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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It was a quiet morning at Xcel Energy Center, with just nine skaters and two goalies on the ice for the Wild's optional practice. Most of the team's top players got some more rest on Day 2 of the Wild's unusual four-day break from competition. So did coach Mike Yeo, who also took a break from talking to the media.
Jordan Leopold and Matt Dumba were the lone defensemen who practiced. The seven forwards included fourth-liners Ryan Carter, Erik Haula, Jordan Schroeder and Sean Bergenheim, as well as a trio working their way back from injuries. Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke were able to participate in the three-on-three work that ended practice, while Jason Zucker went to the other end of the ice and worked one-on-one with coaches.
Brodziak, who has missed three games because of an upper-body injury, said he has been cleared to play and expects to get back up to speed quickly. Cooke still has no timetable for a return from the sports hernia surgery he had last month.
"It's unfair to put a timetable on it,'' said Cooke, who has played in 27 games this season but hasn't felt completely healthy since the second game on the schedule. "I'm going to practice (Tuesday) and see how it reacts and move on from there.
"It's frustrating. It's hard. But injuries are a part of it, and you have to be able to deal with it and move on. I've gone my fair share of games without getting hurt. I went almost eight years without missing a game because of injuries. It just so happened it all happened in one year.''
Cooke said the biggest hurdle to clear in recent weeks has been regaining the ability to fully extend his stride. He had a hard time generating the power he needed in his legs, and he didn't want to rejoin the team for practice until he had gotten that back. Cooke also said he had "a few other issues going on'' besides the sports hernia and wanted all of those to clear up before he resumed full practices.
"Each time I'm out there, I'm testing it,'' he said. "You get some bumps, you get in the corners and battle a little bit, different types of reaction plays, the stops and starts you have to do in a game. Every day is going to be a test.
"As soon as I'm ready to play, I'm ready to play. It's all a matter of when you feel well enough to get out there and play and be a factor.''
Leopold was on daddy duty, bringing son Kyle--who is approaching his sixth birthday--to the rink for a little post-practice skating. Kyle, on spring break from school, was outfitted in a Wild helmet with his dad's number 33 on the back and a gold Potulny Hockey jersey. He seemed right at home in the Wild's room, plopping down in dad's locker stall and getting Dumba to untie his skates.
Leopold and Dumba both said the four days off are completely positive for the Wild. A long break like this, when the Wild has been playing at such a consistently high level, could be seen as a possible momentum-stopper. Mr. Russo points out that St. Louis is 1-6-1 this season when it gets three days or more of rest.
Neither Leopold nor Dumba was buying the suggestion that there were any dangers for the Wild, saying they expected the team to get its mental edge back with two high-intensity practices on Tuesday and Wednesday before resuming play Thursday against the New York Rangers at Xcel.
"Rest is a weapon,'' Leopold said. "We're going to use (the break) to get some good rest, to heal our bumps and bruises. We've got a good pace ahead of us coming up. Rest is something that’s key this time of year, and we're lucky to have the break.
"We've got a good vibe going on now, and guys understand when it's game time, it's time to prepare and be ready. We'll have a good couple of days of practice coming up, and we'll take advantage of it.''
The Wild prepared for a five-game homestand that begins Friday with a long practice on Thursday, staying on the ice for an hour and 20 minutes. Some players lingered longer than that as they look to inject some of their road mojo into a series of critical games at Xcel Energy Center.
The homestand starts with a back-to-back set, Friday against Calgary and Saturday against Los Angeles--two other Western Conference teams that are scrapping for playoff spots. The Wild then has a long four-day break before home games against the Rangers next Thursday; Detroit on Saturday, April 4; and Winnipeg on Monday, April 6.
Though coaches love to talk about how you have to win on the road this time of year, you also can't afford to let any games slip away at home. The Wild has won 10 in a row on the road but is just 4-4 in its past eight at Xcel Energy Center.
"You always want to protect home ice and be a good home team,'' forward Zach Parise said. "I think for the most part, we've done that. We haven’t played as well as we'd like to at home as of late. We need to put together some good ones.
"We don’t play different at home. We've just played good teams at home as of late, and we haven’t played well in some games, which is going to happen. We've had games where we haven't played great and we've escaped with a win, and we haven’t done that at home.''
Coach Mike Yeo said he has been trying to resist the temptation to obsess over the scoreboard and the standings. He praised his team for doing a good job of concentrating on itself, and he said it will be important to keep a tight focus during the homestand.
"We're trying not to look at the teams below us or the teams ahead of us,'' Yeo said. We're trying to look at the team we're playing tomorrow night. That’s got to be our focus.
"Our last game versus St. Louis at home (a 6-3 victory last Saturday) is a game we should feel good about. At the same time, we've got five games at home. We have to make sure we get back to being a really tough team to play against in our building. That’s not just about going out and making nicer plays; that’s part of it, but that stuff comes from the little things in your game and playing with speed, playing physical, playing the type of game that brings momentum to your team. That's what we've got to make sure we're focused on.''
Yeo put Thomas Vanek back on the Wild's first power-play unit in Thursday's practice, teaming him with Parise, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville. The second unit featured Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Chris Stewart, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba. Yeo didn't rule out making some in-game adjustments to those groups, but he thought Vanek played his way back onto the top unit.
"He's been performing,'' Yeo said of Vanek, who saw an eight-game point streak end in Tuesday's victory over the New York Islanders. "He's playing really good. Those guys have had success. We tried switching things up, and we didn’t create a whole lot off of that. So we'll go back to this.''
Yeo said the only potential lineup change Friday could be the return of forward Ryan Carter, who has missed 22 games because of a shoulder injury. That decision won't be made until Friday morning. Of the Wild's other injured players, Yeo said Matt Cooke (sports hernia) continues to skate, Nate Prosser (knee) is "coming along well'' and Jason Zucker (broken collarbone) is skating but "still a ways away.''
Decisions, decisions, decisions.
As discussed when the Wild acquired Sean Bergenheim, then six days later Chris Stewart and Jordan Leopold, there would come a point when coach Mike Yeo has to make nightly tough decisions on the lineup.
The first odd guy out up front was Jordan Schroeder. The next odd guy out when defenseman Jared Spurgeon returned from a concussion was Christian Folin. Nate Prosser sprained his MCL last Saturday in St. Louis, so Folin returned for two games and scored Thursday against Washington.
But Folin is again expected to be out at least Saturday afternoon against the Blues now that Marco Scandella’s return has been declared after missing nine games with an oblique(ish) injury.
“He played really well,” Yeo said of Folin. “That’s the look we’re going with [Saturday], but I’m quite certain he’ll get in again here. He’s done a good job and we’ll continue to make sure he stays ready.”
Why Leopold over Folin? Yeo said every game he will have to think short-term and long-term, and for this specific game, Yeo wants to go with the veteran who has experience playing in these type of games, with somebody whom he liked the game of last Saturday in St. Louis, with the guy he feels “execution-wise can skate and move the puck and help them get out of the zone quickly.”
He also likes the Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin No. 1 pair, so if he wants to move Brodin back to right D, that means Leopold needs to stay in because he doesn’t want rookies Folin or Matt Dumba, both right-shot guys, playing their off wing.
Why Sean Bergenheim over Schroeder, who is expected to be scratched a
sixth seventh consecutive game and seventh time in nine games? Yeo feels again for this specific game against physical St. Louis, he wants a fourth-line identity and a guy who can play a physical game.
Personally, I’d play Schroeder simply for the speed element (Wild’s speed hasn’t been a big threat at all the past three games) and the fact I haven’t seen Bergenheim be overly physical in the first place. He played nine shifts and 5:36 in Thursday’s loss, so why not throw in a skater like Schroeder? In his past 13 games, Schroeder has seven points and is plus-8.
“We’ve got a lot of guys here,” Yeo said. “Obviously you want to be in the lineup, you feel you can help, but it’s what you do to make sure you stay ready. It’s also pretty easy to look around and realize it’s not like you’re being beat out by guys that aren’t quality NHL players, too. Those guys doing good job. They’re staying upbeat, they’re staying ready and when they’ve jumped in, they’ve been very effective.”
Before yesterday’s game, Capitals coach Barry Trotz talked a lot about the Wild’s depth, saying (again before Washington’s win), “Arguably the Wild are not only the hottest team in the National Hockey League, but they might be the deepest, in terms of their four lines, and you even look at some of the people they have out now. They’re playing atop their game. They’re playing very confidently. They’ve got a lot of structure. Mike Yeo is a tremendous coach and his staff has done a really good job. They’re playing a fast game. They’re not giving up much and obviously Devan [Dubnyk] in net has been a real strength for them too. They’ve got everything going right now. They’ll be a team you don’t want to meet in the first round, I’ll tell you that. All the Western teams, there are going to be some tough choices there if you end up with a team like Minnesota or Winnipeg or L.A. Those teams are all going pretty well. But this team, their depth is so good. You’ve got guys like Thomas Vanek on your third line. That’s not a bad person to have. And a guy like Charlie Coyle, maybe people out in the East don’t know, he’s a tremendous player. He’s a big body. You’ve got the other lines with [Mikael] Granlund and [Mikko] Koivu and people like that. They’re pretty solid.”
Heck, hand the Wild the Cup now!
Ryan Carter needs more practice time, Yeo said. With no morning skate Saturday, no practice Sunday, it sounds like the earliest Carter would return is the second of a back-to-back Tuesday at the Islanders.
As for Scandella returning, Yeo said, “We’ve done a pretty good job battling through some tough games without him, but he’s a real important player for our team and makes a big difference when he’s in the lineup for us. He’s jumping right into it. It’ll be a tough test for him [Saturday], but we’ll give him a little bit of time and it won’t take long for him to get his game right back to where it was.”
Zach Parise left practice early today for precautionary reasons. He was “tight,” Yeo said, so the Wild felt he had done enough work and it would be good for him to get off the ice.
Dubnyk stole the Wild a win in St. Louis last weekend. The Wild was outshot 42-19, but at the time Nino Niederreiter and Kyle Brodziak scored 17 seconds apart, the Wild was being outshot 39-17, if I remember correctly.
The Blues have shut out three of its past five opponents and are 12-2-2 in their past 16 road games. The Wild has lost four of its past six at home. The Blues’ 46 points on the road is tied for the most in the NHL.
“They’re a powerhouse,” said Yeo, about to pull a Ken Hitchcock by lauding the Blues the way Hitch always lauds the Wild. “They’re as strong as any team out there and they’re playing for first overall. It’s a good challenge. It’s a team that defends extremely hard. They’re big, they’re physical, they’re fast and they’re also good offensively, so there’s not much more to say. We have to make sure we’re ready to be good in every department.”
The Wild is 1-3-2 in its past six at home against St. Louis, and this would be Minnesota’s first-round matchup if the season ended right this exact second.
At home, the Wild needs to start playing better, plain and simple. Yeo felt the Wild wasn’t very sharp last night and needed better net-front presence, but it was still a one-play type of game, he said, and the Wild didn’t make that one extra play or prevent that one extra goal. That’s been a trend at home.
“We go on the road and we play to win and we come back home and we feel we need to win and get focused on the result a little bit and that creates a little more frustration and pressure,” Yeo said.
The Wild hasn’t lost two games in a row since Jan. 19-20. But the Wild is 3-3 in its past six.
“We’ve been able to forget about the last game and get back on the horse the next one,” Suter said. “That’s what you have to do this time of year. I said it last week, it’s tough to lose two in a row at this time.”
It’s also tough looking at the standings, Suter admitted, under this new playoff format where the Wild “is higher than some teams and yet they’re ahead of us, but it is what it is. … I don’t think we’ve played that good lately. St. Louis, got kind of lucky. Nashville, we didn’t play that good. We have to focus on ourselves and we’ll be fine.”
I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m.
After last night’s come-from-behind victory in Nashville, Wild coach Mike Yeo called for an optional practice today.Your friend Michal Russo was one of those opting out.
Twelve skaters and goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper took to the ice for the skate, which included some half-rink 3-on-3 scrimmaging and some work on the transition game.
Here are some of the nuggets to come out of today’s workout:
--It was good news to see both forward Ryan Carter and defenseman Marco Scandella again on the ice working out out with the team. Scandella has missed the last eight games with an upper body injury and Carter has been out since Feb. 9 with a shoulder injury.
The quick news: Neither will play in tomorrow’s home game with Washington; Wild coach Mike Yeo said he would go with the same lineup against the Caps that he used in Nashville. But both players took more contact today and came out feeling OK, so both seem to be nearing a return to the ice.
Here’s what they had to say, post-practice:
First, Scandella: “I battled a little bit more today,” he said. “It still feels good. I’m just trying to get back and be sharp out there, try to get into game shape.’’
There is still a ways to go with Scandella. He said the injury affects just about every hockey movement, and it has inhibited his ability to really let loose on his shot. “I’m shooting harder and harder every day,” he said. “I’m not going full-out yet. But it feels good.”
And now Carter: He said he ramped it up a little bit more today. “It’s another step in the progression,” he said. “It’s nice to keep moving forward. When you’re not skating you feel like you’re standing still, or going backwards. It’s good to be moving the right direction.’’
For Carter, it appears he needs one or two good on-ice workouts with his teammates before he returns. He said he’s eager to see how he feels tomorrow, after having gone hard today. And there is also the matter of getting into game shape; he wasn’t able to do much skating early on in his recovery. And the action he’ll see when he returns is late-season, playoff-push hockey, so he needs to be sharp when he does return.
--So what happens when Carter is ready? With both he and Scandella close, Yeo is going to have some difficult decisions to make down the stretch of the regular season. Maybe as soon as this weekend; Yeo said he’d have a much better idea of a timetable for Scandella and Carter after Friday’s practice.
“It’s going to come to a point where we’re going to be scratching players that have done good things for us, things we like in the lineup,” Yeo said. “There will come a point where we’ll have to make some of those decisions. We’re going to try to keep everyone involved and we’ll try to make those decisions the best we can. But (Carter) is a big part of that penalty kill, too. We like him as a penalty killer.’’
--Matt Dumba was still smiling the day after his lightning-quick overtime goal gave the Wild the win in Nashville. He said his phone blew up with messages and texts from friends and family. Asked, again, to describe the goal, he said: “It was us three, me, Mikael (Granlund), and Zach (Parise), just watching (Ryan Suter) in beast mode,” he said. “We watched him shake two guys, and then we were lucky enough he got the puck up to us, and we were all jumping the other way. I tried to advance it up as much as I could. As I was coming up the ice I kind of knew what Zach was thinking. And he made a great drop pass. I just got lucky and got a little bit of a screen from the defenseman.’’
That’s about it for now. Russo will be back with the team tomorrow.
After a day off Wednesday, the Wild gathered at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday for its first full practice in more than a week. The team has played every other day since March 3, and coach Mike Yeo said it felt a little strange to have two non-game days in a row.
A focused, energetic practice included five-on-five and power-play work, in preparation for a very challenging stretch of games. On Friday, the Wild plays Pacific Division leader Anaheim, whose 91 points are tied for the most in the NHL with Nashville, Montreal and the New York Rangers. It travels to St. Louis on Saturday to face the Blues, who are only two points behind Nashville and Anaheim in the Western Conference standings.
The Wild hasn't fared well against either team recently. Mr. Russo reports it is 1-7-1 in its past nine against Anaheim and has lost five in a row to the Ducks at home. It is 2-7-2 in its past 11 at St. Louis and has been outscored 38-19 in those games. The Wild hasn't won in regulation at St. Louis since Oct. 20, 2007, and it hasn't beaten Anaheim at home since Feb. 18, 2011.
Yeo said Thursday that he doesn't like to look at games as measuring sticks. But he noted that the Wild must beat teams like this if it hopes to get into the playoffs and do well--and there is no better way to sharpen up for the postseason than to face a daunting schedule.
"You want to be playing meaningful games this time of year,'' he said. "You want to be in the thick of it. You want to be in the hunt. In a lot of ways, it would be real nice to have a huge cushion and have every game not mean as much as it does right now for us. By the same token, I've been part of those teams--and when your game's not quite sharp, and you're playing against all these teams that are real hungry, you kind of limp into the playoffs. And that’s not what you want. If we do get in, and we believe that we will, then our game is going to have to be real good along the way. And that means when we do get in, we’re ready.
"I don’t think there's anybody in the league that has a tougher schedule than us from here on out. This will give us a pretty good idea. Just to get into the playoffs is going to prove we have the ability to win against playoff-caliber teams. We believe we'll get in. We know there's a lot of work to be done, and we know it's also very difficult down the stretch with this schedule. But if we do (get into the playoffs), when we do, we'll have confidence going in.''
The Wild didn't make any changes to its lines or power-play units Thursday. Yeo reiterated that defenseman Marco Scandella will not be ready to play this weekend, and he did not yet have word on how Jason Zucker's doctor's appointment went. Yeo planned to meet with the Wild's medical staff Thursday afternoon to get an update on Zucker's recovery from a broken collarbone.
Kyle Brodziak took the day off Thursday--a maintenance day, Yeo said--but did an off-ice workout and will be in the lineup Friday.
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