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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Ugly, ugly performance tonight by the Wild really for the first time this season when the Montreal Canadiens outskated them from start to finish en route to a 6-2 victory.
The two goals make it sound closer than it actually was. Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley each scored with the Wild trailing by five goals, Heatley’s coming with 1.3 seconds left.
Max Pacioretty, who entered the game with two goals, an eight-game goalless drought and all but disappearing from USA Olympic talk, scored three goals (a natural hat trick) on 10 shots.
Josh Harding was pulled for the first time this season, and it was far from his fault. He held the Wild in a scoreless first period and did all he could in a one-sided second period. Coach Mike Yeo gave him the mercy pull so he didn’t have to endure any more punishment and could now have enough in the tank to start Wednesday in Ottawa.
From everything I’ve been told, the plan was to go with Darcy Kuemper in Ottawa (although Yeo was denying that after the game).
Regardless very doubtful that happens now. Kuemper, who gave up three goals on seven shots last month in Toronto, came in and gave up three goals on nine shots to the Canadiens. He was beaten on the first two shots he faced, meaning at that point, he had stopped four of 9 shots this season.
He is 3-7 in the minors with a goals-against just under 3.0. This is a problem, especially with Matt Hackett (who has actually been worse statistically in Rochester) no longer in the organization and Johan Gustafsson having next to no North American pro experience.
Niklas Backstrom is sidelined with a concussion. The Wild has a ton of games coming up, including back-to-backs the next three weeks and in four of the next five (not counting Wednesday). He is doing light workouts but not skating, so my guess now is the Wild will have to somehow add an experienced backup, whether it be trading a draft pick for a Scott Clemmensen-type or signing a Jose Theodore or a Rick DiPietro or a Mathieu Garon or somebody.
But Harding can’t do it all himself and it’s hard to be confident with Kuemper right now until he goes to Iowa and gets his game in order. He just doesn’t look comfortable in net. This kid knows how to play goal. He's played at a high level before. But right now, he's struggling.
Still, goaltending by Harding and Kuemper had nothing to do with tonight’s loss. The Wild, 10-1-2 in its previous 13, just had a clunker that happens over the course of every season.
The objective now it too get a little “ticked” as Yeo termed it and use it as a motivating factor in Ottawa.
The second and fourth lines had a tough time tonight. No sustained pressure, which led to a lot of playing on its heels and retreating. Jonas Brodin was a minus-4 (maybe he was getting used to his new half shield; just kidding), Ryan Suter was minus-3, Heatley was minus-3 and needs to be shown the video of his entire shift before Pacioretty’s first goal, a goal that started the snowball to roll. Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville and Torrey Mitchell were minus-2s.
Top line was even and Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser, Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke managed to be plus-1s.
Mitchell hurt his leg tonight. No update from Yeo, although he didn’t think it would be too serious. Still, if there’s a chance he can’t play, the Wild will either have to dress seven defensemen or recall a forward from Iowa. Mike Rupp’s extending his conditioning stint to play two games this weekend, so it won’t be him. Prosser did play forward a little bit last season.
Anyway, that’s it for me. Wild may not skate in the morning, so may be a late update Wednesday.
Bonjour from Montreal, where the Wild and Les Habitants square off tonight in the front end of back-to-back games for Minnesota.
Wild plays in Ottawa tomorrow. This is the first of four straight away from the friendly confines of the X (league-best 10-1-2) for the Wild, which hopes to improve on its 3-3-2 road record.
If you didn't read my feature in today's paper on Team Finland's brass talking about potentially naming Mikko Koivu captain at the Olympics and the evolution of Mikael Granlund, that article can be read here.
Josh Harding starts tonight and Darcy Kuemper is expected to start tomorrow. Despite several teams in the NHL dealing with goalie issues including the Wild, Jason LaBarbera cleared waivers for Edmonton.
So that pretty much sums up where he is in his career.
Not much news to report other than Clayton Stoner's revolving D partners.
"They're trying to keep me guessing," Stoner said with a wink.
Stoner has played with injured Keith Ballard this season, Jared Spurgeon this season and most recently interchanging Nate Prosser and Matt Dumba.
Tonight, Prosser gets back into the lineup and Dumba will be scratched. My guess is Dumba plays tomorrow in Ottawa, and coach Mike Yeo said that's a possibility.
I figured it had to do with the big Montreal stage and the fact it could intimidate a 19-year-old like Dumba, but Yeo said that wasn't the reason.
"You know what, we've got seven guys right now," Yeo said. "I liked a lot of things I saw in his game [against Winnipeg on Sunday]. We have a large number of games coming up here, so there's a good chance we'll get him back in there. It was the same thing with Pross. It was hard to take Pross out of the lineup [Sunday], but we're just trying to keep everybody involved."
Improving Marco Scandella, as I wrote today here, will play his second game in the rink five or six minutes from where he grew up. He only had to buy 12 tickets and got a home-cooked meal last night, "so in the end, I won."
He also set up 30 postgame passes and he's just excited, saying how cool it is to get text messages from old teachers saying how excited they are to watch him in person.
Different atmosphere around the Wild from the bilingual press when we come here now. It used to be mayhem when Jacques Lemaire coached the Wild. Now, it's much less crowded, although Scandella and Quebec-born Jason Pominville were popular interviews today, as well as Mikko Koivu -- the brother of longtime former Canadiens captain Saku Koivu.
That's it for moi. Talk after tonight's game and on Twitter during the game (www.twitter.com/russostrib).
As speculated in today's paper, the Wild did indeed flip backup goalies this morning. With Niklas Backstrom sidelined with a concussion, Johan Gustafsson was reassigned to AHL Iowa and Darcy Kuemper recalled for the two-game road trip to Montreal and Ottawa (actually a four-game trip, but the Wild's returning home Thursday before heading to Winnipeg on Friday for practice).
Kuemper will likely start Wednesday in Ottawa unless the Wild acquires another backup beforehand. Kuemper has had a very up and down year for Iowa, and that was epitomized this past weekend when he got lit up Friday night but came back Saturday and made 32 saves in a 1-0 loss to Milwaukee.
But Gustafsson is not ready for an NHL start. So Kuemper is the guy. The 6-5 former Western Hockey League Player of the Year and Canadian Hockey League Goalie of the Year went 1-2-0 with a 2.08 GAA and a .916 SV% in six games (three starts) with the Wild last season (excluding postseason).
In Toronto earlier this year, Kuemper gave up three goals on seven shots in 31 minutes and was pulled in a game the Wild absolutely dominated. The hope is that was an aberration because he was treated like a yo-yo during that time. Remember, he was up in Minnesota as a backup, was returned to Iowa to make his first start of the season, then flew to Buffalo to serve as backup to Josh Harding before starting in Toronto the next night.
We talked to Kuemper today and he believes it was just a blip on the radar. He's confident going into Wednesday's expected start. I'll put those quotes in Wednesday's paper.
As I've reported, if Backstrom is going to be out long, I'd suspect the Wild gets a backup in here via signing, trade or waivers. Jason LaBarbera was placed on waivers today by the Edmonton Oilers. It'll be interesting to see if he is of interest to Minnesota or any of the other teams -- Chicago, Islanders, Los Angeles, Nashville -- who suddenly need goalies. He has 60 NHL wins, although ... he'd be a true stopgap. The puck has a hard time hitting him and he doesn't exactly get my heart racing.
After doing a little digging, it would surprise me if the Wild put in a claim.
I talked to Josh Harding, and he told me his red pads won't be worn in games because his teammates say they see holes easier behind him. I then showed Harding pics of Trevor Kidd's infamous checkered pads in Carolina and Florida. Kidder was a treat to cover, by the way.
I'm doing a big story on Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund tomorrow. As I wrote in yesterday's blog, Team Finland's GM Jari Kurri and coach Erkka Westerlund were at the game watching them for the Olympics, and I talked to both men.
I'm also writing about Marco Scandella, who is playing great and is returning to play in his hometown of Montreal for the second time. He was real good today.
And, from the NHL:
Los Angeles Kings goaltender Ben Scrivens,
Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin and Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding
have been named the NHL’s “Three Stars” for the week ending Nov. 17.
FIRST STAR – BEN SCRIVENS, G, LOS ANGELES KINGS
Scrivens went 3-0-1 with a 0.66 goals-against average, .977 save
percentage and two shutouts to help the Kings improve to 14-6-1 (29
points), their best record through the first 21 games of a season since
1990-91 (15-5-1, 31 points). He relieved injured starter Jonathan Quick for
the final 1:20 of overtime, serving as the goaltender of record in a 3-2
shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres Nov. 12. Scrivens then started the next
three games, posting 23 saves in a 3-2 comeback victory over the New York
Islanders Nov. 14 and recording consecutive shutouts against the New Jersey
Devils Nov. 15 (26 saves) and New York Rangers Nov. 17 (37 saves). The
27-year-old native of Spruce Grove, Alta., has not allowed a goal in his
last 155:02 of playing time and leads the NHL with a 1.24 goals-against
average, .955 save percentage and three shutouts in eight appearances this
SECOND STAR – TYLER SEGUIN, C, DALLAS STARS
Seguin paced all players with five goals and tied for first with
seven points in leading the Stars to three straight victories. He scored
the insurance marker in a 3-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers Nov. 13. Seguin
then tallied a career-high four goals, including the game-winner, and five
points in a 7-3 triumph over the Calgary Flames Nov. 14, becoming the first
Stars player to register four goals in a game since Nov. 16, 2007 (Jussi
Jokinen). He capped the week by collecting an assist in a 2-1 victory over
the Vancouver Canucks Nov. 17, extending his point streak to four games
(6-2—8). The 21-year-old native of Brampton, Ont., leads the Stars, and is
tied for sixth in the NHL, with 12-11—23 in 20 games this season.
THIRD STAR – JOSH HARDING, G, MINNESOTA WILD
Harding posted a 3-0-0 record with a 1.38 goals-against average
and .939 save percentage to help the Wild improve to 13-4-4 (30 points),
their most points through the first 21 games of a season in franchise
history. He relieved injured starter Niklas Backstrom in a 2-1 win over the
Toronto Maple Leafs Nov. 13, stopping 19 shots, plus another two in the
shootout, in 54:29 of playing time. Harding then recorded 22 saves in a 3-2
victory over the Florida Panthers Nov. 15 and 21 stops in a 2-1 triumph
over the Winnipeg Jets Nov. 17 to extend his home-ice winning streak to 10
games. The 29-year-old native of Regina, Sask., is 12-2-2 in 17 appearances
this season and ranks second in the League in goals-against average (1.25),
save percentage (.946) and shutouts (tied, 2).
Evening from the X, where Mikko Koivu scored both goals and Josh Harding made 21 saves (8 on Blake Wheeler alone) to lift the Wild to a 2-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets for its sixth straight home win.
Read the game story for the details on www.startribune.com/wild, but Jets fans came in droves, chanted, taunted Harding, causing Wild fans to boo and give it right back with loud “Let’s Go Wild” cheers.
“So how about our fans tonight? It was awesome. I loved it,” coach Mike Yeo said. “Their fans are great, there’s no question. They travel well. They’re loud. I thought our fans were awesome.”
Read more about that in the gamer, like I mentioned, but one’s got to think Harding should be one of the three Stars of the Week on Monday in the NHL. Four goals in three wins and 12 goals in eight games (7-0-1) this month to help left the Wild, which has points in 12 of its last 13 (10-1-2).
Harding is 9-0-2 since Oct. 17 for the longest point streak in a single season by a goalie in Wild history. He is 10-0 at home with a 1.15 GAA. He is 12-2-2 overall and leads the NHL with a 1.26 GAA and .946 SV%. In his career at the X, he is 31-9-2, including 24-4-1 since Jan. 27, 2010.
Koivu recorded his 13th career multi-goal game and Zach Parise tried to set him up for the empty-net hat trick, but Parise said that he led him too far with the pass. Koivu’s winner came with 3:12 left after he won a draw to Ryan Suter. Suter patiently sent it to Charlie Coyle, who cut down low along the half wall, spun away from Keaton Ellerby and passed to Koivu in the left circle, who one-timed a laser past Ondrej Pavelec.
Koivu has nine points in his past six games.
“Offensively, I sure hope he keeps going the way he is right now because defensively, every single night, he’s just a guy that’s extremely difficult to play against,” Yeo said.
Suter logged 30:08 of ice time and blocked a career-high seven shots. The Wild, the NHL’s third-best faceoff team (.549), won 33 of 52 faceoffs.
The Wild is the best defensive team in the West, giving up 1.95 goals per game (2nd in the NHL). It has allowed the fewest shots in the NHL (24.0) and the fewest 5-on-5 goals (19 in 21 games).
Marco Scandella had another outstanding game, assisting on Koivu’s first goal. Since being scratched in three in a row, Scandella is plus-9 in 15 games with one minus-1 game in that stretch. His MO has been inconsistency, but that’s awfully consistent and I think one big thing is he doesn’t have the minors hanging over his head anymore.
Mikael Granlund had another outstanding effort. Great on both sides of the puck, and Koivu and Granlund did this with Finnish brass Jari Kurri and Erkka Westerlund in the press box scouting. Granlund had four shots, attempted eight shots and won 8 of 11 draws after winning 7 of 10 last game. He's also sneakily good with the stick, constantly taking pucks away from unsuspecting opponents like his countryman and mentor, Koivu.
Matt Dumba looked much more at ease tonight and Jonas Brodin was much better than recent games.
The Wild got off to an outstanding start tonight, dominated the first period and jumped out to a 1-0 lead on Koivu’s first goal. It left some other goals on the ice, so to speak. Kyle Brodziak missed the net on a couple chances, Nino Niederreiter set up a three scoring chances on one shift, including one from his belly, Jason Pominville was stopped from in tight, Jared Spurgeon whistled one wide of the net during a monster shift by the top line.
The momentum turned with a second-period penalty, and Harding had to be great. For the second game in a row, the Wild began to get sloppy in the neutral zone and that made life difficult on itself as the Jets began to pressure.
Dustin Byfuglien scored 54 seconds into the third, but Yeo said, “Once they tied it up, something clicked.”
Koivu then tied it. For the second game in a row, it was that line on the ice for the tying goal only to recover and get the winner.
On the Parise-Koivu-Coyle line, Yeo said, “Those guys were going all night. That line was great all night long, so I’m not surprised to find them in that situation.”
Parise, always honest though, said the Wild had to figure out why it’s getting some complacent in games it’s dominating because it will eventually catch up to them. Remember, the Wild has yet to play teams like San Jose, St. Louis, Coloradoand Phoenix, and he said “there are good teams out there that will make you pay for it.”
Wild hits the road for four after practice Monday, heading to Montreal (Scandella’s second return to his hometown), Ottawa (Matt Kassian), Winnipeg and St. Louis (Team Minnesota!)
I’ve got a couple good stories in the works, a couple that may be in Tuesday’s paper. I’ll talk to you after Monday’s practice, although I’ll have to hustle to make my flight, so who knows when. That’s it for me.
Wild and Winnipeg Jets look to continue their hot streaks tonight when they clash at the X in a Central Division matchup.
Josh Harding vs. Ondrej Pavelec.
Rookie defenseman Matt Dumba, scratched in six of the past seven games, gets back in the lineup tonight for Nate Prosser.
Prosser has played well, but the Wild needs to give a 19-year-old a chance to play or it’ll need to eventually make the decision if it needs to return him to Red Deer despite already hitting that 10-game mark to trigger the first of his three-year deal.
It’s a fine line right now because the Wild can’t hurt Dumba’s development by having him collect dust, but as I wrote in today’s article here, in a conference where every point is absolutely crucial, you can’t also risk continually throwing out an erratic defenseman.
And Dumba has had some hairy moments his last two games against Chicago and Carolina. But, how do you get Dumba out of that if he’s not continually in the lineup?
Tonight’s game against Winnipeg makes sense because he played well against Winnipeg in the preseason (scored a goal in Winnipeg and was great alongside Clayton Stoner) and in his second NHL game Oct. 10 (three shots, even rating in almost 12 minutes).
“He’s played well against these guys, so just want to see him continue to evolve and continue to grow,” coach Mike Yeo said. “He’s in here for a reason. I want to see his strengths come out in the game. Physical down low and strong in D-zone coverage but executing and getting up ice when there’s an opportunity, and looking for opportunities to get pucks through to the net.”
Regarding about the fine line between needing to play him but not being able to afford mistakes, Yeo continued, “Those guys are always under the microscope a little more. If some of your other defensemen are in the lineup night in and night out and they make a mistake, then you kind of brush it aside. We can’t expect a perfect game from him. There’s going to be some mistakes with the puck and without the puck. That’s the same for every player, but we just have to make sure we keep working to limit those and continue to grow his game. It’s just real important that we show the confidence in him to give him the chance to go out and do the things that he can do.”
Same lines as the past several games for Minnesota.
Couple other things from the skate:
-- Johan Gustafsson will again back up Harding tonight. Wild isn’t saying, but I’d guess tomorrow that the team flips Darcy Kuemper and Gustafsson and brings Kuemper to Montreal and Ottawa with Kuemper likely to start in Ottawa on Wednesday. He has been very up and down in Iowa but played real well in a 1-0 loss last night.
This is all barring a trade for a goalie. Again, as I wrote the other day, if Niklas Backstrom is going to be out long with his concussion, GM Chuck Fletcher is contemplating acquiring a backup goalie or signing one. However, even if say he signed a Jose Theodore, Theodore would need time in the minors to get ready to play in the NHL. The Wild is also looking at some goalies playing in Europe, but they would have to first clear waivers before being allowed to be added to the roster.
So in the meantime, unless there’s an imminent trade coming, Kuemper, I’m guessing, starts in Ottawa. No update on Backstrom, but he was at the rink this morning.
Again, Fletcher has said he’s not going to overreact and needs to first figure out what Backstrom’s timetable is medically. Problem is with concussions you never know and Chicago and the Islanders lost goalies last night, so with so few goalies out there, one wonders if Fletcher may have to act quickly so he’s not left standing at the alter.
Also, I’m getting emails about guys like Ryan Miller and Viktor Fasth, etc. The Wild has $1.8 million in camp space and Harding has taken the reins as the No. 1. The move – if there ever is a move -- would likely be to get a stopgap until Backstrom is healthy -- either a free-agent pickup or a trade for a Scott Clemmensen-type goalie.
-- Mike Rupp has played three games for Iowa and it appears as if his conditioning stint will be extended for the week. The Iowa Wild plays three in three next weekend, so he’d likely get into a couple. Conditioning stints can last 14 days continuous. Once he is recalled, the Wild does not have to send anybody down to make room on the roster. If the Wild is healthy, my guess is Rupp becomes the 13th forward for the time being and somebody Yeo maybe spots in from time to time against physical teams.
-- The other night against Florida, Yeo used his timeout early in the second when he sensed momentum turning and Jonas Brodin iced the puck. You only get one timeout a game in the NHL, so when Florida rallied with two goals 5 ½ minutes apart early in the third, Yeo said to the team, “I don’t have a timeout. Can’t use it. We better figure this out right now and they did.”
Just pointing it out because it’s a kinda interesting look at the bench and something we don’t normally get to see/hear about.
-- I talked to Yeo about Brodin, who has been struggling with the puck lately. He had three goals and six points in his first nine games before breaking his cheekbone against Nashville.
In seven games since his return, Brodin has NO points and ONE shot. He’s iced a puck a ton and is turning pucks over. I think it’s the bubble, but Yeo says he has worn it long enough by now to get used to it.
Regardless of the reason, Yeo said the Wild is working with Brodin to find his game again.
“Parts of his game are really strong,” Yeo said. “Every night you’re still going to see what a great player he is. Right now, there’s a little more inconsistency with his play with the puck. And the confidence isn’t quite there yet. You can tell. He doesn’t have the same confidence getting up ice, …” skating with the puck, getting involved with the Wild’s offensive game and “we haven’t seen him shoot as many pucks.”
Yeo said it’s just building his game back to the level he was before the injury.
-- Keith Ballard’s upper body injury is clearly broken ribs. Hopefully he won’t be out too much longer, but he hasn’t begun skating.
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