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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Wild coming back with Darcy Kuemper in Denver

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: October 10, 2014 - 3:43 PM

UPDATED

It's not a rule. It's a guideline, Mike Yeo has joked during his tenure. But the fourth-year Wild coach won't break his rule or guideline as to which goalie starts after the team shuts out an opponent.

Darcy Kuemper, concussed in Game 7 at the Pepsi Center last year when his head collided with Ryan Suter's leg, will be in the Wild cage again Saturday night when the Wild visits the Avs in its first road game of the season.

Kuemper had a relatively easy 16-save shutout in the Wild's season-opening win over the Avs on Thursday.

The Wild expects a very different Avalanche team Saturday. Just like the Wild got a jolt from its home crowd in its home opener, the Avs should get the same as they celebrate last year's Central Division title.

“If the roles were reversed and we got pounded 5-0, I guarantee we’d come out playing the same team with a little more bite,” Zach Parise said Friday. “We have to expect that from them.”

Just like the Avs Thursday, the Wild will be in the visiting room hearing all the hoopla outside.

Asked what it's like to be in that room and hear all that from past experience, Yeo said, "We just have to brace ourselves for a good challenge. It’s the anticipation of knowing that the other team is going to come out hard. They're going to come out with good energy. Sometimes that anticipation can lead to some butterflies, so we have to made sure we’re ready to start from the drop of the puck, that’s for sure."

That'll be Yeo's message during that time.

Not much else going on. Yeo also said he will likely come back with the same lineup. I wondered if he might be considering giving one of the rookie defensemen the night off for Nate Prosser, but Yeo sounded like he didn't want to change the lineup, saying it would be hard to pick anybody after Thursday's performance. This would be Christian Folin's first-ever road game.

Folin and Matt Dumba did have a couple hairy rookie moments Thursday, but Yeo said veterans made mistakes, too, but, "We’re very quick to judge and we’re waiting for them to make a mistake almost." He said everybody needs to understand there will be hiccups with the young kids and it's up to the coaches to help eliminate them, but he wants them learning in tough road environments and he doesn't want Folin or Dumba feeling that one mistake will get them taken from the lineup.

So, it sounds like Prosser and Keith Ballard won't play. Stu Bickel is also expected to be scratched, as well as Justin Fontaine, who is still on injured reserve.

At some point the Wild will need to get Fontaine in and make a roster move. It'll be interested to see whom Yeo chooses to come out because he loved what Ryan Carter brought to Thursday's game and he liked what the fourth line provided with Carter, Jason Zucker and Kyle Brodziak. Brodziak played a real good game, especially on the PK.

Speaking of the PK, much more assertive than we have grown accustomed to seeing Thursday. Colorado was shotless on four power plays.

Matt Cooke should expect to hear a chorus of boos. In case the fans forgot how Cooke knocked Tyson Barrie out of the playoffs, the Denver Post's always-inciting columnist reminded them in today's piece.

That's it for now. Please check out my two stories in Saturday's paper. Talk to you after Saturday's skates.

Postgame: Wild expects a very different Avalanche team in Saturday's rematch

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: October 10, 2014 - 12:07 AM

Zach Parise sounded the alarms this morning that the Wild needed to get out of bad habits.

I reminded him after tonight’s 5-0 pounding of the Colorado Avalanche that could have been a heck of a lot worse than the final score.

“We responded well,” Parise said, laughing, admitting he was nervous.

Turns out Parise also had his game face on during an all-business post-morning skate scrum with reporters.

Parise was outstanding tonight, as was the rest of the Wild, which registered a franchise-record 48 shots, out-attempted Colorado 78-29! in shots and had the puck virtually all game.

Somehow in a game where the Wild spent virtually the entire night in the offensive zone, the Wild out a 4-2 power play deficit. Pretty remarkable, eh? But the Avs were no better there either, managing no shots on those four power plays against last year’s 27th-ranked PK.

But, as all-business coach Mike Yeo pointed out in the postgame, the pivotal kills came in the first period in a scoreless game. Wild was much more assertive against Colorado’s talented cast.

Parise had a goal, two assists and had nine shots, and he was a career-best plus-4. 29th 3-point game and 117th multi-point game for Parise. He’s turning into a pretty decent Avs killer since his arrival in Minnesota.

Mikael Granlund was just awesome. He had two assists, won battles, shot pucks and defended well. He was also a career-best plus-4.

Jason Pominville, the third cast member on the line who led Minnesota in goals last season and was second in the NHL in scoring in the preseason, had a goal and assist for his 126th multi-point game and honestly asked how many goals the Wild would have scored if he didn’t miss the net on five of his nine stabs at the Colorado goal.

Nino Niederreiter, relentless all game, had seven shots and a goal. Jared Spurgeon scored a pretty awesome goal on a pretty awesome setup from Parise after a tremendous shift by Granlund, Ryan Suter scored a goal and assist and was plus-3 and Darcy Kuemper got to be a spectator with 16 saves for his third career shutout.

I got Kuemper to the side after the game and I’ll probably write about this in Saturday’s paper, but he talked a lot after the game about how much he has learned the last year about how to play and function in a game he doesn’t see a lot of shots in. Frankly, in the Wild’s stingy defensive system, you better have a goalie who can stay in the game not seeing a lot of shots.

Remember, in his season debut last year in Toronto, the Wild played a very similar game to tonight where it dominated at least on the shot clock. And Kuemper, I believe, gave up three goals on seven shots in like 32 minutes to get chased.

Read the gamer for some good quotes. Patrick Roy wasn’t happy with his team, saying they didn’t compete and weren’t engaged and were easy to play against.

"Our top two lines need to be our best players and tonight they got outplayed and outworked,” he said. “If we want to have some success, they're going to have to be our best players.”

Added captain Gabriel Landeskog, “That's what happens. A team that wins battles looks that good against a team that doesn't.”

Yeo was all business postgame. There was no celebration by any means.

As Suter said, the Avs were “stale.”

As Granlund said, “It’s cliché. But it’s all about the next game.”

And Yeo’s message to his team that his players repeated was, “Let’s not kid ourselves, Colorado was not at their best tonight.”

Saturday’s rematch will be quite different as they grasp the energy their crowd provides in their home opener.

“To sit here and expect us to go and play 82 games like that, it’s not going to happen,” Yeo said.

But Yeo felt good going into this game and said there was never a moment of stress, never a moment where he felt the game was slipping away.

He said he could go down the list and name every player that played well. He tried hard to not single out anybody even when reporters asked about Parise or the top line.

He did acknowledge that he loved the grit and energy that Ryan Carter provided. Carter joked that it probably wasn’t the best start to his Wild career when he took a minor – one of three for him on the night – on his shift.

Overall, very good start to the season for the Wild. But it’s one game. And, Saturday will be a much great challenge.

That’s it for me. I have got to rise early to write my Sunday package (the first of the season!) before practice. Please read the gamer, notebook and Jim Souhan’s column in Friday’s paper.

I have an afternoon flight to Denver after practice that I’ll need to hustle for, so the post-practice blog may have to wait until I get up in the air.

Wild-Avalanche + Jarome Iginla renews rivalry tonight

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: October 9, 2014 - 1:16 PM

Wild and Avs tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Network and KFAN.

Fox Sports North is having an hour pregame show. I’ll be on it around 7:40 p.m.

I’ll also be on KFAN at 3:30 p.m. and please join by live chat on startribune.com/wild at 2 p.m.

No better way to jump into this season than against last year’s first-round opponent, Colorado. This is the first of two consecutive games against the Avs.

“It’s two teams that are going to have same core players for a long time and play a lot of games against each other,” Zach Parise said. “The way the playoffs are set up now, we’re most likely going to see each other in the playoffs quite a bit, too. It’s building and it’s getting there and it’s good to start the yea this way.

“I guess it's recognized by the league, too. It’s a national game.”

Said coach Mike Yeo: “We all just want to get going. It’s 82 games. We can’t make the playoffs with this win tonight.”

-- Again, to see the Wild lines, see the previous probably half-dozen blogs. Keith Ballard and Justin Fontaine, both banged up, each skated this morning but won’t play.

Fontaine is close, but Yeo said after his glute injury, the Wild wants to make sure there’s no chance he could aggravate the injury, and that they want to make sure he gets enough reps to make sure he’s up to game speed and his conditioning is OK.

-- Jarome Iginla, the longtime Calgary Flames captain and all-time leading scorer against the Wild and all-time leader against the Wild in just about every offensive category, gets his Avs career started with consecutive games against the opponent he loves to munch on.

“They’ve always been very disciplined,” Iginla said. “I’ve played a ton against the Wild. They always seem to be very structured, very disciplined and work hard and I don’t think that’s changed.  In the past few years, they’ve added more skill than maybe they’ve had in the past. They compete very hard to go with that skill. They’re a good team and it’ll be a good challenge.”

Iginla signed a three-year deal with the Avs July 1. The other team that went hard after him? Minnesota, which ended up signing Thomas Vanek to a three-year deal.

“I was definitely considering it,” Iginla said. “A good team, a good hockey city that keeps adding guys and is very competitive.”

-- It’s pretty good start the season off with such a rivalry.

“It’s going to force us to be good,” Yeo said. “We know that they’re going to be good. We have a lot of respect for that team over there.

“This is not Game 8 of the playoffs here. This is Game 1 of the regular season. What happened last year is last year. We want to leave it behind us as much as they want to leave it behind them.”

-- Former Gopher Erik Johnson, who got to eat a home-cooked meal at his folks’ house last night, said he took a lot of flak from his Minnesota buddies this past summer for losing to the Wild in the playoffs.

“My response is you should probably cheer for us because if the Wild wins a Cup, you’re not going to be invited to any Cup parties. That switches their opinion pretty quick.”

--Parise sounded the alarms again that the Wild needs to rid itself of those summer hockey habits that showed up in a lot of the Wild’s 3-2-1 preseason.

He says the Wild needs to remember what made it so successful in the final 10 games of last season and the playoffs.

“Sometimes it does take a regular season game to get that back,” Parise said. “That’s the thing that’ll be the most important thing is to understand how we played and what worked for us and what worked for us last year and how hard we were to play against at the end of the season. There were times … we’d go 10, 12, 14 minutes without giving up a shot on net. That frustrated the other team and made us successful. We can’t afford to get too much of a fancy game early in the season.

“We have to be smarter in the regular season than [we were in the preseason].”

What else?

-- Cody Almond has Geneva in his back pocket, but he plans to give Iowa a try first. But he wants a chance to be an NHL player and GM Chuck Fletcher has gotten a couple calls from teams. However, the Wild doesn’t want a contract back for Almond. It wants a draft pick. But the teams interested so far want to give up a live, breathing, human player.

-- Nik Backstrom, one of the funniest Wild players, was hysterical when I was shooting the breeze with him this morning about this new referee helmet cam that was debuted last night on TV.

"At least they can't say they didn't see it anymore. Now there's proof,” Backstrom joked.

He said I could go with the quote. Once he saw the tweet, the goalie joked, “I'm in deep trouble now. Suddenly I'm going to be the guy that's diving.”

-- Speaking of Backstrom, Yeo talked more about giving Darcy Kuemper the first start tonight.

“It’s a decision that I’m not going to lose any sleep over because of the way Darcy played. He had a good camp, but it wasn’t an easy decision because of the way that Backy performed in training camp.”

In the end, Yeo said he evaluated both performances, and the opponent also came into play and how Kuemper played against the Avs at home in the playoffs. “It felt like the right call to make … today.”

-- That’s it for tonight. See you on the chat in a bit and on Twitter tonight.

Links to today's Star Tribune Wild preview

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news, Wild pregame skate Updated: October 9, 2014 - 8:37 AM

Opening Night is tonight at 8 p.m. against the Colorado Avalanche.

This afternoon at 2 o'clock, I will be hosting a live chat on startribune.com/wild to preview the season. Please join, and if you arrive early, you can leave questions early.

I will also be on KFAN with Dan Barreiro previewing the season at 3:30 p.m. and on Fox Sports North's hourlong pregame show around 7:40 p.m.

Remember, the game is being televised on NBC Sports Network (play-by-play man John Forslund was stuck in a stuffy St. Paul elevator for 70 minutes yesterday, but luckily, he escaped and will be on the mic and Pierre McGuire) and broadcast on KFAN (100.3-FM, with Bob Kurtz, Tom Reid, and ugh, Kevin Falness on the call).

If you have the ability, please try to pick up today's Star Tribune for our Wild preview. Great pics by the talented Carlos Gonzalez, design by Bob Timmons and the rest of the Strib team and editing by Chris Miller, who has the unenviable job of having to read my copy daily and worse yet, communicate with me!

BUT, to make things easier, here are some of the links that you can find on the Star Tribune Wild page above.

Kid-Friendly: Wild counting on ascending youngsters Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Jonas Brodin and Erik Haula.

My FOUR big keys to season success for the Wild

My notebook on Darcy Kuemper starting opener over Nik Backstrom, the fact coach Mike Yeo has tons of shootout choice and Matt Dumba and Christian Folin being a pair.

VIDEO of Michael Rand and I, in our cool shades, previewing the season.

Jim Souhan's column on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter

VIDEO of the Wild unveiling its massive scoreboard to the media yesterday

My game preview, which I put in part as my annual reminder that I do a game preview box before every game and it's on there where you can ALWAYS get the answer to the question, "What channel is the game on?"

Again, if you missed yesterday's paper, I did a feature on Matt Cooke playing the Avs for the first time, a story on Kyle Brodziak and also my NHL preview and predictions.

Tonight's Wild lines are expected to be:

Forwards

Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville

Matt Cooke-Mikko Koivu-Thomas Vanek

Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Charlie Coyle

Jason Zucker-Kyle Brodziak-Ryan Carter

Defensemen

Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin

Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon

Matt Dumba-Christian Folin

Goalies

Darcy Kuemper

Niklas Backstrom

Extras: Stu Bickel, Keith Ballard, Justin Fontaine (the last two are banged up), Nate Prosser

I'll be back later to update this blog after the morning skates.

Darcy Kuemper gets the Opening Night start vs. Colorado

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: October 8, 2014 - 1:24 PM

Darcy Kuemper will be the Wild’s opening night starter against Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Jarome Iginla and the rest of the defending Central Division champion Colorado Avalanche.

Afternoon from Xcel Energy Center. If you want to talk Wild with me, please join my live chat on www.startribune.com/wild on Thursday at 2 p.m. I’ll also be on KFAN at 3:30 p.m. and on Fox Sports North at 7:40 p.m.

Remember, the 8 p.m. game is on NBC Sports Network, but Fox Sports North will have an hour pregame show.

Over on the startribune.com/wild page, you can find my NHL preview, a story on Matt Cooke facing the Avs for the first time since his knee-on-knee hit on Colorado defenseman Tyson Barrie in last year’s playoffs and story on how Kyle Brodziak will try his best to tune out trade rumors this season and improve offensively.

In Thursday’s Star Tribune, our Wild preview, which includes a big piece on Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin, Erik Haula and Nino Niederreiter, my 4 keys to this season, a notebook on Kuemper starting, a Jim Souhan column and a whole lot more.

Kuemper gets the start. Last year’s Game 3, 4, and 6 winner (three goals allowed) against Colorado went 2-0 in the preseason in three appearances with a 2.20 goals-against average and .915 save percentage.

Niklas Backstrom went 1-1 in three games with a 2.42 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.

Coach Mike Yeo said it’s “to be determined” whether Backstrom starts Saturday’s game at Colorado, “but we don’t want him sitting around for a long time. Based on his history in that building, based on the fact that we play two games and don’t play for a week after that, I would say in a perfect world, that’s what we would do. But we don’t always operate that way either.”

That means if Kuemper is dynamite in the opener, he’d probably come back with Kuemper. But he also doesn’t want Backstrom getting stale and, as I think I mentioned on the blog the other day, Backstrom is 11-3-1 all-time at the Pepsi Center with a 2.04 goals-against average and .937 save percentage. That’s his most wins in any rink.

Backstrom is 24-7-3 all-time vs. the Avs with a 2.25 goals-against average and .924 save percentage.

“We should feel comfortable with either guy in the net,” Yeo said.

Thomas Vanek and Ryan Carter are the only players set to make their Wild debuts Thursday. No player is making his NHL debut.

The lines tomorrow appear to be:

Fwds

Parise-Granlund-Pominville

Cooke-Koivu-Vanek

Niederreiter-Haula-Coyle

Zucker-Brodziak-Carter

Stu Bickel and Justin Fontaine will be scratched. Fontaine (glute) has practiced all week but missed much of camp.

D

Suter-Brodin

Scandella-Spurgeon

Dumba-Folin

Keith Ballard didn’t practice today after taking a shot to the chest yesterday. He was walking gingerly off the ice today, but Yeo expects him to skate in the morning. Still, Ballard and Nate Prosser won’t play.

On Matt Dumba and Christian Folin, two rookies, playing together, Yeo said Ryan Suter will see shifts with both those players, as well as Jonas Brodin.

But, Yeo said, “I’m not afraid of putting those guys out there right now. I don’t expect them to play perfect games, and we shouldn’t panic if they make one or two mistakes. We have to give them a chance to develop and to grow. We have confidence that they’re going to play a solid, reliable game, but I also don’t expect it to be perfect.”

On finally starting the season, Yeo said, “This time of the year is always the same thing; just can’t wait to get going. You’re always excited for camp to start and then a week into it you can’t wait for camp to end and to get going. As much as anything else, I’m just excited about our team. … We hopefully come into this season with a little bit of swagger, a little bit of attitude. Recognize how hard it is, but we should also be confident.”

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