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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Good afternoon from Long Island, where hockey embedded itself in my blood in the early-80s.
I spent the first 12 years of my life here and have a lot of incredible memories of this area and Nassau Coliseum, from watching the Isles, to playing indoor soccer, to going to the circus. My mom went to college across the street and I grew up 15 minutes down the road.
There’s something special about being in the press box and at the same level as those championship banners and retired numbers.
There's also nothing like the infamous autograph collectible/memorabilia guys here between the hotel and Coliseum. They just camp in the parking lot, same dudes forever. I probably used to go into their stores as a kid and buy Isles stuff. The best are the guys wearing Jonas Brodin jerseys or something with the tags still on: "I'm your biggest fan."
Today, Zach Parise got bombarded on the walk to and from. I covered a player who used to walk across the lot. He'd ask each autograph seeker, "Who do you want me to make it out to?" If the guy responded back, "No one," the player would hand back the pen.
That's Frank Buonomo in the foreground, the Wild's team services dude. He used to handle Sidney Crosby. One of the autograph guys goes, "Hey, didn't you used to work for the Penguins?" That was pretty funny.
I’ll be on Fox Sports North during the pregame show and first intermission tonight and on KFAN at 9 a.m. tomorrow.
Wild and Islanders tonight and the Wild needs a win. It’s that simple. The Wild is 1-2-3 in six games since the trade deadline. The optimist says playing good hockey in five of the six games and getting points in four of six. The pessimist says one win in the past six games.
It’s somewhere in between, and the reality is Phoenix rallied on LA last night, so the Wild’s margin on eighth place is now three points and the ninth place five. And, the schedule only gets tougher.
My concern? Wins breed a good feeling, as coach Mike Yeo often says, and losing breeds the opposite. And I don’t care how well the Wild may have played at times against St. Louis, Dallas and Boston, the Wild couldn’t muster two points in any of those games. So a couple more losses, especially tonight, and negativity and concern could infiltrate that locker room and often times when that happens, the way the team plays goes south fast.
“I can’t sit here and say that I don’t like the way we’re playing because I do,” Zach Parise said. “I think that we’re playing well. But I understand we can only say that for so long. ‘Playing well, blah, blah, blah.’ We’ve got to win. That’s the most important thing. But we’re doing a lot of good things. But a lot of opportunities that we’re not capitalizing on, and that’s the difference of us going into shootouts or losing in a shootout. Last night we had a lot of good chances early. But we played St. Louis, Boston, those are two of the best teams and we played very well against both of them. But, it is frustrating that we’ve got really nothing to show for either game. We lost them both (0-1-1).”
Ilya Bryzgalov vs. Anders Nilsson tonight. Speaking of “Anders,” I chatted with Edina’s Anders Lee this morning. The 23-year-old has six goals and 10 points in nine games this season and I’ll squeeze some of his thoughts and coach Jack Capuano’s thoughts on Lee in my notebook in Wednesday’s paper.
Tonight is the first game back at the Coliseum for Matt Moulson and Nino Niederreiter. Moulson had a big press gathering this morning and I’ll stick those quotes down below.
Yeo wouldn’t divulge his lines until warmups.
But I did confirm the Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville line remains intact.
Also, and don’t freak out, Erik Haula is clearly a scratch. He was bagged by the assistant coaches with Mike Rupp well after this morning’s optional skate ended. So, my guess is Charlie Coyle is moving back to center.
So, my process of elimination, he would likely be the third-line center. I’d think Matt Moulson and Mikko Koivu stay together, so that means Justin Fontaine or Niederreiter would be on that right wing. My guess is Coyle centers Dany Heatley and Fontaine or Niederreiter. That would leave a fourth line of Matt Cooke, Kyle Brodziak and Cody McCormick.
I’ll update Twitter during warmups with the correct lines. Keith Ballard looked like he will be the defenseman scratched tonight.
The more I thought about it last night, the more I thought maybe Yeo should break up the top line. My reasoning was “spread the wealth” because at this point, it is what it is, it’s clear as day the Wild’s best offensive players are all on that top line and maybe if you reunite Parise-Koivu-Coyle and put paint crasher Moulson with a playmaker like Granlund and a shooter like Pominville, perhaps there would be some chemistry.
Yeo said, “I’m not going to say we are or we are not breaking those guys up, but those guys are going [well]. So I think our first priority is to see if we can keep those guys going but find another mix. Now, we’re going to be willing to do whatever it takes. There’s no question, if that’s what it takes. But like I said, our first priority has to be to try maintain what they’ve got going, but fix the areas around it.”
Now, on everybody’s favorite player, Kyle Brodziak, Yeo said, “When I watched his game again, the goal against is obviously the first thing you look at (turnover on Boston’s winner). But aside from that, his game was actually very good. He led our team in (six) shots last night, he was moving his feet. I don’t think his line was particularly good. He was the best player on that line last night. This is where we’re at with our team, too. This is the challenge that’s on us as coaches and players is figuring out roles. Making sure that guys are in roles, making sure that guys have an understanding of what their role is and what we need them to do and that they’re ready to bring it.”
I think that last part is probably why Haula is scratched. Debate it, fine. Disagree, fine. I’m just saying, my conjecture is in Yeo’s head, he’s coming up with “roles” and he wants that fourth line to be a shutdown, physical line tonight).
I don’t know for sure because when Yeo was available, it was not yet known that Haula was the odd forward out tonight. So I didn’t have a chance to ask.
Mikko Koivu played his best game since he returned from an ankle injury last night. Yet, he still had no points and was minus-2. In seven games, Koivu has no goals, two assists and 10 shots.
I asked Yeo how much pressure is on Koivu to start producing. Yeo said, “None from me. We need to win, whether we win 1-0, whether we win 5-4, whatever. The thing we have to understand is that it’s a team. Are we goig to need him to score along the way? Yes. But that’s an unfair burden to put on any player and say, ‘we need you to come into this game and score two goals tonight.’ If he does, that’s great. If he doesn’t and he does a lot of the things that he’s doing right now and somebody else does, then great. There’s no question that over the larger sample size over the rest of the season, for sure we’re going to need some points, we’re going to need production from them as a line. We just have to make sure we have the attitude that this is a team game and we’re here to help each other out.”
By the way, Darcy Kuemper has been up and down lately. Great game against the Rangers after giving up a few bad goals to Edmonton. Great game against Columbus, but then he can’t hang onto a 2-0 shootout lead. Last night, that first goal really hurt. This is the 23-year-old coming out of Kuemper. He’s a rookie and this is what you get sometimes.
On that first goal last night by Jarome Iginla, Kuemper said when the puck hit Jonas Brodin’s stick, then hip, he thinks he
looks lost the puck in Boston’s black jerseys. By the time he saw it, it was too late. It started to dip, he reacted by dropping in his butterfly and boom.
Moulson is playing his first game back since the October trade to Buffalo for Thomas Vanek.
He called it a “little weird. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the visiting changing room here. It’s exciting, but important game for us. We need two points and to get some wins here.”
On the trade from the Islanders, Moulson said, “It caught me off guard. At the time, I always believed I would be here for the rest of my career. To not have any discussions about any future plans or anything, that kind of caught me off guard. I always figured something would work out. Obviously they didn’t have the same plans.”
Would he sign with the Islanders as a free agent? “It’s been said that I wasn’t in their future plans, so I don’t think that’ll quickly change. I’ll just concentrate on helping Minnesota win.”
Moulson has a goal and assist in six games with the Wild. On how the transition has been, he said, “Definitely like to mix in some more wins and goals to help this team, but it’s a great bunch of players. It’s easy to see that. Myself, it’s been an easy transition. Just little things now, not thinking so much and just playing. I think that comes after a couple games. Hopefully we can get that.”
Happy St. Patty's Day from Boston, which after experiencing it last night, I think this city needs to stand up and admit once and for all that it has a drinking problem.
Wild and Bruins tonight at 6:30 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Network. Kenny Albert and Pierre McGuire at the mics.
Former Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla will play his 1,300th game tonight. The all-time leader against the Wild with 35 goals, 65 points, 10 game-winners and 231 shots in 70 meetings has had plenty of milestones against Minnesota. Off the top of my head, he has scored his 300th goal, 600th point and 500th goal against the Wild.
I had a good one-on-one this morning with Iginla and will likely write my Sunday column on him this week. Remember, many felt he was all but done last year, but he's the leading goal scorer (23) and second-leading scorer (53 points) for the deepest team in the East playing on a line with David Krejci and Milan Lucic.
The Bruins have won eight in a row, are 16-2-3 in their past 21 overall and 11-2 in their past 13 at home. They're a league-best 27-7-2 at home. The Bruins, who have outscored opponents 32-12 during their winning streak, average an East-best 3.18 goals per game and allow an East-best 2.13. They average 32.2 shots per game -- fifth-best in the NHL -- and have the league’s seventh-best power play (20.5 percent).
The Wild hasn't been here since 2011. I think if I remember correctly that was that three-game road trip Jose Theodore swept. It ended with a shutout at Pittsburgh. The Wild is 6-0 all-time in Boston and 10-1-1 against Boston overall. The Bruins are 0 for 36 all-time vs. the Wild on the power play, the Wild is 16 for 56 on the power play against them.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Tuukka Rask tonight. Rask is 30-14-4 with a 2.10 goals-against average, .928 save percentage, .928 save percentage and six shutouts. Coach Mike Yeo said Ilya Bryzgalov will likely start tomorrow at the Islanders.
Justin Fontaine, scratched the past five games, gets back into the Wild lineup tonight. Cody McCormick will be scratched. Nate Prosser will be the defenseman scratched. Yeo is messing with his third pair rotation because Clayton Stoner played well Saturday against Columbus and because the Bruins are physical. Wants some edge, especially with McCormick sitting to get Fontaine back in.
Nino Niederreiter returns to Long Island tomorrow for the first time since last summer's trade to Minnesota. Yeo said he would have the same conversation with Niederreiter that he had this morning with Charlie Coyle, who is playing his first game in his hometown tonight in front of more than 1,000 family and friends.
Here is the feature I wrote on him today.
He wants Coyle and Niederreiter to just focus on having good games and not all the outside noise surrounding their returns. Speaking of outside noise, I had a good chat with Zach Parise about Thursday's return to New Jersey and that will be in Thursday's paper.
Speaking of good chats, Yeo and Dany Heatley had a very visible and very long one-on-one on the ice this morning. It actually looked somewhat heated at times, but Yeo said the proper word is honest. Yeo said he has a good relationship with Heatley, so good that they can each speak bluntly to each other.
Not difficult to ascertain the subject of the conversation.
Heatley was playing well. The acquisitions and the health of the Wild has resulted in Heatley dropping to the fourth line the past five games.
"It’s an adjustment. You look at how valuable he was when we had all these guys out, and then we get a lot of guys back and next thing you know he finds himself on the fourth line playing 8-10 minutes a night," Yeo said. "I just talked to him about that, talked to him about his game, what we need from him, but at the same time, we have to be trying to find a way to get him more involved through the course of the game so he’s not sitting on the bench five minutes. It's tougher for a big body like that."
Has he accepted being on the fourth line?
"He’s accepted it," Yeo said. "I don’t want him to be happy and satisfied being on the fourth line. We had a talk when it first happened and he’s been handling it really well. Like I said, I don’t want him to be, ‘Everything’s great.’ I want him demanding more ice time. The No. 1 way to do that is through your play."
Heatley joked that they were just talking about dinner last night.
Heatley played a fourth-line role earlier this season on a line with Zenon Konopka and Torrey Mitchell. Then, he moved up.
"When we had some injuries, I got a chance to play and things went pretty good," Heatley said. "Obviously we don’t have injuries. But as we go toward the end of the year and the playoffs, teams usually move around some things. So we’ll see what happens. Just try to play my game and keep getting better."
The Wild needs more from Mikko Koivu. His line with Matt Moulson and either Coyle or Niederreiter has had one productive game against St. Louis. Coyle will be back on the line tonight with Niederreiter going back to the Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak line. Niederreiter didn't do well there the other night.
Koivu has two assists and six shots in six games since returning from an ankle injury.
It'll come, and for the Wild's sake, hopefully sooner rather than later for Koivu.
By the way, if this doesn't light a fire under Koivu, nothing will. A Wild fan I met had me deface his Koivu St. Patrick's jersey last night with my signature! Don't worry. Anthony LaPanta raised the value of the jersey again by autographing it as well.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Sergei Bobrovsky tonight at the X when the Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets face off at 7. The Wild looks to salvage its homestand (1-0-2) before hitting the road for three tomorrow.
I’ll be on Fox Sports North during the pregame show and first intermission.
The Wild’s third D pair rotation continues. The pattern has been two games in, one off.
So Nate Prosser gets in for Keith Ballard tonight. If the pattern holds, Clayton Stoner won’t play in Boston and Ballard will.
Same Wild lines tonight that finished the Rangers game:
Justin Fontaine will be scratched for the fifth consecutive game, and whether you agree or not, if you read Rachel Blount’s notebook today on www.startribune.com/wild, coach Mike Yeo addressed the Fontaine situation.
Very optional skate this morning for the Wild. Actually, it was a directional skate, Yeo called, it. In other words, the players the Wild wanted skating were told to skate and others were told to stay off the ice. Those were all the top-minute guys, so the top-9 forwards and top-4 defensemen were told not to skate.
Yeo said the Wild tried to get something out of Friday’s practice, but he wants players full of energy tonight.
Yeo expects tonight’s game will be similar to Thursday’s Rangers game. The Blue Jackets are playing very well. They’re 5-1-1 this month and coach Todd Richards is running four lines. Columbus’ fourth line is averaging about 12 minutes a night, and they’re a hard-checking, hard-working team.
So Yeo expects both teams will have to “fight for space.”
I asked Yeo about the Wild’s speed today. Since the March 5 trade for Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick, the Wild just doesn’t seem as fast to me. A lot has to do with the trade of Torrey Mitchell, the removal of Fontaine from the lineup, the addition of Moulson, who’s not the fastest skater, and Mikko Koivu’s return to the lineup. He’s still getting up to speed after two months off with an ankle injury.
But Yeo said there won’t be too many faster opponents than the Rangers and “we didn’t feel slow in that game.” He said at times the Wild weren’t pressuring well enough, and the coaches showed video of that. He said that was more off the forecheck and going in straight lines, but “we weren’t losing foot races.”
“I think we have a nice mix right now of size and speed. You can’t be too small, you can’t be too slow. I think we have a little bit of everything.”
Speaking of speed, injured Jason Zucker is back skating again before practices and “hopefully we start progressing him along,” Yeo said.
I think Rachel blogged yesterday, but our blog platform was down and I don’t think it ever published.
Yesterday, I asked Yeo a question I keep getting about why the Wild doesn’t maybe move Erik Haula into a third-line role and Kyle Brodziak to the fourth. Brodziak, by the way, has taken four minors in the past four games and Yeo said Brodziak has to cut that out. He’s one of the Wild’s best penalty killers, which may be part of the reason the Wild gave up power-play goals on three of those four minors by Brodziak.
As for Haula, a rookie, Yeo said, “We’ve done a pretty good job handling him. As far as his development, he’s improved, we’ve increased his role and responsibilities (like penalty killing). And we haven’t done it too quickly. We haven’t pushed him into a position where he might not be ready for. We have moved him up a couple times here and there and we will use him in this next stretch. We’ll gauge it game by game. It’s something, you’ve just got to keep earning it.”
In other words, be patient. Haula’s time will come.
Talk to you tonight. Judging by the Jackets’ skate, Fedor Tyutin will return for the first time since hurting his ankle in the Olympics. Former Wild defenseman Nick Schultz, acquired from Edmonton, looks to be the scratch. His wife and son actually came in for the game from Edmonton.
Afternoon from the X, where the Wild looks to get back on track and snap an 0-1-2 streak tonight against Benoit Pouliot, Dominic Moore and the New York Rangers.
GM Chuck Fletcher is back from the GM's meetings. I talked to him about the meetings and some of the tweaks the managers are recommending be made to the game, like long changes in overtime (teams switch sides like the second period) and instead of kicking cheating centers out of the circle, penalize them by making them move back 18 inches or so. The centers I talk to think this is ludicrous and will create major problems. Imagine losing a game in the last minute because another center was basically given a free faceoff win?
I'll write about the GM's meetings in my Sunday Insider.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Cam Talbot as the Rangers save Henrik Lundqvist for tomorrow’s game at Winnipeg.
Talbot made 24 saves against the Wild in a 4-1 win at MSG on Dec. 22. That game was the final straw for Zach Parise, who had to take the next 14 games off with a broken foot he was playing on.
Talbot is 11-5 in 18 appearances with a 1.75 goals-against average and .938 save percentage. So, not your normal backup goalie.
Kuemper has lost two in a row (one by shootout) and is trying to get back on track from a shaky outing against Edmonton. He and the Wild blew a 3-0 lead. The tying goal was one Kuemper definitely wishes had had back and then he gave up three goals on four shots in the shootout after entering the shootout 11 for 11 this season.
Coach Mike Yeo said that Kuemper has shown the ability the past 2 ½ months, whether it’s a win or lose, to put the previous game aside and show “renewed focus for the next match. So we’re anxious to see if he can do that again.”
Agitator Dan Carcillo will enter the Rangers’ lineup for pest Derek Dorsett. Justin Falk will be scratched. The former Wild D hasn't played since Dec. 29. Martin St. Louis is looking for his first goal as a Ranger. He has one assist in four games since asking out of Tampa.
Yeo will continue his third defense pair rotation and for the fourth straight game change it up. Nate Prosser comes out as Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard will be a pair.
“We said we were going through this rotation a couple times here and reevaluate it after that, so let’s go that way tonight,” Yeo said.
Asked the rationale as to why he doesn’t just pick six D and end it (I write it that way because it reminds me of one of my favorite Seinfeld lines when George Costanza was double-dipping the chip, From now on, when you take a chip, just take one dip and end it), Yeo said, “I don’t think that anybody deserves to just come out of the lineup and stay out of the lineup. We have to go by more than just a one game sample size. That’s the way we always do it here. Those guys played really good hockey for us for a long time. You look at how we counted on them when [Jared] Spurgeon was out of the lineup, how we counted on them when Marco [Scandella] was out of the lineup. Those guys not only got us through those [injuries] but really helped us take our game to another level, so they deserve the opportunity to not just be taken out of the lineup and not have a chance to get in there.”
I talked to Ryan Suter today about his ice time. He logged 34:12 against Edmonton, which surprised me in a game where the Wild was up 3-0 at one point. Obviously, the ice time was elevated by overtime and a 5-on-3 and 4-on-3. Also, Scandella had a real tough night, so perhaps the Wild was trying to limit his ice time in that game. Still, that was the sixth time he has topped 34 minutes this year and the 33rd time in 65 games he hit the 30-minute mark. He averages 2 minutes, 35 seconds per game more than any other NHL player. It just seems too much as the Wild are in a stretch where it plays 20 times in 37 nights.
Suter, of course, said it’s not and he means it. He wants to play that much and admits he tells assistant coach Rick Wilson that often. I’ll have his quotes in tomorrow’s paper.
Yeo did indicate today that 34:12 last game was too much and Jared Spurgeon playing a career-high 30:40 was too much, too.
“That’s a lot, and obviously we’ve got a lot of games coming up here,” Yeo said. “We have to make sure we’re monitoring that. Suts is accustomed to playing big minutes. I think last game was still a lot for him. Spurg generally is not going to play 30 minutes a night.”
Yeo indicated power-play personnel tweaks. My guess is the 5-on-4 units remain the same, but if it gets to a 5-on-3 or 4-on-3, Mikael Granlund will take the place of someone, maybe Mikko Koivu. The 5-on-4's, Granlund and Koivu have been separated.
Yeo expects a tough game tonight. Alain Vigneault coaches the Rangers, so expect to see the Canucks’ old system. That means lots of pressure, players in your face, defensemen jumping up in the play. Yeo said the Wild must be prepared to move the puck quickly and to make quick decisions.
Wild better get its act together now. Of the teams vying for a playoff spot, it has the toughest schedule in my opinion. After games against the Rangers and Columbus, Wild hits the road for eight of 10. Remember, the Wild has won 12 games all year on the road.
The Wild still has Boston, arguably the best team in the Eastern Conference, twice, Pittsburgh once (pummeled Minnesota in Pittsburgh before Christmas), St. Louis, who has beaten them eight in a row, twice, road games at Chicago and L.A.
Time get back to its winning ways.
Josh Harding, two days after he begun skating, put on the pads this morning and took shots and did puck-handling drills with goalie coach Bob Mason.
“It’s a great sign that he’s feeling much better and he’s focused and motivated to try to get back with us,” Yeo said. “So, it’s a great sign. With that said, we’re still a few steps away. It’s not like he’s a week away from rejoining us here, but it’s a good first step.”
Ilya Bryzgalov has a new vinyl wrap around his mask to bide time while his new one gets painted. Bryzgalov didn’t care, but team trainers didn’t like that the old vinyl looked pink rather than red.
Also, to answer a lot of questions, those custom shot blockers have been tried by every player. The only ones who are using them are Spurgeon, Prosser and Erik Haula.
Josh Harding, who still technically leads the NHL with a 1.65 goals-against average and is second with a .933 save percentage, took the ice at Xcel Energy Center this morning for the first time since January.
Harding, who hasn’t started since Dec. 31 because of the effects of multiple sclerosis, has been feeling much better in recent days.
“I saw him this morning, and I can’t say that I have a plan right now,” coach Mike Yeo said. “The first step was just to see him at the rink and I know he was here last game and I had heard how much better he was doing. And when I got a chance to talk to him this morning, you could see it. You could see it in his face, you could see the relief. You could just see he’s in a much better place right now. I think it’s great. It’s great to have him around. The next step is getting him on the ice and talk more about what the plan is. We haven’t discussed that.”
Harding, indisputably the Wild’s first-half MVP with an 18-7-3 record, had an adjustment to his treatment after beating Vancouver on Dec. 17. He missed the Wild’s four-game road trip and returned to start two games Dec. 29 against the Islanders and Dec. 31 against the Blues.
He missed the next smattering of games, came back to practice, but then had to leave again because he wasn’t feeling well. He has missed the past 22 games.
Obviously, Harding taking the ice is a great sign, but obviously there’s a long road yet to getting back into a game. Still, outstanding news that Harding is feeling better.
Also, Niklas Backstrom, one week after being “shut down” by GM Chuck Fletcher, skated today in pads with Harding. Apparently, this is part of Backstrom’s treatment plan from a Toronto specialist.
So, is Backstrom shut down?
“I don’t know with Backy,” Yeo said, laughing. “We don’t want to shut him down because you never know, he might all of a sudden come back and feel great. We don’t have a plan there. I know that he’s still not feeling great, so he’s going out there and keeping sharp just in case he can come back.”
Darcy Kuemper vs. Viktor Fasth (Oilers debut and first game since Nov. 18) tonight against the Edmonton Oilers.
Clayton Stoner, Justin Fontaine and Mike Rupp will be scratched for Minnesota. Oscar Klefbom will make his NHL debut for Edmonton.
Matt Cooke will skate in his 1,000th game and I’ll return soon with his thoughts.
I will be hosting a live chat at startribune.com at 2 p.m.
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