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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Rex Ryan has a lot more work to do to fix the Buffalo defense than he imagined.
Oh, wrong coach, wrong team.
Fine night for the Wild to face the Sabres.
As I wrote the other day on the blog, it’s a little eerie that one year ago, the Wild was in the midst of a six-game losing streak entering its 43rd game of the season against the Buffalo Sabres. Mike Yeo’s job was in peril, the Wild’s goaltending was in shambles.
One year later, the Wild was in the midst of a six-game losing streak entering its 43rd game of the season against the Buffalo Sabres. Mike Yeo’s job is in peril, the Wild’s goaltending has been in shambles.
Last January, the Wild beat the Sabres, went on a 23-10-7 the rest of the way for the third-best record in the NHL and stormed into the playoffs.
This January, the Wild’s hoping its easy 7-0 win tonight over the Sabres with new goalie Devan Dubnyk in net was the start of the same turnaround.
The Sabres are awful, are in bottom-out, rebuild, go for Connor McDavid/Jack Eichel mode and it showed tonight. But the Wild got back to basics, defended well with a mishmash blue line and protected Dubnyk bigtime. Yes, it was the Sabres, but man, the Wild needed a game to start feeling good about itself again.
He was barely tested, making only 18 saves to become the first Wild goalie to ever debut with a shutout.
The seven-goal win was not only the largest margin of victory in Wild history, it was the largest margin of defeat for the Sabres since they moved from the Aud to the First Niagara Center in 1996. So, you may discount the win as the Wild beating a peewee team, but as much as the Sabres lose, they have never lost like this, not only this season, but not at home in 18-plus years.
“We’re all embarrassed. I’m speechless,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said.
Hey, he stole the Wild’s line, at least of late. Usually it's the Wild which says it's embarrassed. But the Wild won for the first time since Jan. 3 and first time on the road since Dec. 29 and most of all sat inside a happy locker room for a change after a game.
Funny Matt Cooke/Dubnyk anecdote to lead my gamer, so read that when the new one gets on at startribune.com/wild, but it’ll give you a good idea of just how much work Dubnyk had in his debut.
“The guys came out and worked so hard for me and allowed me to settle into the game,” he said. “We had a lead and the way we were playing we weren’t about to give it up. I could concentrate when the pucks came across the blue line, which wasn’t too often because of how solid we played.”
Dubnyk admitted he had some nerves, but mostly because his body was a little tired from his red-eye and 8 a.m. Buffalo arrival and the quick turnaround, but he tried not to build it up too big and just focused on making the save.
Zach Parise scored the winning goal 5:13 in, had an assist and six shots. Thomas Vanek had a season-high eight shots and also scored a power-play goal and assist against his longtime team. Kyle Brodziak (shorthanded, real good game) and Erik Haula (real good game) also had a goal and assist and Matt Dumba (plus-3, first pro fight), Jared Spurgeon (plus-4 a game after being minus-4) and Matt Cooke also scored as the Wild outshot the Sabres 37-18.
There were actually too many good games to list tonight.
Mikko Koivu had two assists for the first time since Nov. 24.
Jason Pominville posted his 31st career three-point game with three assists on a night the classy former Sabres captain was welcomed back with a video tribute that bizarrely didn’t happen last season.
He didn’t know it was going on until Parise told him while the team was on a power play. He was very appreciative.
Since Nov. 16, Pominville has 22 assists, tied for first in the NHL with Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf over that span.
He now has 134 career multi-point games and three in his past six games.
Parise said, “We were playing a team that was struggling, too. There was an emphasis on defending and let the other stuff come. We wanted to make sure we were taking care of our own end first and coming up the ice together, but limiting their chances. I thought we did a good job of that.
“When we’re playing well, that’s what we’re doing. We’re really not giving up too many Grade A chances. Throughout all zones, we played more of a five-man unit.”
He said, “When the goals are coming, when guys are talking, supporting each other, you get that excitement. It felt like everything just fell into place.”
Haula said, “We just had the mindset we’re going to put everything just out there and battle.”
Brodziak said, “There’s been a lot of talking lately and I thought everybody was focused on playing the right way. As the game wore on, you see what it does to other teams. Now we just have to bring that every single night and every single period.”
Dumba was real good for his first NHL game since Nov. 28. He said, “It’s kind of weird. Its didn’t feel like that at all. It just felt like I was very engaged, focused right from the get-go. Once I made a couple good, solid plays, I just played from there.”
Yeo like Dubnyk’s poise and size in net and the way he played pucks to alleviate pressure.
“We needed to give him a good chance and we needed to give our defensive group a good chance to play a solid game,” said Yeo, who loved the Wild’s overall game, the play of the D and the forwards and called it one of the best defensive games in weeks and proof that if you defend well, offense comes from that.
On Dumba, “We want him be impactful. … I like the fact that he’s trying to make a statement every time he’s on the ice.”
He liked Haula’s game a lot and wants him to continue to build his game.
On the win, “We can’t sit around and start feeling really good about ourselves. Unfortunately, we put ourselves in a pretty deep hole here, so as good as this game was, the next game’s more important.”
That’s it for now. The Wild is off Friday as the team will have a hard, emotional day as it supports Parise at his dad’s service. Then, Hockey Day Minnesota on Saturday when Dubnyk will face the Coyotes so soon after being traded from there.
I’ll have a story on that in Saturday’s paper and I’ll also be writing my Sunday Insider on “tanking” for McDavid and Eichel.
I will be doing a Podcast with Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan on Friday at 5 p.m. at O’Gara’s in St. Paul. Either come on down or listen live or later at souhanunfiltered.com.
Barring news, talk to you Saturday.
Devan Dubnyk, after taking a red-eye from Phoenix to Buffalo via JFK, arrived in Buffalo at 8 a.m. and despite the long night and early morning, he’ll make his Wild debut tonight against the Sabres.
The Sabres, the NHL’s worst offensive team, have lost a franchise-record eight in a row. The Wild is 0-5-1 in its past six and has lost 12 of 14.
The Wild will be using a mishmash blue line with Ryan Suter suspended and Marco Scandella and Justin Falk hurt. Five right-shot D’s play tonight, so as of now, the pairs are:
Spurgeon (left side for first time in his pro career)-Prosser
Blum (who has struggled every time the Wild has seen him on the left side)-Dumba
Jordan Schroeder is scratched for a third straight game.
If you didn’t see the advance stat blog that our Michael Rand wrote on Dubnyk today, check that out here.
As advertised, Dubnyk is very affable and the Wild abandoned at least for today its team policy that the starting goalie doesn’t talk on a game day.
Dubnyk, who wore his Coyotes mask and pads in the morning skate, said the trade from the Coyotes to the Wild was a “bit of a roller coaster. I didn’t see it coming. I was aware of rumors and whatnot and I was just driving home from the rink and got a call. As the day went on, it settled in and I just got more and more excited. It’s an opportunity for me to come play. The way that things were in Arizona and Smitty (Mike Smith) there and they’ve got a great goalie locked up for a lot of years, to get a chance to come somewhere and play games is exciting for me. I’m looking forward to that.”
Honestly, in my opinion, Dubnyk has to look at this as a no-pressure scenario. Just play. The Wild has struggled. The goalies have struggled, so just get in there, play and try to allow the Wild to rediscover its game.
Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is the Wild’s game started to erode once the goaltending turned south. They started to cheat defensively to protect the goalies better, they started to get down in the dumps once the bad goals started to occur and now the game is MIA. There have been signs recently in the home game against Chicago, first period against Nashville, first and second periods against Pittsburgh that the structure is still there. So maybe tonight can be the beginning of the tonic, so to speak. We shall see.
Dubnyk, who has a wife and 17-month-old, wanted to make it here for the skate so he could get as much of a normal gameday routine as possible.
He said he got a little sleep on the red-eye, but he said laughing, “I’m 6-5, so I don’t fit on planes that well. I crunched up into a ball as best as I could. I think my tailbone will be reminding me of that flight for a couple weeks to come.”
Last year was “tough,” he said. As I wrote in my coverage in today’s paper, he lost his job in Edmonton, was traded to Nashville and Montreal and ended up in the minors.
“If you asked me before the start of last season what the absolute worst outcome of a season could be, I probably wouldn’t have told you half of what happened,” Dubnyk said. “That’s the way the things can go in professional sports. It was a long and difficult season for me. I was able to take a step back in the summer and I was fortunate to get a great opportunity to go to Arizona and get to work with [goalie coach] Sean Burke and an organization that gave me full confidence and an opportunity to go in and just get my game back. To feel fortunate to have an opportunity to play in this league, you realize how quickly it can be taken away from you, whether in your control or not. And to come back and just be grateful to be at the rink every day, maybe it’s a good thing in the long run.”
Burke and I are fairly tight. I covered him in Florida. In fact, I told a story to Dubnyk today about me sharing a cab with Burke coincidentally to a morning skate in Buffalo in the final week or two of one season. Burke’s hip was a mess and he told me he was shutting it down after that game and Kirk McLean would take over.
He told me he’d go out fighting that night. I didn’t take him literally. Early in the game, Vaclav Varada came within a few feet of the crease and Burke went to town on the Sabres agitator. Just pummeled him. Burke, when I covered him, had more fighting majors I believe than any active goalie at that time.
“I don’t have that side,” Dubnyk said of Burke. “I wouldn’t pick a fight with him. I’ve seen him in the gym, so I’d probably stay away.”
On how he resurrected his career this year and frankly played better than Smith, Dubnyk said, “It was very simple. It was a combination of going in there with [Burke] and [Dave] Tippett and all the coaches in that organization and them just showing me the confidence right from the day I showed up there. That was never in question for me, which after a season like last year was one of the most important things. For them to show that to me was a great start and it’s real simple with Burkie. He’s a big guy, he played a similar style, so it’s about beating the play and being set for the play and being patient on your feet. He told me he had all the confidence in the world that I could stop the puck from there, so if we put in the work to be ahead of the play, then I can just go play goal and have some fun.”
Yeo said that Dubnyk looked good in the morning skate.
“We’re just excited. I know from playing against him that I really do believe that this is a guy who can come in and be successful here,” Yeo said.
Yeo said he hopes Dubnyk’s arrival would give the team confidence going into games.
“Sometimes just adding an NHL player, whether it’s goaltender or any position, it does something to the psyche, does something to the confidence, and particular with the goaltending position, and this is not to place blame on Backy or Kuemps, our game has not been good enough,” Yeo said. “I think a lot of times the goals have been going in and for whatever reason our game starts to deteriorate after we let in one or two goals and this could gives a chance to reset and focus on our own jobs.”
Yeo continued, “The way things have gone lately between Backy and Kuemps, there’s no doubt that their confidence is not high right now. Part of the fact that both guys have not been quite on top of it doesn’t really give the other one an opportunity for a break. I think one other guy coming in here and hopefully he can find his game quickly and establish himself right away, I know that it’ll help the other guys as well.”
I assume John Curry has been reassigned. He was working off the ice with injured Justin Falk as the Wild skated.
“He’s got a lot of facial hair, so he definitely matured a little bit while he’s down there,” Yeo kidded. “We know he has a chance to come in and be impactful in areas of his puck play and his execution on the back end, [especially offensively]. I definitely want to see the consistency … in his defensive game, his position, his reads and that’s what I’m excited to see. From my understanding, he’s been playing more of a controlled game and we’re going to need that from him.”
Dumba, on his goatee, said jokingly, “That’s what I was going for. I needed to grow a good goatee just like him. It’s been a good experience down there. I’ve been playing lots of minutes and I think my game’s coming in a good way. Just want to keep going on that, keep improving every day.”
On Iowa, Dumba said, “It’s been fun, get back to playing all those scenarios (power play, PK, No. 1 pair). It’s been good. With those guys down there, too, it’s been fun. A lot of guys my age and friends I’ve made over the last couple years, so it’s fun. It’s all working back to this and trying to get your game to the best it can be so you can be here.”
Suter didn’t want to talk today. He’s very disappointed the league didn’t give him the benefit of the doubt after years of clean play.
But he does have a minus-21 in his past 20 games, so Yeo said, “Mentally as much as anything, a chance to reset. We’ve talked a lot about his plus-minus and how frustrating and disappointing that is for him, [so this is a chance] to clear his head a little bit on that. But physically, we demand so much from him, especially when Marco’s been out. It seems like we’ve had one of our top-4 Dmen out almost all year long, and with that, we’ve asked an awful lot of him, especially with him coming back after being sick. So typically what we would do on a day like today, we would skate them into the ground. But we’ve instructed our coaches that he really does basically no extra work today. Tomorrow [with J.P. Parise services], another off day for him. Two good rest days.”
Yeo said Scandella is hitting the ice today. He took a couple days off because he wasn’t progressing.
Yeo said Kuemper is close, and Mikael Granlund is close. The Wild is 2-6-1 since he broke his wrist. Granlund and maybe Scandella and Kuemper will be able to join the team at Saturday’s morning skate and practice Sunday.
Again, as I wrote in yesterday’s blog, the Wild may talk to Kuemper about going to the All-Star break for a brief rehab assignment. Let’s be honest: He could use it, but he’d need to accept if the team goes that route.
Yeo said one positive: “We do have some help on the horizon.”
Considering I woke up in Pittsburgh like 19 hours ago, it’s been a slightly busy day. If you didn’t see all the day’s events, please see the previous meaty blog. Lots of good quotes in there.
Lots of good quotes in here, too.
About an hour ago, I got off the phone with General Manager Chuck Fletcher, who has been in Ft. Lauderdale conducting scouting meetings. Almost every team in the league right now is doing their amateur and/or pro scouting meetings, and they don’t seem to do them in Winnipeg or the Yukon Territory.
They usually go to Boca, Lauderdale, Palm Springs, Vegas and Scottsdale. You can the picture.
Fletcher said this hasn’t been the most relaxing few days of his life. The stressed, very disappointed GM said he actually had to leave the scouts in the middle of watching Tuesday’s 7-2 loss at Pittsburgh because he was so disturbed at what he was watching.
“It’s like a dark cloud hanging over us,” Fletcher said. “It’s unbelievable. Anything that can go wrong is going wrong right now, I can tell you that much.”
Earlier this evening, Fletcher traded a third-round pick to Arizona for goalie Devan Dubnyk, who had a rough year last year as I described on the previous blog but seems to have rehabilitated his career this year.
“I don’t think it’s any secret we have bigger expectations for our goaltending than what they’ve provided for us this season,” Fletcher said. “We were looking to add some depth and add a goaltender that’s capable of coming in and winning games and pushing the other two as well. We need to play better team defense in general, but I think adding another goaltender made a lot of sense. It’s not easy to find players this time of the year. More players are looking to add players than subtract and we’re fortunate we were able to get Devan. He’s had a very good season in Arizona and four of his last five seasons his statistics are quite good and at this point we’re hoping he can deliver more of the same. We’re just looking for him to play the way he’s played in four of the last five years and we’ll go from there. And hopefully the competition will help too.”
Dubnyk, who is supposedly an awesome guy and more importantly a great quote (yes, it’s about me), is expected to join his new team in Buffalo. Coach Mike Yeo hopes that he’ll be able to start Thursday against the Sabres, but the two will chat on Thursday to make sure he’s able.
The hope is Darcy Kuemper, pulled in five of his past seven home starts before aggravating a lower-body injury, can return before the All-Star break or right after. I asked Fletcher directly if he would try to get Kuemper to maybe accept a conditioning stint and play a few games for Iowa during the NHL All-Star break, and he said yes.
Harding is still out with multiple sclerosis issues: “It’s too hard to speculate” if he’ll play again for the Wild, Fletcher said. “He isn’t an option for us right now and isn’t close to being an option.”
Niklas Backstrom has allowed 30 goals in his past eight starts.
If Kuemper, Backstrom and Dubnyk are healthy all at the same time, Fletcher said the Wild will have to carry three goalies on its 23-man roster.
Fletcher said, “We need to find out what our team really is. I’ve been waiting for the answers to come from the inside. I’ve been calling around for weeks. It’s not easy to get teams to sell players early. Most teams are still in and we’ve been waiting and hoping that the answers would come from within, but we’re at a very critical time right now. We’ve got to stabilize here. We’ve got to find a way to win a game and start to play the right way. You’re not just going to snap your fingers and everything’s going to get back to normal, but we’ve shown at points of this year we’re a good hockey team, we have good players, we have good coaches and we need to find a way to become a good team again. Right now we’re not a good team and this is a small step. Everybody’s lost confidence and that happens when you go through these stretches.
“I thought it was time for me to give this team a shot in the arm and we’ll keep trying. We’ll see if we can add more pieces. If we can do it great, but it has to come from the inside too and maybe this is a spark they need to get going.
“I think Mike’s a good coach, and I think we have a good team. But right now we’re in a perilous position for our season and we have to win some games. We’re capable of doing it. But we have to stabilize here. We’ll see where it takes us. We’ve got to get going. We’re better than this. It’s time. It’s more than time.”
Fletcher again said that Yeo is safe.
“We’ve got an overall performance issue here,” he said. “I’m not looking at Mike at all right now. He’s our coach. He’s a good coach.”
OK, that's it for me. I think I've written 50,000 words today. I'm spent. Night. Talk to you after the morning skates Thursday.
UPDATED WITH DUBNYK TRADE/SUTER SUSPENSION
The Wild has acquired Arizona goalie Devan Dubnyk for a third-round pick. He's in the last year of his contract with an 800K cap hit, so this is a short-term fix. At one point this year, Dubnyk was competing with Mike Smith for the starting job. He is 9-5-2 with a 2.72 goals against average and .916 save percentage this year.
The 6-foot-6 longtime Edmonton goalie is 70-81-24 all-time with a 2.88 goals-against average, .910 save percentage and nine shutouts. Hey, it's probably better than what they have.
Dubnyk, known as a terrific teammate, had a disastrous year last year. He lost his starting job in Edmonton, was traded twice and ended up in the minors. Arizona took a risk on him that working with goalie coach Sean Burke would revive Dubnyk's career and he has outplayed Smith. Burke has said Dubnyk has improved his patience and positioning and his confidence is back.
I wish Devan continued success. He came in here and worked hard and got his game back. Terrific person and a real pleasure to work with.— Sean Burke (@SBurkie1) January 14, 2015
Some move had to be done at some point. Wild has given up the fourth-least shots in the league and has the worst save percentage. GM Chuck Fletcher via text said the Wild's unsure yet if Dubnyk debuts tomorrow. It'll depend when he arrives in Buffalo. He will carry three goalies when all three are healthy.
This is the type of move I expected at some point -- a short-term patchwork Band-Aid. It makes no sense to me to give up a boatload of assets for a goalie when there's no assurance a goalie 1) can save this season; 2) may not be the answer long-term. The Wild has to figure out the long-term answer in goal and to make some knee-jerk decision now when there may be better options down the road is the prudent thing to do. Again, look at the standings. Look at the Wild's game right now. A goalie alone isn't saving the day.
I haven't talked to Fletcher yet other than an exchange of quick texts, but my guess is he felt incumbent on 1) giving this roster hope on a nightly basis with a goalie; it is so clear this team melts down after deflating goals and there have been a ton of them lately and you just can't enter every game not feeling confident about your goaltending; 2) wanted to deliver Yeo a goalie so the guy whose job we all assume is on the line, has a chance to win.
Also, Matt Dumba has been recalled.
Ryan Suter had a 4 p.m. phone hearing for his elbow to the head of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Steve Downie last night and he was just handed a two-game suspension. As Suter said Sunday, "When it rains it pours, and it's pouring." He also said, "Every day's a bad day right now."
Suter loses $81,058.72 in salary.
Downie practiced today, so he looks to be fine as of now and often times that would play an influence in the league’s decision into how to discipline. Didn't here.
The Wild hoped the NHL, like it did with Marco Scandella earlier this season on an illegal check to the head, would let Suter off the hook with a fine. This was his first time ever being remotely in trouble and anybody who watches Suter play knows he’s a squeaky clean player.
“I only looked at it once,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We have the hearing this evening. But what I saw when I looked at it initially is that he’s not looking at the player at all. First off if you know the player, you know that’s not his intention at all. He’s not in any way a dirty player. It’s hard for you to quote this, but he’s looking at the player and I think he’s, …”
Humorously, Yeo then juts out his right elbow like a chicken wing and accidentally nailed NHL.com reporter Joe Yerdon’s recorder. Yeo apologized, then said with a laugh, “See how easily it happens?”
Yeo continued, “I think he puts his elbow up just to box the guy out and we’ve had other things that have been our other focus this morning, but that was my initial thought.”
Video from the NHL on the suspension:
Yeo was hoping for a fine because “I know that’s not his intention, that’s not the type of player that he is. I know that he felt bad about it even during the game (sent an apology through Sidney Crosby). As much as anything else, we need him in the lineup.”
Suter is minus-7 the past two games (actually minus-6 because when I watched the game over today, he was not on the ice for the last goal and was given a minus; Nate Prosser was on the ice) and minus-22 the past 20 games (minus-21, really, like that makes it better). The league is taking away the one minus, so he's minus-6 his last two games and minus-21 the past 20 games.
Yeo said last night that this is inside Suter’s head now, that he’s frustrated with the way he’s been on for many goals lately and the two of them have met.
Yeo said, “Listen, it’s almost a byproduct of our game. Everything is compounding right now. Many of the mistakes that we’re making, you can see, it’s almost like we’re trying to compensate or recoup something that we’ve given up before and I think that’s what’s going on. We’re not a team that gives up breakaways, let alone a couple in a game. We’re not a team that gives up odd-man rushes. That’s not the way that we play the game. But what’s happening is we end up doing a little bit more to help the cause and we end up overextending ourselves. … That’s where we have to tighten up.”
Suter said earlier today, "I’ve never gone through anything like this. Innocent plays are ending up in the back of our net. I’m sure you’ve seen my minuses (plus-minus). I’ve never, ever, experienced that in my life. To be minus-3 in a night, it would happen maybe once a year. Now it seems like it’s an every night occurrence. We just have to bear down defensively.’’
Justin Falk is sidelined with an upper-body injury. Jon Blum also took a shot to the face today. It was swollen pretty good and his teeth were hurting, but he said he’s fine. Christian Folin also took two big spills in practice, but he brushed it off and said he’ll be fine. But the Wild’s D is very banged up.
With Suter suspended, Jared Spurgeon practiced for parts today on the left side. He said it was very weird and it would be his first time playing that side as a pro.
The Wild’s D is a mess.
Yeo did a lot of one-on-one coaching today. A ton of it, actually. “A lot of work to be done,” he said. He often stopped drills to grab guys like Matt Cooke, Mikko Koivu, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, etc. for one-on-one tutorials.
“We said this morning we wished we had an opportunity to have like three practices in a row or something like that where we could first off just to have one of those battle type of practices that kind of shakes things up a little bit,” Yeo said. “But just the tactical part of your game that has been eroding lately, it’s focus wise. There are so many other things that are in our minds right now. Because of that we’re doing things and we know that we’re supposed to do them but we’re not doing them with a purpose. We’re doing them because we know we’re supposed to and there’s a big difference there. That’s why a lot of the clips that you see, we’re doing things ok and we’re not in a bad position. But they’re still breaking us down and that’s why it’s getting back to doing things with a purpose, being more assertive in it.”
More team meetings today, that was very videocentric with some eye-opening examples of bad hockey.
“It’s not about trying to embarrass anybody or lift anybody up, it’s just recognition of where we’re at and what our game looks like and realizing that we need to get it back to what it needs to be,” Yeo said. “It’s not about roster. It’s about our play. Talent is one thing but we’ve got to play together and we’ve got to play with purpose in every little detail of our game. It’s not about blaming anybody or trying to find reasons why. This is just where we’re at and what I’m focused on is how we’re going to get out of it.”
Today was really about building the team’s game back up heading into tomorrow’s four-point game with the Sabres. I say that tongue and cheek, obviously, as Wild fans have started campaigning for a tanking on Twitter to get Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. If you look at the standings, as bad as the Wild has been, it has a good amount of losing to go to catch teams like Buffalo or Edmonton.
The Sabres have lost a franchise-record eight in a row and have no regulation wins since Dec. 11!
They’re just not cooperating!!!
Niklas Backstrom or Dubnyk vs. Jhonas Enroth Thursday night as the Wild completes this terrible three-game trip. Fourteen combined consecutive losses for these two teams. Should be a doozy.
One year ago, the Wild was in the midst of a six-game losing streak entering its 43rd game of the season against the Buffalo Sabres. Yeo’s job was in peril, the Wild’s goaltending was in turmoil.
One year later, the Wild is in the midst of a six-game losing streak entering its 43rd game of the season against the Buffalo Sabres. Yeo’s job is in peril, the Wild’s goaltending is in turmoil.
“It doesn’t mean anything to me to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “I know that if we play a similar type of game tomorrow, we’ll have a similar type result. To me, just going back to the last point, Buffalo doesn’t mean anything to me right now. My focus is only on us and getting our game back. We can’t hope for any results until we start playing the type of game that’s going to get us them.”
Fletcher hasn’t been around the team a lot since Christmas because of obligations and scouting. In fact, right now he’s conducting the team’s scouting meetings in a warm place and a little to my surprise didn’t rocket to Buffalo to “save the day.”
I asked Yeo point blank to the side today how much assurance Fletcher has given him these days that his job is safe. Fletcher has given Yeo two votes of confidence via the Star Tribune as recently as late last week and I know for a fact he has talked with other national reporters the past few days and said the same thing.
Maybe Yeo is putting on a brave public face also because of the fact that he has 2 ½ years left of security on his deal, but last year Yeo seemed a lot more worried for his job than he does this year.
Yeo said he’s had a ton of communication lately with Fletcher (he didn’t say if he begged for a goalie or defenseman or two!) and that Fletcher’s been extremely supportive.
Yeo on his job: “To say that I’m not worried, of course I am. I’m a realist. I know what’s going on. I don’t read the papers right now and I’m definitely not on Twitter right now (laughs; see, he doesn’t see your #fireyeo’s, so just stop!). But I’m not going to sit around and mope and feel sorry for myself. I’ve got a job to do and now is when I have to do it better than ever.”
I asked him if he’s at least reading the blog, and he said he has taken a break :(
He said some members of the coaching fraternity have reached out to him: “I think everybody’s aware of what’s going on. But at the same time, I know there’s not a whole lot of sympathy for us right now. That’s the way the league works. It’s an eat or be eaten type of game. That’s why we can’t sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. We know that nobody’s feeling sorry for us. Why should we? That’s not going to help us in any way. We have to find a way to get out of this and the only way is with a clear focus on the way that we need to play the game and a desperation and work ethic that can’t be matched.”
On Backstrom: “I’m not going to sit here and say that he played a great game, but if he gives up rebounds, then it’s our job to make sure we have the guys in front of the net too. It’s about every guy doing their job. And rebounds happen during the course of the game and we have to make sure we’re ready for that situation and he’s got to make sure he’s ready for the shot. And that’s the focus that we need. If I’m a defenseman, I can’t be focused and worried about what Nik Backstrom’s doing. I have to make sure that I’m aware and alert and ready for my job and that goes right through the whole lineup.”
Yeo admitted there are letdowns after some of the deflating goals lately, especially the power-play goal last night that made it 3-1 so soon after the Wild trimmed it to 2-1, but he said, “We have to find a way to be stronger.”
Zach Parise said, “I think we should stop referencing last year. We’ve been doing that way too much. We give up one, two goals and mentally right now we quit. We’ve been fragile and we change the way we play. That’s what’s killing us right now.”
I asked Parise about the goalies, well, just because: “It’s a collective thing I think. That’s a position that’s always magnified. The way that position works, if you have an off night it can unfortunately cost you the game easily. Whereas if you’re a forward and you have an off night, you can blend in and do other things – but not as a goalie. There’s way more that happens before the puck gets to the net that can’t happen. The way we’re turning the puck over, the way we’re not tying up guys. We’re there, but we’re getting outworked and outmuscled and we’re giving up second opportunities that shouldn’t happen. That’s a big concern for all of us. We’re making it pretty easy for the other team.”
On all the meetings, Parise said, “Of course it needs to get said. There’s been a lot of talking around here the last four weeks. At some point, we have to start to deliver. The coaches can only do so much. As players, we have to have some thicker skin and hold each other accountable. We’re missing that right now. It’s too easy internally to not compete and it’s too easy for us to quit. That’s the problem, that’s the biggest thing.”
On the team’s game: “You can pull out a video and hit stop and start and slow-mo and pick apart our game, I’m sure there’s a lot that we need to be better at. But a lot of it is a mindset for us. We’re not willing to defend the right way right now. When things are going wrong, we start to cheat for offense and next thing you know we’re spending four or five shifts in our own zone. We’re not strong enough on the puck. Our D-zone coverage hasn’t been good enough, our neutral-zone transition hasn’t been good, our forecheck hasn’t been good. But we know how to do it. that’s not a question. We’ve done it. we know how to do it, we know it works. Just right now, it’s a mindset, it’s not there.
So how do you get that mindset: “Great question. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. That’s where you need guys like myself to help pull us out of it and to go out tomorrow and have a great game and lead the way and play the right way. That type of stuff is contagious. That’s got to be something that happens tomorrow.”
On how tough this year has been, Suter, before his hearing, said, “It’s awful. This whole year has just been terrible in every way possible. With our dads, the sicknesses, the way the team is playing, it’s not good right now. The good thing could be that we have a lot of year left to change that. Today was a good practice. We tried to re-set. We’re trying to build traction any way we can. I think that’s all we can do right now.’’
On Yeo’s job, Suter said, “That’s a huge reflection on us. Yeozie’s a really good coach. He knows the game. He’s matured a lot in the last couple of years. He’s a guy that we want to play for. That’s the disappointing thing. I don’t know what’s going on, we play so well and then we let in a goal or two goals and the wheels just come off. We try to stabilize and it just doesn’t work."
Meeting last night, “Everybody is saying the right things. We’re all in it together. We all get along. It’s a good room. It’s just so frustrating. Because you come out and the effort wasn’t bad the first two periods but the result was terrible at the end of the game. It’s just unacceptable.’’
Nik Backstrom on the criticism with the goalie play: “That’s part of the game, we grew up like that as goalies, you’re used to it. When things don’t go well, they usually look at the goalie, and if things go good, they look at the goalie. That’s how it goes. It’s part of the game. The good thing is that I’ve been around and I know that. For sure as a goalie you know you can go out there and play a really good game to help the team get out of the slump. You put pressure on yourself to do that. But at the same time, you can’t force the result. You have to focus on the details, the process. You can’t think about making 70 saves, just make the first one, then the second one, then the third. Sometimes you can get carried away trying to be perfect. Just play hockey. But you have to do the right things every day. It starts in practice. Today we had a great practice. Last week we had some good practices. So it’s getting better.’’
UPDATED WITH SUTER HEARING INFO
Where do they go from here?
Yes, Mike Yeo was expected to be on the plane for all the Twitter folks who asked me if he got left at the building. GM Chuck Fletcher not only was lucky enough to miss the 7-1 display in Dallas 10 days ago in person, he wasn’t at this 7-2 loss at Pittsburgh either because he’s conducting scouting meetings right now with his staff.
So even if Fletcher wanted to pull the plug, he wasn’t here to do so.
In those scouting meetings, just perhaps, the name of a goalie (both professional and amateur) or 10 are on that scouting list because that was again the catalyst of tonight’s meltdown despite Yeo doing everything he could to not pin the loss on Niklas Backstrom. What choice does he have? There’s nobody else with Josh Harding sick, Darcy Kuemper hurt, John Curry obviously not having the team’s faith and Fletcher not yet delivering a goalie.
Yes, the Wild has a gazillion problems and with what’s going on, there’s no simple fix. But there was no bigger problem tonight than goaltending and when your goalie gives up bad goals when you’re fragile as it is, it deflates you as a team and you just don’t play the same way.
Just look at the bench after the second and third goals against tonight. Players just slumped over.
I know this will be hard to believe judging by the score, but if you didn’t watch this game, the score was 3-1 after two periods.
The first period, the Wild had the better of the chances and the more quantity on the shot clock, but Marc-Andre Fleury made 12 saves and swallowed everything. The Wild was causing turnovers and pressuring, but next thing you know, the Wild couldn’t bury pucks (five goals total during a four-game road losing streak) and it was suddenly 2-0 because of two rebounds goals, the second coming off a harmless-looking shot by Christian Ehrhoff that Backstrom let drop and David Perron put in.
In the second, the Wild also came out of the gate looking fine and got a Jonas Brodin goal on a delayed penalty.
The score’s 2-1 at that point. It’s back in the game. But Charlie Coyle takes a tripping minor and it took only five seconds for Chris Kunitz to score after Backstrom couldn’t stop a tough Evgeni Malkin shot, but then just stood there like a statue in his save pose until a reaching Kunitz put in the loose puck that was just sitting in the crease.
That was a back-breaker. The third period, the Wild’s down 3-1, and Backstrom gave up a Brandon Sutter goal past his blocker from atop the right circle after Brett Sutter’s cuz flew past Ryan Suter, then Backstrom coughed up a rebound before Paul Martin made it 5-1. Nothing Backstrom could do on the Kris Letang mini-break and Backstrom, who has allowed 30 goals in his past eight starts and is winless since Dec. 13, was mercifully pulled finally for Curry, who gave up one more after Jared Spurgeon turned it over.
The Wild has now given up seven goals in two of the past three road games, has now lost six in a row, 12 of 14 and 17 of its past 24.
After the game, a 26-minute player-only meeting.
Yeo, who we usually get second, came out first because the locker-room door was closed.
He said the game was “similar to a lot of our games right now. We unravel.”
He talked about how the team had a good start, good energy, created turnovers and chances and defended well and “something bad happens, and one bad play turns into many.”
On Backstrom’s play, Yeo said, “Tonight I'm not going to pinpoint this on any one person. This is about us. We use the word unflappable and for whatever reason it's not in our vocabulary right now. As a team, we just, for whatever reason, we just fall apart. We start to press and we start to make bigger mistakes. There’s lots of hockey game left, but … things just compound quickly.”
He and Suter mentioned how that Kunitz power-play goal started the deterioration.
Asked if the Wild has quit, Yeo said, “It’s not about quitting. If they had quit, then they wouldn't be in there meeting right now. It's not about that. It's about doing things the right way.”
Again, on Backstrom, whom he said will start in Buffalo, “I’m not going to blame Backy for that. There’s mistakes that lead up to those plays, there’s other people that are involved. I’m not letting anybody off the hook, but now’s not the time to single one person out.
“I don’t believe that we’re giving up. I believe that we’re getting just completely lost.”
Justin Falk sustained an upper-body injury tonight, so Suter played another 29 minutes in a blowout.
Suter and Spurgeon were minus-4, Mikko Koivu was minus-3, four others were minus-2.
Suter is now minus-22 in his past 20 games.
Yeo said, “Plus-minus is a dangerous stat, and I’m not saying that he’s perfect right now. Certainly that’s a topic that’s on his mind right now and he’s putting a great deal of pressure on himself. It’s something that we talked about. I’m not saying that he is perfect, but plus-minus, we keep our own stats and we don’t go by that one.”
Suter tonight also elbowed Steve Downie in the head in the second period and Downie never returned. Suter will have a hearing with the NHL on Wednesday and faces a suspension. If he is suspended and with Falk hurt, Jon Blum will draw in and the Wild will need a defenseman -- I'd assume Matt Dumba.
Suter said it was a fluky play and doesn’t think he will be suspended, that he went to reach for the puck and when he put his hand back on his stick, that’s when Downie skated into his elbow. The video is being inspected by the league and it did look like his elbow jutted out.
I saw Suter talking to Sidney Crosby at the end of the period and he said he was telling Crosby to apologize to Downie, telling Crosby that you know that “I’m not that type of player.”
“I personally never want to see anyone get hurt,” he said.
Koivu on the meeting: “Whatever said here stays here. I’m not going to talk about what’s been said or talked in the room. Like always, that’s going to stay here.”
“The only way is to do a lot of things better,” Koivu said. “It’s not one thing or two things. It’s a lot of things that have to change. The way we play, the way we do things on a daily basis. It’s everything. Every single detail. Everything. It has to be better. With this effort and the kind of game we’ve been playing lately, it’s embarrassing and every single guy should feel that.”
Zach Parise on how they get out of this: “I feel like we’ve been asked that question for the last three weeks now. We’re not getting out of it. We’re so easy to play against. We lose battles, we don’t bump off draws, the details of our game are terrible. We don’t even make it hard on the other team. They tic-tac-toe right around us. Can’t happen.”
Backstrom: “I felt OK out there, but we didn’t win, so you’re not happy. Have to find a way to be better. …
Well you want to get better every game. I never really look back and try to learn from that. Move on and try to be better.”
Just a mess right now. Like I said, Fletcher’s away from the team. But this is serious. Goaltending is an issue and the team just looks drained from all the losing. It’s fragile, it has no confidence, and because of that, it doesn’t take much for the team to fall apart.
Yeo has gotten two public votes of confidence from Fletcher recently. The Wild has lost three times since the last one. So, is that enough to change Fletcher’s opinion or owner Craig Leipold? If Yeo loses his job, I don’t buy that things will magically be repaired. This team is completely fractured right now.
But, what’s next?
As always, please check out the gamer and the game notebook. I have a wakeup call in five hours, so bye. Talk to you from Buffalo.
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