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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It was bad enough having to write about this game for the paper, so I don’t know how much more I want to spend on it here.
3-nothing loss by the Wild. Just a poorly-played game from start to finish.
The team was flat, executed badly, from losing puck battles and races to having by far its worst passing performances in weeks. Passes were either ahead of guys or behind them much of the night.
Darcy Kuemper did an admirable job keeping the Wild in its for awhile, but the dagger came 5:55 into the third with the Wild actually pressuring. Marco Scandella broke his stick on a shot and Erik Condra made it 2-0 on a breakaway.
The Wild showed signs of frustration all night. It’s hard to tell totally on replay because you can’t see where Kyle Turris has the puck, but the team felt Clarke MacArthur was offside on Ottawa’s first goal. There were a few missed calls, like Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle being tripped and Ryan Suter being high-sticked right in front of one of the refs a shift before Condra made it 2-0.
But coach Mike Yeo said, “When you’re more engaged in the game, when you’re on top of your game, things like that don’t beat you.”
The Wild hasn’t had a practice since last Wednesday because of mandatory CBA days off and also because of the travel to and from Phoenix on Monday and the travel to and from Nashville. The team looked like a team that was tired and didn’t practice a lot tonight, although Yeo said it was no excuse and it needs to use Wednesday’s practice “efficiently” before Edmonton comes to town.
The bad thing tonight is 9th-place Phoenix lost, so the 8th-place Wild could have gained a six-point cushion on the Coyotes, who still have three games in hand. Dallas, in 10th, won.
The Wild suddenly has flipped the script and has won three in a row on the road but has lost four of six at home.
That’s got to change.
“We need points,” Jason Pominville said. “We have to find ways, whether we practice or we don’t. It’s up to everyone to dig deeper and find a way to get yourself going.
“You’ve got to be good at home. For the most part this year, we have. But if you want to be a team that climbs in the standings and a team that’s tough to play against, you have to be better than what we were at home. Tonight just wasn’t good enough.
“We had an opportunity to create a little distance and create that separation a little bit. It’s unfortunate we didn’t come out with the effort.”
Guess what? That’s it. This blog is yucky like tonight’s game. Wild needs to turn the page at practice Wednesday.
I’ll be filling in for Paul Allen on KFAN from 9-noon Wednesday. I’ll have Darcy Kuemper as a guest at 9:55, Mike Florio, Lavelle E. Neal The Third, Marney Gellner and others.
Kent Youngblood is covering practice because I’m grabbing lunch with a player afterward for a weekend feature. So Kent will be on here to blog afterward.
The Wild won for the fifth time in six games and third in a row on the road tonight with a 4-0 victory over the Nashville Predators.
Real good game for the Wild, which limited the Predators to very few legit scoring chances and helped Darcy Kuemper to his first career shutout. Kuemper made 23 saves for his third career win, and he had to be particularly good in the second.
The Wild clamped down defensively, but it did spend some extended shifts in its own end and went the final 13:44 of the period without a shot. But even then, the Wild had a 2-0 lead thanks to goals by Dany Heatley and Jason Zucker and it always felt like the Wild had the game in pretty good control. Still, Kuemper was good controlling rebounds and was real good playing the puck and helping out his defensemen.
Good bounceback win for the Wild, which felt it deserved better than zero points in allowed 18 shots during a 4-2 loss less than 24 hours earlier to Colorado.
The Heatley-Charlie Coyle-Zucker line was great again, with Coyle assisting on both goals by his linemates. He had a funny anecdote about Heatley in the gamer, so read that at www.startribune.com/wild.
“Those three guys, the last two games have been by far their best without the puck,” coach Mike Yeo said.
All the goals by them have come off rushes and Yeo noted it could not happen if not for being good defensively, quick to transition and spending less time in the defensive zone.
Ryan Suter, the ex-Pred, was an absolute stud tonight. He had one assist in 28:42 of ice time and was plus-2 and just was so strong in his own end and started the transition of both goals by Heatley and Zucker. Before the Heatley winning goal, he forced the turnover and led the rush. Before the Zucker goal, he was a defensive-zone battle before going for a line change.
Just a great game for a guy that you know couldn’t have been too happy for the turnover that led to Ryan O’Reilly’s winner the night before.
Yeo went on and on about the leadership on this team with guys like Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise hurt. He went down the list of players and said there’s a lot of good things going on behind the scenes that we never see, like Jason Pominville not showing up on the score sheet tonight, but “you’re not there to see how he is on the bench and the way he goes out shift after shift. Sutes, same thing, …” and so on and so on.
The Wild opens up a three-game homestand Tuesday against Ottawa. Yeo already said Kuemper will start.
“We just want to keep it going,” Yeo said. “Every game we have a lot of things that we need to do right to have the right outcome right now [because of all the injuries].”
Matt Cooke and Marco Scandella also scored third-period goals tonight. Scandella was great again. So was Nate Prosser, who has stepped in admirably ever since Jared Spurgeon injured his foot.
Nino Niederreiter has eight points in the past eight games. Mikael Granlund had an assist and won 9 of 16 faceoffs. Erik Haula had four shots to lead the team. Coyle was awesome. Clayton Stoner was physical with three hits. The Wild blocked 21 shots. The Wild has given up two goals in the past three road games. Heatley scored his 63rd career winning goal and first this season.
I wrote a good amount on Heatley in the gamer and will come back with a pretty good story on the relationship young forwards Coyle, Granlund, Niederreiter and Zucker have with Andrew Brunette, Darby Hendrickson and Darryl Sydor.
That will be in Tuesday’s paper. The Wild has an off-day Monday, so barring news, no blog.
Remember, I’ll be doing our third Star Tribune Chalk Talk with Wes Walz prior to Tuesday’s game against Ottawa. If you would like to attend the Chalk Talk and attend the game, go to www.wild.com/chalktalk.
I’ll be filling in for Paul Allen on Wednesday from 9-noon, incidentally, on KFAN (100.3-FM).
I’ll also be on KFAN on Monday at 11:40 a.m. and Tuesday at 9:55 a.m.
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.
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