This is Michael Russo's 18th year covering the National Hockey League. He's covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005 following 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. Michael 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.
Also find Russo on Facebook.
Email Michael to talk about hockey.
Biggest game of the season thus far when the Wild hosts the red-hot Los Angeles Kings tonight at Xcel Energy Center.
Why was the Calgary loss so big? Because if the Wild loses tonight, it could very likely face two must-wins Friday and Saturday vs. Edmonton and at Colorado.
Now the Wild, winless in five at home, faces a very important game against the defending Cup champs, a team that is 9-2-3 in its past 14 and 4-0-1 in its past five. Its best players are on fire -- Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, its power play has connected in eight straight games, its penalty kill is 16 for its last 16 and in a 48 for 53 stretch.
Jonathan Bernier, who in 13 games has the second-lowest goals against average in the NHL (1.86), gets the start for No. 1 Jonathan Quick. Bernier is 9-2-1 with a .922 save percentage.
Against Minnesota, Bernier is 3-0-2 with an 0.97 goals against average and .960 save percentage. Oh, and three of his six career shutouts are against the Wild.
Tough game for the Wild, to say the least. Win tonight, and the tension lightens during the next two off-days before the Oilers come to town.
First the Wild lineup, and then below Mike Yeo's rationale for them: Cal Clutterbuck will move up to the second line, Jake Dowell will play left wing on the fourth line, Zenon Konopka is ready to return and will center that fourth line, Stephane Veilleux is scratched, Justin Falk gets in and plays for Brett Clark.
Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle
Clutterbuck-Matt Cullen-Devin Setoguchi
Pierre-Marc Bouchard-Kyle Brodziak-Jason Pominville
Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin
Clayton Stoner-Jared Spurgeon
Justin Falk-Tom Gilbert
1. Coach Mike Yeo wants the Wild to be harder to play against. When the Wild was flying high for the month of March, one overshadowed reason was because the Mike Rupp-Konopka-Mitchell line had a a clear identity most nights -- could take defensive zone faceoffs because Konopka is so good at em, created momentum by playing in the offensive zone, played physical.
Without Rupp and Konopka, the Wild's lost that. So even with one practice, Yeo wants to get Konopka back in. Dowell, who can play wing or center, will play left wing.
On Dowell, Yeo said, "A veteran guy, he knows what his role is, he's going to go in straight lines, he's going to finish checks and he's going to be responsible defensively. ... He's a guy that's very well respected within our locker room (meaning buddies with some of the Houston guys, and of course former Badgers Tom Gilbert and Ryan Suter). Obviously, Jake Dowell's not Mike Rupp. But he's going to go up and down his wing and chip pucks ahead and be tough to play against by finishing checks and managing the puck the right way. Let's get back to an identity with that line -- a line that is tough to play against."
On his game, Dowell said, "I'm not out here to do anything crazy. I'm not a guy that has a lot of sexy numbers. I have a handful of points. I play hard and I do a lot of things that maybe go unnoticed to the untrained eye. It's something that teammates and coaches and management respect, and that's what I hope to bring."
On getting the goal during such an important stretch: "Who wouldn't want to be in this game? This is a huge game for the team. I'm excited and just hope to bring everything I can."
Dowell's got his playoff beard going already due to Houston opening a five-game series with Grand Rapids on Friday. Maybe that's a good omen for the Wild? "I hope so. ... If it works, I'll keep it. If not, I guess I'll have to shave it."
I've gotten a lot of tweets about why not Justin Fontaine, who is having a heck of a season for Houston. Basically, it comes down to role, as Yeo said above. Fontaine is a scorer. The Wild wants to have veteran experience (Dowell's played 154 NHL games and is 28 years old) and a hard-nosed guy that can bring that element to the fourth line. That's not Fontaine's game. Also, and nobody's said that to me, but I'm also guessing that having Fontaine make his NHL debut in this tense situation wouldn't be the fairest position to the kid.
2. Veilleux is obviously disappointed. He was so wound up, he probably would have gone through the end boards his first shift. I think Veilleux will have to be reassigned now with Konopka back. Both Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker were up on emergency recall status. That means Dowell and Veilleux took that status. With Konopka back, I think Veilleux has to go. By the way, Veilleux's wife and infant son had been living in St. Paul, not Houston, so he just saw his son in person and not on Skype for the first time in 2 1/2 months.
3. Yeo's decision to move Clutterbuck to the line with Cullen or Setoguchi rather than Bouchard or Pominville: Cue Yeo, "It's a guy, when he's playing well, is hard on the forecheck, he's separating guys from pucks, creating turnovers, which benefits Cully and Seto and their counterattack speed. But more than anything else, what we should be looking for is somebody who's going to get to the middle of the ice, somebody who's going to get to the net. That line, it's been too perimeter."
Clutterbuck has not had a good season offensively. Three goals and eight points in 39 games, none in the last 18 games and one since Feb. 9. He's been firing hide and wide often or more disconcertingly not finishing in real big situations, like the half open net last game and that one on the last homestand where he just couldn't get his stick on the puck sitting along the goal line.
"It's been a tough year in the sense that I've had some opportunities to score and I'm just going through one of those stretches," Clutterbuck said. "You go through a period of time where the team's winning and you're in the playoffs, and you've got your mind on other things. You start to think about it maybe a little more when the team loses a couple games. Obviously you want to help out. But I can't let that get me off or away from what I do well."
On the mindset of the team after yesterday's meeting: "We've got a great opportunity. This time of year we just don't have these conversations normally (meaning, the Wild's usually out of it by now in past seasons). I think we've got to remove ourselves from the negativity surrounding it all and realize we have a great chance. We're still in control."
4. Clark didn't see a shift after Calgary's second goal the other night, so Falk playing was expected. Yeo said right-shot D Tom Gilbert, aside from last game, has improved his game recently, so that's why right-shot D Nate Prosser won't play.
5. I talked to Rupp and he has been skating on a bad left knee since his fight in Colorado last month. He's been managing it, but it got worse and worse "until I couldn't do anything on it." He said he is on a time window now where he is going on the ice more and more each day. Yesterday it was 20 minutes, today it was 30, although he's not going hard.
"Each day I'm going a little longer," said Rupp. "But it's frustrating right now, that's for sure."
They really need Rupp back. He was acquired Feb. 5. The Wild's turnaround began Feb. 9 (17-6-1 from Feb. 9 vs. Nashville to March 30 vs. Los Angeles). No coincidence, in my opinion. Rupp was a huge addition and now a big loss.
Rachel here, sitting in for Russo at tonight's Wild-Calgary game. No morning skate for the Wild today, only a meeting. Coach Mike Yeo didn't have much news. No updates on the health of Mike Rupp (lower body) and Zenon Konopka (broken foot); neither will play tonight. Defensive personnel will remain the same.
Yeo again stressed the importance of not just getting to the playoffs, but getting there in a good frame of mind with everyone working towards a peak. He wants to see the Wild continue to build its game this week. "You want to be rolling,'' he said. "You want to be feeling good about your game. You want to be on top of it.
"It's really important to stay positive. We should just be really excited about this opportunity, what we have a chance to do as an organization that we haven't been able to do for the past several years. We've set ourselves up with a great opportunity. We should be making sure we take advantage of it now.''
Having guys who have been there will help reinforce those ideas, Yeo said. "It's not by accident we've brought in guys who have done a lot of winning,'' he said. "The big names (such as Zach Parise and Ryan Suter) stick out, but then you add in a Torrey Mitchell, who's been part of a lot of San Jose runs and a lot of playoff games, and a Mike Rupp (who appeared in the playoffs in seven seasons with New Jersey, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers). They not only know what it takes, but more importantly, they've experienced the emotions and all the things you have to overcome.''
The Wild opens a three-game homestand Sunday, and it could help its cause by bringing its power-play production at Xcel in line with its numbers on the road. The Wild has scored 15 power-play goals in 65 chances on the road (23.1 percent), ranking it third in the NHL. At home, the team has 11 goals on 77 power-play opportunities for a dismal conversion rate of 14.3 percent--ranking it 27th.
"You don't have to think too hard about it,'' Yeo said. "It's just a mindset. When you go on the road, you're simplifying a little bit more. Your focus is on getting shots and getting traffic to the net. When you get home, you're thinking about making plays and setting up goals. I think that mindset has to change for us a little bit and just get back to that shot-first mentality.''
Ben Hanowski of Little Falls, who joined the Flames last week after concluding his career at St. Cloud State, will play his first NHL game in his home state. He will be on a line with a fellow Minnesotan, Tim Jackman of Brooklyn Park and Minnesota State, Mankato, and Matt Stajan. He's expecting to see his former teammates--the Wild, he said, set the Huskies up with a suite--and about 20 relatives and friends.
Hanowski has shorn the mane he was growing as part of a St. Cloud State effort for the charity Locks of Love, which uses donated hair to make wigs for young cancer patients. He got a crew cut last Tuesday, for the first time since his high school baseball days. The minimum length of hair that can be donated is 10 inches; Hanowski had to trim close to the scalp to get to 10 1/2.
Hanowski has one goal in two games and is plus-one since joining the Flames. "With two Minnesota guys playing together, I hope we can work a little magic in the state today,'' he said. "The NHL is always your goal as a hockey player. To actually get there and play (at Xcel) in the NHL is pretty special for me. My family members and friends are pretty proud and excited for this opportunity I've gotten.
"We've got a lot of Minnesota guys on the (St. Cloud State) team. I'm sure they will want me to do well, but they'll want the Wild to win.''
Zenon Konopka's back in Minnesota and Mike Rupp won't play tonight against a big, aggressive San Jose Sharks team tonight. That's two tough guys out, meaning it'll be interesting to see how the Wild handles guys like Raffi Torres running amok.
Also, Marc-Edouard Vlasic should probably consider himself safe tonight, but mostly because Priority No. 1 for the Wild is getting two points, not retribution for Vlasic ending former teammate Dany Heatley's season April 3.
Torrey Mitchell, Vlasic's former Sharks teammate, said the Wild remembers the incident and will finish checks on him like the team normally would. But again, a win is the most important thing.
If you didn't read, here is my Charlie Coyle profile from today's paper after talking to his cousin, Tony Amonte.
Tonight will be interesting because while the Wild didn't play well in this awfully tough building 15 days ago, the Wild will have a very different lineup tonight, one that is more intact too. First, Matt Cullen is back. Second, Jason Pominville will play. Third, Mikael Granlund will play. Fourth, Nate Prosser won't be playing forward. Fifth, Brett Clark will be in. Sixth, the sky is blue and I'm in a good mood.
That game against San Jose the first time was the first game without Cullen. The Wild traded Johan Larsson that morning, so Charlie Coyle started the game at center and all the lines changed. The Wild has since rediscovered chemistry on all lines, is getting real good play again from the top line and great play from that recently-assembled Pierre-Marc Bouchard-Kyle Brodziak-Pominville line.
"Pominville is a huge addition for us, but he's really helped to elevate Brodzy's game and Butchie's game as well," coach Mike Yeo said. "The impact is felt more by adding just one player."
Pominville, by the way, raved about Yeo's communication today, saying how the coach called him into the office before taking him off Zach Parise's and Mikko Koivu's line to explain his decision-making. Basically, the Wild was shut out in three of four and he wanted to bring better balance to all the lines.
Speaking of Parise, he scored a great goal in Edmonton by essentially passing to himself from one end of the goalmouth to the other. He chased it down by skating to it from behind the net.
Parise said it wasn't intentional.
"I was trying to tuck it in on the short side," Parise said. "I think my blade hit the post before I could wrap it to get the angle. I was able to go around the other side and get it in. Unfortunately I can't say I did it on purpose."
The Sharks, though, are 10-0-4 in their past 14 home games, have lost once all season in regulation at home and are supremely confident and healthy right now.
Niklas Backstrom (23rd start in 24 games; 27th in 29) vs. Antti Niemi (22nd straight and 31st out of 32) tonight.
Those Finns, all they do is play go ... and give steely glares!
The AHL Board of Governors has approved the relocation of the Houston Aeros to Des Moines, Iowa. The team will be renamed the Iowa Wild, sources say. They will play at the Wells Fargo Arena. New conference is expected in Des Moines on Monday.
“Our organization has enjoyed tremendous support from the loyal, passionate hockey fans in Houston since 2001,” Wild Assistant to the General Manager/Aeros General Manager Jim Mill said. “There is a great hockey history in Houston, beginning with the Apollos in 1965, and continuing with the Aeros in the WHA, IHL and AHL. We are honored to have been a part of this hockey tradition.”
“We are grateful to our corporate and community partners, as well as our hard-working staff in Houston,” Mill added.
“We were not able to find agreement on terms of a new arena lease which would allow us to continue to successfully operate our franchise. We thank Toyota Center for the partnership we’ve had since moving there in 2003,” Wild Chief Operating Officer Matt Majka said.
“We have enjoyed a very strong relationship with the Aeros dating back to Toyota Center's inaugural 2003 season. Both parties worked diligently and in good faith during this process, but unfortunately we were unable to reach an agreement. We wish the Aeros continued success,” Houston Rockets/Clutch City Sports & Entertainment CEO Tad Brown said.
“On behalf of our Board of Governors, I would like to thank the fans of the Houston Aeros for the terrific support they have shown their team and the American Hockey League for the last 12 years,” American Hockey League President and CEO David Andrews said.
You have to feel for the Aeros fans down there and my colleagues who cover the team and work for the team.
The Wild looks to win consecutive games for the first time since March 25-27 (last two games of the seven-game winning streak). The Wild didn't skate this morning but brought the entire team over here to Rexall Place for meetings, video work and off-ice work.
Niklas Backstrom gets the cage. The last time Backstrom played two nights in a row, he gave up two goals on two shots in the first 3:07 in L.A. But coach Mike Yeo said there was no temptation to start Darcy Kuemper tonight.
It's clear it'll be his at least until the Wild cements a playoff spot.
"To be honest with you, we figured that in all likelihood he would be playing this game tonight," said Yeo, adding that other teams pushing for a playoff spot are riding their No. 1's. "This time of year, you're seeing other goalies do it and you're seeing other goalies play well in those situations. It's just a very important thing to us and our group that we're putting the team we believe gives us the best chance to win on the ice."
Backstrom is 24-3-1 all-time vs. the Oilers with a 1.79 goals against average and .933 save percentage. He is 4-1 in his past five in Edmonton after being pulled in four consecutive here.
Looks like the same lineup tonight. Definitely the same forwards because Mikael Granlund, who would have been scratched for a second straight game because of the return of Matt Cullen, was reassigned to Houston. Same reason the Wild has reassigned him and other rookies like Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle this year -- if they're not going to play or if their role is going to be limited, get him down to Houston.
The Aeros have three games in three nights this weekend. Also, as I've mentioned before, the Wild is inches from the salary cap ceiling, so this also frees up some space. GM Chuck Fletcher said the Wild will assess the team postgame and if it needs a forward for San Jose, it'll bring somebody up. Also, there's always the chance that if Zenon Konopka, who has a broken foot, is feeling better, he could meet the team in California.
So same lines, and I assume, same D tonight, meaning Justin Falk and Nate Prosser would be scratched.
At the end of the seven-game win streak, Yeo started to sense that the Wild was playing too loose and starting to lose its game, the good habits, the structure. In the last few losses to St. Louis and Columbus, Yeo started to sense the Wild was rediscovering its game. If you watched the Blue Jackets game, you especially know the Wild should have won that game by a country mile. But Sergei Bobrovsky stole a shootout win.
"We felt like the pendulum was swinging the other direction," Yeo said. "What's really important for us is we make sure we keep that momentum now. We had some pretty good focus last night of let's not just go win the game, let's go play it the right way and let the win happen."
Oilers coach Ralph Kueger has a lot of respect for what he's seen from the Wild on video the past three games, saying, "They're an extremely disciplined team, they're strongly structured and they stick with their gameplan quite religiously. We liked [Ryan] Suter early in the season when people weren't speaking that highly of him. He came in here last time and played 30-something minutes and was on the ice every time our kids were and was excellent from the start. And the points and all the other numbers caught up with him.
"[Zach] Parise just brings a grittiness to the game every day. He plays so big for his size and along the walls and going to the blue paint. Those are two unbelievable, high-end additions that have changed the character of the team."
He said the Oilers need to match the patience of the Wild tonight because Minnesota believes in its game.
This will be the first game Taylor Hall plays the Wild since his kneeing penalty late in the Feb. 21 game sidelined Cal Clutterbuck for six games with a charleyhorse. Hall was suspended and then didn't play in the next meeting at Minnesota with an apparent leg injury March 3.
Neither Hall or Clutterbuck would speak this morning about facing each other again. I'm getting lots of tweets about whether the Wild will go after Hall like this is the days of the Broad Street Bullies. I'm sure the Wild will play Hall hard like normal, but the most important thing for the Wild right now is keep winning games, not doing something stupid to Hall as some ridiculous payback.
The Wild expects a very motivated Edmonton Oilers team tonight. They fired GM Steve Tambellini yesterday, and by the look of their faces in today's morning skate, they were very focused and businesslike about the approach.
Krueger said this morning that every player in Edmonton's lineup these next seven games better look to confirm they want to be here and should be here during this rebuilding process. He said the brass is looking at each player with a "magnifying glass."
The Oilers went from winning five in a row with 25 goals scored to losing five in a row with four goals scored in those games.
The kids -- Jordan Eberle, Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins -- have no points in those five games. To put that in perspective, Hall had 15 points in the six games before that.
"We have to be ready for a team to come hard," Yeo said. "We're well aware of the changes they made yesterday and I think the players will be looking to make a statement tonight. So we've got to be ready to start this game hard, with the right battle level. But on top of that, this is a team that when they press they can force themselves offensively. So we've go to be ready to defend."
By the way, I keep getting questions about the callup situation. I put this in the chat last week but haven't on here yet. Once the regular season is over, the Wild can have up to three Houston players on the Wild playoff roster at any one time and they can be switched in and out at will. It's a new wrinkle in the new CBA. Once Houston's eliminated, the Wild can have them all up.
|Vikings (29)||Gophers injuries (2)|
|Gophers on TV (1)||Gophers coaches (2)|
|Gophers players (7)||Gophers game day (6)|
|Gophers postgame (12)||Gophers awards and honors (1)|
|Gophers post season (1)||St. Cloud State (1)|
|Wild news (404)||Bears (4)|
|Lions (1)||Packers (1)|
|Super Bowl (6)||Vikings fans (3)|
|Ex-players (1)||On the road (145)|
|Rookies (31)||Roster moves (12)|
|The draft (86)||Trade talk (3)|
|Fighting (3)||Stanley Cup (28)|
|Wild coaching (30)||Wild game coverage (318)|
|Wild management (13)||Wild off-season news (371)|
|Wild player moves (106)||Wild practice (267)|
|Wild pregame skate (285)||Wild trade news (28)|
|Wild training camp (90)||Adrian Peterson (4)|
|Ben Leber (1)||Bernard Berrian (1)|
|Brad Childress (3)||Brett Favre (5)|
|Jared Allen (1)||Brad Childress (3)|
|NHL news (1)||2010 Winter Games (5)|
|Olympic hockey (23)||Olympic luge (3)|
|Olympic ski jumping (2)||Olympic skiing (2)|
|NHL draft (7)||Gophers sports (3)|