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 practice

Wild Friday: Parise staying home, and mumps shots for all

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: November 14, 2014 - 2:05 PM

You know things have taken a weird turn when you find out the NHL has an "infection control subcommittee.'' The league announced Friday that the group is monitoring the mumps outbreak that has hit the Wild, St. Louis and Anaheim. The Wild took more concrete precautions after Thursday's 6-3 victory over Buffalo, as team doctors offered mumps vaccinations to all who wanted them.

Coach Mike Yeo took a shot in the arm, after his team gave him a symbolic one with that much-needed win. He's still waiting for the booster he really wants: Zach Parise's return to the lineup. Parise won't go to Dallas for Saturday's game there, but Yeo said he hasn't been ruled out for Sunday's home game against Winnipeg.

The status of the latest apparent mumps victims, defensemen Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin, is murkier. There's no telling how long they might be out. And the illness played a part in the team's decision to recall defenseman Justin Falk on Friday and send rookie Christian Folin to Iowa. Yeo said Falk will add a left-handed shot to the blue line, which will be helpful against a pressing team like Dallas and aid the Wild's transition game. Folin, he said, was not the same after missing five games because of symptoms that appeared to be the mumps.

"After being sick, I didn't feel he was playing quite with the same pace and assertiveness,'' Yeo said. "And that's normal. You know that guys are starting to come back, and you start to think there might be a roster move made, and you start fearing that the next mistake might be the one that puts you down. For him to have an opportunity to play and not worry about making a mistake, I think that will be useful.''

Yeo said his other rookie defenseman, Matt Dumba, is sticking around largely because of his ability to play on the power play.

Going to Dallas presents a particular challenge for the Wild, which has won once in its past 20 games there since March 21, 2003. Yeo said that number of losses is "way too big'' and that the Wild needs to toughen up on the road. It has not played with the same confidence and urgency in road games this season, getting quickly derailed by mistakes far more often than it does at home.

It took the team half the season to get over that last year, Yeo said, and fixing that problem sooner is a point of emphasis. He urged his team to stop trying to be "too cute'' with its playmaking away from Xcel; its strength, he said, is the gritty type of offense it created in Thursday's victory, via a strong forecheck and a consistent attack on the net.

"Every game is important,'' Yeo said. "Teams around us are winning, and you go up against a division rival and it increases the importance. It increases the intensity of the games. The most important thing for me is I want to continue building our game.

"I thought we did something good last game, but the thing about building is that you have to follow it with work. What we did last night, it only means something if we build off of it. So we've got to get to work.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

Wild Wednesday: Parise still sidelined, but Spurgeon could return

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: November 12, 2014 - 3:36 PM

The Wild held an optional practice Wednesday at Ridder Arena, with 14 skaters joining goalies Darcy Kuemper, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding on the ice. While the struggling Thomas Vanek and Mikko Koivu didn't participate, Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon did, though only Spurgeon has a good shot at playing Thursday against Buffalo.

Coach Mike Yeo said Parise, who has missed three games because of a concussion, is doubtful for the game. Depending on how Spurgeon felt after the practice, Yeo said, he could return to the lineup after missing five games. "I'm a little more hopeful that he can return,'' Yeo said.

Yeo added that there hasn't been a setback with Parise. The team is just being extra cautious with a player who looks more valuable by the minute, given how his team has collapsed without him in the lineup. "We just have to be smart about it,'' Yeo said. "We know what he adds to our lineup, but you just have to think of the big picture here. We have to make sure when we get him back that we're keeping him back for good.''

The WIld will make some lineup changes Thursday, Yeo said, though he didn't reveal them after the practice. Without Parise and the still-injured Matt Cooke, the team has only 11 forwards as of Wednesday afternoon, when it sent winger Stephane Veilleux and defenseman Jonathon Blum to Iowa. No word yet on a callup. Kuemper will start in goal.

Yeo said the WIld "isn't complete with its game'' right now as it tries to end a four-game losing streak. Among the problems he cited: being too soft in front of the net, trying to force plays and committing careless turnovers. He repeated that players are getting frustrated when they don't score early on, which leads them to press too hard in the second period, which leads to spending too much time and energy in their own zone. "A more complete focus on playing our game for 60 minutes will help us,'' he said.

When asked directly about the lack of production from Vanek and Koivu, Yeo declined to criticize them. Vanek has only one goal, scored on the power play, in 14 games. Koivu has two goals and one assist in the same span.

"It's on all of us,'' he said. "Obviously, those guys, that comes with the territory for sure. They're leaders, and they're expected to score. And there's going to be a lot of attention drawn to that. We have a number of people here who are capable of going out there and creating offense, whether it's helping those guys get on the scoresheet or whether it's getting on the scoresheet themselves. The bottom line is, we do it as a team.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

Wild practice: Many happy returns

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: November 10, 2014 - 4:19 PM

With a little sliver of time at home before resuming their road trip, the Wild practiced Monday morning at Ridder Arena--and nearly the full roster was on the ice. Winger Matt Cooke (lower body) was still out, but upper-body injury victims Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon both skated. The biggest surprise was seeing goalie Josh Harding, who broke his foot in September and practiced for the first time this season.

Parise, Spurgeon and Harding all will travel with the Wild to New Jersey for Tuesday's game, the last of a string of three on the road. Coach Mike Yeo said none of them will play, but he wanted all three to continue skating with the team as they move forward with their recoveries.

All were wearing red sweaters during practice, but none took it easy. The threesome participated in all drills, and each looked like they were well on the road to a return.

"I was happy to get the news they would be joining us for practice, and they looked good,'' Yeo said. "The bottom line is that we had to get through today. This was a big step. They looked good in practice.

"We'll talk some more with them, but we plan on bringing them on the road--not with the expectation they’ll play, but to give them a chance to hopefully get back sooner. So we'll let them skate with the group, and this is a good first step.''

The Wild did not allow the media to speak with Parise. Spurgeon said he resumed skating three days after his injury--which happened when the defenseman slid awkwardly into the boards during the Wild's shootout victory over San Jose on Oct. 30--and hasn't lost much conditioning. "I'm just waiting for everything to strengthen back up, and we'll go from there,'' he said.

Harding found out Sunday that he was cleared to practice. He said he felt good and has been working on his rehabilitation since shortly after breaking his foot.

"It was great seeing all the guys again and getting that competition back,'' Harding said. "Just challenging yourself to stop every shot, just going out there and doing your job. This was another step. Whatever I can do to help this team out, that's the next step.''

Yeo said he anticipates the near-return of Parise and Spurgeon will serve dual purposes. It will give the team an emotional lift, and it will be "a motivator'' to players who realize their roles could change when those two stars re-enter the lineup.

The biggest change Yeo wants to see in his team is more mental fortitude when things don't work in its favor. "We're not really that far off,'' he said. "There are stretches where we’re thought out very, very good. But the ability to stay with it for 60 minutes, we've got to be a little bit stronger between the ears. We've got to be a little bit tougher mentally.

"Things are not always going to go your way. The puck might not go in when you get chances, or the other team might get a bounce, might get a break and then score. That’s why you play a 60-minute hockey game.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

Ryan Suter, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula on Wild's mini-slide; Guy Lapointe to be honored by Habs Saturday

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: November 7, 2014 - 3:15 PM

Good afternoon from Montreal, where the Wild, which has lost two in a row for the second time this season, practiced today at the Bell Centre.

I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m. CT, and just a note if you don’t realize, even though Saturday’s game is listed at 6 p.m. CT, it actually starts at 6:30 p.m. FSN+’s Wild Live will start at 6 and KFAN’s pregame show at 6:15.

The reason for the 6:30 p.m. start is because at 5:30 p.m. CT/6:30 p.m. ET, Hall of Famer’s Guy Lapointe’s Montreal Canadiens’ No. 5 sweater will rise to the Bell Centre rafters during a 25-minute ceremony before warmups. Lapointe will be reunited with the “Big Three,” – Larry Robinson and Serge Savard. Their banners were already at center ice today so Lapointe’s can go right next to theirs.

Lapointe’s No. 5 has been painted onto the ice between both nets. Here’s a feature I wrote on Lapointe in June, and in Saturday’s paper I wrote a story on Lapointe and in Sunday’s paper I wrote a column on just how good Lapointe was.

Most cool Saturday – the Wild players will be on the bench during the ceremony. It’s cool because Lapointe was partly responsible for drafting many of these Wild players as the team’s chief amateur scout. He has been with the Wild since the inception when hired by former teammate Doug Risebrough. In fact, in hockey ops, I believe the only guys from Day One still with the team are Lapointe, equipment manager Tony DaCosta, athletic therapist Don Fuller, PR guy Aaron Sickman and scout Ernie Vargas.

Robinson, who’s the associate coach for the San Jose Sharks but is skipping their game against Dallas, Savard, Mario Tremblay and many other former teammates will be at the ceremony with Lapointe, his wife, three kids and brother. If you’ve ever seen a Canadiens ceremony, they’re usually second to none. Tonight, Lapointe and his wife made sure they will be free so they can spend the evening with Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, coach Mike Yeo and Wild colleagues.

As you can tell if you read the above story on Lapointe, he is the ultimate prankster.

So Yeo expects to be shoe-checked tonight (kind of like Mikko Koivu’s shootout move, all folks in Lapointe’s vicinity know he’s doing to smear ketchup or some other substance on their shoe, yet he always gets em anyway).

“I’ve been shoe checked once in pro hockey and it was from Guy when I first got the job in Minnesota,” Yeo said. “For me, the experience that I’ve had getting to know him, I mean, I’ve always heard about him and you know what a great player he was and what a great career he had, and then to be around, like he’s such a joy. That’s the best way that I can put it. He’s such a joy to be around, keeps things loose, but at the same time he’s very insightful for me to listen to the way that they used to do things, the way that their team used to operate, I love that. Real pleased that we can be here and be part of that special night for him.”

OK, here we go, and I actually need to be somewhat quick here because I have two articles to write, a preview box and my Sunday package still to get done this afternoon.

Wild’s not in a crisis situation, but it sure feels it could get to that point with Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon out and teams like St. Louis, Nashville, Vancouver, even Winnipeg on fire right now.

Yeo had some conversations with guys on the ice today, which he said were different for each guy.

“Bottom line,” Yeo said, “is I think everybody is aware of where they stand right now. I don’t think that we’re that far off. But we have to find a way to push over the edge. For our organization, we’ve been kind of teetering on the edge of being a really good team and getting to that next level, so we can’t be satisfied with playing well and outshooting a team and thinking that’s enough. We have to find ways to win those games, we have to find ways to win games differently, we have to find ways to win games when people are out of the lineup, and that’s what the great teams do.

“I know that our group is capable. It’s always like this in the early part of every season. We’re very early in the building process of your group, of your team, so I could feel things starting to slip a little bit when we had won a couple games toward the end of that stretch at home and we paid the price for that against Pittsburgh and it doesn’t come easily back to us. We were almost there last night, but almost isn’t going to cut it. I know we’re going to play a desperate team tomorrow, a very good hockey team, and we’ve got to make sure that our team game is real strong and each individual within that team game is ready to go out and perform the way we need them to.”

Darcy Kuemper in the cage Saturday.

No real big changes in today’s practice. One minor change had Kyle Brodziak in between Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula between Stephane Veilleux and Ryan Carter. Very clear Yeo isn’t all too thrilled with Haula’s game lately and Haula admitted as such after practice. Yeo and Haula had a brief chat on the ice today, and my guess is Haula is one of those players Yeo was referring to as doing the “minimum” after last night’s game.

It also sounds like Keith Ballard may return from a long bout with illness, which could have been the mumps. He had some positive tests as I reported over the weekend here. He missed eight games with the illness and actually nine in a row if you include the healthy scratch as LA, which means if Ballard plays only his second game of the season, it’ll be his first game since logging 7:08 of ice time and having an assist and penalty at Anaheim on Oct. 17.

“We’ll have to talk more about that [Saturday morning],” Yeo said. “Obviously Bally’s a guy that I would like to get in given the fact that he’s a veteran, given the fact that he can skate against a real good skating team. We have to make sure his conditioning level’s going to be up to par, but talking to him today, he felt really good and so we’ll have to make those decisions tomorrow.”

If Ballard plays, I think Nate Prosser sits. Looks like the two rookie D may stay in.

I talked to Ballard and he said he’s heading in the right direction and this road trip has been big for him because he has handled everything the coaches have thrown at him after practice and even staying up late. He was going to bed every night at 6 or 8 p.m., so he said even watching the home games last week, he’d be exhausted by the second period.

Today’s post-practice stuff had a lot to do with the young guys and the need for them to step up bigtime with Zach Parise, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Cooke out. It’s the vets, too, though and Ryan Suter said it’s on everyone.

Some pointed quotes from Suter in his typical casual-talking style: “For us, the biggest thing is just getting back to the basics. If you’re a checker, be a checker and be good at it. If you’re a goal scorer, start scoring goals. Goaltenders got to be good goaltenders. Everyone just has to focus on themselves and we’ll get this thing turned around.”

He also said certain players may need to leave their comfort zones: “No one likes to block shots, but if things aren’t going well, you might have to get in front of one and do things that you maybe aren’t used to doing. Zach’s a tough player to replace. Spurge is tough on the back end. He was coming into his own this year, so it’s tough. Lot of pressure on other guys. They just need to bear down and we all need to pick up a little extra.”

Hmmm.

Of the young forwards, Jason Zucker was undoubtedly the best of the bunch yesterday. Charlie Coyle played pretty well, too, but he lacked that final oomph to get to the net and get a goal. How many times the past three or four games does Coyle do a good job down low with the puck or drive a guy wide but is unable to make that one final play with the puck? Last night, it seemed like every time he skated in with power, he’d end up in the corner or on the ice or losing the puck.

Not shockingly, he was honest today about his line with Zucker and Koivu yesterday, saying, “We’ve got to perform. Our line was buzzing, but we’ve got to produce goals. Chances are chances, they’re not the end result. But it’s going to come, we’ve just got to stick to it. Once it does, we’re going to get more confidence and it’s going to get rolling.”

Mikael Granlund hasn’t been playing well. Nino Niederreiter has some goals lately, but he hasn’t been as good defensively. And the Wild wants more from Haula offensively.

I’m going to start stringing some quotes together now, partially out of laziness, partially out of the fact I really need to get some writing done for the actual printed product.

Coyle: “You try not to think about pressure – but, yeah, the pressure is on because one of our best players is out. Guys need to step up. I think this is when you find out about your team with how guys respond. There’s definitely a lot of younger guys on this team that have to take on more responsibility, so I think there’s definitely pressure on us. But I think we’re able to do it. I don’t think they’d put us here if we weren’t able to do it.”

Coyle on the fact the kids did it last year: “If I remember correctly, that was during a tough period when we were on a losing streak, too. The season could’ve just gone like this (pointed downward), but instead everyone kind of stepped up and picked each other up and we found out a lot about guys from that stretch with top guys out. This will be a good challenge for us, but I think we’re ready for it. We just need to step up.”

More Coyle: “The tough times are when you find about guys. In an easy situation, it’s easy to survive. It’s when things get tough that your backs are against the wall and you have to perform at your best. It brings out the best in some people and you can tell who lives up to the pressure and the hype and who can’t. But I think as a team we can do that, we’ve done it before.”

Erik Haula: “I think individually and as a team, we’ve got to be better. We have guys who are hurt so guys have to step up. It’s got to be better starting with myself. I’ve got to be better and right through the lineup. We have a bunch of young guys and we know that we need to be better. It’s a good opportunity so we’ve just got to produce.”

On what did Yeo say to him on the ice: “I don’t think we’re that far off, but individually I’ve got to be better offensively and be stronger on pucks and win battles in the offensive zone. I’ve got to keep working on that. I feel like defensively I try to do a good job every game, but there’s still little things that I really need to work on and get better at. You could say all you want, but in the end it’s just the game and what you do on the ice.”

El Nino: “Obviously there’s a few key players out but at the end of the day we have to pull together as a team. We have to make sure we focus on the guys that are here and dig deep and make sure we have a last push on the ice.

Yeo talked to you? “I feel like each guy just has to step up. Zach is out and Spurgeon is out and Cooke is out. It’s tough to replace those guys but we have to make sure each guy brings what we need to bring and we have to focus on ourselves. If everybody does his strengths, that’s how we’ll get better as a team. … Zach is out so we have to make sure another guys steps up. That’s how it works. That’s how we did it last year. Each of the young guys got better and we had to fill their shoes. We have to make sure we play our best hockey at the time they’re out.”

Thomas Vanek returns to Montreal for the first time since the playoffs. He was peppered by the press today and said pretty much a lot of the same stuff you have heard from him the past few days – he needs to step up, get more shots (got seven last night), begin to score.

He talked about how lucky he was last year in Montreal getting to play with two consistent linemates (until he was demoted to the fourth line in the conference finals) and how in Minnesota “I’ve pretty much played with every forward here.”

He’ll skate again with Granlund and Jason Pominville on Saturday. Yeo said, “As the game went on, it seemed to be coming along for them. They were involved in four good scoring chances in the second period for us. And I think that’s what we should expect. One game is probably a little bit too early to judge. There were some signs, and I know that they have had chemistry together in the past, so giving that line another opportunity to play together and show what they can do is going to be important.”

Yeo talked a lot about Habs coach Michel Therrien. Yeo was his assistant in Pittsburgh before Therrien was fired and Dan Bylsma took over. Yeo said he wouldn’t be here without Therrien, calling him the most underrated coach in the NHL, but “with that said, I’d love to beat him, too (laughing).”

OK, my fingers hurt and I haven’t even written for the paper yet. Talk to you Saturday.

Wild practice: How to stop the Penguins, plus injury updates

Posted by: Rachel Blount Updated: November 3, 2014 - 1:43 PM

There was plenty of chatter on the ice this morning at Xcel Energy Center, but it wasn't idle talk. The Wild buckled down through an intense one-hour practice designed to sharpen it up for Tuesday's home game against Pittsburgh, which features three of the NHL's six highest-scoring forwards in Sidney Crosby (seven goals-11 assists), Evgeni Malkin (five goals, 10 assists) and Patric Hornqvist (six goals, eight assists).

Good communication has been a key to the Wild's defense, which is as impressive as the Pens' offense. Pittsburgh's plus-19 is the best goal differential in the NHL, but the Wild is second at plus-17--thanks to a league-low 18 goals allowed. The Wild already has shut down some of the top players and lines in the Western Conference, and coach Mike Yeo said he is anxious to see how his team performs against Crosby and company.

Several players said the effort will start with communication, making sure everyone is aware when the Crosby and Malkin lines are on the ice. The task from that point on will be to frustrate the top scorers while effectively playing the smart team defense the Wild has demonstrated so frequently this season.

"It's been a collective effort,'' defenseman Marco Scandella said. "The forwards back us up when we're jumping into the play offensively. We're having great communication right now, moving the puck to get out of the defensive zone and using each other. It’s a process. We've been building this for a couple of years now, and we're starting to learn each other's tendencies pretty good.''

Scandella said the Wild will need to stay close to Crosby and Malkin, taking away time and space. Erik Haula noted that the team must stick rigorously to its system, keeping turnovers and odd-man rushes to a minimum and forcing the Penguins to play a 200-foot game. And Zach Parise--who knows a thing or two about being a scorer singled out for extra attention--added that the Wild must pin the Pens' stars in their own zone as much as possible. 

"When you play against guys like Crosby and Malkin, when you don’t have the puck, you have to make sure you stay above them and make them come through five (players),'' Parise said. "And you can't cheat on the other side of the puck. The best thing against guys like that is to make them spend long shifts in their own zone. That’s the frustrating thing when you play on a scoring line. When you find yourself in your own zone the whole night, it gets really frustrating.''

In injury news Monday, Keith Ballard practiced for the first time in a long while. The defenseman said he has never gotten a definitive diagnosis of the illness that caused his jawline to swell up and sapped his energy. He skated only twice in the previous 12 days and will need to regain strength and conditioning before he's ready to play.

Forward Matt Cooke (lower-body injury) won't play Tuesday. Forward Ryan Carter (upper-body injury) also practiced Monday, though Yeo is unsure whether Carter will play Tuesday. "He looked pretty good, but we'll have to see how he is in the morning,'' Yeo said. "Sometimes, things like that might get a little bit more sore after you put in the work.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

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