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 signs draft pick Christoph Bertschy to three-year deal

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news Updated: April 26, 2015 - 10:39 AM

The Wild signed center Christoph Bertschy (pronounced BAIRT-chee) to a three-year, entry-level contract starting next season today. The Swiss-born 21-year-old is a 2012 sixth-round pick.

I reported three weeks ago the Wild planned to sign him after the world championships, but he apparently has a nagging injury from the playoffs and won't be able to play in worlds.

I actually have seen Bertschy play in person. A few years ago before the world juniors in Alberta, I went to a Swiss-USA exhibition game a few hours from Edmonton. I got to watch Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker in that game, too.

By all accounts, he's really come on this year under Guy Boucher. He was given a bigger role and aside from injuries was productive. He's a skilled winger with good speed a skilled playmaker. Not the biggest body but is well conditioned and strong for his size.

From the press release:

Bertschy collected 30 points (14-16=30), a plus-14 rating and 26 penalty minutes (PIM) in 44 games with SC Bern in the Swiss League in 2014-15. The 5-foot-10, 189-pound native of Fribourg, Switzerland, ranked T-2nd on the team in goals, T-3rd in plus/minus and fifth in scoring. He added three points (1-2=3) in seven playoff games. Bertschy recorded 14 points (6-8=14) in 37 games with HC Bern in 2013-14. He ranked T-3rd in scoring for Switzerland with five points (3-2=5) and a plus-4 rating in six games at the 2013 World Junior Championship. Bertschy did not participate in the 2014 World Junior tournament due to injury.

He's expected to start next season with AHL Iowa.

I'll be on Fox Sports North during the station's hour-long pregame show. Game 6, 2 p.m., is on NBC.

Wild aims to redeem itself at home, knock off the St. Louis Blues on Sunday

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: April 25, 2015 - 4:48 PM

There was a quiet confidence at Xcel Energy Center today -- which perhaps is better than the presumed overconfidence that emerged between Games 3 and 4.

As the old cliché goes, the hardest win to get in a best-of-seven playoff series is that fourth and decisive one, so the Wild’s taking nothing for granted and knows it hasn’t won anything yet.

The Blues will come in desperate and vowed from their availability in St. Louis to put forth its best effort to try to force a Game 7 on Wednesday at home.

The Wild, which has never won a series in less than seven games, hopes to end things before that though with a big win Sunday in Game 6 (2 p.m., NBC) to eliminate the Central Division champion for a second consecutive year in the first round.

Good late afternoon from Xcel Energy Center, where the Wild held an optional practice today.

I will be on KFAN with Dan Barreiro from 9-10 a.m. Sunday and on Fox Sports North during its hourlong pregame show.

The Wild says it learned its lesson from Wednesday 6-1 Game 4 home loss and doesn’t want to put itself in a position where it leaves things to chance in Game 7.

Blues coach Ken Hitchcock made clear what his team’s objective is: “The last thing Minnesota wants to do is have this thing come back to our building. That's the last thing they want. We've got to make sure they get to look that in the eye. That's our goal; just bring it home. That's the whole focus for us. Just bring this thing home, we get a nice rest and that's the focus. This is a real quick turnaround for both teams. We'll see who has energy going tomorrow. They had to absorb a lot in the third period. We played the third period the right way in their end; they had to absorb a lot and hopefully, we can take advantage by playing on our toes again, but we're going to get a major league push from them at the start of the game. We're probably going to have to do more absorbing than we wanted to and then we're going to have to really push back. But our goal right now is bring this thing home because it's going to be great for us and it is the absolute last thing they want to have happen.”

Added Blues forward Jaden Schwartz, “Well, certainly [Sunday’s] game is going to have to be our best. Our season's on the line, really, plain and simple. We have to do everything we can to bring it back here and that's going to be our mentality and leave everything out there and have no excuses at the end of the game.”

The Blues’ Jori Lehtera, the center that missed Game 5, skated on his own before the Blues’ optional Saturday and is questionable for Sunday’s game. Wild coach Mike Yeo says all Wild players are good to go. 

“Hopefully our fans are having a couple of Bloody Marys with breakfast to get in a good frame of mind,” Yeo said.

“Our crowd is something that is very motivating to our group and it means a lot in certain situations as far as momentum for your team,” Yeo said. “But that said, we know what we’re up against here still. They didn’t win their division by accident, that team, it’s a very proud group. We’re ready for a hard game.”

Bizarre series. The road team has won three games, including the Wild twice in St. Louis.

Wild pounds St. Louis in Game 3, gets pounded in Game 4 and then steals Game 5 thanks to Devan Dubnyk’s 36-save bounceback victory.

Momentum hasn’t carried from game to game.

“I’m hoping the fact that we’ve faced pressure for the better part of three months now, I’m hoping that’s something that we can use to our advantage here,” Yeo said. “But again, I’m not sitting around hoping that things are going to just fall into place. I know that if we’re going to get the result that we want, we’re absolutely going to have to earn it and we have to be ready for that.

“For us, just the way we have to approach it, we have an opportunity here. It’s an exciting opportunity, but it’s only that. it’s only an opportunity unless you take advantage of it, so we have to start getting ready to give ourselves the best chance to take advantage of it.”

On Game 6, Zach Parise said, “We’re all looking forward to it, it’s going to be a tough game, we’re expecting that and we know that. We’ve worked hard to put ourselves in a position to win a series and we’ll try our best to do that.”

On the importance of closing it out at home, Parise said, “That’s the ideal scenario of course, we’d love to have a great game on home ice, but that being said, we know it’s not going to be easy, it’s going to be a tough game and anytime a team is facing elimination, you know they are going to be desperate. If we can worry about ourselves and play a smart game, and a patient game, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”

On the Blues’ likely desperation level, Parise said, “We should have some desperation too to win the series. That should even it out. We know the position that we’re in and you want to have a great game at home.”

Dubnyk again said the Wild needs to treat Game 6 like it’s their Game 7: “We have to. We have put ourselves in a good situation to hopefully close out the series. We don’t want to be going back to St. Louis and put in a situation where it’s one game game-winner, a win-or-go-home. We have a chance to close it tomorrow and we need to do that.”

Talk to ya Sunday. I’ll blog and tweet if there’s any lineup changes.

Vezina finalist, 36 saves to put Wild a win from advancing? Devan Dubnyk had a very good day

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: April 25, 2015 - 12:32 AM

Mike Yeo said as far as good days go, Devan Dubnyk had a great one.

One year after being in the minors with the Canadiens, the Wild goalie was named Vezina Trophy finalist earlier today. Hours later, he made 36 saves to rebound from the worst loss of his Wild career by leading Minnesota to a 4-1, Game 5 victory and put his team on the brink of advancing to the second round.

Game 6 will be Sunday at 2 p.m.

Dubnyk said he found earlier today from Yeo and he took some time to reflect on this incredible year.

“It was a year ago today I was on the C squad in Montreal,” Dubnyk said. “It’s been a long road and I got a good chance to talk to some important people in my life today that supported me through the whole run.”

How the heck did he put Wednesday’s 6-1 loss behind him, a game he was pulled after allowing six goals on 17 shots? How the heck did teammate after teammate say that Dubnyk’s positive attitude the past day was contagious and wore off on the group? How the heck did Yeo say the most impressive part of Dubnyk’s response was his eagerness to get back out there tonight and rebound?

“It’s easy,” Dubnyk said. “Everything we’ve been through, the belief that we have as a group in here of how good of a team we are, there was just no doubt from anybody in here that we were going to come in and have a better hockey game. I always go back to the conversation I had with [Coyotes captain] Shane Doan and him just reminding me that when you’re down or have a bad game, you need to remind yourself that that’s not the person you are, that’s not the player you are. You go back to when you have a 40-shot shutout, or 35 save, one-goal game, that’s who you are as a person and a player, you just have remember that.”

Dubnyk made 19 of his 36 saves in the third period, a period the Wild was in severe survival mode as the Blues pressured heartily.

In the first period, the Blues took the game’s first eight shots and took a 1-0 lead on Vladimir Tarasenko’s power-play goal, his sixth goal on nine shots at that point in the series.

In a series where there had been no tying goals or lead changes, it had to be harrowing.

“We talked about more than anything before the game, if they score first, we score first, our game can't change,” Yeo said. “I don't think we did that very well in Game 4, tonight that was a big factor for us, no one got down.”

Finally, at the 11:06 mark, Marco Scandella registered the Wild’s first shot of the game and it blew through Jake Allen’s glove for a tie game. By the end of one, the Blues had a 12-3 shot advantage but had to be nervous with a 1-1 game.

In the second, Dubnyk was awesome, robbing Alex Steen twice, including a desperation, rolling, throw-the-leg-up, pad save after Jared Spurgeon pressured Steen and made the patient skilled forward pause his shot.

Zach Parise called the save a game-changer.

“I don’t like being in that position very much,” Dubnyk said. “Some guys are good at doing that. I’m not Dominik Hasek, so I’m usually not feeling good in that spot. You just throw everything at him.”

“Obviously when you're on the bench your heart kind of sinks because you see the play develop and think it's in your net, think you're going to be trailing, all of a sudden you’re going the other way on a rush, it's a big lift for your group,” Yeo said.

Charlie Coyle, who scored the fourth goal tonight, raved about Dubnyk after the game and said the bench exploded with that save.

Not long after, Nino Niederreiter and Mikko Koivu scored on back-to-back shots 1:26 apart. Niederreiter’s goal became his third career game-winning goal, a Wild playoff record.

The Wild dominated the last eight minutes of the second, but in the third, it was all St. Louis and Dubnyk stopped 19 of 19 shots.

“I just wanted to make sure I wasn’t approaching it like I had to go get a shutout after last game,” he said. “I just wanted to get back to finding pucks and being set and feeling good about what I was doing.”

On Sunday, Dubnyk said, “It’s huge. We need to treat that game like that’s our Game 7. You don’t get very many opportunities to finish off a series and we’ve worked to put ourselves in that situations. But we’ve got to understand that coming back here in a Game 7’s going to be a tough situation. It’s a one game win or go home and we have an opportunity to avoid that situation, so we’ll do the best we can and feed off our crowd.”

Yeo said of Dubnyk, “We needed him to give us a chance to settle into the game a little bit. It seemed like we were a little bit jittery in terms of execution, missing some sticks, some passes that we could have executed a little better on, missing some nets in the offensive zone. He gave us that opportunity. We've beaten a lot of good teams, beaten them in different buildings, not every game the same. Got to find a way to play your game and do it well for 60 minutes.”

Yeo said “Game 6 is obviously going to be a great challenge. We have not won anything yet. I think we’re very aware that home ice has not been a huge advantage in this series. That's going to be a great challenge.”

The Wild is 12-1-2 now in games after Dubnyk losses. Allen gave up more than two goals for the first time in 13 starts.

Chris Stewart, who was having a tough night and series before the midway point of the second, made a great play to get away from Zbynek Michalek to set up the Niederreiter goal. Yeo made a move early in the game to flip Niederreiter and a clearly-banged-up Jason Zucker and put Niederreiter on the Koivu-Stewart line. It paid off bigtime.

Here's some cut and paste Ken Hitchcock:


Where fell apart after Minny's first goal?
I don't know that it fell apart. I think they were opportunistic. First period until they scored their goal, that was the best we've played in the whole series. Played great. We kind of flattened out a little bit when they scored the goal and had all those chances in the second and missed those four chances there. 


On Niederreiter goal:
We made a mistake on the second goal; we didn't get the puck deep. They got a faceoff and the d-man lost his stick. Jake didn't pick it up. That was kind of the turning point a little bit. 

On Koivu goal:
The third goal's a fluke goal; what are you going to do? 
But so many good things. We did so many good things today. We had a little bit of a lull. I didn't think we responded as hard as we could have maybe when they scored the first goal. That gave them a little bit of wind, but just did so many good things. You're disappointed for the guys. We'll rebound and get ready for the next game. If we bring a lot of the good things we did today into the next game, we've got a third game in a row to build on.

Opportunity to extend lead when 1-0:
We were playing so well. We just looked like it was a continuation of the last game, but I thought the air went out of the bag a little bit when they scored their first goal and we've got to probably look to respond a little bit different than that. We could have probably picked up Jake a little bit on that one. I thought we got a little bit flat.

WIld pack it in during third, not allow interior in period:
No, but it's our team. We kept coming. I don't know, what'd we have 19, 20 shots on goal? We get one early when we have all the chances, who knows. Game on, but it's natural to sit back a little bit. We were in their zone for most of the period.

Momentum changed entire series; reasons to believe going up there for Game 6:
 
I feel like we've played two games pretty well. We've got to play a third game to get it back here. We want to really bring it back for Game 7. We're going to have to play a really good game, but we've got two good games now we can build on. ... Look, we've got to score more. We've got to finish on these chances that we get. You can't three, four chances in the second period in a series where their goalie's playing really well; you can't get those chances and not finish them and expect to win and you're not going to win a lot of games scoring one goal. You're going to have to find ways to finish off those great opportunities because it was just us and the goalie three or four times there in the second period. Gotta find a way to finish those.
 

----

The Wild is now 4 for 11 on the power play this series. Tonight snapped five consecutive Game 5 losses.

That’s it for now. We know how the Wild usually play when it’s in a terrific position. We’ll see if it can avoid a letdown.

Talk to you after Saturday’s availability. Very early flight, so I have to get going.

Devan Dubnyk named Vezina Trophy finalist; Jets coach Paul Maurice raves about Mike Yeo

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news Updated: April 24, 2015 - 6:27 PM

Devan Dubnyk’s tremendous second-half run with the Wild has earned him a Vezina Trophy nomination.

The Wild goaltender is a finalist for the award given the goaltender adjudged as the best at his position. The 30 NHL general managers vote for the award, and the other finalists are Montreal's Carey Price and Nashville's Pekka Rinne.

The winner will be announced Wednesday, June 24, during the 2015 NHL Awards from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas.

“We talked about this before, I think he should be a Hart Trophy candidate too for what he’s done for our group," coach Mike Yeo said. "Whenever there’s an individual award, you’re always incredibly happy for those players and I think it’s very deserving in his case what he’s done for us and the attitude that he’s had.

"It’s great that he’s had personal success, but he really wants to bring team success to our group too. But I also think it’s a real compliment to the rest of the team. This is a team game. You don’t have success individually unless the rest of the group is doing their job."

We'll get Dubnyk's reaction after tonight's Game 5, but he talked a few days ago about how what a ride this has been and who would have thought a few months ago a picture of himself would be hanging on the side of Xcel Energy Center before the playoffs. He is also the Wild's Masterton Trophy nominee.

Eight points outside of a playoff spot when he made his team debut on Jan. 15, Dubnyk backstopped the Wild to their third consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Dubnyk, who set a franchise record with 38 straight starts following his acquisition from Arizona, went 27-9-2 with a 1.78 goals-against average, .936 save percentage and five shutouts after joining the Wild. He was the winning goaltender in 11 of the Wild's 12 consecutive road wins (Feb. 18 - Apr. 9) that tied the 2005-06 Red Wings for the longest such run in League history. Overall, the first-time Vezina finalist finished the season second in the NHL with a 2.07 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. He also ranked in the top 10 in shutouts (t-4th,
6) and wins (t-6th; 36).

Dubnyk was named the NHL's First Star of the Month in February and Third Star of the Month in March - becoming the first player in franchise history to earn multiple monthly honors. He was also named the NHL's First Star of the Week on Feb. 9 and March 30 and Third Star of the Week on Feb. 2 - becoming the first player in franchise history to earn three weekly honors in a single season.

Niklas Backstrom was a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2009.

Incidentally, coach Paul Maurice raved about Yeo today in his end of the year address in Winnipeg.

The question came up in Winnipeg about what's ahead for the Jets and Maurice wound his way into thoughts of "arrrogance that comes from success" and how the Jets need to re-establish expectations next year after making the playoffs and how teams look at things differently once they've been down that road and how sometimes it becomes a disconnect when success doesn't become automatic.

"It’s why Mike Yeo, and I'm not sure if he's in it, in my mind should be a frontrunner in there as coach of the year. Because for two months aside from the mumps and all the injuries he had, that's what you were reading out of there -- 'We made the playoffs last year, we’re better than this, this is a disgrace, this is a crime, it’s unacceptable,' -- that is an animal to deal with that’s very hard to contain. And he did a masterful job of that. Yes, the goalie came in and changed, but the team was prepared to accept that change, and off they went. The run that he went on in our division, in our conference, ... was spectacular. I mean, that was a special piece of coaching, from a coach's point of view, right? That’s the beast we have to worry about. That we’ve learned that lesson, that it’s a straight line: ‘Oh, we’ve learned it last year, it should be no problem.’ Get right back at it. It may be more difficult to learn those lessons next year. I start with my messaging today."

Sunday's game time? Well, it depends ...

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: April 24, 2015 - 3:46 PM

I have gotten tons of questions about Sunday's Game 6 start time.

This is just my guess: If the Rangers eliminate the Penguins tonight, the Wild and Blues would likely be 2 p.m. on NBC. If the Penguins win tonight and Sens are eliminated, the Wild and Blues would likely be 7 p.m. BUT, if the Penguins and Senators win tonight, I would guess Wild and Blues would get the must-despised, Central time zone 8:30 (really 8:45) slot.

You want to know what coaches think of it? Ken Hitchcock ended his press conference and humorously walked out when I asked his opinion of them this morning.

"Don't even get me going on that one. It's way past my bedtime," Hitchcock said before dropping the mic.

Here's Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville when asked about the Game 4 of the Blackhawks-Predators series starting ay 8:45 p.m. and ending at 1:16 a.m. due to triple overtime: "I might not be able to answer that question. You should ask the fans who had to get up the next morning for work in Chicago the other night [after the 3OT game]. You look at the eastern, the other side, and the teams out west — basically the teams in our division are getting these 8:30 starts. It’s probably not easy on anybody, including you guys. It is what it is. I think players like 7, 7:30s and let’s go."

Remember, the past two postseasons, it's been the Wild and Blackhawks hit with the most 8:30 starts, which messes up with the routines of everyone, from fans to players to, ahem, the stinkin' media and our deadlines.

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