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 the X, where I will be hosting a live chat on www.startribune.com/wild at 3 p.m. CT. Please join.
I will also be on KFAN at 5:30 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. and on Fox Sports North during the pregame show and first intermission.
The Wild must beat Colorado tonight or its season is over. It’s very clear the Wild is loose.
Even coach Mike Yeo jokingly came to the podium after today’s morning skate with a piece of paper. It was an inside joke to the gathered local media.
“Pulled that trick out once,” joked Yeo, a reference to how after March’s home loss to Detroit. After that game, Yeo brought a yellow piece of paper to the podium with a bunch of funny math written on it so he could preemptively demonstrate to the blood-thirsty press that the skidding Wild wasn’t that bad off and this wasn’t like last year’s late slide, that “this is a different team.”
The Wild won the next night in Detroit and then went on a tear after back-to-back losses to Vancouver and St. Louis.
Last year, the Wild won a must-win season finale in Denver in order to continue its season into the playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild wants nothing more than to get this series back to another must-win game in Denver on Wednesday … so it can continue its season in the second round against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Could the stars be aligning for a kinda sorta repeat of last year’s scenario?
We’ll know tonight. For the Wild to give itself that opportunity, it must win Game 6 to force a Game 7.
The Wild cannot expect tonight’s game to feel like Games 3 and 4. I’m not saying the Wild won’t win, but I expect the Wild won’t dominate every iota like it did in two homes games week. Like this entire series, I expect a dogfight and Darcy Kuemper better be sharp.
As usual, low-scoring games benefit the Wild. The Wild has lost 5-4, 4-2 and 4-3 games in Denver and won 1-0 and 2-1 games in Minnesota.
No lineup changes for the Wild tonight. Mikael Granlund will replace Charlie Coyle on the top power play.
Matt Duchene (knee) will meet with Colorado’s team doctor this afternoon, take part in warmups if cleared and returned for the first time since late March if he feels good.
ON tonight’s game, Yeo said, “We’re excited. You’ve got to sit around and wait again ‘til a later (8 p.m.) start here, but these are the games you get up for. Knowing what’s at stake, knowing that our season’s on the line, having a chance to go out and play in front of our crowd with the opportunity to push it to Game 7, as a competitor you have to love those challenges.”
Yeo said, “We’re going to go all-in to this game and throw our best effort out. … I have lots of confidence in this group.”
On the Wild staff, the Wild has Yeo and Rick Wilson, who have coached on Stanley Cup-winning teams. It has Darryl Sydor, who won two Cups as players. It has Darby Hendrickson and Andrew Brunette, who were part of six straight elimination victories in 2003 for the Wild against Colorado and Vancouver.
Yeo says the Wild has a lot of “resources” and he asked those guys the past few days to talk to not just young players, but the veterans about their experiences.
“I purposely asked those guys to take the time to talk to a lot of guys this morning because of that experience,” Yeo said. “Just even a reminder. … We have a lot of people that have reached the end and reached the pinnacle and been at the highs of those moments, but in order to come through in those moments, you’ve had to go through some other parts like we’re facing right now.”
I’m doing a story on the renewed coach’s challenge debate in the NHL going into this offseason. In this series along, the Avs were called offside before an empty-net goal (onside), Jonas Brodin flipped a puck into the crowd (ruled deflection) and the Avs scored a game-tying goal in an OT win despite what should have been an offside call.
“I’ll probably be in favor of it. I’ve got a flag in my pocket right now,” Yeo joked.
If you saw my story in yesterday’s paper, so would Patrick Roy.
Zach Parise on tonight’s game: “We know it’s a lose-you’re-done scenario. We had a good skate this morning. We need to be a lot better tonight [than we were in Game 5], sharper in different areas. … We were loose and excited and ready to play. We’re confident here. We want to extend the series.”
Jason Pominville, the Wild’s regular-season leading goal scorer with 30, has no goals and three assists in the series. Asked if he feels the pressure to score, Pominville said, “Not at all. I don’t want to add any pressure to do anything more. I don’t want to go out of my way to start cheating and looking for offense. You can bring a lot of different things to the team when you’re on the ice aside from scoring. Obviously, you’d like to score. I would like to get on board. But I can’t start cheating and creating something that maybe isn’t there by not sticking to the plan or system.”
With the series tied at 2-2, Game 5 of the Western Conference quarters tonight will be a swing game.
Somebody, whether that be the Wild or the Avalanche, will be facing elimination Monday night in St. Paul during an 8 p.m. Game 6.
Avs coach Patrick Roy shrewdly put on a show at his presser yesterday. With the Avalanche returning home after losing two games in Minnesota, he deflected all the attention onto himself and almost made the presser sound like an end-of-the-season presser. He talked about how it’s a process going from 29th to winning the Cup and how proud he is of what his team has accomplished this season.
Today, it back to business as usual as both teams look for a key win tonight.
Matt Duchene is clearly getting closer to a return, very possibly in this series. Roy said he won’t play tonight, but Duchene, the Avs’ talented youngster and leading scorer who has been out since late March with a Grade 2 MCL sprain, practiced for the first time with teammates this morning. He skated normal line rushes with Ryan O’Reilly and Jamie McGinn.
Roy said the Avs only lineup decision will be Joey Hishon or Paul Carey tonight on the fourth line.
No lineup changes for the Wild.
So far, this has been a homer series. Avs win Games 1 and 2 in Denver, Wild Games 3 and 4 in St. Paul.
The Wild dominated Games 3 and 4 yet only won 1-0 and 2-1. So it’ll be interesting to see if the Wild, clearly with renewed confidence, brings the same personality tonight. The Avs are obviously going to get the benefit of matchups on their home ice and a jolt from the home crowd. Can the Wild match that and play the same way it did in Minnesota?
“We’re making them come through five guys when they have the puck. That’s pretty tough to do,” Zach Parise said. “The key is we have to do the same thing on the road as we did at home.”
Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog said Colorado was “taken aback” by the Wild’s play in Game 3.
“It was a wakeup call that they want this just as badly as we do,” Landeskog said.
After the Game 4 loss, Max Talbot told Landeskog almost every series he has ever played in was 2-2 at some point.
“That made me bounce back right away,” Landeskog said. “No one said it was going to be easy.”
Landeskog said the Avs were chasing too much in Minnesota and with the home-ice matchups, they believe they’ll have the puck more and be able to control the game better.
“We missed the fans here,” he said. “We realize why people talk about home ice advantage. Fortunately, we feed off the crowd so much. As an opposing team , I wouldn’t say it puts you back on your heels, but certainly you feel the energy against you.”
Western Conference home teams are 16-2 I the playoffs.
“I think we’re a different team than we were in Game 1,” Parise said. “We know we have to win one in here if we want to win the series. Hopefully it will be tonight. Hopefully we can break that trend tonight and get a win in here. “
I chatted with Patrick Bordeleau this morning, the former Wild draft pick that was cut loose on June 1, 2006, by the previous regime. Bordeleau said he has a lot of motivation facing the Wild even though that regime is long gone.
By the way, Bordeleau took a big run at Jared Spurgeon in Game 4 and kneed him. No call and certainly looking like a response after Matt Cooke ended Tyson Barrie’s series and a lot longer with a knee.
“I would have to think that they’re taking a pretty close at that,” Yeo said. “We have a player that was suspended for seven games. The very big difference is our player wasn’t hurt from it, but I would have to think both the referees and the people watching from afar are keeping a close eye on it.”
Matt Cooke, suspended seven games for injuring Colorado Avalanche defenseman Tyson Barrie with a knee-on-knee hit Monday night, addressed the media this afternoon.
Cooke didn’t field questions but made an unwritten statement.
“First and foremost, I want to say that I’m disappointed and sorry that Tyson Barrie can’t play for the Colorado Avalanche tonight. I wish that he could. Unfortunately, it was not my intent to collide with him knee-on-knee. It was my intent to finish my check. Playoffs are a hard and physical time and it’s my job to be physical. I’ve led my team in hits in all three games and it’s an intense time. I’ve led my team this year in hits and in this series.
“Since March 20, 2011 (the elbow to Ryan McDonagh that resulted in a 17-game suspension), I’ve been a changed player. I’ve approached the game differently, I think differently about the game.
That The stats that I’ve collected over those three seasons prove that I’m a changed player and the plays that I make and the plays that I don’t make prove to that point as well. At the end of the day, this situation was not my intent.”
Cooke has until tomorrow night to decide if he will appeal his suspension to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Cooke didn’t respond when I asked if he would.
Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said this morning, “It doesn’t matter the number of games [Cooke received]. It doesn’t replace Tyson Barrie. We want to see Tyson on the ice tonight.”
Zach Parise wouldn’t discuss his opinion of Cooke’s suspension length nor the perceived inconsistency in the league’s decision-making process when it comes to suspensions (i.e. Bryan Bickell leading with his knee on Vladimir Sobotka last weekend and getting nothing):
“I don’t know what they look for. It’s not fair for me to comment on it, but I have got my opinion.”
On Cooke, Parise said, “You’ve got to know when he’s on the ice because he finishes his hits. So when you’re playing against him, if you’ve got your head down, he’s going to come after you and try and hit you. He’s one of those players where you just got to know where he is.”
Coach Mike Yeo is excited to finally drop the puck on Game 4 at an absurdly late 8:30 local time.
“It’s amazing a couple days between games in the playoffs feels like a week. Good day off, good practice yesterday, and now I can’t wait to hurry up and wait ‘til 8:30 tonight,” he joked.
As you know because you READ TODAY’S COVERAGE, Nino Niederreiter will take Cooke’s spot on the left side of the Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine line. Also, Kyle Brodziak, scratched Monday, will center Dany Heatley and Cody McCormick.
Darcy Kuemper vs. Semyon Varlamov. Kuemper made 22 saves in his first career shutout in his first career playoff start Monday.
“Honestly, I don’t think it would even matter who would be in net for them,” Roy said. “I think we had only four scoring chances all night long. They played really well. I mean, they tracked really well, they came back hard in the middle of the ice. They played with great urgency. I mean, they had a solid game. I have to give it to them. I don’t want to take anything from [Kuemper], but at the same time, I thought he had an easy game and I’m sure Bryzgalov could have done the exact same thing.”
On Cooke’s sentence, Yeo said, “We always definitely respect and accept what the decision is from the league, and with that, it’s just real important that we all put it behind us.”
On if Cooke will continue to provide a leadership role on team (he can practice and travel and be around all team functions, and he did skate today with the team), Yeo said, “For me, I’m focused on the game tonight, so to sit here and say that I spent the morning trying to make a plan for Matt Cooke, I haven’t. We’re playing Colorado tonight and I’m focused on the guys that are in the lineup. There will be time for some of those decisions.”
Today from 12-12:30 p.m., Mike Rand and I will broadcast live from the X to get you ready for Game 3. Here’s the link to click:
I’ll also be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m. and on Fox Sports North at 5:10 p.m. and during the first intermission tonight.
The Wild was in the driver’s seat, up 4-2 in Game 1 until with less than 13 minutes left, Kyle Brodziak burps up a puck to Ryan O’Reilly, Jamie McGinn scores and the rest of the night was pandemonium. The Wild, 5-10 all-time at home in the playoffs, went from potentially being up 1-0 in the series to now being in a 2-0 hole with Game 3 tonight (6 p.m.) at the X.
For the first time in his Wild career, Brodziak will be a healthy scratch tonight. Justin Fontaine and Dany Heatley draw in, Stephane Veilleux and Brodziak come out.
Darcy Kuemper will make his first career playoff start and fourth playoff appearance against Semyon Varlamov. It’s Kuemper’s first start since a concussion and first start since March 27 in St. Louis. Before the injury, the second-half savior won once in his final eight starts, allowing three or more goals in six of those games. He stopped all 14 shots he saw in relief of Ilya Bryzgalov in Game 2, but starting in the playoffs is a different mentality than just getting thrown in. He’s got all day to think and … not freak out.
No lineup changes for the Avs.
Coach Mike Yeo didn’t divulge the lines tonight and did no line rushes in the skate, but the one line we know is Matt Cooke-Erik Haula-Fontaine.
Good morning from the X.
Why’s Brodziak out? Yeo said, “You’re down 2-0 in a series, quite often that happens, you’re going to make some changes. That’s where we’re at.”
Why’s Brodziak out when you’ve been reluctant to pull him all season? “With the trade deadline and picking up [Cody McCormick] and then realizing he’s available in the center position, Haulzy, the way that he’s been able to show that he can move up, this is not just on Brodzy. It’s also about other guys.”
As you know, Yeo will rarely if ever criticize one of his players publicly, so, “Brodzy, did they tell you why you’re out?”
“I think it’s pretty obvious,” Brodziak said. “I haven’t been playing the best of my capability. It’s a pretty big game tonight, so that’s about it.”
That’s got to make it all the harder? “It’s tough. Obviously you want to be in and helping the team, especially in a big game like that. I just have to try to reestablish my game and find it for the chance I get back in there.”
That turnover was costly, right? How’d you get past it? “It was a tough play for sure. Obviously a mistake at a costly time. To be honest, I felt like I regrouped fairly well after that for the rest of the game. I know we were on for the last two goals, but they were kind of tough plays in front that’s part of the game. And stuff like that happens. But I felt emotionally like I was OK after that. Sometimes in the past maybe I could have just completely became unraveled. But I thought I held it together alright. But then last game wasn’t my best game and emotions probably got the best of me.”
On Heatley playing, he’s excited. Yeo wouldn’t say if Heatley’s on the second line or the fourth (Matt Moulson hasn’t played well, so it wouldn’t shock me if Heatley did get to that second line, but we’ll see tonight). Yeo said, “[Heatley’s] played well against these guys this year. Veteran presence, a guy who’s got a lot of experience in the playoffs. We’re adding a guy who … has more playoff points than anybody on our team. It’s not an incredibly difficult situation there.
“This is a guy that’s been just an unbelievable pro. He’s used this time, he’s worked, he’s had a great attitude for his teammates. I’m excited. I’m really hoping that he comes in and has a great game, obviously for our team. But the way that he’s handled this, I’m cheering for him too.”
Yeo on Cooke-Haula-Fontaine: “Their top line has done a lot of damage for them, but it’s not like their third or fourth lines are getting eaten up either. You need everybody. We’re going to need our top line going and be strong in their roles, we’re going to need our third and fourth lines going and be strong in their roles. That’s playoff hockey.”
On Fontaine, Yeo says, “he’s positionally sound, he’s surprisingly competitive, strong on the puck. As much as anything else, it’s his composure, it’s his ability to make plays on the wall.”
Fontaine is excited to make his NHL playoff debut.
On whether being at home will help him get better matchups, Yeo said, “Listen their top line is playing really well. And we’ve talked about this an awful lot and I get it. But I’m focused on our team and I’m confident with our guys against anybody. We’ve got some great players in our own right. They’re feeling good and it’s up to us to take that away from them.”
So Yeo said there could be personnel matchups, there might be situational matchups, but “I’ve got no problem throwing out a Mikko or a Granny at any time in any point of the game against those guys. I’m not going to let matchups dictate this game. I want our guys focused on ourselves. When we do that, we’re a tough team to play against.”
Yeo is going with the same D, meaning Jon Blum is scratched. When a reporter asked about why no Blum for Clayton Stoner, Yeo said Stoner has played well. “I have no problem with his game at all.”
The Moulson-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville line hasn’t produced. We’ll see if Yeo tinkers with them tonight. He says they’ve had a “score every touch mentality. They’re getting the puck, and just ‘I’m going to turn this one particular play into a goal,’ which quite often means you’re not moving your feet, you’re forcing plays, you’re making some high risk plays or hope plays, which leads to more backcheck.”
Yeo said he met with the team yesterday and each player individually, which is not uncommon, to get them “reset, refocused and reenergized.”
The Wild is hoping for a loud rink that can rival Pepsi Center, which was electric. The Wild’s home crowd is known as one of the quietest in the NHL.
“The excitement, I’m hoping the building is rocking and I think that it will be,” Yeo said. “You come into the building in the playoffs and there’s a different feel. There’s an electricity, there’s a vibe that everybody seems to be picking up on. So I think that’s going to be there. I think our crowd’s going to be great tonight.”
The Wild will be looking to even up this best-of-7 series tonight with the Colorado Avalanche.
“There’s a big difference between 1-1 and 2-0,” Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog said astutely this morning. “And our road play has been good all year,” so … the Wild better do its darnedest to try to even this thing up tonight.
Said Bloomington native Erik Johnson, “We know how tough that building is to play in (the X), so we want to wrap up home-ice [advantage] tonight.”
Avalanche coach Patrick Roy expects the Wild to play well and hard.
“It’s only a game. That’s all we have earned so far,” Roy said. “I expect Minny to be ready for us and give a good push, especially the start of the game. I think the start of the game will be very important for us. We’re going to have to play our best hockey in order to beat these guys.”
No lineup changes for Colorado, Roy said. He also said he expects Matt Duchene to be out for the series. The star center isn’t even skating yet. Similarly, third-line center John Mitchell (concussion) isn’t even riding the bike yet, Roy said.
For the Wild, Darcy Kuemper said the rust is off and he will back up Ilya Bryzgalov tonight. Bryzgalov wasn’t bad the other night, but he certainly was sloppy and he has given up 13 goals in the past three games. With Kuemper back, there’s suddenly some insurance if Bryzgalov falters.
Kuemper said the injury he had occurred a few days before the March 31 morning skate in L.A. and it just progressively worse. That’s why he had to leave the skate early. He joked that it was a “body” injury when I asked if it was upper, mid or lower.
As of now, looks like the same Wild lineup because Dany Heatley, Justin Fontaine, suspended Mike Rupp and Keith Ballard got bagged after the optional pregame skate with John Curry.
Couple storylines tonight:
-- There were two 4-on-4’s in Game 1. Colorado benefited from one with a goal and does benefit by them because it’s faster and more skilled than the Wild.
The Wild also believes it got the short end of both of them.
“We don’t want to get in there. But you take enough cross-checks in the back, and it is tough. I think it’s a tactic that they’re trying to deploy. No question, when they’re down, of course they want to play 4-on-4 and open up a little bit more ice. We want to play hard between the whistles. Hopefully the people that are calling the game are aware of that and judging it the right way.”
In other words, Yeo hopes the new set of refs tonight is aware of what the Avs are trying to do. If this is a tactic by Colorado, it’s a smart one because the Avs know it’s natural that officials don’t want to put one team down a man after a scrum, so they often take two.
“We’re going to keep playing in your face hockey and as this goes on, we have to make sure we keep getting harder,” Yeo said. “We want to do it between the whistles. If they cross-check us, we don’t have to do anything back. We can look them in the eye and hopefully there comes a point where we can start getting on the power play.”
Roy said, “We certainly don’t mind the 4-on-4, that’s for sure. We like our speed.” But he added, “We try to get away from the scrums. It’s not a good thing for the game of hockey. I know it’s a good for players to show that they’re in the game. But we rather focus on playing a hard game.”
Speaking of playing a hard game, the Avs did a great job making life difficult on Jonas Brodin and Mikael Granlund especially the other night. They’re two of the Wild’s more diminutive, non-physical players.
Roy brought up how Landeskog’s check on Brodin led to the game’s first goal in Game 1.
“We want to finish our checks. Yes, there’s no doubt about it,” Roy said. “We don’t try to get him out of the ice (injured), but we want to finish our check. I think it’s fair and I think it’s the way the game should be played. And if these guys play big minutes, we want them to play big minutes. The more tired they’re going to be, I think it benefits of us.”
“Physicality is a part of it. This is what makes this game great as far as I’m concerned. This time of year especially, you see guys who quite often don’t play a physical game … doing it. Part of being tough and part of being a winner is being able to take a hit to make a play.”
So Yeo says not only does the Wild have to do that to Colorado’s top players, Brodin and Granlund must do a better job protecting themselves. For instance, how often do you ever see Ryan Suter get blown up? It doesn’t happen.
On puck retrievals, Brodin must do a better job, Yeo said, “not only so you’re not getting run through the boards and running the risk of getting hurt, but also because that’s the right play to give you a chance to execute. If you’re not protecting the puck and not protecting yourself, it’s probably going to lead to a turnover.”
And, that’s what happened before Landeskog’s goal the other night.
Brodin said, “We knew it’s going to be a tough series. They come out hard. It’s their home rink, too. But I think we stood up good to it. You have to see which line you’re playing against. You have to read it. Sometimes you have to protect yourself, sometimes you have to take a hit to make a play.”
I also talked to Granlund and you can hear from him in tomorrow’s paper.
Erik Johnson said the Avs weren’t targeted those two guys specifically. He said it’s the playoffs and you want to set a physical tone and “in the regular season, we’re not exactly known as the most physical team.”
In the playoffs, you finish checks hard “because you want players on both teams to feel it the next day.”
Yeo said the Wild must do a better job being engaged and stronger in battles. He noted how on three of Colorado’s goals the other night, the Wild had guys on the ice.
“We have to be stronger in those situations,” Yeo said (see Kyle Brodziak on the fourth and fifth goals).
The Wild’s PK went 4 for 4 the other night against one of the NHL’s most lethal power plays.
“I have to give them credit,” Roy said. “They play well. They play a low box. We have to take more shots from up top. That’s something we’ll consider. They block a lot of shots, they had great stick. I mean, they’re well-coached. Positioning is really good. We’ll have to maybe do it a little more the hard way,” as in get shots through and jump on rebounds.
Huge game tonight that can determine this series. Teams that go up 2-0 in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup Playoffs series hold an all-time series record of 287-45 (86.4%).
Talk to ya tonight. I can’t even convey how hellacious my deadline is for 8:30 p.m. games, especially on a Saturday night, so don’t expect a ton of tweeting in the third period.
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