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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When Mikael Granlund came back from wrist surgery in the first game after the All-Star break in Edmonton, coach Mike Yeo was asked how excited he was to have essentially his full team back together for the first time since training camp (excluding Josh Harding and Keith Ballard).
That lasted one game.
Justin Fontaine strained his groin the next game in Calgary, Matt Cooke played his final game the game after that in Vancouver before sports hernia surgery and now the Wild has a couple big injuries to overcome.
In devastating news for breakout left-wing Jason Zucker, the lightning-fast 23-year-old will undergo potentially season-ending surgery for a second consecutive year. Almost exactly a year after the first of two knee operations that ended his 2013-14 season, Zucker will need surgery on a broken collarbone. He got jolted while racing for a puck by Vancouver's Luca Sbisa.
The timetable for recovery is three months, coach Mike Yeo said tonight before the Wild’s game against the Winnipeg Jets.
Also, gritty left wing Ryan Carter will miss more than a month with an upper-body injury that I believe is a shoulder injury. He crashed loudly into the end boards a few minutes before Zucker's injury when checked by Vancouver's Yannick Weber.
“This is where guys are going to have to step up,” Yeo said. “Nino [Niederreiter] got his season off to a great start and I feel like his last couple games have really been coming along. I feel like Charlie [Coyle’s] game has been really coming along. We’re going to need a guy like Fonzie (Fontaine), who’s been in and out of the lineup a lot this year, we’re going to need someone like him to step up now and deliver some important minutes and play some important games for us. I’m hoping the new guys that come into the lineup are able to bring some energy and play an important role to our team. But it’s got to be by committee. We’re missing Carts and Zuck and … Matt Cooke, it’s three real important penalty killers, it’s three guys that have real important roles on our team and those things are not easily replaced.”
Zucker, who is second on the Wild with 18 goals (tied for 10th in the NHL with 17 even-strength goals) and fourth on the team with 116 shots, had accepted the organization’s tough love the past few years admirably. Up and down I-35Z or the Zucker Expressway like a yo-yo, Zucker worked exhaustedly this past offseason to ensure he made the team out of camp and recovered from what he initially thought would be a minor knee procedure last season.
He made the Wild as a fourth-liner, never griped and slowly bit more and more ice time off until the point he played most recently on a dynamite line with Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville.
“We push our young players hard,” Yeo said. “The reason for that is you only get one chance to do things right with these young players. And [Zucker’s] a guy that I think is a perfect example of it, the way he’s worked for his opportunities, the way that he’s learned how to compete night in and night out, the way that he’s learned how to play without the puck and to see the consistency that he brings now, it’s a huge loss for us.
“I’m disappointed for our team because he developed so much chemistry with Mikko. I thought that line with Pommer and Mikko, they haven’t been getting a ton of goals, but their chances, their play has been outstanding coming out of the break. I just feel like [Zucker’s] progress was so high this year in all areas of the game.”
Niederreiter, who scored on his first shift on Koivu’s line last night against Vancouver, will be on that line tonight against the Jets.
Jordan Schroeder will move to his off wing and play on the left of Coyle and Kyle Brodziak. Callup Brett Sutter, who had two assists in a Dec. 29 Wild win at Winnipeg, will play the left side of Erik Haula and Fontaine, who returns tonight from a groin injury.
Stu Bickel and Christian Folin will be scratched. Devan Dubnyk, who has won a career-best six in a row, will make his 11th consecutive start with Darcy Kuemper backing him up. Niklas Backstrom will be scratched for the second time in eight games.
The Wild is vying for a seventh consecutive win tonight and looks to move within a point of a playoff spot and four points of the Jets with three games in hand.
Afternoon from Winnipeg, where it's a little whiter and colder out than the last time I was here in late December.
Wild and Jets tonight at the house that Jordan Schroeder built, MTS Centre. I landed at 12:21 p.m., the Wild had an optional skate and coach Mike Yeo is available two hours before the game, so there'll be a lot of conjecture on this blog until I grab Yeo pregame.
Michael Hutchinson vs. DXXXX XXXXXX.
As of now, all I can tell you is the first name of tonight's Wild starting goalie without a doubt will start with the letter D. I'm putting six X's instead of seven on the second name because if it were me, I'd fill in DUBNYK on the lineup card.
But I also understand the rationale if the coaches decide to go with Darcy Kuemper.
Dubnyk has started 10 straight, the Wild after tonight play every other day for the next nine games including travel, Kuemper played well in Winnipeg in December with a 28-save victory, Dubnyk did look to tweak his back in Friday's practice and Dubnyk did allow four goals on 10 shots in his only other second of a back-to-back last month in Detroit.
Those would be the reasons -- all valid ones -- if Kuemper starts.
BUT, Dubnyk is riding a career-best six-game winning streak, is 8-1 in 10 starts (no decision in Detroit) with a 1.49 goals-against average, .940 save percentage and four shutouts, undeniably gives the Wild its best chance to win, the team seems to play in front of Dubnyk better and has more confidence in Dubnyk, Kuemper is coming off a statistically poor conditioning stint, Dubnyk's puck-handling allows the Wild to go north much easier and quicker AND after such a big win over Vancouver last night to pull within three of a playoff spot, Wild players deserve the best possible chance to pull within one of a playoff spot tonight and four of Winnipeg for the top wildcard spot with THREE games in hand.
Dubnyk provides that best possible chance. In other words, the Jets have to feel the Wild in the rearview mirror. Keep it coming.
Now, as I stated on a previous blog and on the radio, it's imperative not to burn out Dubnyk and we all can guess the Wild's playoff chances if Dubnyk ever did get hurt. But I think the Wild brass will consider all the points in the above paragraph and choose Dooby Dooby Doo.
Not to mention, the Wild has a CBA-mandated day off Wednesday, so Dubnyk can rest up.
Again, we shall see. It's tempting to start Kuemper for the other reasons mentioned above plus the fact the Wild has to find him a game at some point, I'd assume.
I asked Yeo yesterday if he's worried about the Wild reverting back to its old ways if Kuemper comes back in and struggles and he said the team needs to be mentally stronger than that if Kuemper doesn't get off to a good start when he eventually gets in. Kuemper did play in the game before the All-Star break in Detroit and stopped 14 of 14 shots in the Wild's come-from-behind shootout loss.
The Wild definitely made clear it started to lose confidence in Kuemper when it continually had to chase games or overcome bad goals.
Zach Parise said to me yesterday though, "[Kuemper] doesn’t need to prove anything to us. We know he’s a good goaltender. I don’t think that should be and I don’t think that is his mindset. For him I'm sure he wants to get in there and play well and gain that confidence back that he had. But we know he’s a good goalie. Everyone goes through stretches as a forward where you're not scoring and as a goalie where you're not seeing the puck. But at the same time Dubnyk has played really well for us. We just want them all feeling good about their game and for us, whoever’s in, that can’t affect how we play our game in front of them."
The Wild is 8-1-1 under Dubnyk. Here's a stat-and-a-half for ya.
In the Wild's six-game winning streak since the All-Star break, the Wild has scored first in every game AND not trailed in any game. It has not trailed in 371 minutes, 39 seconds (6:39 left in the third period in Detroit when Parise stole that puck from Jonathan Ericsson and tied the score).
In the Wild's eight wins in this streak, the Wild has scored first. In the 0-1-1 games, the Blue Jackets and Red Wings scored first.
As updated on the previous blog, the Wild has recalled Brett Sutter (two assists in that Dec. 29 come-from-behind win) and Stu Bickel. To make room, Jason Zucker and Ryan Carter had to be placed on injured reserve.
Perhaps Yeo will have more specifics on their injuries before the game, but they're obviously long-term.
Carter was wearing a sling after last night's game. I think Zucker is a similar injury -- shoulder or collarbone.
Not good. Not good at all.
Good thing Sutter and Bickel were with Iowa in Hamilton. They were able to drive to Toronto to catch a jam-packed flight to Winnipeg. The NHL was actually having trouble getting a ref who had a mechanical issue in for tonight's game and were looking to parachute somebody else in from Vancouver, so we'll see if the refs change tonight.
Sutter will obviously play tonight. I'd think Justin Fontaine would, too. So we'll see if Bickel comes in for somebody like Erik Haula, who continues to struggle.
Unless there's an injury, I'd think Christian Folin would be scratched a sixth consecutive game tonight. The blue line, including third pair Nate Prosser and Matt Dumba, has been playing well.
I'll update this blog after Yeo's availability.
So, how did Devan Dubnyk follow up a week in which he was named the NHL's third star? With two shutouts that earned him a promotion. Monday, the Wild goalie was picked as the league's first star for the week ending Feb. 8, thanks to shutouts of Chicago and Colorado in which he stopped all 42 shots he faced to help his team extend its winning streak to five games.
Dubnyk was grateful for the recognition, noting that the honors feel especially good coming after he endured a rocky patch in his career. He will get the start tonight as the Wild faces Vancouver at Xcel Energy Center, with Niklas Backstrom backing up. Darcy Kuemper also was on the ice at Monday's morning skate after returning to Minnesota following a five-game rehab stint in Iowa.
Coach Mike Yeo hasn't decided who will start Tuesday at Winnipeg. But he sounded like he'd prefer to keep Dubnyk in whenever possible. "He's been playing at a level that whenever he's available, whenever we feel he's fresh and whenever we feel we're not going to put him in a bad situation, right now, the way things are going, there's a good chance he’ll be in the net,'' Yeo said. "We’ll have to evaluate after (Monday's) game what we need for tomorrow, based on how the game went tonight and based on some other decisions we'll have to make.''
The always-cheerful Kuemper settled into a new locker stall on the end of the row occupied by the Wild's defensemen. He said his rehab stint went well, and he isn't going to fret about what he cannot control. His numbers in Iowa were not dazzling--he went 2-3, with a goals-against average of 3.22 and save percentage of .891 and one shutout--but he said he was happy with how he played.
"I don’t even know what the numbers were,'' Kuemper said. "I felt good. I was making big saves every game. The team's having a bit of a tough year there, but we worked hard.''
Kuemper said during his time in Iowa, the areas he worked on included his reads, his ability to corral rebounds, playing with control and being in position to stop second-chance shots. He said he feels ready to start for the Wild, but he admitted he doesn't know what is going to happen--a feeling Yeo echoed, as he again said there is no set plan for handling three goaltenders. He does have to make sure he's managing the situation properly, he said, expressing sympathy for the trials that Kuemper and Backstrom have faced this season.
"In a lot of ways, I feel bad for (Backstrom) and I feel bad for (Kuemper),'' Yeo said. "As well as (Dubnyk) has played, he deserves an awful lot of attention. And obviously, that’s kind of magnified and put a little more pressure and been a little bit tougher for those guys to deal with everything.
"They're handling it well. They’ve had a great attitude. I also think we're playing a better game right now, so when either of those two guys gets back in the lineup, hopefully we give them a chance to be successful.''
Dubnyk got lots of attention from the Vancouver media this morning, and he noted how much he appreciates this run of success. By the way, his first shutout of the season--earned while he was playing for Arizona--came at Vancouver, a 35-save gem in November.
"It's great,'' he said of the NHL recognition. "It's exciting. It's one of those things, I'll probably try to sit down Wednesday and take a minute and really enjoy it, because we've got a couple big games coming up here.
"It's nice to be talked about for the right reasons. It's important to not change what I'm doing, but it's also important to take some time on a day in between and really enjoy it.''
No lineup changes for tonight. A couple of random stats:
--Vancouver is 20-4-2 when scoring first, prompting Yeo to note how important it will be for the Wild to be sharp right from the start.
--The Canucks have the league's seventh-best road record (15-8-2).
Devan Dubnyk vs. Semyon Varlamov tonight at Xcel Energy Center when the Wild, looking for its first five-game winning streak this season, and Avalanche renew their rivalry of last year’s playoffs. If you didn't see my main article today, here is a story on Zach Parise talking about his play and the team's play since the death of his father.
Dubnyk will make his ninth straight start for the Wild since his Jan. 14 acquisition. Varlamov will make his ninth straight start and 17th in the past 18 games for the Avs. He is 9-5-2 with a 2.10 goals-against average and .934 save percentage in that stretch.
Dubnyk is 6-1 with a 1.48 goals-against average and .943 save percentage. He has allowed three goals in four straight regulation wins since the All-Star break and has three shutouts in eight starts with Minnesota.
Darcy Kuemper will make his final conditioning stint start for Iowa this afternoon at 3 p.m. ET in Toronto. He made 23 saves in a 5-3 win at Hamilton last night. He’ll then fly back to Des Moines with the Baby Wild and is expected to get his stuff and be at the morning skate in Minnesota on Monday morning.
Even with the conditioning stint, he has counted against the Wild’s cap and 23-man roster, so when Kuemper returns, the Wild will continue to go with three goalies. Niklas Backstrom hasn’t played since giving up six goals in a 7-2 loss at Pittsburgh on Jan. 13. He was even a healthy scratch in Detroit for the first time in his career.
I talked to Backstrom, the Wild’s all-time winningest goalie with 194 wins and 28 shutouts, this morning and he admits, “For sure it’s weird, but at the end of the day, it is what it is. You can’t really do anything about it. You just live with it.”
Coach Mike Yeo has said a million times that he right now has no plan for how to manage three goalies. There’s only two nets in practice and one in games (so to speak).
Obviously, one will be Dubnyk’s net for awhile, but one has to wonder how he’ll handle Kuemper and Backstrom. Will he alternate backups? Will he just go with Kuemper? It’s awkward to say the least. Even with the Wild’s goaltending instability the past three years, the Wild’s never really had three goalies on the active roster and had to scratch one on a nightly basis.
“I don’t know,” Backstrom said when I asked if he has talked to GM Chuck Fletcher or Yeo. “They haven’t told me anything. I have no idea. Maybe I need to start to read what you guys write so I know what’s going on here.”
He said that with a big laugh, and if you know Backstrom, he wasn’t being a jerk. He just doesn’t know.
He has a no-move clause, so he can’t technically be placed on waivers as far as what I understand and be sent to the minors. Conditioning stints though can usually be finagled, so I asked him if he would ever accept a conditioning stint just to play games like Kuemper did (if Fletcher asked).
Backstrom said, “I don’t know. No one has really said anything, so it’s hard to pretty much have an opinion and know what the options are. So it’s hard to say anything.”
I have known Backstrom for nine years. He is such a good person and as intelligent a person as I’ve ever met, so he has to know this could be the beginning of the end for his tenure in Minnesota. It seems very plausible that the Wild will have to buy him out of the final year of his contract this summer ($3.416 million). He turns 37 on Friday.
On how difficult this has been for him, he said, “It’s part of the game. You just live with it and do what’s best for you and focus on your game and just live with it and go on day by day.”
One thing that has been clear has been how good of a teammate he has been to Dubnyk. He’s a pro and says he’s not about to create problems.
“We’re a team here,” Backstrom said. “It’s never one guy. It’s never two guys. It’s always a team. Team wins, team loses, and that’s how you try to live when you play and that’s how you try to live when you don’t play. It’s always team first. It’s not about throwing somebody under the bus or doing something stupid. It’s about the players in here taking care of each other and that’s what we take pride of in this group. We’re a wolf pack. Somebody messes with one guy, the other guy steps in and defends them. It’s inside the rink, it’s outside the rink. That’s how a team works and that’s how it gets stronger.”
Avs are 3-1-1 in their past five, 9-4-3 in their past 16.
They have changed the way they’ve played the past few months. Gone is that rarely-used man-on-man defensive-zone coverage that the Wild used and abused in last year’s playoffs and the first two games of this season.
“They’ve played better over the last couple months here and we’ve finally got back to playing the way we’re capable of playing,” defenseman Ryan Suter, a plus-6 the past five games, said. “They’ve changed the way they’ve played. Before, you could do those cutbacks on guys and get to 2-on-1 guys down low and I think they’ve changed that because it might not have been working the way they wanted it to.”
These two teams usually bring the best out of each other and the games are entertaining.
Just remember Game 2 of this season when the Wild won 3-0 in Denver. That pace was insane for a second game of a season and the Wild overcame a bogus disallowed goal and got some sensational saves from Kuemper before DU product Jason Zucker scored a huge goal to make it 2-0 when Kuemper was getting bombarded.
But those two games (Wild outscored Colorado 8-zip in Games 1 and 2 this season) were so long ago, Yeo said it has no bearing on tonight. He said what should make it intense is that Colorado in 9th and the Wild is 10th in the conference with the Wild a point behind the Avs.
The Avs are a resilient team, having scored tying goals with an extra attacker in the four of the past seven games. If you remember, the Avs did that in two games to the Wild in last year’s playoffs.
Going into the last game against Detroit, the Avs were 0 for 20 on the power play but 4 for 4 on 6-on-5’s with Varlamov on the bench.
Jarome Iginla, who leads the Avs with 16 goals, is the all-time leader against the Wild with 67 points, 37 goals, 238 shots and 10-game winners. He is second with 73 games played and 10 power-play goals.
Iginla, who has the second-most goals among active NHLers, is one goal from tying Mark Recchi for 19th all-time (577).
Justin Fontaine (groin) won’t play tonight.
Rookie Christian Folin will be scratched a fourth straight game. That’s becoming more of a topic, but Yeo is hesitant to fiddle with a lineup that has won four straight.
The Wild has long needed a left-shot D in my opinion but has yet to trade for one. Yeo doesn’t want to have rookies Matt Dumba or Folin, two right-shots, play the left side. Nate Prosser has played well the past four or five games on the left side, which is ironic considering one reason Yeo gave often last season when scratching Prosser was that he couldn’t play the left side.
Folin turns 24 on Monday, so this isn’t like some 20-year-old rookie sitting every night. And Yeo said this morning there are still benefits to Folin, whom I think is going to be a quality player for this team, practicing here in Minnesota as opposed to playing in Iowa.
But in his next breath, Yeo said, “I don’t want a young kid sitting around and not playing for an extended period of time.”
Yeo also told me when I had him on KFAN the other day that this is a crucial point of the season, the Wild needs win and nobody deserves to come out of the lineup and who knows what lineup the Wild will use two days from now.
He also wants to keep Folin here as opposed to Iowa because “it prevents Dums from having that sense of security. He knows that there’s a guy lurking and waiting to get back in the lineup.”
But Yeo said he’ll continue to discuss this with Fletcher. As Fletcher always says, the lineup on a nightly basis is completely up to Yeo and the coaching staff.
I’ll be on Fox Sports North tonight during the pregame show and first intermission. We’ll talk Wild trade options and leaguewide trade bait, Zucker/Folin, how the Wild plans to manage three goalies, hockey in Vegas and Evander Kane.
Wild left wing Matt Cooke, who played two third-period shifts totaling 33 seconds Sunday in Vancouver, won’t play tonight against the Chicago Blackhawks and potentially a “longer period of time,” coach Mike Yeo said.
I’m hearing via sources that the veteran will likely need season-ending surgery. If you do the math and connect the dots, Cooke has been playing with a sports hernia.
Yeo called it a lower-body injury today. I’m certain this has nothing to do with the Rob Klinkhammer kneeing in Edmonton last Tuesday that left Cooke with a charleyhorse.
Cooke missed 22 games from Oct. 30-Dec. 17 with a hip flexor. He was injured the second game of the season at Colorado and played with the injury the next six games in agony. As it turns out, Cooke told me in December this was no normal hip flexor injury. He had three torn muscles, including the Psoas Major, which attaches to the femur, and two other supporting hip flexor muscles.
Yeo said Tuesday “this is something different than what has been bothering him. It hasn’t gone away and he’s been battling through it. Quite often with these things, this might be something as a result of compensating for the other injury, too. I’m not sure. But he’s been trying to battle through it.”
Like I said, connect the dots. Compensating for a hip injury often leads to some sort of abdominal issue. It’s been clear by watching Cooke that his skating has been affected and he hasn’t been as physical.
Yeo said Cooke has a doctor’s appointment and he will update at a later time with further details.
Typically, the sports hernia surgeries are conducted at specialists in St. Louis or Philadelphia. Niklas Backstrom had his two core muscle surgeries done at the latter.
In 27 games, Cooke has four goals and four assists with 13 penalty minutes. Last season, Cooke played all 82 games and led the team in hits, scored 10 goals, 18 assists and was plus-8.
Cooke has one more year left on his contract at $2.5 million.
This hurts the Wild from a physicality and penalty-killing standpoint, so we’ll see if General Manager Chuck Fletcher looks for some kind of depth forward or continues to go with what he’s got here and in the minors. The trade deadline is March 2.
For at least the short-term, the Wild placed Justin Fontaine (groin) on injured reserve and recalled Jordan Schroeder to play tonight. Schroeder is scoreless in three games for the Wild but Jan. 8 had seven shots in 9 minutes, 49 seconds of ice time also against Chicago playing on an all-Gophers line with Erik Haula and Thomas Vanek.
He’ll play on a line tonight with Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter and Yeo is intrigued by the line’s possibilities with a pure speed guy playing with two big power-forward types.
“He’s done a good job for us the couple games that he’s played,” Yeo said of Schroeder. “Counting on him to come in right now and provide some minutes for us, provide some energy. I want to see his speed be a factor. I think he’s done a good job of finding open ice and getting some pucks through to the net.”
Yeo said Fontaine is feeling better. The Wild won’t practice Wednesday, but perhaps after two days of practice, he can come off injured reserve and play Saturday against the Avalanche.
With Cooke out, Ryan Carter moves to the Erik Haula-Kyle Brodziak line.
Christian Folin will be a healthy scratch for a third consecutive game.
Devan Dubnyk vs. Corey Crawford tonight. Daniel Carcillo is eligible to return from suspension today, but he didn’t skate in regular line rushes at the skate. The Blackhawks, by the way, went to Vegas for the Super Bowl and on Monday, so we’ll find out tonight if their type of weariness offsets the typical first-game-after-a-long-road-trip weariness that the Wild could have.
Big game for the Wild tonight to keep its 3-0 Western Canadian momentum going at home, where the Wild has stunk the past two months. Also, with no games until Saturday, the Wild could surely use two points to make up for the no points it’ll be getting while sitting idle and others play.
I’ll be filling in for Paul Allen on KFAN from 9-12 both Wednesday and Thursday, so please tune in to that and call in as well.
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