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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Devan Dubnyk’s tremendous second-half run with the Wild has earned him a Vezina Trophy nomination.
The Wild goaltender is a finalist for the award given the goaltender adjudged as the best at his position. The 30 NHL general managers vote for the award, and the other finalists are Montreal's Carey Price and Nashville's Pekka Rinne.
The winner will be announced Wednesday, June 24, during the 2015 NHL Awards from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.
“We talked about this before, I think he should be a Hart Trophy candidate too for what he’s done for our group," coach Mike Yeo said. "Whenever there’s an individual award, you’re always incredibly happy for those players and I think it’s very deserving in his case what he’s done for us and the attitude that he’s had.
"It’s great that he’s had personal success, but he really wants to bring team success to our group too. But I also think it’s a real compliment to the rest of the team. This is a team game. You don’t have success individually unless the rest of the group is doing their job."
We'll get Dubnyk's reaction after tonight's Game 5, but he talked a few days ago about how what a ride this has been and who would have thought a few months ago a picture of himself would be hanging on the side of Xcel Energy Center before the playoffs. He is also the Wild's Masterton Trophy nominee.
Eight points outside of a playoff spot when he made his team debut on Jan. 15, Dubnyk backstopped the Wild to their third consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Dubnyk, who set a franchise record with 38 straight starts following his acquisition from Arizona, went 27-9-2 with a 1.78 goals-against average, .936 save percentage and five shutouts after joining the Wild. He was the winning goaltender in 11 of the Wild's 12 consecutive road wins (Feb. 18 - Apr. 9) that tied the 2005-06 Red Wings for the longest such run in League history. Overall, the first-time Vezina finalist finished the season second in the NHL with a 2.07 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. He also ranked in the top 10 in shutouts (t-4th,
6) and wins (t-6th; 36).
Dubnyk was named the NHL's First Star of the Month in February and Third Star of the Month in March - becoming the first player in franchise history to earn multiple monthly honors. He was also named the NHL's First Star of the Week on Feb. 9 and March 30 and Third Star of the Week on Feb. 2 - becoming the first player in franchise history to earn three weekly honors in a single season.
Niklas Backstrom was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2009.
Incidentally, coach Paul Maurice raved about Yeo today in his end of the year address in Winnipeg.
The question came up in Winnipeg about what's ahead for the Jets and Maurice wound his way into thoughts of "arrrogance that comes from success" and how the Jets need to re-establish expectations next year after making the playoffs and how teams look at things differently once they've been down that road and how sometimes it becomes a disconnect when success doesn't become automatic.
"It’s why Mike Yeo, and I'm not sure if he's in it, in my mind should be a frontrunner in there as coach of the year. Because for two months aside from the mumps and all the injuries he had, that's what you were reading out of there -- 'We made the playoffs last year, we’re better than this, this is a disgrace, this is a crime, it’s unacceptable,' -- that is an animal to deal with that’s very hard to contain. And he did a masterful job of that. Yes, the goalie came in and changed, but the team was prepared to accept that change, and off they went. The run that he went on in our division, in our conference, ... was spectacular. I mean, that was a special piece of coaching, from a coach's point of view, right? That’s the beast we have to worry about. That we’ve learned that lesson, that it’s a straight line: ‘Oh, we’ve learned it last year, it should be no problem.’ Get right back at it. It may be more difficult to learn those lessons next year. I start with my messaging today."
I have gotten tons of questions about Sunday's Game 6 start time.
This is just my guess: If the Rangers eliminate the Penguins tonight, the Wild and Blues would likely be 2 p.m. on NBC. If the Penguins win tonight and Sens are eliminated, the Wild and Blues would likely be 7 p.m. BUT, if the Penguins and Senators win tonight, I would guess Wild and Blues would get the must-despised, Central time zone 8:30 (really 8:45) slot.
You want to know what coaches think of it? Ken Hitchcock ended his press conference and humorously walked out when I asked his opinion of them this morning.
"Don't even get me going on that one. It's way past my bedtime," Hitchcock said before dropping the mic.
Here's Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville when asked about the Game 4 of the Blackhawks-Predators series starting ay 8:45 p.m. and ending at 1:16 a.m. due to triple overtime: "I might not be able to answer that question. You should ask the fans who had to get up the next morning for work in Chicago the other night [after the 3OT game]. You look at the eastern, the other side, and the teams out west — basically the teams in our division are getting these 8:30 starts. It’s probably not easy on anybody, including you guys. It is what it is. I think players like 7, 7:30s and let’s go."
Remember, the past two postseasons, it's been the Wild and Blackhawks hit with the most 8:30 starts, which messes up with the routines of everyone, from fans to players to, ahem, the stinkin' media and our deadlines.
The Blues got taken to a clinic in Game 3 and responded more than impressively in Game 4.
We'll see if the Wild can do the same thing tonight.
Good day from St. Louis, where Game 5 is tonight at 8:30 p.m. This is the third consecutive playoff round in which the Wild has been tied 2-2. The Wild lost Game 5 on the road twice last postseason (it won Games 6 and 7 in the first round to beat Colorado) and has lost five consecutive Game 5s since 2003.
Scenario is simple: Wild win, it can close out the series at home Sunday. Wild lose, and it must avoid elimination Sunday and force a Game 7.
I'll be doing a live podcast from St. Louis with Jim Souhan today at 4 p.m. It can be heard at www.souhanunfiltered.com, iHeart Radio or easiest by subscribing for free on iTunes.
I'll be on KFAN at 5:15 p.m., KARE 11 with Dave Schwartz tonight at 10 and also on Bucky Gleason's TV show in Buffalo at 5:40 p.m. CT.
Pay attention at 6 p.m. today. We'll find out if Devan Dubnyk is a Vezina finalist.
You can tell the Blues expected the Wild to blow up its lines tonight. On the Blues' locker-room marker board before Game 1, the lines were set and exact.
Today, it read:
Cooke? Carter? Fontaine? Vanek-Coyle-???
The Wild didn't blow up the lines though. The only lineup change expected is Matt Cooke in for Sean Bergenheim, meaning
Coach Mike Yeo said he liked Cooke's Game 2 effort, but because they lost, he went with the Game 1 lineup in Game 3, won that game, so they went with the same lineup for Game 4.
What do you have to bring tonight, Cooke was asked.
"I think it’s pretty obvious my game," he said. "The more time we can spend in the offensive zone, the better it is for our line and the more chances we’re going to get and the less time we spend in our zone. I think above all else it’s my experience, my emotional level that can come in and support the guys in a tight game and in a playoff type atmosphere because I’ve had a lot to pull on."
This was funny. You’re not used to sitting out playoff games, what’s that like sitting three of the first four games?
Cooke with a grin: "I did it last year. I did. Seven times. I did."
OK, different circumstances.
Cooke said, "It’s never easy sitting out a game at all let alone in the playoffs. I feel like my game is built for this time of year and these type of games. It’s tough, but I had a tough year with injuries and guys have come in and played well and they deserved and earned a spot to be out there playing. I didn’t expect to come in and just leapfrog everybody because they were a part of the success down the stretch and I had to watch from the outside looking in."
Blues center Jori Lehtera may not play tonight. Hitchcock called him 50-50 after being nailed by a Jay Bouwmeester shot in a third-period power play Wednesday with the Blues ahead 6-1. Marcel Goc, scratched in Game 4 for Chris Porter, looks like he will draw back in for Lehtera if he doesn't play and Porter, Zach Parise's best bud, would stay in.
Porter, who wouldn't be a bad guy for the Wild to sign this summer, is fast, aggressive, physical and seems to be St. Louis' secret weapon in the playoffs. Scratched often in the regular season, he always seems to come in and make a playoff impact. The other night in Minnesota, he made life difficult on the Wild's defensemen and assisted on the first goal.
Hitchcock had some interesting stuff to say today on the series:
Before the Wild boarded its charter to St. Louis on Thursday afternoon, a handful of players--and coach Mike Yeo--answered questions about Wednesday night's horrendous 6-1 loss to St. Louis in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series. The party line: Let's move on. Nothing to see here.
Thomas Vanek said he had trouble falling asleep after the game, bothered by the sting of a missed opportunity. But Vanek, Ryan Suter, Devan Dubnyk and Jason Pominville all said the Wild is determined to forget Wednesday's bomb and get back to the way it played in Game 1 and Game 3 victories. Yeo said there was "probably a good chance'' there would be lineup changes for Friday's Game 5 in St. Louis, but he declined to elaborate on what he has in mind. He will make those decisions today and announce them Friday.
Everyone is healthy, and Dubnyk said there are no lingering effects from that shot he took to the nether regions in the second period.
Dubnyk didn't seem to have an emotional hangover, either. He said Wednesday's game was neither the first nor the last time he would give up six goals, and while he was disappointed at the outcome, he was ready to put it out of his mind.
"I know how to handle it,'' said Dubnyk, who gave up six goals on 17 shots in his worst performance since joining the Wild in mid-January. "You just feed off past experience. You realize it’s a beautiful day here in Minnesota, and the sun came up this morning, and that’s going to happen regardless of what happens on the ice. Whatever you need to do, if you spend some time with the family, play around with (his son), whatever brings you some perspective on life. You reset and get back at it. We all know we’re a great hockey team, and that was one hockey game.''
Some observations from Yeo:
--On whether he was concerned at how badly things fell apart for the Wild in Game 4: "No. You just move on. I’ve liked the way that we’ve looked in three of the four games in this series, and the reality is, we’re playing the team that won our division, and it’s a great hockey team. We’re here now tied 2-2. To sit around and think about a missed opportunity is silly, because we’ve done a lot of good things in this series already, and we’ve put ourselves in a pretty decent position. We know it’s still going to be a tough task, but we’re still a confident group. And we move on from the last one and get ready for obviously a very tough challenge but an exciting opportunity tomorrow.''
--On the fact that he and the players were not wallowing in "gloom and doom": "We're keeping it in perspective. A best of seven series, a playoff series against a team like this, it can’t be the end of the world when you lose a hockey game. And conversely, you can’t feel that you’re ready to move on just because you win one hockey game. It’s all part of the process, and I think our guys recognize that. I think we understand that the combination of, they played well, and we’ll tip our hats to them. But we also know that we weren’t even close to being on top of our game. So it’s not like we played our best hockey and came up short. I think there are some positives in that, if we’re going to look for positives.''
--On the series being knotted at 2-2: "I don’t know that before the series started if too many people would have told us it would be 2-2 at this point, I don’t know if too many people would have been disappointed with that. There’s a lot of work to be done here. We’re not in a terrible spot, by any means, but we’ve just got to make sure that we get ready to be at our best.''
--On the Blues: " I think there’s still pressure on that team over there. I think that the way things have gone for them the last few years, we know the word redemption is coming into play for them, and obviously it’s a very motivated group over there. I do think that they think that they’re much better than us and it's our job to prove that we’re up at that level. So we’ve got an opportunity tomorrow to be a good test, but we’re excited about it.”
--On the emotional swings of the postseason: "It’s a game that we lost, and that’s a part of the challenge of the playoffs. That’s what makes it great. ... You have to prove that you can get through those difficult times, and you have to overcome those things, those emotions. That’s what makes it special. And I think our group recognizes that. We’ve done that before. We’ve done it in the past. We did it last year in the playoffs, and we did it this year in the course of the season. So now we have an opportunity to do it again.''
And this from Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, on whether his team has an edge now:
"(The Wild has) scoring players who quite frankly look like they're an eyelash away from lighting it up, too. The advantage we have is we've got two home games, and they've got one home game. That's all we've got. Both teams are so evenly matched, both teams have so many good players, and their good players are so significant to the success of their franchise...I just look at it as a hell of a competition, and the one little advantage we got back was home ice. We've got to take advantage of that.''
And a final few words from Blues forward Ryan Reaves, on the strategy of the fourth line and its mission to wear down the Wild over the course of the series:
"We're making sure that their D are hesitant to go back and get the puck. Whether we're on the ice or the other lines are on the ice, just to make sure they're thinking twice about getting the puck, knowing that every time they do, they're going to get a bump. I think if we can make them go back hesitant like that, I think that's mission No. 1. You get into seven games ... The bumps and bruises start adding up.
"Teams don't want to go on the boards and get hacked and whacked and banged around, especially in a seven-game series. It takes a toll. When you can put the puck on the end boards and get a lick on it and a little hack, get in their face a little bit, it's overwhelming, it's annoying, it's frustrating. And I think that's what we have to keep doing. ... When they're looking over their shoulder, you create mistakes, you create turnovers when guys don't want to go back and get the puck.''
The only thing typical about tonight’s 6-1 beatdown is that when the Wild has a chance to make things easy on itself, we all know what happens.
“It’s not on purpose, trust me. We’d love to make it easy,” Zach Parise said. “That’s the way these series’ go. I don’t think anyone came into this series expecting it to be easy at all. I mean, that’s a good team. We know we have to be a lot better and we can be a lot better.”
But tonight wasn’t typical. If you look back at the Wild’s last three months, the Wild hasn’t experienced anything like tonight’s loss. The most amazing part of the Wild’s three-plus months without losing consecutive games in regulation, the most amazing part of the Wild only losing by more than a goal in the regular season twice since Jan. 19 was the Wild was in each and every game.
In a league where even the best teams get blown out once in awhile, the Wild was competitive nightly for three consecutive months.
Tonight, not at all, from the goaltender on out. Parise said the Wild got cocky, started to think they were unbeatable after such a quality Game 3 win, and that's precisely what Mike Yeo worked the past few days to caution against. It's why he said the Wild didn't dominate and had to move on from the win, etc., and it's probably why Ken Hitchcock spent the past few days pumping the Wild's tires incessantly.
But after this one, the Blues coach took a new strategy as his team regained home ice and turned this 2-2 series into a best-of-three with Game 5 in St. Louis on Friday night at 8:30.
“We knew how we were going to play yesterday,” Hitchcock said covertly.
Why did you think that? “It's between us and the players,” Hitchcock said.
“It looks like we've joined the tournament now and we're dialed in,” Hitchcock said. “We've got home-ice back, we're dialed into our game, we're going to be hard to play against when we're dialed in this. Not fun to play against.”
Many folks wondered how the Blues would respond tonight. After all, after a couple playoff exits in a row and frustration after Monday’s loss and media already speculating that heads could roll if the Blues get eliminated, maybe this team would go quietly into the offseason if the Wild put the hammer down tonight.
Instead, now it’s the Wild which will have to find a way to respond by winning at least one game in St. Louis after its worst defeat since the 7-2 beating in Pittsburgh on Jan. 13 – the day before Devan Dubnyk arrived.
The Wild was, as Parise said, “brutal” tonight. Sluggish, soft, sloppy. And Dubnyk didn’t help for a change. As tough as two of the first-period goals, the backbreaker that sucked the life out of the arena was Paul Stastny’s goal to make it 4-1 less than two minutes after Jared Spurgeon got the crowd buzzing with a power-play goal 1:41 into the second period.
Amazingly, coach Mike Yeo didn’t pull Dubnyk there. Dubnyk was finally pulled after giving up his sixth goal on 17 shots with 3:10 left in the second. Yeo said in hindsight, it was the fifth goal (not third or fourth) that he wishes he pulled Dubnyk on. But he was trying to get him out of the period.
Here’s Yeo from his postgame, which I didn’t make it to due to deadline:
Where’d it go wrong? “How much time do you have? Obviously, our start was not good enough. And you combine that with the fact they had a great start, so they were on top of their game, and we were not even close to on top of ours. Once they got up a couple, we got even worse.”
Any hint that was coming? “No. But quite often, that's the case. That's the challenge. You win a game, and then you sit around for two days. You have to try to collect yourself and get ready for that next one. It's not always an easy thing to do, but likewise, when you lose a game, that's our challenge right now -- how we bounce back.”
Yeo said the Blues “were much better in terms of getting up ice. They were definitely stretching us out tonight, created a couple odd-man rushes because of that, but they were outstanding with the puck in the offensive zone and made it very difficult for us there.”
Yeo said he thinks Dubnyk will “react great. I'm very, very confident in that, knowing his personality, just knowing what he's been through No. 1 to get this opportunity and how he got our team here. So yeah, no concerns about that.”
Yeo attributed his struggles “to a team game that was not even close to good enough for us.”
Yeo said the fourth goal is not one you want to give up when you have a little bit of momentum, but “you can't give a team a 3-0 lead. And it didn't have the feel of the type of game that we were going to come back. We weren't on it from the start, and it got worse. Normally, we're a team that I think we start well but we stay with our game very strongly as far as whether we're ahead, whether we're behind, and tonight we broke that, that's for sure.”
Yeo said, “As difficult as it was and as frustrating and disappointing as that game is, we're going up against the team that won the division. That's a good team. It's obviously frustrating not to be up 3-1; we had that opportunity tonight. But it's a pretty darn good team we're playing there, and now it's best-of-3. We've got a pretty good team ourselves, and I think we should get excited for these next couple games.”
Yeo said, “It’s hard to look at this game and look at what's tactical, because there were so many parts of the game that we weren't even close to being on top of our game and not even within our game. But certainly we'll look at that. In terms of what we're going to show the guys, we're not going to punish anybody with this. We know that we need to be better. They were great tonight; there's no getting around that. They're a great team, and they played an unbelievable game tonight, so we've got to find a way to get better at ours.”
Vladimir Tarasenko scored twice and now has a league-leading five goals and is the first Blue since Doug Weight in 2003 to have multiple-goal games in the same series. Kevin Shattenkirk had three assists and now has a league-leading seven assists. David Backes and Patrik Berglund each had a goal and assist, Jay Bouwmeester was plus-4, Jake Allen made 17 saves and the Blues snapped a nine-game road losing streak.
The Blues’ fourth line, which had Steve Ott at his natural center position, got things started with a Ryan Reaves goal. Soon after, Parise fell in the neutral zone (one of several Wild players who slipped on banana peels tonight), Thomas Vanek, who has no goals in the series, and Charlie Coyle were late getting in the zone because of the confusion with Parise blowing a tire and Tarasenko redirected a Shattenkirk shot. Then, Dubnyk gave up a brutal one to Backes by not corralling Shattenkirk’s shot.
3-0 by the 10:06 mark
“We went from feeling awesome about ourselves, feeling like we can’t be beat after last game and then we get a little dose of reality tonight, a little slap in the face,” Parise said. “We have to be a lot better. We know that.”
Overconfident? Parise admitted they may have come in “a little cocky. We felt really good and rightfully so. We felt really good about how we played last game. I don’t know if we thought it was going to be an easy game or that they were going to pack it in. But that wasn’t the case at all. We expected them to have a good start and have a good push. I don’t think we reacted well when they got one. Not very good by us
It was sluggish at times. Just not great decisions with the puck through the neutral zone and they countered pretty quickly.”
On the Stastny fourth goal, Parise saidm, “That hurt. You get that power-play goal to start the second and give the crowd something to cheer about and then they come right back. It’s always so important after a goal for or against to follow it up. We tried to get ourselves back in the game there, but they got the fourth one. That hurt.”
Dubnyk said, “We know we’ve got better than that. I’ve got better than that. We all got better than that. We’ll get back at it in St. Louis.”
On if this is as bad as it gets for him, “I haven’t had to experience that here yet. Unfortunately done that before in my career (laughs). The thing about the playoffs, doesn’t matter if we lost that game 1-0, we’d be in the exact same position we are. We all know we can be better, I can be better and we will be.
“I have no question or worry we’ll be ready to go for next game.
“None of us expected this to be a sweep in our favor or a short series by any means. We knew it would be a battle and that’s what it’s turning out to be.”
The Blues said this is the game they need to carry into their building
“This is our game. It's not our best game. We can play a lot better than we played today,” Hitchcock said. “We've still got things we've got to work on, but this is our game. We're going to play this game and if it's good enough, we're going to put it out there, and if we win with it, great. If we don't win with it, so be it. But this is our game. We're going to play our game now. We're not going to chase it around the rink like we did the first three games. We're playing our game. We changed the way we used to be. We're playing it. This is the way it's going to be for the next little while. If they can match it, great on them.”
Think Hitch is confident?
Blues responded from a clinic by the Wild in Game 3. We’ll see if the Wild can do the same in hostile territory Friday.
The Wild has availability at the airport Thursday afternoon and then I will have to sprint to my flight, and then somehow write. So Rachel Blount may do the blogging Thursday.
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