Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.
Also find Russo on Facebook.
Email Michael to talk about hockey.
Funny thing happened Thursday morning inside the visitor’s dressing room here at Glendale Arena.
As the room opened, a swarm of media headed to the back wall of the room. Justin Fontaine was all alone back there, so he stood up to address to the horde of buzzards, I mean reporters, before we all made an abrupt beeline to his right where Jon Blum’s stall was.
Psyche! After all, it would be Blum’s Wild debut later that night. Fontaine started laughing as all his teammates began making fun of him.
“False alarm,” Fontaine said, embarrassingly.
Turns out we should have probably chatted with “Fonzie” because hours later Fontaine would connect on his first career hat trick in a 4-1 win over Phoenix, the Wild’s fourth consecutive win to thrust it back into the top-8 in the West for the first time since Dec. 22 (just an fyi, everybody around them, including the Coyotes, have games in hand on Minnesota, so don’t get too excited yet).
After the Wild went 1,449 days without a hat trick, it picked up its second in five days. Saturday against Washington, Ryan Suter became the first defenseman. Tonight, Fontaine became the first rookie, and this is a guy that was a healthy scratch six times in a 12-game stretch from Nov. 29-Dec. 22. He became the ninth Wild player to get a hat trick and 17th overall.
The first came off Keith Yandle’s rebound when he blew one by Matt Cooke’s screen. The second was a lucky bounce when Jason Pominville’s dump-in hit a stanchion and went to the front of the net with Mike Smith out. The third was an empty-netter.
Kyle Brodziak scored the winning goal, had an assist and was plus-3, Cooke and Nino Niederreiter had two assists each and Niklas Backstrom made 39 saves for his third win in a row as the Wild won in regulation on the road for the first time since Nov. 20 to complete a 2-0 road sweep.
The Wild has the day off Friday and hosts Colorado on Saturday before playing in Nashville on Saturday. Kent Youngblood will cover the Avs game.
The big story in my eyes tonight was Backstrom. A lot of us were surprised tonight at Mike Yeo’s decision to come back with Backstrom because of the magnitude of the game over Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper made 39 saves in L.A for his second career win.
But Backstrom didn’t disappoint. Personally, I think it was an organizational decision because the team needs to see 1) if Backstrom is healthy; 2) if he can continue to play well with this team so needing him right now.
Why do I say that? The Wild’s concerned about its goaltending with Josh Harding’s uncertain health situation and Backstrom’s struggles in the first half and his four afflictions this season (knee, concussion, virus and now abdominal soreness).
As I wrote in Friday’s game story, GM Chuck Fletcher may be looking to add a goaltender to provide some insurance. This is a league where it’s awfully difficult to make a trade and Fletcher also isn’t looking to throw away assets. So according to sources, the Wild is interested in maybe signing free agent Jose Theodore, who is working out daily and skating weekly in South Florida.
Again, we’ll see if Backstrom’s three-game winning streak and outstanding performance tonight (27 of his 39 saves in the first 40 minutes) slows the GM down, but after talking to a bunch of people, it wouldn’t shock me at all if Fletcher eventually looks at signing Theodore. A lot really depends on what’s the word on Harding once we get back to Minnesota.
The Wild is spending the night in Phoenix and heading back in the morning for an off-day. Next access is Saturday morning. Mikko Koivu is also expected to talk for the first time since ankle surgery Saturday morning, so Kent will have that.
Amazing that it was just last week when the Wild was at the trail end of a six-game losing streak and Yeo was potentially on the chopping block if he had lost to Buffalo or Washington. It feels like centuries ago. I’ll have a lot more on that in Saturday’s paper.
I emailed back and forth with Zach Parise today. He became a dad to twins yesterday, and I talked to him about shot blockers and fatherhood. Those quotes are in the Blum/Ballard game notebook on www.startribune.com/wild.
Jason Zucker took a puck from Shane Doan’s shot above the left kneecap in the third period tonight. Scary scene as he couldn’t put any weight on it going down the runway. But afterward, he was walking, had four stitches and said he’ll be fine.
That’s it for now. Barring news, no blog Friday.
Mike Yeo said after tonight’s 2-1 shootout win by the Wild over the Los Angeles Kings that Darcy Kuemper “looked like a different goalie tonight.”
Looking back now, you could almost sense it this morning. He was just cool, calm and collected before his surprise start for a sore Niklas Backstrom. Kuemper, 23, had no external signs of being nervous. He was yucking it up with teammates, on the floor of the locker room stretching, shooting the breeze with me.
There were no jitters, no anxiety about going out against the Kings and proving to the organization, the fans, his teammates, himself that he can play at this level.
Kuemper had two rocky appearances earlier this season, including in his lone start at Toronto, a game the Wild dominated. But Kuemper gave up three goals on only seven shots through 32 ½ minutes before being pulled. After another tough outing in relief of Josh Harding in Montreal, people started questioning whether this kid can play in the NHL, if the Wild traded the wrong goalie in the Jason Pominville swap.
But Kuemper went down to Iowa, got his game in order, had been on fire before getting hurt Dec. 20 and came back to Minnesota with the AHL’s second-best save percentage.
Tonight, Kuemper was scintillating right from the drop of the puck. In a game the Wild was outshot 40-17, in a game where the majority of the first two periods were spent in Minnesota’s end, Kuemper made a career-high 39 saves for his second career win. He stopped all 30 shots he saw in the first 40 minutes, denied studs Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Justin Williams in the shootout and helped lift the depleted Wild to its third consecutive win and second in the past 11 road games.
“He was unbelievable,” said Nino Niederreiter (more on him below). “He’s a great goalie. He had a chance to showcase himself tonight. He made some big, huge saves and kept us in the game. He was over his mind sometimes. He made some big saves for us, even in the shootout.”
Said the Kings' Jarret Stoll: "Got to give him credit for sure. He made some big saves. He doesn't have a lot of experience in this league but he's a big guy, moves well, is very athletic and worked hard to see pucks."
This was the same Kuemper that gave up six goals on 16 shots in two appearances earlier this season.
“It was a chance to redeem myself,” Kuemper said. “My game’s at a place where I want it to be right now. I tried not to change anything up here.”
Kuemper said after he got his first few shots on net, he settled down, which was a far cry from the Toronto game, where he barely saw a shot. That put a ton of pressure on him in a game the Wild dominated but couldn’t score.
Most impressive about tonight is the fact that Kuemper was making his first start since being hurt with Iowa 2 ½ weeks ago. Remember, he was supposed to come to New York and back up Backstrom and start in Philadelphia the next night. But in a 44-save shutout against Hamilton, Kuemper was hurt when he bowled over in the final seconds.
“As much as he didn’t feel like he performed as well as he could have, he didn’t pout about it,” veteran Matt Cooke said. “He went down and played his butt off in the minors. Through injury, he’s back here and has to play. I give him tons of kudos.”
Nino Niederreiter, who scored the tying goal in the third period 2:35 after Jarret Stoll gave the Kings a 1-0 lead, scored his first career shootout goal in Round 4 after Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville and Charlie Coyle couldn’t beat Jonathan Quick. Remember, the Wild’s go-to shootout guys are back in Minnesota hurt – Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise.
Niederreiter said Cooke gave him a scouting report before his attempt, saying he saw a lot of room on Quick’s blocker side. So Niederreiter deked, went blocker and buried it.
His goal in the third was his third in five games and ninth of the season. It came two shifts after Yeo reunited the Niederreiter-Granlund-Pominville line. Ryan Suter sent a stretch pass to Granlund, who hit Pominville at the blue line. Pominville set up Niederreiter as he drove the net.
Niederreiter was by far the Wild’s most dangerous player. He had four shots and five hits in addition to his tying goal and shootout goal.
Yeo called it a “statement.”
The Wild was outshot 30-11 against Washington and won 5-3. Tonight, it was outshot 40-17 and got hemmed in its zone for many extended shifts in the second in particular.
Yeo tried to call time but couldn’t get a whistle when the Wild was “turning pucks over left and right.” I mentioned on Twitter at the time and Yeo brought it up afterward, but there was a TV timeout and you could just see Yeo trying to get his squad to chill.
He said from that moment, the team was better.
One of the guys turning pucks over left and right was Keith Ballard. He didn’t play a shift after the 11:18 mark of the second period. So with overtime, he was benched for the final 33 minutes, 42 seconds.
“I don’t even know if that’s what we want to call it,” Yeo said when asked about benching Ballard.
OK, Yeo chose not to play him.
“We were running with the guys that were going at that point,” Yeo said. “We had to do different things to try to get to our game.”
Still, Wild need road wins. It got one tonight minus Koivu, Parise, Harding and Jared Spurgeon.
“It was ugly, but sometimes on the road, you’ve got to find a way,” Cooke said. “Kuemps stood on his head. He was the difference. We hung in there. It’s not going to be perfect every night. We’re missing some key components to our hockey club, so we’ve got to find ways to win.”
Onto Phoenix. Talk to you Wednesday after the team’s late afternoon practice.
It’s not often you come to a Wild game wearing a hat or toque and actually leave without it.
But Ryan Suter sent a lot of fans into the frigid winter night without any headwear after notching the first hat trick by a defenseman in Wild history during Minnesota’s 5-3 come-from-behind win over the Washington Capitals.
Suter went a perfect 3 for 3, scoring power-play goals 42 seconds apart in the second period and a 2-on-1 bullet off Clayton Stoner’s pass after Suter came out of the penalty box in the third. That was the only one of Suter’s shots Braden Holtby actually saw because the netminder was screened by Dany Heatley on the other two.
Great win by the Wild tonight after rallying back after a terrible first period in which it was outscored 2-zip and outshot 11-1. Read the gamer on www.startribune.com/wild for the details and some of the good quotes.
“We couldn’t have scripted that any better,” Capitals center Brooks Laich said. “Two-nothing lead. They have one shot. They’re not in our zone. They’re getting booed off the ice by their own fans on a Saturday night. I mean, we’re in total control of that game.”
But Wild players gave Mike Yeo a lot of credit for waking them up in the first intermission and then firing them up by barking up and down the bench to start the second period. That wound up being a four-goal second period highlight by three power-play goals. Nino Niederreiter got it started after a tremendous play by Charlie Coyle to chip the puck in and then outwork and outbattled Mike Green for the puck. Suter then made it 2-2, then 3-2, before Green scored his second goal of the game in fluky fashion when his dump-in banked off the end boards and off Niklas Backstrom’s pad and in.
But the Caps put their second puck in the seats of the period, and after a poor shift by the first power-play unit, the second unit came out, Jason Zucker won a board battle, the puck worked back to the point and Zucker redirected Keith Ballard’s shot for a 4-3 lead.
The bad news of the game is captain Mikko Koivu sustained a foot injury. Koivu was nailed by Nicklas Backstrom’s dump-in from a few feet away early in the second period. Koivu went down in a heap, then struggled painfully to the bench.
He emerged 3 ½ minutes later with the Wild on a 1:55 5-on-3. During that 63-second shift, he assisted on both of Suter’s power-play goals. But he didn’t play the final eight minutes of the third and finally coach Mike Yeo sent him to the locker room.
Yeo said he was in pain, but he didn’t have an update.
If Koivu can’t come on the upcoming two-game trip to L.A. and Phoenix, Yeo said “That would be enormous. I don’t even need to go into what he means to our team.”
The Wild is already without Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon with foot injuries. If Koivu can’t come, the Wild will either need to move Torrey Mitchell back to center and play Mike Rupp or probably call up Erik Haula. Remember, the Wild lost Zenon Konopka on waivers.
The Wild is already playing seven of 18 skaters age 23 and younger. They all stepped up tonight and must continue to. Yeo praised Mikael Granlund, who assumed a lot of Koivu’s roles tonight. He had an assist, won 11 of 15 faceoffs
Still, this could be an issue if Koivu is sidelined. I’ll write more about the young kids Sunday for Monday.
The Wild was outshot 30-11 tonight. Backstrom made 27 saves. The 11 shots were tied for the lowest in a game in franchise history. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no NHL team had previously scored five goals on less than 13 shots since shots started to be recorded in 1973.
Yeo joked their shooting percentage went up.
Wild’s now 7-0 against Washington at home.
Wild has won two in a row in regulation for the first time in a month (Dec. 2 and 5).
Second Wild win in a row both Dallas and Phoenix, two teams the Wild’s chasing, lost in regulation.
Suter was the eighth Wild player to get a hat trick and 16th hat trick all-time by the Wild. It was the first since Guillaume Latendresse at Phoenix in 2010 and the first at home since Nov. 27, 2009 (Chuck Kobasew). It was Suter’s first career hat trick. In fact, he only had one career 2-goal game. Read the gamer for the quotes.
The Wild’s 16-5-2 at home but now head to L.A. and Phoenix. The Wild is 1-8-1 in its past 10 on the road and hasn’t won in regulation on the road since Nov. 20 at Ottawa.
The three power-play goals in a period tied a franchise record. The four second-period goals was a season high for a period.
Koivu now has a five-game point streak and is five points from being the Wild’s all-time leading scorer.
Suter has five goals in the past four games after none in the first 40 and points in 11 of the past 12 games.
Zucker’s goal was his first career power-play goal. Niederreiter now has eight goals.
Granlund has won 28 of 42 draws the past four games.
Matt Cooke has four assists in his five games.
Backstrom has two wins in a row for the first time this year.
That’s it for me. The Wild isn’t practicing Sunday. Barring news, no blog. My guess is we won’t get a Koivu injury update until Monday, and it could come late because the team flies out in the morning for Los Angeles.
I will come to you from L.A. on Monday. Sorry about that. It’s going to be cold here if you hadn’t heard.
It’s easy to slight a team mired in a six-game losing streak and 5-12-1 slide easily beating the worst team in the NHL.
“What’s it even mean?” was a question I received a number of times on Twitter and email tonight. In fact, I got so many cynical tweets, you all have futures in sports writing because we ink-stained wretches are nothing if not cynical.
But, hey, you play the opponents as they’re slated, and Thursday at the X, the lowest-scoring team and worst road team in the NHL arrived to face the Wild.
The Wild beat the Sabres in every way possible, so hey, it’s a start.
Does it save the season, save jobs, solve all problems, catapult the Wild back in the playoff race?
But a turnaround must start with a victory, and maybe tonight’s 4-1 win was it. Maybe.
We will find out starting with the next big test coming Saturday – reigning MVP Alex Ovechkin, the great Joel Ward and the Washington Capitals.
Tonight, the Wild needed a victory, got a complete game from the roster, contribution from all four lines, six defensemen and a goaltender named Niklas Backstrom, who had his first shutout of the season spoiled with 1:12 left when Matt Ellis thought it would be cool to score on a delayed penalty.
Where would the Wild be without former Sabres captain Jason Pominville, who scored his team-leading 18th goal and second consecutive winning goal against his ex-mates.
Marco Scandella was 1:12 away from his third winning goal out of six career goals, Jason Zucker scored a big goal to turn a 2-0 lead into a more breathable 3-0 lead (although, we thought that against the Islanders, too) and Kyle Brodziak saw his 30-game goal drought snapped when referee Chris Lee graciously awarded him a goal that he won’t even get a credited shot for.
Brodziak was hauled down en route to a potential empty-netter. Coach Mike Yeo had a funny line about it in his postgame, and you can read the gamer on www.startribune.com/wild for that quote and more.
Yeo was all smiles on the bench late in the game and cracked some jokes in the postgame. Again, all’s not safe for the coach yet, there were good signs on the ice the past two games as the Wild started to get back to the identity of being a defensively-solid team.
For the second game in a row, the coaches split Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin and Scandella and Jared Spurgeon, and the Suter-Spurgeon and Scandella-Brodin pairs were awesome.
Nate Prosser had a solid game, as did Clayton Stoner, who returned from a lower-body injury. Stoner had five hits and brought a much-needed physical element.
“After watching a couple games from the press box, it was a little bit evident that we were lacking a little bit of physicality, emotion,” Stoner said. “Tonight, right through the lineup, we played with a lot of emotion.”
The Wild finally played a good game in front of Backstrom and he was able to play with a lead for a change after the Wild broke a 0-0 tie with three second-period goals. Remember, it was 0-0 after one New Year’s Eve against St. Louis and the Wild broke first.
It didn’t tonight.
Nobody was celebrating after the game. There were happy faces, but everybody knows the Wild’s accomplished nothing yet. It’s got a lot of work to do, but maybe tonight’s win will instill some confidence again into the locker room and provide something to build off.
“If we bring that type of effort, we’re going to win a lot more games,” Pominville said. “It’s two in a row where we battled hard, we didn’t give up much. … If you look at it, we didn’t do anything special, but we did a lot of good things right, all the little details right, and it led to us outshooting them and for the most part outplaying them.”
That’s it for me. I talked to GM Chuck Fletcher tonight and he explained the Zenon Konopka waiver move as the Wild felt its top-four centers now will be Koivu, Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Brodziak. If the Wild needs, it can move Torrey Mitchell, who was great tonight by the way, to center, or look to Iowa, where it has Erik Haula and Jake Dowell.
Fletcher also indicated that he continues to try to “make something happen” in terms of a trade, so clearing a roster spot by having Konopka claimed or sending him to Iowa would help in that because eventually Zach Parise will taking one roster spot again.
Konopka will either be claimed or clear at 11 a.m. Friday. Follow me on Twitter for that news.
Talk to you after practice Friday.
Mike Yeo opened his postgame news conference saying this feels like “Groundhog Day.”
It was something I know we can all agree with.
The losses keep mounting, the answers are all the same, we’re running out of questions.
“Winning cures everything,” defenseman Ryan Suter said after Tuesday’s 2-1 loss to St. Louis. “You win games, you build confidence. We have to find a way, any way possible, and then you build off of that.”
The Wild’s now 5-12-1 in its past 18 (11 points out of the last 36 available) and has lost six in a row in regulation for the first time in its 13-year history.
There’s now two games left in the homestand against Buffalo and Washington, which means Yeo’s job security is getting flimsier and flimsier. But there’s no doubt he’s going to keep showing up and working to try to get the Wild out of this until owner Craig Leipold and GM Chuck Fletcher tell him otherwise.
I’m pretty confident Yeo will be behind the bench against the Sabres.
After the game, players like Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville said the system works, the structure works, and it’s up to the players to execute. Please give those quotes a read, and Yeo’s postgame quotes, in the gamer at www.startribune.com/wild.
The Wild looked like it was getting back to that defensive structure during a scoreless first period tonight, but then a couple mistakes cost the Wild in the second.
First Keith Ballard put a puck in Mikael Granlund’s skates and Granlund was forced into a turnover by T.J. Oshie. He scored a breakaway goal. Then, Koivu centered a shot from the wall meant as a rebound. But Marco Scandella overskated the rebound and Nino Niederreiter wasn’t where he was supposed to be, which led to Blues exploding for an odd-man rush and eventually Jaden Schwartz’s goal.
It reminded me of earlier today when I was talking to an NHL coach that said the thing the Wild better remember if it changes the coach is you still can’t make the 21- to 23-year-olds on the team magically grow up and you still can’t get rid of some of the veterans that the Wild is waiting for the contracts to run out on.
In other words, there are bigger issues going on beyond Yeo.
It’s like the Islanders game when some of the youngsters were terrific and then made critical defensive mistakes that led to the loss. Like I always say, the kids will all be good, but it takes time and they’re still making young mistakes, either with the puck (Granlund the past three games) or in the case of Niederreiter, sometimes away from the puck. Charlie Coyle’s still not producing regularly, Jonas Brodin isn’t as steady.
If Yeo loses his job, the question is whether the Wild makes somebody on the staff like Rick Wilson the interim and waits to see the full group of available coaches this summer or does it hire one of the available coaches now. The smartest thing would probably be to wait because that’s when the full allotment’s available, like last summer with Lindy Ruff, Alain Vigneault, John Tortorella (gulp).
But if the pressure’s to get somebody in place now, the experienced coaches available right now include Peter Laviolette (under contract with Philadelphia through 2014-15 at a salary likely north of $1.5 million), Paul Maurice, Ron Wilson and Guy Boucher.
Laviolette was one of the runners-up when GM Chuck Fletcher hired Todd Richards, and remember, that’s when the Wild wanted an up-tempo, play-on-your-toes, offensive-minded coach. The concern with hiring Laviolette now is I think there’s serious doubt if Laviolette’s offensive-minded system is built for a Wild team that struggles so much to score goals.
And it doesn’t struggle to score goals because of Yeo’s system. The Wild has outchanced opponents many nights this season and just don’t seem to have the horses coupled with the fact that the young horses aren’t consistent enough yet to bury its chances. I think the Wild lacks speed still and definitely size.
There is zero doubt that Fletcher does not want to make a change. He believes in Yeo. Heck, he hired Yeo, and if he fired his second coach in five seasons, that doesn’t exactly say a lot about his ability to hire coaches, especially when he passed over several experienced ones.
But the Wild is sinking like a rock, and at some point, Fletcher may have no choice but to make some type of statement.
As I wrote today, he continues to try to make a trade, too.
The scary thing now is we’ve hit a juncture of this losing streak where confidence is fractured, the mood of the room is down, there’s palpable tension around the organization and everybody just seems to be waiting for a bomb to drop.
And if that’s the case, this thing won’t be able to turn around by itself. Trust me, when I was in Florida and covered the Panthers, I covered almost a dozen coaching changes. I’ve seen teams in turmoil that are just waiting for an external move. Once that happens, it’s like a pall hanging over the entire locker room until something actually does happen.
Yeo said, “It’s been evident in our play that we haven’t been the most composed group right now. Whatever that reason is, we have to figure it out. Guys have to figure out how to come to perform at a high level. We need everybody.”
He added, “There were a lot of things that were much better, but we’re not in a position where we can feel good about those things. Build off them, look at them, but there’s still other things we’re not doing well enough to win hockey games.”
That’s it for me. Give the articles a read in the paper. Happy New Year. Talk to you after Wednesday’s practice.
|Vikings (33)||Gophers injuries (2)|
|Gophers on TV (1)||Gophers coaches (2)|
|Gophers players (7)||Gophers game day (6)|
|Gophers postgame (12)||Gophers awards and honors (1)|
|Gophers post season (1)||St. Cloud State (1)|
|Wild news (464)||Bears (5)|
|Lions (1)||Packers (2)|
|Super Bowl (6)||Vikings fans (3)|
|Ex-players (1)||Injury report (1)|
|On the road (181)||Rookies (36)|
|Roster moves (14)||Vikings draft (91)|
|Vikings trade talk (3)||Fighting (3)|
|Stanley Cup (28)||Wild coaching (32)|
|Wild game coverage (386)||Wild management (15)|
|Wild off-season news (421)||Wild player moves (125)|
|Wild practice (331)||Wild pregame skate (345)|
|Wild trade news (37)||Wild training camp (121)|
|Adrian Peterson (4)||Ben Leber (1)|
|Bernard Berrian (1)||Brad Childress (3)|
|Brett Favre (5)||Jared Allen (2)|
|Leslie Frazier (1)||Brad Childress (3)|
|Leslie Frazier (1)||NHL news (1)|
|2010 Winter Games (5)||Olympic hockey (27)|
|Olympic luge (3)||Olympic ski jumping (2)|
|Olympic skiing (2)||NHL draft (7)|
|Gophers sports (3)||Gophers (38)|