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.
Also find Russo on Facebook.
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Afternoon from one of my favorite arenas, the Saddledome in Calgary, where tonight on Hockey Night in Canada, another classic Flames-Wild tilt will take place.
It’s my first time here since the arena was under water following the Bow River flooding last June.
Wild defenseman Ryan Suter, named an alternate captain for the U.S. Olympic team for the second time yesterday, will be Scott Oake’s guest on HNIC’s After Hours following the game. If you have questions you want Scott to ask, tweet him at @scottoake.
Since Jay Feaster was fired and President of Hockey Ops Brian Burke took over on an interim basis, the man has tried to add “truculence” to the Calgary lineup. The big addition was Kevin Westgarth, who decided to play center for a shift to open a game last month in Vancouver. All heck broke loose after the opening faceoff, John Tortorella tried to storm the Flames’ room to get at coach Bob Hartley between periods and Torts hasn’t coached since.
I jokingly warned Mike Yeo not to start his fourth line tonight.
But because of the heavies in Calgary’s lineup, Mike Rupp will play his fourth consecutive game.
Jason Zucker, scratched for Rupp the past three games, will return though and skate on a line with hometown “kid” Dany Heatley and Charlie Coyle. The trio had success a few games last month.
Zucker was the odd man after Zach Parise returned, and Yeo said it was about “fit.” I asked Yeo more specifically today why Zucker was scratched and he gave his most specific answer, which was an indictment of both the team and Zucker.
He said he gave Zucker the one game against Chicago on the fourth line and indicated Zucker needs to play in a top-6 role to be effective (he had one near costly turnover after a play on the wall in the second period). But then Yeo added, “We’ve seen a different game from our team and from him playing against some of these heavy teams on the road, so that’s we used the different lineup.”
So, to be clearer, Yeo has felt the Wild’s game and Zucker’s game changes against tough teams on the road, so that’s why he felt compelled to start playing Rupp at San Jose, at Anaheim, at Colorado and now at Calgary.
Zucker said he has to his best to play mistake-free hockey to keep from being an up-and-down player. Personally, I think that's a hard demand for any player to ask of himself. Zucker had some great games last month, especially in Nashville. He just has to do his best to relax, clear his head and play his game.
With Zucker back in and Rupp remaining in, Torrey Mitchell, whom I hear came close to being scratched in Colorado, will sit for the first time this season. Mitchell has one goal in 53 games.
Jared Spurgeon’s return is on hold. Yeo said Spurgeon told him yesterday that he’s just not ready, which is completely understandable. He has missed 13 games with a broken foot. Yesterday was his first real practice, so to me, that would have been the definition of rushing him back into the lineup.
I’d guess Tuesday against Tampa Bay is a likelihood.
“We would have had a tough decision tonight [as for who to take out] if he was coming into the lineup,” Yeo said. “Guys have elevated their game. Stony’s (Clayton Stoner) playing a physical game, Bally’s (Keith Ballard) taken his game to another level and Pross (Nate Prosser), we’ve seen what he’s come in and done.”
Yeo said all three probably sense the return of Spurgeon and have lifted their game knowing one of them will come out.
“That’s probably part of it,” Yeo said. “They go into every game making sure they’re ready to go and making sure they have that urgency.”
I did a big feature last month about Prosser, but I may write about him again for Monday. His play has been that good and he had some good stuff to say today about his head-to-head duels with Jamie McGinn the other night in Denver.
Captain Mikko Koivu returned to Minnesota after practicing in Denver the other day. The team felt there was no sense bringing him to Calgary since he wasn’t going to play.
He has not practiced with the team since having surgery on his ankle Jan. 6, so I don’t see how on earth he’ll be able to play one of the final two games before the Olympics. That, too, would be the definition of rushing him back.
“I don’t want to say anything yet,” Yeo said. “I would call Tuesday a longshot right now and I don’t want to speculate at all beyond that.”
That’s it for now. I’ll be on Sportsnet 590 the Fan in Toronto at 5:10 p.m. CT.
Also, the fourth of five Star Tribune Chalk Talks with myself and Wes Walz is Tuesday before the Wild-Lightning game. If you would like to go to the event and the game, go to www.wild.com/chalktalk.
Afternoon from Denver. I intended to get this blog up a few hours ago, but after eight days away from the beat, it's been phone call after phone call just to catch up and figure out what's going on with the team behind the scenes, and, heck, even ironing down exactly what lines guys have played on.
I did catch up with Chuck Fletcher regarding the March 5 trade deadline and many different subjects, and a lot of that will be in my Sunday column.
A reminder: It's silly season right now with the rumors. In most cases, you don't need me to confirm or refute. You're all educated hockey fans. Ask yourself first, "Does this remotely make sense?" Most of the time, you'll know if it's baloney or not.
Defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who will miss his 13th consecutive game tonight when the Wild visits the Colorado Avalanche, took part in the pregame skate this morning. It was his first time on the ice with teammates since blocking a shot and injuring a foot Jan. 2 against Buffalo.
That was the 4-1 victory that triggered a 9-3-1 month. Spurgeon was plus-3 that game, playing 27 minutes as Ryan Suter's partner.
The plan is for Spurgeon to practice fully with contact Friday in Calgary and coach Mike Yeo said this morning during his pregame availability (I didn't make it to the rink because of a flight delay) that there's a chance Spurgeon returns Saturday night in Calgary -- a special place in Spurgeon's heart because that's where he made his NHL debut on his 21st birthday three years ago if I remember correctly.
After tonight, there are three games before the Olympic break -- in Calgary, Tuesday vs. Tampa Bay and Thursday vs. Nashville. Wild actually begins the Olympic break two days earlier than many.
Spurgeon said today that he definitely wants to get back before the Olympics because otherwise, it'd be roughly two months between games for him and the league will have ramped up. So, Saturday certainly sounds close.
Then, it'll be interesting to see Yeo's decision-making with the lineup. Nate Prosser has played great in place of Spurgeon, so one would assume he has earned the right to stay in the lineup. If Prosser stays, it'll be Keith Ballard, who at least on my iPad seems to be playing better, or Clayton Stoner.
It sounds like Mikko Koivu will ramp it up soon. He hasn't skated with the team yet. If he doesn't soon, one has to wonder if he'll be able to play in either of those home games before the Olympics. Yeo said today he doesn't want to rush him back in.
Yeo is coming back with the same lineup tonight, meaning Jason Zucker sits and Mike Rupp stays.
Again, I didn't make the morning skate, but Yeo said it's a game-to-game decision and he feels with Rupp in the lineup, it allows guys like Stoner to worry about playing defense and not going toe to toe by being the lone tough guy.
"It’s like having your big brother with you," Yeo said of Rupp's insertion into the lineup the past two games. "You feel a little bit stronger."
Zucker and Erik Haula will spend the Olympic break in Iowa playing. Technically, the Wild could send Darcy Kuemper there, too. Personally, I think that's a risk just because of Josh Harding's uncertain health situation. Kuemper is playing so well when the Wild needs him most, so to me at least, it'd be risky sending him to Iowa. Could you imagine if he got hurt? On the other hand, the other way of looking at it, it could give Kuemper the upper hand on other goalies if he's playing all Olympic break.
I'll be on Fox Sports North during the pregame show and first intermission. Later.
The Wild should expect a motivated Dallas Stars team tonight.
They’re 1-8-1 this month and this morning, Stars GM Jim Nill walked into the room and the doors closed behind him. My reporter’s instinct says that’s the sign of GM who addressed his slumping team during a meeting.
Wild beat the Stars 3-2 in overtime in St. Paul on Saturday. Coach Mike Yeo will go with the exact same lineup tonight, meaning Mike Rupp and Jon Blum will be scratched.
The Wild is 7-2 this month and Darcy Kuemper will be making his fifth consecutive start and sixth in eight games. Johan Gustafsson will back him up. The Wild still expects that Niklas Backstrom will rejoin the team for Wednesday’s practice.
Good afternoon from inside American Airlines Center. If you didn't see, I did a fun profile on Elk River's Nate Prosser in today's paper. Here is the link.
I talked to Matt Cooke today about Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk and GM Bryan Murray meeting at league headquarters yesterday to reportedly present its forensics findings from an investigation into Melnyk’s contention that Cooke intentionally sliced defenseman Erik Karlsson’s Achilles’ tendon with his skate Feb. 13, 2013.
Here is Bruce Garrioch's story from the Ottawa Sun today.
A league source told me that whatever discussion the Sens’ brass had with the league, it won’t affect Cooke retroactively nor the Wild. Cooke played for Pittsburgh at the time of the incident.
Cooke told me of the alleged forensics presentation: “I think it’s really strange. It’s almost a full year ago that it happened. I’ve said this from the beginning and I still say it. It was a complete accident. It’s happened two or three times since with other guys (Toronto’s Dave Bolland severed a tendon from Vancouver’s Zack Kassian in November and a week after the Cooke-Karlsson incident, Winnipeg’s Zach Redmond had an artery in his thigh cut by teammate, former Wild Antti Miettinen, late in a practice at Carolina).”
On if he wishes Melnyk would just let it go, Cooke said, “I can’t control it. I learned a long time ago, all I can control is my actions and my words. I try to do that to the best that I can. Other people are going to have judgments. They’re entitled to their own opinions. I can’t tell this guy how to spend his money. He’s entitled to do what he wants.”
Tonight will be the Wild’s first game since Dallas captain Jamie Benn elbowed Cooke in the head 23 seconds into overtime Saturday. Here's the hit.
Benn wasn’t disciplined because the NHL considered it a protective maneuver. Here is the league video on "defensive contact to the head."
Cooke said he won’t be seeking retribution. “The most important thing tonight is two points. We need to put space between us and the teams behind us. This is a huge game. It’s a team in our division and behind us. We have to have the focus to go out and win the game. That’s the most important thing.”
I asked Cooke what he thinks of the NHL’s Player Safety Department saying there’s a permissible time to have “defensive contact to the head” and if he thinks it would have been considered a protective maneuver if the roles were reversed and Cooke was skating with the puck and elbowed Benn.
“I think what they’re trying to say it’s not premeditated and an unintentional protection of themselves,” Cooke said. “My only argument is that it’s still a hit to the head. They get probably 50 hits a night that they have to review. There’s an image for the league too that they want to try to uphold for fans and media and scrutiny. So you can’t suspend everything. As a player, you want to believe they’re doing their best to protect each and every one of us and you have to put your trust in that. Otherwise, it would eat you up inside.”
The whole protective maneuver in this case seems strange because replays clearly show Cooke was not going to check Benn.
“I went to go hit him and he had his head down skating through the neutral zone,” Cooke said. “So my conscience got the best of me and I stopped and he’s the one who ended up hitting me. That’s where I think it differs from the video they’ve shown of defensive hits to the head. I wasn’t hitting him. But it’s a fast game. Things happen.”
Happy Hockey Day Minnesota everybody.
Wild and the Minnesota’s former NHL team, the Dallas Stars, will face off tonight at 8 p.m. at the X. That’s also known as a deadline nightmare on a Saturday night! This is the first of a home-and-home that ends in Dallas on Tuesday. Dallas is eight points behind the Wild is 10th place.
Darcy Kuemper (3-2 with a 2.17 goals-against average and .917 save percentage) will make his fourth consecutive start and it’ll come against Kari Lehtonen (17-13-7 with a 2.64 goals-against average and .916 save percentage). Banged-up Ray Whitney and Sergei Gonchar will both play for Dallas.
The Wild is 6-2 this month, the Stars are 1-7. I was just chatting with Stars coach Lindy Ruff and he said it started with a flu bug and has just compounded from there. It’s now a matter of rediscovering their game, which is difficult in a compressed schedule where there are limited practices (because of the condensed schedule AND the new four mandatory days off per month) and you don’t know how hard to push a team when there happens to be a practice.
Sound familiar? Ruff voiced the words of almost every coach I’ve spoken to lately, so you can see, it’s not just Mike Yeo who talks about the difficulty of coaching right now.
Here’s one for ya: The other night, Edmonton played in Dallas and had a planned day off in Minnesota the next day. But, instead of getting a good night sleep in Dallas and flying to St. Paul in the morning, the Oilers were forced to fly immediately after the game to Minnesota so the schedule day off would actually count as one of the mandatory days off. In other words, a chartered flight with incredible food and first-class seats would have counted as a working day if the Oilers had flown in on the off-day.
Same lineup tonight for the Wild, meaning Mike Rupp is the lone scratch for the ninth straight game and 17th time in the past 20. I say “lone” because defenseman Jon Blum was, likely temporarily, reassigned.
Blum wasn’t playing tonight and with a scheduled day off Sunday, the Wild sent him to Iowa to play this afternoon. With Jared Spurgeon’s return still off in the distance, I’d assume Blum gets recalled again next week because the Wild would probably want to bring an extra defenseman on the four-game trip to San Jose, Anaheim, Denver and Calgary.
Zach Parise skated again today and said he thinks he’ll ramp it up in Monday’s practice and begin bumping and being more involved in game-like situations in practice. He’ll miss his 13th game tonight and won’t play in Dallas on Tuesday, so the soonest he could come back is Thursday against Chicago. We’ll see if that’s pushing it, but if he does start practicing fully Monday, that would give him Monday and Wednesday practices.
I’m not sure if that’s enough though. My gut says he’ll be back Thursday or in Saturday’s game at San Jose. He did tell me he plans on going on the four-game road trip.
Spurgeon skated on his own for the first time today.
The big question right now is what’s going to happen with the Wild’s goalie situation.
Kuemper starts tonight. It sounds like the Wild really would want Josh Harding to eventually agree to go to Iowa on a conditioning stint. The team has been vague.
Harding has practiced all week and looks good.
Yeo said the team will “keep going day to day and figure out how he’s feeling. He’s making progress and he looks good and I’m kind of waiting for a final word or a little bit more information as far as what I’m told from the trainers and the doctors and when he can progress from there.”
On Iowa, Yeo said, “I don’t know. It depends on what we need and what we really determine he needs.”
I asked Yeo if the Wild could conceivably have three goalies on its 23-man roster if Kuemper keeps winning.
Yeo said, “If he keeps winning games, we’re not going to send him down. I can’t see why we would do that. These things always have a way of sorting themselves out. We can’t start looking too far ahead.”
I keep getting questions if the Wild may trade Backstrom. First off, with two more years left on his deal, I’m not sure the team could. Secondly, I don’t know how if you’re Chuck Fletcher you can risk trading Backstrom with Harding’s health situation so uncertain.
So my guess is the Wild will just have to ride this out for a bit. If the Wild’s three goalies keep winning games, it’s not a big deal at all. Remember, Backstrom has won three of four with maybe his best outing in a few seasons two starts ago at Phoenix.
That’s it for now. I’ll be on Fox Sports North around 12:30 p.m.
Rookie Darcy Kuemper gets his third consecutive start and fourth in the past six games tonight against newly-acquired goalie Ben Scrivens and the Edmonton Oilers.
Morning from the X’s press room. Blaine’s Matt Hendricks will also make his Oilers debut tonight. Edmonton, the worst defensive team in the NHL, is winless in its past five on the road and has won twice at the X in its past 21. Of course, the Oilers nearly ruined the Wild’s season last year with a 6-1 beating April 26.
Remember that game? Fans booed after 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 60 minutes, a timeout, when the attendance was announced! Fans mocked the Wild anytime a save was made, even by Josh Harding, who was making his first appearance in relief of Niklas Backstrom since Feb. 7, anytime the Wild registered a shot or even when the public address announcer let it be known the first, second and third periods were a minute from ending.
Good times. Luckily for everybody involved, the Wild won its must-win season finale 24 hours later in Denver on a nice response by Backstrom.
Coach Mike Yeo said the first shot went into the net that last game against Edmonton and we “completely unraveled.” Tonight, he wants the Wild to focus on the process, not the result, and play a solid 60 minutes doing the right things that will lead to the result it wants.
Despite Backstrom being 17-1 all-time against the Oilers at home with a 1.49 goals-against average (the one loss being that home finale when he gave up three goals on five shots), the Wild’s coming back with Kuemper, who has played well during this stretch.
He made a career-high 39 saves (another four in the shootout) last week in L.A., had a 23-save shutout Sunday in Nashville and stopped 29 of 32 shots in Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to Ottawa, a game he kept the Wild in striking distance until the third period.
“I thought he played a very good game, so it’s just a matter of showing a little confidence in him and seeing if he can come back with another solid effort,” Yeo said.
Asked if he has talked to Backstrom, Yeo said goalie coach Bob Mason did.
“It’s hard not to figure out that Kuemps has played well.,” Yeo said. “We’ve always been a team and believed in giving guys other opportunities and giving guys a chance, much the same that we gave Backy that chance in Phoenix, we’re giving Kuemps this chance to tonight.”
Backstrom made 39 saves in that win at Phoenix, but he gave up three goals on 17 shots in last Saturday’s loss to Colorado.
Backstrom said all the right things this morning, saying, “You want to play every time, but it’s up to the coaches and the training staff to see what’s going on and make a decision. As a player, you try to be ready whenever you get a chance.”
When I spoke with Backstrom, he said nobody had talked to him yet and he hadn’t asked why he’s not playing.
“I never ask,” Backstrom said. “You try to be ready when you get a chance. You don’t want to think too much. You try to work hard every day and try to be at your best every day and work on your game.”
Asked if he feels his game has returned to a higher level having won three of his past four with Josh Harding sidelined, Backstrom said, “I feel good out there. You always want to be better. Everyday you want to be better, whether you play good or bad. I don’t know if you’re ever satisfied. I don’t think you ever should be. It’s always about trying to improve and being at your best when it counts. That’s what you work for.”
Defenseman Keith Ballard is back in the lineup tonight after being a scratch the past four games. As Yeo promised, the left-shot Ballard will play the left side after playing much this season on the right. In 19 games since missing nine games with broken ribs, Ballard has two assists and is minus-13. Some glaring turnovers and icings led to being benched the last half of Tuesday’s shootout win at Los Angeles.
Jon Blum will be scratched, meaning left-shot defenseman Clayton Stoner moves to the right. Stoner, who played a little on the right in juniors, played a few shifts with Marco Scandella on the right against Ottawa. On two of those shifts, the Senators scored. Yeo said it was more circumstance: the power-play goal by Clarke MacArthur when the Wild still feels he was offside and the broken stick by Scandella that led to Erik Condra’s breakaway goal.
Yeo wants Ballard not to try to do too much tonight, “just play a solid game, just play an efficient game with how he moves the puck, how he defends.”
Ballard said, “I’m a lot more comfortable on the left. Earlier in the season, I think I was playing real well. At that point, it didn’t matter what side I was on. I felt good on the right, good on the left.” Ballard means that right now, with his game out of order, it would be better for him to get back in the swing of things on the left.
Yeo said Jared Spurgeon will get on the ice soon and he wouldn’t divulge the Wild’s plans for Harding, saying they have some thoughts. That made me ask if the team is considering asking Harding to go on a conditioning stint in Iowa. Yeo said, “we’ll consider everything, whatever we think we need for our team … to make sure we get him on top of his game.”
Harding will miss his 12th game in the past 14 tonight and eighth straight. He was on the ice again today with the team.
Parise looked good again today. He brought in his skating coach, Andy Ness, of ProEdge Power, to work with him before the morning skate. Ness is also the Wild’s
skating consultant part-time skills coach.
After working hard with Ness, Parise took part in the skate with his teammates.
I grabbed Parise afterward.
“I’ve skated with him and [his mother] Diane for, gosh I don’t know, over 10 years now, so they know my stride and my skating better than anybody in the world,” Parise said. “I wanted Andy to run me through a lot of the drills we do in the summer and for him to physically see how I look.
“He said he thought I would look a lot worse than I did today, so that’s a good sign. Today, I felt better than I did yesterday, so that’s good. Each day you try to do a little more and little more. Rest it, ramp it up tomorrow, rest it, ramp it up. That’ll be the gameplan for the next while.”
Parise said getting into game shape is a must, so “a couple more days of doing what I’m doing, and then we’ll add bumping and game-like situations. Unfortunately it’s tough to get practice time because they don’t practice much, so that’ll be a little bit of a challenge, but we’ll get there.”
“I’m trying to get in a game as soon as I can in a smart and safe way. That's the best timeline I can give you.”
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