. We didn’t the first game, we didn’t tonight. Their team is going to be there from start to finish. They battle, every single line, so we need to realize that now and we can’t let the ball slip any more.

That’s the way they play. They’re one of the best teams in the league since Christmas. They had a slow start to the year but since then they’ve probably been one of the top one or two teams in the league.

We’ve got our work cut out for us. We’ve dug ourselves a hole, but now it’s time to get out.

(Parise goal) That went off our D-man’s stick. He shot it on the ice and it hit our D-man’s stick so fast it went top corner. He didn’t mean to shoot there.

My job is to keep the puck out of the night and give the guys a chance. I felt good out there again tonight and I’ll keep battling the next game.

That’s it for me. I’ll talk to you after Tuesday’s practices.

Bergenheim, Fontaine replace Cooke and Schroeder on the Wild's fourth line for Game 3

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: April 20, 2015 - 1:21 PM

The Western Conference quarterfinals switch to Minnesota tonight at 7 when the Wild and St. Louis play Game 3.

No lineup changes for the Blues. Sean Bergenheim and Justin Fontaine return, reuniting the Game 1 fourth line with Kyle Brodziak. That means Matt Cooke, Erik Haula, Jordan Schroeder and Ryan Carter will be scratched.

Good afternoon from Xcel Energy Center.

I’ll be holding a 2 p.m. live chat (click this link), so please join. I’ll also be on KFAN at 4:55 p.m.

The Wild will release a very limited number of tickets for Game 3 today at 3 p.m. at Ticketmaster.

The Wild will also hold a pregame party between 4:30-6:30 p.m. Brian Rolston, the Wild’s three-time 30-goal scorer, will sign autographs and do the “Let’s Play Hockey” tonight.

You don’t need game tickets to attend the party, and if you’re going to buy on the street, the Wild and St. Paul Police caution about counterfeit tickets.

Today's articles:

A feature I wrote on Vladimir Tarasenko

Notes on shadowing Tarasenko, Fontaine, Zucker playing, Dubnyk wanting to seal the posts, etc.

Jim Souhan's column on the Wild's play so far in the series and the need to win at home.

Because the top three lines and top-6 D have been stagnant the first three games, there continues to be lots of questions about the fourth line. Just not much to write about.

But it’s also a story line because Erik Haula really has been shoved to the backburner. In Game 2 with Fontaine sick and Bergenheim scratched, it was Cooke and Schroeder who played and Carter in warmups as the extra insurance policy.

Remember, Haula was good in last year’s playoffs, but Yeo explained there are multiple reasons for the decision to not play Haula, from the type of matchup it is with the gritty Blues, to the type of season Haula had, to the fact he didn’t think he played well down the stretch during the, for lack of a better term, auditioning process for the fourth-line playoff spot.

Plus, Brodziak continues to play well ay center, so if you’re playing Haula, it would be at wing.

Asked first if it has to do with the Blues’ style and the need to have a winger go in the dirty areas as Yeo kinda insinuated in Monday’s paper, Yeo said, “Yeah, that and we talked about this before the playoffs started. A lot of it for those guys was going to come down to how they were playing before the playoffs started as well. So some of it would dictate that but a good portion of it was, we talked about whether it was auditioning or a chance to show how they could be effective and how they could contribute, that was part of it as well. This is one decision we’re making tonight, but we’ve got a lot of options that are good options, and certainly he is one of them.”

So asked if he wasn’t happy with Haula’s auditioning, Yeo said, “This is not about beating down Haulzy. I think it’s been a trying year for him. Going into the playoffs last year, there was a much different feel to his game. I know there was a lot of reference to what happened in the playoffs last year. I think he was in a different place as well. So that’s a big factor in it. But again, this is a different team, it’s a different matchup and I also think that we have a lot more guys who are playing very well that make those tough decisions.”

On reuniting the Game 1 fourth line, Yeo said, “I thought both games to be honest with you, that Brodziak line whether it was Bergie and Fonzie or Cooke and Schroeds, I thought both those lines had some real good shifts in the offensive zone, forechecking, creating turnovers, going in straight lines, finishing checks, those are things that are important to us. That’s the kind of stuff that we’re looking for, especially at home here. We know the crowd’s going to be buzzing. We can get in there, we can bump them a little bit. In order to make that happen, you’ve got to be able to execute up the ice as well. And that’s where a guy like Fonzie comes into play. His execution on the wall and has very quietly has become one of our top penalty killers as well.”

On Brodziak, Yeo said, “If you’ve been watching us closely, … the way that he’s been playing the game, certainly a much different confidence that he has right now as far as making playing, creating plays in the offensive zone, just how solid he’s been in his own zone, that’s been a big factor as well. He’s been a real solid player for us for quite a long time here.”

Scratching Cooke can’t be easy for Yeo considering Cooke’s playoff pedigree and their history together here and previously. And as you know, Yeo often defers to the veteran in these decisions (I know Bergenheim is a veteran, but Yeo also usually goes with the guy who has been here and who may be here in the future; Bergenheim is a UFA, Cooke has another year left).

On how tough it was, Yeo said, “Yeah, absolutely, and just a guy who first off has a lot of playoff experience, a guy who is not an easy guy to play against. I thought that he played a good game. Again, those are tough decisions, but I give everybody credit. Whether it’s a guy like that coming out of the lineup or guys that haven’t gotten into the lineup, everybody’s had a great attitude. The team atmosphere is very good right now. Everybody is all-in for each other and obviously we’re hoping to make this a very long run here, which means they’ll factor in.”

On playing in front of the home crowd, Yeo said, “I think that we have to make sure that we understand that there’s a process that has to be followed here. We have to be ready from the drop of the puck. We have to be ready for what follows through the course of the game, both good and bad, every situation. That said, you don’t want to go over the line but let’s get close to the line. They’re going to be loud, let’s give them a reason to be loud here tonight to start the game. I think we should come out with a lot of energy.”

On Jordan Leopold’s play: “Been really impressed with his game, probably even exceeded expectations of what we thought we were going to get from him. I’ve coached him. I know what he’s capable of. Wasn’t sure where he was going to be at, at this point in his career, but the way that he’s going back, retrieving pucks, moving his feet, the defensive side, everything. We’ve been really pleased with his game.”

On Matt Dumba: “You cannot put a value on this experience for a kid like that. For him, just really pleased with how he’s handled up to this point. Just the message is similar to what we gave him during the season as he was having good nights and whether it was a bad shift or a good shift, it’s always about the next one. That’s our mindset with him. Just because things went well the last game doesn’t mean you should rest on that. He’s playing well right now, but we have to make sure that he understands every night’s a new challenge. Like I said, this experience is very important for him.”

The Blues were the third-best road team in the NHL.

The Wild expects a loud rink.

“It’s always exciting, especially at playoff time,” captain Mikko Koivu said. “We talked earlier the way the fans are more into it. The building is loud and you can really feel them when you go out there and play the game. We’re excited for that and want to enjoy it.”

Here’s Paul Stastny, who played the Wild in the playoffs previously with Colorado, yesterday: “It’s going to be a loud building, but it always is. But that’s the fun of it. Basically it’s 25 of us, and our coaching staff, against 20,000 fans and their team. We have to do everything we can to take the emotion out of it because we know they will be emotional.”

Here’s Patrik Berglund: “We've got to obviously maybe play a bit more simple on the road. Obviously they're going to come out and play really physical and have a lot of energy in the beginning of the game. I think it's really important that we stay really calm and we play the simple north game and let that (emotion) kind of die down a bit, and then we go to work. To win series and stuff like that, you've got to steal some wins on the road. Obviously, it's a big two games here.”

Why keep it simple on the road: “I don't know why. We should do it at home, too. When we play our best, I think we do keep it simple at home, too. But it's more of maybe the other team's home barn, they come out with a little more energy and their crowd is helping them out. It just kind of helps us out, too, if we not feed their transition instead of for them to go home and get their own pucks.”

I got Blues coach Ken Hitchcock talking a lot today about his best bud, Wild assistant coach Rick Wilson and former player Darryl Sydor, and I’ll write about that in the next couple days most likely.

Zucker, Fontaine expected to play Game 3 as Wild hopes for home-ice edge

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: April 19, 2015 - 1:23 PM

After going 5-1 last postseason at Xcel Energy Center and arguably outplaying the Blackhawks in Game 6 of the second round, the Wild's goal this season was to get home ice in the first round.

While that didn't come into fruition in the regular season, the Wild did effectively earn home ice this round against the Blues anyway by splitting Games 1 and 2 in St. Louis.

Now, it's up to the Wild to take advantage of it.

Good afternoon from the press room at the X. To read our coverage from last night's game, please go to www.startribune.com/wild. Also, if you missed today's Keith Ballard story, here that is.

The Wild held an optional practice today in preparation for Monday night's Game 3 (7 p.m.)

Justin Fontaine practiced and is expected to return in Game 3 after a stomach bug caused him to miss Game 2. Jason Zucker didn't skate, but he says he is good to go despite taking an Alex Pietrangelo shot off his left thumb. He said there were no ill effects despite doing a five-minute interview with both hands in his pockets and walking out of the room with his left hand in his pocket.

A reminder, I will be holding a live chat at startribune.com Monday at 2 p.m.

I will also be on Rosen's Sports Sunday on Ch. 4 Sunday night at 10:30 and will be on KFAN Monday at 10:15 a.m. and at 4:55 p.m.

Just like last postseason, the Wild's expecting an electric crowd. If you don't have tickets, the Wild hopes to release a few at 3 p.m. Monday. The Wild will also be holding a pregame party outside Gate 2 from 4:30-6:30 p.m. Lots of VIP's signing autographs, including three-time Wild 30-goal scorer Brian Rolston.

The Wild was a great road team in the second half, going 15-2-2 under Devan Dubnyk.

It has largely been a below-average home team since starting the season 7-1 in St. Paul.

The Wild were 19th in the NHL with a 22-13-6 home record, including 15-12-6 in its last 33.

It was 0-2-1 in its last three (could have avoided St. Louis if it got another regulation win) and 4-5-1 in its last 10 at home.

"The last month is out the window for me," coach Mike Yeo said today. "For me, this is different. That said I don’t think we’re just going to be good here at home. But I’m not nervous about the game tomorrow because of the way we played against Winnipeg in here either. Let’s see how good we are at home. We were a real good playoff team at home last year. I know our home crowd was a big factor in that.

"It’s amazing how loud our crowd is and the energy that’s in the building and the excitement that brings to our players, but that said we also can’t expect that we’re going to come home and play well and have the positive result. That’s still a good road team, a good test so we’re going to have to be ready at our best."

The Blues were the NHL's third-best road team at 24-12-5.

Yeo will have the luxury of last change, although it's not like there are too many mismatches with the Blues. When your third pair is Barret Jackman and Kevin Shattenkirk and your lines are Jaskin-Backes-Oshie; Steen-Lehtera-Tarasenko; Schwartz-Stastny-Berglund, my guess is Ken Hitchcock isn't freaking about matchups.

"When you get the matchups you want, it can make a difference, but at the end of the day, you have to score, you gotta make plays against whoever you’re going against," Zach Parise said. "If you can get one or two mismatches throughout a game you try to take advantage of that.

"They have solid lines and six good D. So regardless of who you’re playing against, you have to make plays. They don’t give you freebees."

Yeo didn't give too many hints about his fourth line other than to indicate that just because Erik Haula shadowed Nathan MacKinnon at home in Round 1 last year doesn't mean he'll insert him into the lineup this year to shadow Vladimir Tarasenko.

Tarasenko, who had no shots on goal but six shots blocked in Game 1, registered a hat trick in Game 2.

I asked Yeo about Haula vs. Tarasenko being a possibility.

"I would say that the first two games, you’re right, we lost those two games because of what MacKinnon did," Yeo said. "And that was more 5-on-5 play. Obviously the guy that you’re talking about (Tarasenko), he’s a very good player and he’s going to find a way to make plays. Game 1, I don’t think that it was a real factor and so I don’t think you have to rush to too many huge conclusions after one game. Looking back at last game, he’s a very good player. He’s going to find ways to make plays and he’s a challenge no matter who is on the ice. You can’t just put one guy and shadow him because he’s got other guys out there that  would take you out of your system.

"But I look at the game 5-on-5 and I think that I had him having two scoring chances. He’s a good player  and he’s going to find a way to get those plays. And he’s a different player than what you’re talking about. Last year, it was a very specific speed matchup that we were looking for. This is a guy who can create off the rush, but this is a guy, you look at the way he scored the goal last game. Off the rush, his shot, his ability to make plays. But he’s also willing to go to the hard areas. So it’s a different challenge."

So translate all that, sounds like no on Haula, which like would show just how much less Yeo trusts Haula this year (other than penalty kill) compared to last year.

So, what would the fourth line maybe look like in Game 3?

"Obviously we have options. If Fonzie comes back, then we have the option to go with what we did in Game 1 (Bergenheim-Brodziak-Fontaine). I thought those guys did a good job, too (in Game 2, meaning Cooke-Brodziak-Schroeder). I certainly don’t think that fourth line has been a cause of any problems. I think it’s brought us some good shifts. And like I said, we look at that game last game and when you get in the playoffs, you have to make sure, are you making adjustments, are you doing them because it’s something that’s not working, something that needs to be changed or is it something that you can do better? I think that’s our focus right now."

Dubnyk is looking forward to his home playoff debut.

"It’s going to be great, we’ve spoken about how this is always a great place for us to play and it’s always an advantage with how excited the crowd is here," he said. "It’ll be my first taste, I’ve heard all about it from the guys who have played here before on what the atmosphere is like. It’s one of the best atmospheres in the regular season, so I’m sure it’ll be mayhem in here tomorrow night."
 
That's it for now. I may add to this in a bit.
 
Again, see you on Rosen's tonight and on my live chat Monday at 2.

No margin for error, not capitalizing in this Wild-Blues series

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: April 18, 2015 - 9:06 PM

“Two really good teams going at it right now. It’s really good hockey. It’s hard, very demanding of the players. Really good hockey. It's going to hopefully continue to be that type of series.” – Blues coach Ken Hitchcock after Saturday’s 4-1 win over Minnesota to send the series back to Minnesota tied at 1-1.

This is shaping up to be a heck of a series. Game 3 is Monday night at 7 at Xcel Energy Center.

4-1 final. The game was not indicative of the score.

Despite the Blues jumping out to a 2-0 lead, the Wild was right in this game until the 58-minute mark and would ultimately be victimized by almost amazing bad puck luck.

The Wild didn’t cower to a Blues team that tried to set a physical tone early. In fact, the hits were even at 36-36.

The chances were even, too, if not favoring the Wild.

But Jake Allen was great with 24 saves and the Wild somehow had three pucks that were stopped right in front of or right on the goal line. The first, a Ryan Suter dump-in, hit a stanchion or a camera hole, took a left hand turn and completely caught Allen off guard. He saw it at the very last second and it somehow didn’t go in.

“We have some weird glass here,” said Allen, a quote that may make Wild fans choke on their breakfast because Wild fans especially know funky glass. “I didn't really see it until it hit my pad, so I was lucky on that part.”

Later, Jason Zucker centered himself and whistled one just wide off a 2-on-1. The puck landed on Mikko Koivu’s stick to the right of the goal with the net open. He shot, the puck got by a sliding T.J. Oshie and a sprawling Allen made the save and Jaden Schwartz swatted it out of harm’s way.

In the third, after a Thomas Vanek pass across the blue line, Charlie Coyle dangled between defenders and into the slot. His shot hit the crossbar, caromed off Allen’s buttocks and slithered to the goal line before David Backes pulled it right from on top. All of these plays happened with the Wild either down 2-0 or down 2-1.

“I'll go talk to him, buy him a beer for that one,” Allen said.

Schroeder also just missed on a glorious chance in the third.

Vladimir Tarasenko, whom I planned to feature in Monday’s paper coincidentally, got the hat trick after not getting a shot in Game 1. The last went into an empty net for the first hat trick against the Wild in playoff history and the 13th in Blues history and the first since Mike Sillinger (“Silly”) in 2004.

The backbreaker came with 1:58 left though after Marco Scandella got caught at the red line trying to corral a loose puck. It went to Jordan Schroeder, he gave it to Patrik Berglund and he was off.

“It was a goal-scorer's goal,” Hitchcock said. “If you're going to have an odd-man rush, he's going to shoot, which is good for us.”

Coach Mike Yeo was not overreacting at all after the loss.

The Wild played an even game with the Blues and came up on the short end. But it just shows how small the margin of defeat will be in this series.

“You don’t want too happy when you lose a game, and we definitely aren’t,” Yeo said. “But the outcome of the game was a little bit frustrating probably because we only generated the one goal and I don’t think that we played a one-goal game. A few pucks that got to the goal line that didn’t go over the goal line, a few empty nets or a few opportunities that we just didn’t capitalize on.”

On the mood going back to Minnesota: “You lose a game, and it’s frustrating, it’s disappointing. I thought we did a pretty good job. We knew we were going to face their best game. They were able to get a lead on us, but the way our guys stayed with it, the way we battled and gave ourselves a chance to tie it up, we didn’t. We’ll find a way to get better. That’s one thing I’m confident with our group. We’ll continue to push the pace, we’ll continue to get faster and stronger in our game and as we do that, then hopefully the results will follow.

“Listen, we would have loved to have won both games in here, but what it comes down to, I think we can take some confidence out of the fact that we won the one game and played pretty strong in the second game and even to battle back against a team that is tough to generate offense against, that’s a pretty good sign. But going back home doesn’t guarantee anything either. They’re a good team. We have a lot of respect for them, so we know we’ll have to be at our best.”

Ryan Reaves tried to throw his weight around. Steve Ott was a menace all game by smack-talking, taunting, cross-checking and slashing. Devan Dubnyk got him back at one point by slashing him two or three times in the leg.

“Just one good one,” Dubnyk said. “The first one was a poke. The second one was good. But it was fair game. He crashed into me a couple of times before that, a few times after that. They just gave a goalie interference call at the other end. I don’t mind getting involved like that sometimes. It gets the heart rate going a little bit when you’re not seeing too many pucks.

“I’m sure the whole building heard him scream. He was trying to let everybody know that it hurt him.”

Ott came back to the net after the slashes and tripped up Dubnyk. The refs just called Zach Parise for a dubious goalie interference penalty a few minutes before, but the refs didn’t call this one, probably because they knew they let Dubnyk get away with the chopjob on Ott’s knee.

Ott on all the run-ins with Wild players today (he cross-checked Mikko Koivu in the back of the neck, slashed Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke, pet Jason Zucker on the helmet and trash-talked Jordan Schroeder (Schroeder just laughed at him), Ott said, “This is playoff time. They're doing the same thing out there. They're trying to compete as hard as (us) and we're trying to match effort for effort out there, and hopefully like tonight, you get out on top of a game. The goal scorers do their job and your role players do their role and it continues throughout the lineup.”

On taunting Zucker, Ott said, “You guys watch that stuff more than me. I think it's just reactionary. Sometimes my brain is shut off.”

On Backes calling him a pesky mosquito, Ott said, “Hopefully I just keep ticking, that's the only thing. It's a role guys. Everybody has a role out there and you try to play extremely hard. For myself personally, the only time I get offense is usually from being physical and our line with [Ryan Reaves and Marcel Goc], we want to be hard to play against. ... We had a solid night. But that was every line. Every guy had something solid throughout our lineup. That's what you need is that whole team effort in games like this.”

If you didn’t see Saturday’s paper, I wrote more about Ott from Chris Stewart’s perspective. Remember, the Wild talked to Ott about a contract last summer, by the way.

The Wild now heads home, where by the way, it has been very mediocre in my opinion all year.

But last year in the playoffs, the Wild went 5-1 at home and the fans were awesome and loud.

“I’m excited to get back home,” Yeo said. “I know that our crowd in the playoffs, it’s something special. Our guys feed off that. The energy in the building is outstanding.”

By the way, there was a last-second, fourth-line wrinkle when Justin Fontaine, who missed Friday’s practice, showed up to Scottrade Center sick.

Because the Wild wanted a right-shot on the right wing, Schroeder made his playoff debut. That caused the Wild to scratch left wing Sean Bergenheim, who played well in Thursday’s Game 1 win, because Yeo explained the Wild needed a penalty killer with Fontaine out.

Cooke, who missed Game 1 with abdominal soreness, played his 104th career playoff game. Kyle Brodziak centered the two.

What else?

Scandella scored his second career playoff goal. He had two goals in his last two games of the regular season after going goalless since Dec. 29. Scandella had 11 goals this year.

Dubnyk on the offense: “Not a lot of luck down there today. We definitely could have had three or four goals. The guys played well. That’s just the way goes sometimes. I thought we did a good job generating chances. It’s just unfortunate that some didn’t go in the net, but if we keep playing like that, we’ll be fine.”

Dubnyk on the physical game: “It was a little different than the first game. I’m sure it’ll continue to become more and more that way as the series goes on. We know how to play that way and how to handle it and use our speed, and we’ll keep doing a good job of that.”

Dubnyk on Tarasenko’s second goal where Dubnyk left his post to cheat expecting a cross-crease pass: “That’s just a mistake by me. It’s not a good goal. I came off my post on a guy like to shoot, who’s got a pretty good shot and he made me pay for it. That’s a mistake by me that cost me a goal against. Make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

On the mood: “We’re fine.”

Coyle on his missed chance: “So many chances on our part. We have to bury those. That’s what it came down to. They buried theirs. We were right there with them. It wasn’t like they took over at any point. We played a solid game. just those chances we have to bury.”

Did you see how close it was? “I actually didn’t see it. I knew it hit a bar. I didn’t know if it was inside or not. Good play by them to keep it out. Like I said, we’ve got to bury those.”

Coyle on the game: “They played a great game. they came out like they wanted to, but we were right there. They came out physical, and we matched it if not better. We’re in a good position. It’s a tied series right now, going back home. We’ll take that.”

Zach Parise said, “We played a good game, we got a lot of good chances, we just didn’t put them in. That was the difference.

“I thought we played two good games here. Down 2-0 in the first period, you can find yourself in a hole. But again, we had great chances not only to make it 2-1 but to tie it up. We just couldn’t get that equalizer. But we had a lot of good chances.”

On the mood, Parise said, “I thought we played two good games. You find yourself down 2-0 here early, but we got ourselves back in the game. It was just a couple that we couldn’t capitalize and put in the net. Overall we’d love to be going home 2-0 but it’s 1-1. There’s a lot of things we can feel good about. Of course there are areas for improvement, but there’s a lot of things that we’ve been doing pretty well.

“It’s always a good atmosphere in our building in the postseason. Really looking forward to that.”

Big game Monday.

When teams are tied 1-1 in a best-of-seven series, the Game 3 winner goes on to win the series 67.3 percent of the time (189-92), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Wild didn’t lose two games in the regular season under Dubnyk.

Big win for St. Louis. Down 2-0, the Blues have won one of 19 series and have been swept 10 times.

Early flight in the morning. Talk to you after practice. I'll be very interested to see if Zucker is OK. He was ailing during the game and after as a result of taking an Alex Pietrangelo shot to the left thumb. Not good. 

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