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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Wild Friday: Parise staying home, and mumps shots for all

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild practice Updated: November 14, 2014 - 2:05 PM

You know things have taken a weird turn when you find out the NHL has an "infection control subcommittee.'' The league announced Friday that the group is monitoring the mumps outbreak that has hit the Wild, St. Louis and Anaheim. The Wild took more concrete precautions after Thursday's 6-3 victory over Buffalo, as team doctors offered mumps vaccinations to all who wanted them.

Coach Mike Yeo took a shot in the arm, after his team gave him a symbolic one with that much-needed win. He's still waiting for the booster he really wants: Zach Parise's return to the lineup. Parise won't go to Dallas for Saturday's game there, but Yeo said he hasn't been ruled out for Sunday's home game against Winnipeg.

The status of the latest apparent mumps victims, defensemen Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin, is murkier. There's no telling how long they might be out. And the illness played a part in the team's decision to recall defenseman Justin Falk on Friday and send rookie Christian Folin to Iowa. Yeo said Falk will add a left-handed shot to the blue line, which will be helpful against a pressing team like Dallas and aid the Wild's transition game. Folin, he said, was not the same after missing five games because of symptoms that appeared to be the mumps.

"After being sick, I didn't feel he was playing quite with the same pace and assertiveness,'' Yeo said. "And that's normal. You know that guys are starting to come back, and you start to think there might be a roster move made, and you start fearing that the next mistake might be the one that puts you down. For him to have an opportunity to play and not worry about making a mistake, I think that will be useful.''

Yeo said his other rookie defenseman, Matt Dumba, is sticking around largely because of his ability to play on the power play.

Going to Dallas presents a particular challenge for the Wild, which has won once in its past 20 games there since March 21, 2003. Yeo said that number of losses is "way too big'' and that the Wild needs to toughen up on the road. It has not played with the same confidence and urgency in road games this season, getting quickly derailed by mistakes far more often than it does at home.

It took the team half the season to get over that last year, Yeo said, and fixing that problem sooner is a point of emphasis. He urged his team to stop trying to be "too cute'' with its playmaking away from Xcel; its strength, he said, is the gritty type of offense it created in Thursday's victory, via a strong forecheck and a consistent attack on the net.

"Every game is important,'' Yeo said. "Teams around us are winning, and you go up against a division rival and it increases the importance. It increases the intensity of the games. The most important thing for me is I want to continue building our game.

"I thought we did something good last game, but the thing about building is that you have to follow it with work. What we did last night, it only means something if we build off of it. So we've got to get to work.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

It may have been Buffalo, but Wild gets much-needed victory

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: November 13, 2014 - 11:24 PM

Hey, it’s easy to discount tonight’s 6-3 win over the Buffalo Sabres as meaningless because it came against Buffalo.

Even Sabres coach Ted Nolan is exasperated with his bad team, which in all-out lottery pick mode. For a third consecutive game, the Sabres gave up a half-dozen, so this isn’t a good team and Nolan ripped into some of the cluelessness defensively after the game.

But imagine if the Wild lost.

So that’s why I rolled my eyes at some of the “who cares?” tweets after the game, that the Wild only beat a junior team (no disrespect to junior teams, of course). The Wild did its job – it won a game it so desperately needed to win just to dial down the temperature for one night by snapping a four-game losing streak.

The Wild maybe even overcame a couple mental hurdles by not completely freaking out when it gave up a goal 63 seconds in and another one when Darcy Kuemper gave up a second goal on a second shot 10 seconds after the Wild took a 2-1 lead. That would be all she wrote for Kuemper, but Kyle Brodziak and Nino Niederreiter (first career hat trick, 18th in Wild history, 10th player) responded and Niklas Backstrom was solid in net by stopping 25 of 26 shots for his first home win since Jan. 4 in his first home appearance since Jan. 11.

“It’s huge for us,” said Ryan Carter, who had a goal and assist and was part of great fourth line with Brodziak and Justin Fontaine. “I don’t care what the opponent says or what their record is on any given night. It’s difficult to win in this league. It was nice to get that. I think we did it in good fashion, too. They got ahead early and we fought back and got the lead. They came back again, we stuck with it. That’s the kind of game I think we needed.”

The win came after coach Yeo scrambled all four lines in large part to spark low-scoring centermen Mikael Granlund, Mikko Koivu and Erik Haula.

Koivu centered Jason Zucker and Jason Pominville. Granlund centered Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle (two assists) and Haula centered Thomas Vanek, and in his Wild debut, Jordan Schroeder for an all-Gopher line.

Yeo said Granlund needed to play with two workers (Granlund had a good game and Coyle had a great game) and Haula needed to play with two creative, offensive guys. Yeo also hoped their speed would help Vanek.

“We kid about it, but we don’t just roll the dice and see what comes up here. It may appear that way sometimes,” Yeo said, jokingly this morning.

For one night it worked. Niederreiter, who now leads the team with seven goals, scored his first-period goals from the blue paint. Yeo indicated he has been trying to convince Niederreiter that he has got a good enough shot to score off the rush (he proved that in Game 7 last year), but where he’s going to make his mark in this league is by driving the net and being hard to contain by the blue.

For one night, Niederreiter listed to his coach.

The Wild got two power-play goals (wow) for a second time this season and now the Wild hopes to build on it in Dallas, where the Wild is 1-14-5 since March 2003. The Wild is 2-6 on the road and is 0 for 29 on the road on the power play.

Carter tied the score after a goal by Buffalo 1:03 in. He bunted the Brodziak rebound past Jhonas Enroth. Originally veteran ref Paul Devorski (sadly retiring after this year) called it off thinking the bunter batted it in with his glove, but he replays showed Carter sacrificed the runner to second – so to speak – perfectly.

“I was confident that it hit my stick,” Carter said. “And he told me on the ice, too, he was going to go look at it upstairs. I knew if they looked at it, it was going to be a good goal.

“That was a quick play. I don’t know how I thought of it or why I did it. It worked out. There’s a million things I could do now thinking about it. Just stand there and let it hit the ground and knock it in or something. I’m glad it worked out.”

It was Carter’s second goal in two games and Yeo loved the play of his fourth line tonight.

“It’s a good reminder for everybody how they did it,” Yeo said of their six-point game. “When you meet with the lines and you’re talking about what their role is, what their identity is, that line’s gotten a lot of offense for us and there’s been different people on it at different times this year, but it’s a good reminder that it doesn’t always have to be pretty, it doesn’t always have to be fancy. It still feels the same. If you score a pretty tic-tac-toe, off-the-rush goal or if you score one off the forecheck in the offensive zone and go to the net and getting a rebound and cross-checking the thing into the net – that’s the first time I’ve ever seen that (laughing) – but those guys did a great job.”

Carter said of the fourth line that has dried up since Matt Cooke’s injury: “If you can chip in, it’s nice. It’s good to get scoring throughout. At the end of the night, we needed that. It was important.”

Jared Spurgeon felt he was rusty at times, but he adds a whole different element to this team and scored a power-play goal. He constantly was a threat deep in the offensive zone.

For a guy who missed five games with a shoulder injury, he logged 29:27 because Yeo couldn’t ease him in because of illnesses to Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella. Just impressive.

“To get out there was good. Now we have to look forward to Dallas,” Spurgeon said. “I just tried to get back into it as fast as possible. Playing with Suts (Ryan Suter) is pretty easy to do that. I just tried to keep it simple.

“I was able to get back on the ice about three days after I got hurt. They did a great job keeping me in shape. Obviously that’s a lot more fun than what I was doing before.”

Kuemper has given up goals in his past seven starts. His save percentage is down to .908.

On pulling Kuemper today, Yeo said, “I just felt that was a change that was needed. This is not by any means … I wouldn’t have started him if I felt that we’ve been losing games because of him. In fact I told him that yesterday. But that was just something that I felt that we needed to do at that time.”

Turned out to be the right call because Backstrom was great. It’ll be interesting to see how the Wild handles the goaltending now.

Josh Harding may be looking at a conditioning stint soon. The Iowa Wild play three in three next weekend, so perhaps Harding can get two games.

If the Wild keeps three goalies on the roster, that means one less position player. The Wild obviously can’t risk waivers on Kuemper and if he plays in two more games, he would require waivers to get to the minors.

So like I said, it’ll be interesting to see how the Wild handles this now. Do they ride Backstrom for a few games to see how Harding respond or does it not mess with its goaltending and just treat Kuemper’s contract situation like business as usual?

OK, that’s it for me. Big win from the proverbial sense. It was needed. Now onto Dallas.

I have to write my Sunday stuff in the morning, then fly to Dallas. Follow Rachel Blount of Twitter at @blountstrib for news from practice. I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m. (barring flight delay) and on Fox Sports North during the pregame show at 12:30 p.m. Saturday and first intermission.

Wild defensemen Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin may have the mumps

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news, Wild pregame skate Updated: November 13, 2014 - 4:11 PM

The Wild will get defenseman Jared Spurgeon back in the lineup tonight against the Buffalo Sabres, and it’s a good thing because first-pair defenseman Jonas Brodin and second-pair defenseman Marco Scandella have come up ill and may be out for awhile.

The two have the same symptoms that sidelined defensemen Keith Ballard (eight games) and Christian Folin (five games) earlier this season. As I reported last week, Ballard was diagnosed with the mumps.

“They’re ill and similar symptoms to what we had some other guys out with,” coach Mike Yeo said of Brodin and Scandella. “We don’t know for sure that’s what it is, similar symptoms.”

Those symptoms, according to Ballard, are awful flu-like symptoms – achy, fever, zero energy and swollen glands in the neck area.

Scandella and Brodin both noticeably struggled at times Tuesday in New Jersey – the Wild’s fourth consecutive loss. Yeo said Scandella has been sick since Montreal, where I remember him coughing up a storm while we were talking to him. In New Jersey after the morning skate, I even commented to him about marks on his neck (looked like a jersey burn), which was also swollen.

According to webmd, “Mumps is spread by mucus or droplets from the nose or throat of an infected person, usually when a person coughs or sneezes. Surfaces of items (for example, toys) can also spread the virus if someone who is sick touches them without washing the hands, and someone else then touches the same surface and then rubs the eyes, mouth, nose, etc.

Yeo said linesman Steve Miller missed the Devils game that night with similar symptoms, and from looking at his game logs, Miller did two St. Louis Blues games Oct. 23 and Nov. 4.

According to sources, referee Eric Furlatt was also out this season with the same symptoms. I haven't looked up all of Furlatt's recent game logs yet, but he did do Wild at L.A., Blues at L.A. and Wild at Anaheim earlier this season and also apparently recently worked with Miller. See below for more detail on that.

I bring this up because the Blues have had a string of illnesses this season and many of those players had positive mumps tests, according to sources. Anaheim’s Corey Perry and Francois Beauchemin have also been diagnosed with the mumps. This has even affected some reporters.

“This came from somewhere else, but it’s a possibility that it’s inside our locker room now,” Yeo said. “Whatever we’ve got to do to clean it up and make sure nobody gets this and certainly keep these guys away from anybody. Problem is you start to wonder and start to worry, is this sitting inside anybody else waiting to come out, too?”

Wild athletic therapist Don Fuller has been in contact with the league. I have contacted the league to see if they’re looking into this stuff and I haven’t heard back yet. Folin and Ballard were on antibiotics when they were sick, and the Wild disinfected their equipment and had players use different water bottles and towels. So far, it appears as if only defensemen have been infected, and they do sit next to each other in the locker room and on the bench.

Yeo said all the sick players have reported the same thing – it feels like you’re coming down with something, and it either goes away or boom, your neck swells up.

It appears as if somebody’s locker room is a petri dish. The Wild’s illnesses began after an Oct. 17 trip to Anaheim and Oct. 19 trip to Los Angeles. The Blues also played in L.A. Oct. 16 and in Anaheim Oct. 19.

The Ducks played in St. Louis on Oct. 30.

Also, the Wild played a preseason game at St. Louis on Oct. 2 and the Blues played in Minnesota on Oct. 4.

So some have suggested it could have even started in St. Louis or Minnesota and maybe those teams brought it with them to California in October.

Ballard told me last week, “I’ve asked my mom and she said I had the vaccine [as a kid], so it makes no sense. So that’s the hard part [team doctors] are trying to wrap their heads around. How would I have gotten it?”

Yeo said the Wild’s lineup is up in the air because with defense pairs tonight of:

Suter-Spurgeon

Prosser-Folin

Ballard-Dumba,

… the Wild may want to have the security of a seventh defenseman and play Stu Bickel up front. This way they can move him back to D if there are issues. But on the other hand, you lose two puck movers in Brodin and Scandella, Yeo may not want to do that.

The lines in the skate were

Zucker-Koivu-Pominville

Niederreiter-Granlund-Coyle

Vanek-Haula-Schroeder

Carter-Brodziak-Fontaine

Zach Parise is getting close, Yeo said, “but we just have to make sure we’re following protocol. Make sure he’s getting proper rest and recovery. We desperately want him back in the lineup, but we have to make sure when he comes back he’s staying in the lineup.”

What does Yeo expect from Schroeder in his Wild debut?

“We’re not scoring goals.”

On Thomas Vanek’s struggles, Yeo said, “Pressure builds. It was well-documented and I don’t think there are any secrets about it that he was brought here to help us [score goals]. Whenever we’ve struggled, we’ve struggled because we’ve had a tough time scoring goals, and that’s why he was brought here.”

The Wild has to help Vanek, said Yeo.

On the all-Gopher line, Yeo said, “We kid about it, but we don’t just roll the dice and see what comes up here. It may appear that way sometimes,” he said, jokingly.

But Yeo said, “Granny needs workers with him. He’s got to get back to his game. He needs to get back to a driving, speed game. I feel like he’s been a lot more east west and the speed of his game hasn’t been a factor because of that. We’re going try to get him guys that can drive the net, guys that’ll open up ice for him and help him score off the rush.

“We’ve got to get Haulzy’s game going. Put him with two guys who can create and generate off the rush and make plays in the offensive zone. Two guys with a lot of speed should help Thomas, too.”

Darcy Kuemper vs. Jhonas Enroth (1-7-1, 3.63 goals-against average and .901 save percentage).

In the past 99 games, the Sabres have won 12 times in regulation. This is a team that hasn’t scored a first-period goal in 13 games. They have been outscored 60-21. The Wild hasn’t led in 240 minutes.

Wild’s PP is 2 for 44 (30th): PP Changes: Zucker-Koivu-Pominville-Spurgeon-Suter; Vanek-Granlund-Nino-Schroeder/Fontaine-Dumba. Sabres PP is 3 for 53.

Sabres helped turn the Wild’s season around last year. Let’s see if they can do it again.

My concerns: The Wild’s blue line, yucky right now without Scandella and Brodin. And with so much anxiety, if the Wild does happen to fall behind early tonight, the tension in the crowd and on that bench will be palpable. Big game, to say the least, for a Nov. 13 game considering the next game is at Dallas, where the Wild has won once in the past NINETEEN (I think) visits.

Wild Wednesday: Parise still sidelined, but Spurgeon could return

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild practice Updated: November 12, 2014 - 3:36 PM

The Wild held an optional practice Wednesday at Ridder Arena, with 14 skaters joining goalies Darcy Kuemper, Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding on the ice. While the struggling Thomas Vanek and Mikko Koivu didn't participate, Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon did, though only Spurgeon has a good shot at playing Thursday against Buffalo.

Coach Mike Yeo said Parise, who has missed three games because of a concussion, is doubtful for the game. Depending on how Spurgeon felt after the practice, Yeo said, he could return to the lineup after missing five games. "I'm a little more hopeful that he can return,'' Yeo said.

Yeo added that there hasn't been a setback with Parise. The team is just being extra cautious with a player who looks more valuable by the minute, given how his team has collapsed without him in the lineup. "We just have to be smart about it,'' Yeo said. "We know what he adds to our lineup, but you just have to think of the big picture here. We have to make sure when we get him back that we're keeping him back for good.''

The WIld will make some lineup changes Thursday, Yeo said, though he didn't reveal them after the practice. Without Parise and the still-injured Matt Cooke, the team has only 11 forwards as of Wednesday afternoon, when it sent winger Stephane Veilleux and defenseman Jonathon Blum to Iowa. No word yet on a callup. Kuemper will start in goal.

Yeo said the WIld "isn't complete with its game'' right now as it tries to end a four-game losing streak. Among the problems he cited: being too soft in front of the net, trying to force plays and committing careless turnovers. He repeated that players are getting frustrated when they don't score early on, which leads them to press too hard in the second period, which leads to spending too much time and energy in their own zone. "A more complete focus on playing our game for 60 minutes will help us,'' he said.

When asked directly about the lack of production from Vanek and Koivu, Yeo declined to criticize them. Vanek has only one goal, scored on the power play, in 14 games. Koivu has two goals and one assist in the same span.

"It's on all of us,'' he said. "Obviously, those guys, that comes with the territory for sure. They're leaders, and they're expected to score. And there's going to be a lot of attention drawn to that. We have a number of people here who are capable of going out there and creating offense, whether it's helping those guys get on the scoresheet or whether it's getting on the scoresheet themselves. The bottom line is, we do it as a team.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

Four losses in a row, and Wild's searching for somebody (or someones) to step up

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: November 11, 2014 - 10:22 PM

On Nov. 1, the Wild jumped to the top of the Central Division. That lasted 24 hours. Thanks to four losses in a row since – the latest coming Tuesday, 3-1, at New Jersey, the Wild’s now fifth in the Central – eight points behind Nashville.

“It’s big,” Thomas Vanek said. “It’s November, but you lose the points now, it’s tough to gain them later.”

The Wild has lost its way since the injuries to Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon, and luckily, they could be coming to the rescue Thursday against Buffalo.

But coach Mike Yeo made clear after tonight’s loss that this slump goes beyond the absence of Parise, Spurgeon and Matt Cooke. He said the Wild has almost forgotten how tough it is to win in this league and it’s getting a good reminder now.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence, but the three young teams who have been hyped and are considered up-and-comers in the division – Minnesota, Colorado and Dallas – are all struggling right now. It’s almost like players think it’ll come easy and forgot how much commitment it takes every game to win in this difficult league.

The Wild certainly has. The Wild’s M.O. at the start of the year was work ethic. Maybe they followed the leader (Parise), which is possible, but whatever the reason, the Wild played pretty complete, hard-working games the first 10 games of the season (OK, forget the third against the Rangers). But that 7-3 start is now officially history as the Wild returns to wintry Minnesota with a very disappointing 7-7 record.

The Wild lauds its depth, yet nobody has stepped up and taken the reins without Parise, Spurgeon and Cooke.

Mikko Koivu: One assist this season. Thomas Vanek: 1 goal. The kids are struggling and have completely dried up. Jason Zucker, who still leads the Wild with five goals, scored them all shorthanded or on the fourth line. He has no goals in seven games since moving to the second line. Charlie Coyle was minus-6 on the road trip, didn’t hit anybody in the first two periods and couldn’t seem to stop pucks on his stick. Mikael Granlund, no assists in six games and passing up shots.

The one great shot he did take tonight hit the post, then almost rolled over the line after it hit Cory Schneider. Almost. That unbelievably bad puck luck was exemplified moments later when Jaromir Jagr skated around Vanek and set up Mike Cammalleri for the eventual winner – a 2-0 lead.

The Wild hasn’t held a lead in 240 minutes. The second period, which was the Wild’s best the first 10 games, has been a disaster the past four. All three games on the road trip were scoreless after the first period only to be unraveled in the second.

The Wild’s power play is still a disaster. 0 for 4 tonight, including one in the third with a chance to tie tonight. And that was to the 30th-ranked overall penalty kill and 30th-ranked home penalty kill, one that had only NOT given up a power-play goal in two previous games this season.

The Wild’s power play is now 2 for 44 this season and 0 for 29 in eight road games.

This Koivu situation is a major problem. One assist for the all-time leading scorer in franchise history. One. In 14 games. This Vanek situation is a major problem. One goal and not scoring goals in moments where the Wild most need him.

He fell on the knife tonight, saying he was awful in the first two periods. But he beat himself up for missing out on that chance late in the second when the puck rolled off his stick. He was happy with the team’s play in the third and how he also brushed off his personal bad two periods behind him to play a better third. But he said by then it was too late, that you’re not going to win in the NHL when you show up for 20 minutes in a 60-minute game.

Yeo didn’t want to single out players when asked about Koivu and Vanek.

Coyle is in a bigtime slump. Not just not scoring (no goals since Oct. 23). He’s just showing little bite right now. Yeo did say he felt it was a lack of confidence just like the team.

“I don’t see a lot of confidence,” Yeo said. “Similar to our entire group. Wins haven’t come. Goals haven’t come. Not scoring has been a huge factor here. You can do a lot of things right and then you’re not scoring goals and then you’re not feeling too good about your game. We got some Grade A chances tonight (Chief among them, Vanek to Haula on a 2-on-0 with 5 ½ left, and Haula was robbed) that don’t go in the net. That gets in your head. We’re going to have to fight through this and earn our confidence.”

Coyle said, “Everyone goes through slumps like this. I had a little lapse like this last year. Same thing I wasn’t scoring, wasn’t putting up points. I just have to get back to playing my physical game. I can’t focus on goals. That’s when you’ll continue to struggle. I’ve got to focus on the process and play to your strengths. Play physical and get my nose dirty.”

Before the first goal tonight by New Jersey, the Zucker-Koivu-Coyle line buzzed and buzzed. Again, no goals though and the Devils come right down and score when Seth Helgeson, who made his NHL debut, took a shot that Tuomo Ruutu deflected for the former Gophers defenseman’s first career assist.

“Same thing pretty much,” Coyle said of his line. “Zone time, chances, but we’ve got to be better burying them. It’s as simple as that.”

Coyle said it’s frustrating the way the team is playing, but the players have to stay positive, stay on an even keel and get back to basics. But he did say astutely tonight was a totally missed opportunity, that playing a team that played on the road the night before, if the Wild showed up in the first two periods and forechecked the heck out of them, they probably could have capitalized more in the third.

“We’ve got to get back to outworking teams, outshooting teams and creating chances and burying puck,” Coyle said.

Big game vs. Buffalo to try to get back on track Thursday before it heads to Dallas, where the Wild has won once since I have been the beat writer.

“We’ve lost four in a row. If we’re looking past anything right now, that would be kind of foolish,” Yeo said. “We have to dig deep here. It’s as simple as that. I know that sounds awfully cliché. We’re the only ones that are going to get ourselves out of this. We’re not going to get out of it by trying to make a fancy play or trying to outskill teams. We have skill in the lineup that can be effective if we’re playing a certain way. We have to remember, it’s hard to score in this league. Teams defend well. They all play a system. We have to get some dirty goals, we have to get some pucks to the net, we have to find a way to create more.”

That’s it for now. Early flight for me, so I need to jet out of the rink and get some shut-eye. Rachel Blount has Wild practice Wednesday, so stay tuned to her Twitter account (@blountstrib) to see if Parise and Spurgeon returns may be on the horizon.

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