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.
Good afternoon from Xcel Energy Center’s spacious press room. Two days until the Wild resumes its schedule and five-game homestand against the East’s elite, New York Rangers. Thanks for being patient.
Couple Russo (overexposure) housekeeping items:
-- On Friday at noon, I will be hosting a live chat on startribune.com.
-- I will be on KFAN with Paul Allen (VOX in the BOX) Thursday morning.
-- I will be filling in for Dan Barreiro from 3-6:30 p.m. Thursday on KFAN. Guests will include Wild leading scorer Zach Parise, actor/comedian/writer/director/#oneofus Erik Stolhanske to talk about Super Troopers 2 and his second passion, the Wild (4:55 p.m.-5:30 p.m.), Rangers play-by-play man Kenny Albert (5:35 p.m.), Minnesota United coach Manny Lagos (4:20 p.m.), Wild radio personality Kevin Falness (throughout) and much more.
--I will be hosting a Podcast at O’Gara’s in St. Paul Friday at 6 p.m. You can come listen live or on souhanunfiltered.com. I believe Minnesota United’s Jamie Watson will be my guest.
--Friday’s, I’m usually on with Barreiro at 4:30 p.m., too.
Since I mentioned jokingly on a recent blog that I also wrote articles, I was told by a few readers it would be helpful if I threw links on here. You can always see the Star Tribune’s Wild stories on www.startribune.com/wild, BUT if you missed the last couple:
-- Here was Monday’s story on Jason Zucker’s road back from a broken collarbone and much he is champing at the bit to start playing because he feels 100 percent.
-- Here is the behind the scenes look at the NHL’s Situation Room (video review room) in Toronto. I shadowed the room March 22 -- the day before the Wild played in Toronto. This is one of those days where it’s a good idea to pick up the actual NEWSPAPER though because the layout and pictures on the C1 centerpiece are cool.
-- Here is Chip Scoggins' column today on veterans Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Thomas Vanek and their solid second halves.
Today felt like training camp. Soooooooooooooooo many players on the ice.
Three goalies, 15 forwards to the point there was a full fifth line (Matt Cooke-Erik Haula-Sean Bergenheim) and seven defensemen with Christian Folin back up with the team. The only players who did not skate with the team but did before practice were Zucker and Nate Prosser. Prosser is getting closer from his sprained MCL.
Cooke, who has missed 27 games starting Feb. 3 with a sports hernia that was surgically repairs, practiced for the first time since. I thought he looks great personally.
Asked how long he thinks he’ll need before he can play, Cooke said, “Today was the first day. I’ll see how it reacts tonight to see if I can skate tomorrow and yada, yada, yada. Then we can get a better sense. First real practice. I’ll take it, not to go cliché-ish, day by day. I just hope it’s before the end of the season (so he can get some games before the playoffs).”
Kyle Brodziak, who has missed three games with a neck issue, took a couple shots, took a couple days of rest and returned to practice. He will play against the Rangers.
Coach Mike Yeo said the lineup Thursday is up in the air. However, Yeo said the top three lines will stay intact and he said Brodziak is returning, so that means two of Ryan Carter, Jordan Schroeder and Haula will play. And since Haula was on the fifth line wearing all red today, one would assume he’s the odd guy out initially. That’s what I guessed in my game notebook Sunday here.
On how difficult these decisions are, Yeo said, “It’s going to be hard and everybody’s going to have an argument, and everybody’s going to have an opinion. In many cases, it’s going to be right. In a lot of ways it’s going to be difficult for us to make a wrong choice. In other ways, difficult for us to make the right choice just because everybody that’s here has had an impact in getting us here. Everybody has had success with us at different points of the season. And everybody that’s here we feel could help us. So, what that means is there’s going to be people out of the lineup that are very tough decisions to make. But at the same time, the people that are in will recognize that and they’ll take advantage of the opportunity.”
On the amount of guys on the ice, Yeo said, “It obviously presents some challenges. The ice gets chewed up a little bit quicker and fewer repetitions for guys, both for the guys that have been in the lineup and the guys trying to get ready to get back in the lineup. So, yeah, it’s not easy to do. But I thought it was still a pretty good tempo to our practice and a good skate.”
How does that change the way he coaches practice? “It makes it a little bit different in how you prepare and plan your practices. You have to be a little bit more mindful of some of the drills that you’re doing, making sure there’s not a lot of standing around time. And making sure trying to find a way for everybody to get their reps. It changes some of the things that you might do at this time. Certainly looking at our game, it’s tough to have a type of practice where you’re going to have a lot of teaching and system focus. I just think looking at these couple days, the one thing that was going to be important to us, our priority had to be to make sure that we get our battle level ramped back up and the pace of our play, and obviously a little bit of conditioning.”
On the luxury of depth, Yeo said, “It can be a good thing if we handle it the right way. Obviously, we want to make the playoffs, but we don’t want to just make the playoffs. We want to have a real long run here and depth always comes into play for something like that. Certainly we have a lot of depth here. But it does present some challenges as far as making sure that guys in the lineup are not worried about every single shift that they’re going to be coming out of the lineup. And guys that are out of the lineup trying to keep them positive and motivated and ready. But bottom line is we have to make sure everyone is focused on their job and it’s up to us to try and navigate around all that.”
Cooke said of the fact there will be tough decisions as to who sits, “I think the thing that makes a team the best is whoever’s in the lineup or not in the lineup is going to go out and get the job done. The biggest thing the last two months is it hasn’t always been the same guy, it hasn’t always been the same group, guys have been hurt, guys have floated in and out through different parts of this stretch, but the job gets done. The only way that can happen is if there’s no worry or no hesitation about the decisions that are made. If the decisions are made, everyone accepts it and takes on the responsibility of what’s given that night and moves forward.”
Carter and Brodziak can kill penalties, and because of the speed of Schroeder and the fact he’s suddenly killing penalties, it makes Haula a bit expendable. That could be vice versa soon, too, because Haula has been an important fixture to the PK and had such a good playoff for the Wild last year.
Yeo said, “Penalty killing is a huge factor in the makeup of that fourth line. I definitely will say that’s true. I will say also just the idea of a fourth line that is going to be reliable, that’s not going to get scored against, that’s going to be bring momentum to us with the way that they play the game. You look at the way our top three lines are, we believe that those are three lines that really should be able to go out and contribute and create offense for us. Not that we’re not asking our fourth line to generate anything but priority has to be on defense and momentum, and like I said, that penalty killing role.”
On the top three lines, Yeo said, “I don’t see any reason why we would change anything up right now in the immediate future. Obviously things could change, but I look at a guy like Fonzie (Justin Fontaine) and there’s no reason why he should be looking over his shoulder. Certainly you look at the Islander game, we felt that we needed to switch for that game (he means that Schroeder took Fontaine’s in the third period and overtime), but this is not situation where if he has one bad game, one bad period. Doesn’t mean you might not change things during a game, but he’s earned enough to give him a chance to go out and respond.”
I just looked it up, and I have the Wild 4-0-1 this season after three-day breaks and 1-1 after four-day breaks (the win after the All-Star break, the loss being in Anaheim when the Wild had five days off between Games 2 and 3 and frankly played great).
Yeo said of the four-day break, “You want to be careful. We’ve got to make sure, especially during this break, that we don’t sit around feeling too good about ourselves. I think that Thursday’s game will be a real challenge for us. That’s going to be real difficult to ramp it back up and take it back to the level; … we were playing so many games in such a short period of time that we were just in a rhythm that we could just keep on going. That rhythm we’re going to try to have to start it again, which is always a bit of a challenge.
“I think the break is good,” Yeo said. “We’ve got to find a way to get our game back up to that level that we were playing that, and hopefully it happens right from the drop of the puck. The key is to make sure we build every game, every period toward the goal of getting to the playoffs but more importantly making sure our game is at the level we want it at once we enter the playoffs.”
Asked if the break benefits Devan Dubnyk the most because he has started 34 straight games for the Wild and 35 in a row overall, Yeo said, “I think a lot of guys benefit. I’ve had to answer the question over and over and over again. I don’t think he’s shown any signs of fatigue. I know it’s been a hot topic. But there’s no signs of it whatsoever. But I think the fact he gets a couple days off is certainly good for him, probably a bit of a mental break as well. But I think for everybody, more so the mental part of it than the physical part of it. I think we’ve managed things pretty well [the second half] as far as making sure guys get days off, off days not pushing guys too hard. That was a big factor in why we’ve been able to be on this [24-5-1] run. You don’t go on a run like that if you’re showing signs of fatigue.”
Parise isn’t worried about the team ramping things back up after the break, saying, “We played a lot of hockey. It felt like we were playing every other day. You get tired. It was a welcome break. I don’t see us losing any of that momentum that we had. It was good timing.”
Asked if it’s hard not to look ahead at potential playoff matchups against Nashville, Anaheim or St. Louis, Parise said, “It’s not hard. It’s still tight. There’s still a lot of different things that can happen. There’s a lot of different matchups and teams behind us that are winning. We still can’t afford to not play well. A lot of stuff can happen. As exciting as it is and exciting as it has been the last little while, we can’t look too far ahead. Thursday we play a really good team.”
Wild has 95 points. Most points the Kings can get is 100. So 5 is your magic number (Wild has 5 regulation/overtime wins more than L.A., by the way, which is the tiebreaker. Wild’s in sensational shape as it has more points than L.A., Winnipeg and the two teams second and third in the Pacific, Vancouver and Calgary, who can max get 101 points.
It was a quiet morning at Xcel Energy Center, with just nine skaters and two goalies on the ice for the Wild's optional practice. Most of the team's top players got some more rest on Day 2 of the Wild's unusual four-day break from competition. So did coach Mike Yeo, who also took a break from talking to the media.
Jordan Leopold and Matt Dumba were the lone defensemen who practiced. The seven forwards included fourth-liners Ryan Carter, Erik Haula, Jordan Schroeder and Sean Bergenheim, as well as a trio working their way back from injuries. Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke were able to participate in the three-on-three work that ended practice, while Jason Zucker went to the other end of the ice and worked one-on-one with coaches.
Brodziak, who has missed three games because of an upper-body injury, said he has been cleared to play and expects to get back up to speed quickly. Cooke still has no timetable for a return from the sports hernia surgery he had last month.
"It's unfair to put a timetable on it,'' said Cooke, who has played in 27 games this season but hasn't felt completely healthy since the second game on the schedule. "I'm going to practice (Tuesday) and see how it reacts and move on from there.
"It's frustrating. It's hard. But injuries are a part of it, and you have to be able to deal with it and move on. I've gone my fair share of games without getting hurt. I went almost eight years without missing a game because of injuries. It just so happened it all happened in one year.''
Cooke said the biggest hurdle to clear in recent weeks has been regaining the ability to fully extend his stride. He had a hard time generating the power he needed in his legs, and he didn't want to rejoin the team for practice until he had gotten that back. Cooke also said he had "a few other issues going on'' besides the sports hernia and wanted all of those to clear up before he resumed full practices.
"Each time I'm out there, I'm testing it,'' he said. "You get some bumps, you get in the corners and battle a little bit, different types of reaction plays, the stops and starts you have to do in a game. Every day is going to be a test.
"As soon as I'm ready to play, I'm ready to play. It's all a matter of when you feel well enough to get out there and play and be a factor.''
Leopold was on daddy duty, bringing son Kyle--who is approaching his sixth birthday--to the rink for a little post-practice skating. Kyle, on spring break from school, was outfitted in a Wild helmet with his dad's number 33 on the back and a gold Potulny Hockey jersey. He seemed right at home in the Wild's room, plopping down in dad's locker stall and getting Dumba to untie his skates.
Leopold and Dumba both said the four days off are completely positive for the Wild. A long break like this, when the Wild has been playing at such a consistently high level, could be seen as a possible momentum-stopper. Mr. Russo points out that St. Louis is 1-6-1 this season when it gets three days or more of rest.
Neither Leopold nor Dumba was buying the suggestion that there were any dangers for the Wild, saying they expected the team to get its mental edge back with two high-intensity practices on Tuesday and Wednesday before resuming play Thursday against the New York Rangers at Xcel.
"Rest is a weapon,'' Leopold said. "We're going to use (the break) to get some good rest, to heal our bumps and bruises. We've got a good pace ahead of us coming up. Rest is something that’s key this time of year, and we're lucky to have the break.
"We've got a good vibe going on now, and guys understand when it's game time, it's time to prepare and be ready. We'll have a good couple of days of practice coming up, and we'll take advantage of it.''
The Wild prepared for a five-game homestand that begins Friday with a long practice on Thursday, staying on the ice for an hour and 20 minutes. Some players lingered longer than that as they look to inject some of their road mojo into a series of critical games at Xcel Energy Center.
The homestand starts with a back-to-back set, Friday against Calgary and Saturday against Los Angeles--two other Western Conference teams that are scrapping for playoff spots. The Wild then has a long four-day break before home games against the Rangers next Thursday; Detroit on Saturday, April 4; and Winnipeg on Monday, April 6.
Though coaches love to talk about how you have to win on the road this time of year, you also can't afford to let any games slip away at home. The Wild has won 10 in a row on the road but is just 4-4 in its past eight at Xcel Energy Center.
"You always want to protect home ice and be a good home team,'' forward Zach Parise said. "I think for the most part, we've done that. We haven’t played as well as we'd like to at home as of late. We need to put together some good ones.
"We don’t play different at home. We've just played good teams at home as of late, and we haven’t played well in some games, which is going to happen. We've had games where we haven't played great and we've escaped with a win, and we haven’t done that at home.''
Coach Mike Yeo said he has been trying to resist the temptation to obsess over the scoreboard and the standings. He praised his team for doing a good job of concentrating on itself, and he said it will be important to keep a tight focus during the homestand.
"We're trying not to look at the teams below us or the teams ahead of us,'' Yeo said. We're trying to look at the team we're playing tomorrow night. That’s got to be our focus.
"Our last game versus St. Louis at home (a 6-3 victory last Saturday) is a game we should feel good about. At the same time, we've got five games at home. We have to make sure we get back to being a really tough team to play against in our building. That’s not just about going out and making nicer plays; that’s part of it, but that stuff comes from the little things in your game and playing with speed, playing physical, playing the type of game that brings momentum to your team. That's what we've got to make sure we're focused on.''
Yeo put Thomas Vanek back on the Wild's first power-play unit in Thursday's practice, teaming him with Parise, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville. The second unit featured Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Chris Stewart, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba. Yeo didn't rule out making some in-game adjustments to those groups, but he thought Vanek played his way back onto the top unit.
"He's been performing,'' Yeo said of Vanek, who saw an eight-game point streak end in Tuesday's victory over the New York Islanders. "He's playing really good. Those guys have had success. We tried switching things up, and we didn’t create a whole lot off of that. So we'll go back to this.''
Yeo said the only potential lineup change Friday could be the return of forward Ryan Carter, who has missed 22 games because of a shoulder injury. That decision won't be made until Friday morning. Of the Wild's other injured players, Yeo said Matt Cooke (sports hernia) continues to skate, Nate Prosser (knee) is "coming along well'' and Jason Zucker (broken collarbone) is skating but "still a ways away.''
Decisions, decisions, decisions.
As discussed when the Wild acquired Sean Bergenheim, then six days later Chris Stewart and Jordan Leopold, there would come a point when coach Mike Yeo has to make nightly tough decisions on the lineup.
The first odd guy out up front was Jordan Schroeder. The next odd guy out when defenseman Jared Spurgeon returned from a concussion was Christian Folin. Nate Prosser sprained his MCL last Saturday in St. Louis, so Folin returned for two games and scored Thursday against Washington.
But Folin is again expected to be out at least Saturday afternoon against the Blues now that Marco Scandella’s return has been declared after missing nine games with an oblique(ish) injury.
“He played really well,” Yeo said of Folin. “That’s the look we’re going with [Saturday], but I’m quite certain he’ll get in again here. He’s done a good job and we’ll continue to make sure he stays ready.”
Why Leopold over Folin? Yeo said every game he will have to think short-term and long-term, and for this specific game, Yeo wants to go with the veteran who has experience playing in these type of games, with somebody whom he liked the game of last Saturday in St. Louis, with the guy he feels “execution-wise can skate and move the puck and help them get out of the zone quickly.”
He also likes the Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin No. 1 pair, so if he wants to move Brodin back to right D, that means Leopold needs to stay in because he doesn’t want rookies Folin or Matt Dumba, both right-shot guys, playing their off wing.
Why Sean Bergenheim over Schroeder, who is expected to be scratched a
sixth seventh consecutive game and seventh time in nine games? Yeo feels again for this specific game against physical St. Louis, he wants a fourth-line identity and a guy who can play a physical game.
Personally, I’d play Schroeder simply for the speed element (Wild’s speed hasn’t been a big threat at all the past three games) and the fact I haven’t seen Bergenheim be overly physical in the first place. He played nine shifts and 5:36 in Thursday’s loss, so why not throw in a skater like Schroeder? In his past 13 games, Schroeder has seven points and is plus-8.
“We’ve got a lot of guys here,” Yeo said. “Obviously you want to be in the lineup, you feel you can help, but it’s what you do to make sure you stay ready. It’s also pretty easy to look around and realize it’s not like you’re being beat out by guys that aren’t quality NHL players, too. Those guys doing good job. They’re staying upbeat, they’re staying ready and when they’ve jumped in, they’ve been very effective.”
Before yesterday’s game, Capitals coach Barry Trotz talked a lot about the Wild’s depth, saying (again before Washington’s win), “Arguably the Wild are not only the hottest team in the National Hockey League, but they might be the deepest, in terms of their four lines, and you even look at some of the people they have out now. They’re playing atop their game. They’re playing very confidently. They’ve got a lot of structure. Mike Yeo is a tremendous coach and his staff has done a really good job. They’re playing a fast game. They’re not giving up much and obviously Devan [Dubnyk] in net has been a real strength for them too. They’ve got everything going right now. They’ll be a team you don’t want to meet in the first round, I’ll tell you that. All the Western teams, there are going to be some tough choices there if you end up with a team like Minnesota or Winnipeg or L.A. Those teams are all going pretty well. But this team, their depth is so good. You’ve got guys like Thomas Vanek on your third line. That’s not a bad person to have. And a guy like Charlie Coyle, maybe people out in the East don’t know, he’s a tremendous player. He’s a big body. You’ve got the other lines with [Mikael] Granlund and [Mikko] Koivu and people like that. They’re pretty solid.”
Heck, hand the Wild the Cup now!
Ryan Carter needs more practice time, Yeo said. With no morning skate Saturday, no practice Sunday, it sounds like the earliest Carter would return is the second of a back-to-back Tuesday at the Islanders.
As for Scandella returning, Yeo said, “We’ve done a pretty good job battling through some tough games without him, but he’s a real important player for our team and makes a big difference when he’s in the lineup for us. He’s jumping right into it. It’ll be a tough test for him [Saturday], but we’ll give him a little bit of time and it won’t take long for him to get his game right back to where it was.”
Zach Parise left practice early today for precautionary reasons. He was “tight,” Yeo said, so the Wild felt he had done enough work and it would be good for him to get off the ice.
Dubnyk stole the Wild a win in St. Louis last weekend. The Wild was outshot 42-19, but at the time Nino Niederreiter and Kyle Brodziak scored 17 seconds apart, the Wild was being outshot 39-17, if I remember correctly.
The Blues have shut out three of its past five opponents and are 12-2-2 in their past 16 road games. The Wild has lost four of its past six at home. The Blues’ 46 points on the road is tied for the most in the NHL.
“They’re a powerhouse,” said Yeo, about to pull a Ken Hitchcock by lauding the Blues the way Hitch always lauds the Wild. “They’re as strong as any team out there and they’re playing for first overall. It’s a good challenge. It’s a team that defends extremely hard. They’re big, they’re physical, they’re fast and they’re also good offensively, so there’s not much more to say. We have to make sure we’re ready to be good in every department.”
The Wild is 1-3-2 in its past six at home against St. Louis, and this would be Minnesota’s first-round matchup if the season ended right this exact second.
At home, the Wild needs to start playing better, plain and simple. Yeo felt the Wild wasn’t very sharp last night and needed better net-front presence, but it was still a one-play type of game, he said, and the Wild didn’t make that one extra play or prevent that one extra goal. That’s been a trend at home.
“We go on the road and we play to win and we come back home and we feel we need to win and get focused on the result a little bit and that creates a little more frustration and pressure,” Yeo said.
The Wild hasn’t lost two games in a row since Jan. 19-20. But the Wild is 3-3 in its past six.
“We’ve been able to forget about the last game and get back on the horse the next one,” Suter said. “That’s what you have to do this time of year. I said it last week, it’s tough to lose two in a row at this time.”
It’s also tough looking at the standings, Suter admitted, under this new playoff format where the Wild “is higher than some teams and yet they’re ahead of us, but it is what it is. … I don’t think we’ve played that good lately. St. Louis, got kind of lucky. Nashville, we didn’t play that good. We have to focus on ourselves and we’ll be fine.”
I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m.
After last night’s come-from-behind victory in Nashville, Wild coach Mike Yeo called for an optional practice today.Your friend Michal Russo was one of those opting out.
Twelve skaters and goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Darcy Kuemper took to the ice for the skate, which included some half-rink 3-on-3 scrimmaging and some work on the transition game.
Here are some of the nuggets to come out of today’s workout:
--It was good news to see both forward Ryan Carter and defenseman Marco Scandella again on the ice working out out with the team. Scandella has missed the last eight games with an upper body injury and Carter has been out since Feb. 9 with a shoulder injury.
The quick news: Neither will play in tomorrow’s home game with Washington; Wild coach Mike Yeo said he would go with the same lineup against the Caps that he used in Nashville. But both players took more contact today and came out feeling OK, so both seem to be nearing a return to the ice.
Here’s what they had to say, post-practice:
First, Scandella: “I battled a little bit more today,” he said. “It still feels good. I’m just trying to get back and be sharp out there, try to get into game shape.’’
There is still a ways to go with Scandella. He said the injury affects just about every hockey movement, and it has inhibited his ability to really let loose on his shot. “I’m shooting harder and harder every day,” he said. “I’m not going full-out yet. But it feels good.”
And now Carter: He said he ramped it up a little bit more today. “It’s another step in the progression,” he said. “It’s nice to keep moving forward. When you’re not skating you feel like you’re standing still, or going backwards. It’s good to be moving the right direction.’’
For Carter, it appears he needs one or two good on-ice workouts with his teammates before he returns. He said he’s eager to see how he feels tomorrow, after having gone hard today. And there is also the matter of getting into game shape; he wasn’t able to do much skating early on in his recovery. And the action he’ll see when he returns is late-season, playoff-push hockey, so he needs to be sharp when he does return.
--So what happens when Carter is ready? With both he and Scandella close, Yeo is going to have some difficult decisions to make down the stretch of the regular season. Maybe as soon as this weekend; Yeo said he’d have a much better idea of a timetable for Scandella and Carter after Friday’s practice.
“It’s going to come to a point where we’re going to be scratching players that have done good things for us, things we like in the lineup,” Yeo said. “There will come a point where we’ll have to make some of those decisions. We’re going to try to keep everyone involved and we’ll try to make those decisions the best we can. But (Carter) is a big part of that penalty kill, too. We like him as a penalty killer.’’
--Matt Dumba was still smiling the day after his lightning-quick overtime goal gave the Wild the win in Nashville. He said his phone blew up with messages and texts from friends and family. Asked, again, to describe the goal, he said: “It was us three, me, Mikael (Granlund), and Zach (Parise), just watching (Ryan Suter) in beast mode,” he said. “We watched him shake two guys, and then we were lucky enough he got the puck up to us, and we were all jumping the other way. I tried to advance it up as much as I could. As I was coming up the ice I kind of knew what Zach was thinking. And he made a great drop pass. I just got lucky and got a little bit of a screen from the defenseman.’’
That’s about it for now. Russo will be back with the team tomorrow.
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