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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Haula will play vs. Winnipeg; Zucker might return Thursday

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild practice Updated: April 5, 2015 - 1:35 PM

Afternoon. I’ll be on Rosen’s Sports Sunday tonight on Ch. 4 and on KFAN at 10:15 a.m. Monday (Vox in the Box with Paul Allen).

The Wild held an optional practice at Xcel Energy Center today in preparation for Monday’s big regular-season home finale against the Winnipeg Jets. Win in regulation, and the Wild clinches a playoff spot. Win in overtime, and the Wild would need the Los Angeles Kings to lose in regulation at Vancouver to clinch a playoff spot.

Sixteen skaters, including Jason Zucker and Matt Cooke and excluding captain Mikko Koivu (scratched cornea), and goalies Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom practiced.

The Wild still sounds as if it’s planning for a Cooke return Tuesday in Chicago. It sounds like the hope is Zucker can return Thursday in Nashville. Coach Mike Yeo said he honestly doesn’t have a plan, but Zucker hopes to get one or two games and Yeo said, “I don’t want to throw him into the playoffs in Game 1 having not played any game.”

The Wild isn’t practicing Wednesday in Nashville, but a Thursday return would give Zucker three consecutive morning skates to prep more and two games before the playoffs. I’m not sure you want Zucker’s first game coming against the rugged St. Louis Blues in Game 82.

For the first time Sunday, Zucker really ramped up the contact. Assistant coach Darby Hendrickson battled with him throughout practice, so Zucker said how he feels Monday will be a big indicator as how his week should go.

Yeo didn’t have an update on Koivu today. But the captain who missed last night’s game is expected to play Monday. If not, Yeo said the Wild will have a Plan B

Yeo did say regardless of Koivu playing, Erik Haula will be given a chance to respond from his poor game (a shootout loss) last night against the Detroit Red Wings. Yeo met with Haula this morning.

So if Koivu plays, I’d think Jordan Schroeder will be scratched because one would assume Ryan Carter needs to play against the big, physical Jets. If Koivu doesn’t play, Schroeder would likely play.

This is conjecture.

Yeo said, “I know that Haula can play better. I just want to get him to the level that he was playing at two weeks ago. I know it’s there. I know he’s capable of it and I know we can get him back there.”

Haula was such an important, impressive piece to the Wild’s postseason last year that Yeo badly wants Haula to get back to that level so he can play him this postseason. Right now, his game doesn’t warrant it.

“It would be easy to take him out of the lineup [Monday],” Yeo said. “But sometimes you have to make decisions based on the bigger picture. Sometimes those decisions you have to think a little bit deeper. We want to give him a chance to respond and see if he can get his game up to that level because we know what he’s capable of and we know how effective that can be in the playoffs.”

If I had a dime for every story I’ve written this year with Haula falling on the knife, I’d probably have … a dollar.

He did again today: “I know what it is and the things that I do well and when I don’t play well the things that I tend to do. Maybe as not as big of a guy and whatnot, I have to really focus on the compete part. It’ll be there next game for sure. I’ll make sure I bring that, the extra efforts.

“Everyone competes. But just those little things stick out. A good example was the penalty I took [Saturday], that was probably my worst shift of the game. I know it was a bad shift.”

Play against Winnipeg, and a player has no choice but to compete. So this will be a huge test for Haula to show Yeo something.

On wanting to be in the lineup in the playoffs, the former Gophers two-time leading scorer said, “Everyone brings something different. I just want to get back to that. I feel like I get that extra drive when the playoffs start. I’ve always been like that. Not to say that this year’s going to be like last year because last year was obviously top of the line, but I want to definitely be a big piece when we get there and be in the lineup.”

The Wild has the most points in the NHL since Jan. 15. It has won a franchise-record 10 in a row on the road. It had won five in a row overall, including big wins over St. Louis, Calgary and L.A. It took four days off and it has seemed to lost its mojo.

“If there’s anything we’ve done well over the past stretch, you put the previous result behind you and get ready for the next game,” Yeo said. “It’s tougher to do with losses than it does with wins.”

Yeo just wants the Wild to do all the things in Monday’s game that helps the Wild get to its game. You can’t just go on the ice and expect it to be there, he says.

“We know what’s at stake for them, we know what’s at stake for ourselves. We know it’s going to be an intense game. Our third period [against Detroit] was a much better indication of how we have to play the game, but it’s how we approach the game that’s going to be important,” Yeo said.

Yeo said all week he tried to guard against a lost desperation level that naturally may come with a cushion and the fact there’s no motivation anymore about being able to catch the second- or third-place teams in the Central.

“We’re stuck in between a little bit and that’s the way the last couple games have played out,” Yeo said. “We’ve got to invest in the game.”

I talked to Thomas Vanek a lot about his around the world shootout move this morning, and I’ll squeeze that into Monday’s newspaper.

On Monday, Vanek said, “We just need to get back to our game and controlling the game. After those four days off, I don’t know, I don’t think we lost anything, but we wanted to win so bad to clinch a spot that sometimes when you think too much it goes backwards.”

He said those days off will help the Wild in the long run, but now it has to get back to the mindset of just playing well. “We didn’t worry about [being so close to the playoffs] the last two months. We just knew we needed to win and play well. We have to get that mentality.”

See you on Rosen’s tonight and talk to you tomorrow.

Wild's shootout loss to Detroit not "the end of the world"

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: April 5, 2015 - 7:54 AM

Mike Yeo did his best in the postgame to calm down the masses after the Wild’s 3-2 shootout loss tonight to the Detroit Red Wings.

The message after the second period was “that’s not the type of game we need to be playing right now and going into the playoffs. We need to be better than that. But I also don’t think it’s the end of the world here.

“… The third period was a much better indication how we need to play. The guys responded.”

Where do things stand? The Kings beat Colorado, so the Kings are back in a playoff spot and four points behind Minnesota for the top wildcard spot. The Jets, Monday’s opponent, also won but was knocked back to ninth. However, a win over Minnesota on Monday in regulation, and they’ll be two back. Wild win in regulation, Wild's in because even if Wild went 0-3 and Winnipeg went 3-0, Wild has the regulatio overtime tiebreaker.

Zach Parise tied the score with his second goal of the game, a power-play goal, his team-leading 10th and team-leading 32nd overall in the third. That puts him fourth on the Wild’s all-time list for a single season behind Marian Gaborik (42 and 38) and Brian Rolston (34).

Since Feb. 22 (20 games), the Wild leads the NHL with 29 third-period goals and has allowed a league-low eight third-period goals.”

It was a very testy postgame presser, and as Yeo indicated, this is the problem with the shootout. You get that extra goal, it’s all cheery. You don’t score that extra goal, it feels like a loss and you bring up things like the Wild’s second consecutive mediocre first 40 minutes and a 1 for 6 power play that, yes, scored the tying goal, but went 0 for its first 3, including a shotless 48-second 5-on-3, and went 0 for 2 with a chance to win the game after Parise tied it.

The shootout went eight rounds, and unfortunately for the Wild, captain Mikko Koivu, tied with Parise for second all-time with 39 shootouts goals, didn’t play because of a scratched cornea. He lasted all of warmups, but Ryan Carter played in his place. The Wild knew about this and was expecting it to be resolved, Yeo said.

Yeo said he expects Koivu to be “absolutely fine” for Monday’s regular-season home finale against Winnipeg. It sounds like this happened off the ice.

The shame of not winning the shootout is Thomas Vanek scored an awesome around-the-world goal where he moved his blade 360 degrees around the puck and then roofed a beautiful goal over Jimmy Howard’s left shoulder. Here it is.

But Riley Sheahan, who scored a goal in the game and drew a penalty that led to Gustav Nyquist’s power-play goal, tied the game in the shootout. This was Round 4. Prior, Parise and Pavel Datsyuk didn’t score, Charlie Coyle missed. Nyquist scored but Jason Pominville tied it before Tomas Totar missed.

After Vanek, Nino Niederreiter, Henrik Zetterberg, Chris Stewart, Stephen Weiss, Mikael Granlund, Niklas Kronwall and Justin Fontaine missed before Darren Helm ended things by tucking a shot inside the post. Dubnyk got it with the inside of his left pad, but his pad was over the goal line.

The takeaways from tonight:

1. The Wild wasn’t nearly good enough or desperate enough in the first two periods.

“We just didn’t play well. They were better than us for the first two periods, no question,” Parise said. “We started to play a little simpler, a little smarter in the third and that’s when we started to feel a little better about how we were playing.”

“We didn’t play well early on,” Ryan Suter said. “We started to play our game in the third. That’s kind of been a trend lately. We have to be better.”

2. The power play continues to let this team down. It was 1 for 6 tonight and ranks 28th in the NHL at 15.6 percent.

With Koivu out, Mikael Granlund took his spot on the No. 1 unit. That also, at least early in the game, caused the Wild to move Pominville down and put Matt Dumba on the power with Suter.

On the 5-on-3 for 48 seconds, no shots on goal, Dumba missed the net and had one shot blocked. Pominville and Granlund each swung and missed at cross-crease passes to the backdoor.

My issue is the second minor came 72 seconds into the first power play. Yet, despite the long shift, Yeo and assistant coach Andrew Brunette didn’t substitute for any of the players on the ice.

Yeo explained it was because he used his timeout. But I do think some were gassed (Pominville fanning on shots has been a trend). Monday morning quarterbacking, of course.

Nevertheless, everybody was defensive about the power play after the game.

Parise: “It’s not going to do any good for me to say anything. It wasn’t good enough. We’ve got to practice it.”

Suter: “We had a tough time breaking into the zone. It’s been a struggle all year. We have to get it going. It doesn’t do any good to talk about the past chances. We have to focus moving forward. Doesn’t do any good to question all these different plays. We have to practice is it more for sure and we have to be better at it.”

Told Parise also said they need to practice it more, Suter said, smiling, “We’ll leave it at that.”

Yeo said, “Of course a player’s going to feel that and we’ve come in here and I had to answer 10 questions for the power play. We were down a goal, we got a point. We’re not happy getting one point in games here.

“We lost in a shootout. So would we be asking the same questions if we scored one more goal in the shootout? I don’t know. We gave ourselves a chance to win a hockey game. We weren’t perfect. I’m not going to deny that. … Of course, the players, it’s human nature …

“We’ve spent considerable amount of time on our power play. I will say that for sure. I will also say that because of that we’ve also lost other areas of game in that practice. Some of best times our power play has been at its best, we haven’t practiced it. That’s not the issue.”

On the power play, Yeo said, “Depends how you want to spin it. We go into a game and a guy who’s usually out there [isn’t there] and we haven’t had a chance to practice or prepare. I’m not making excuses but, … you can look at it that way or you can look at it that they scored the goal that tied the game up for us.”

Optional practice on Easter Sunday, and I don’t think Parise, Suter and most the big-minute guys will be there.

3. Koivu’s late absence threw the team for a loop. Guys were in different spots, and that affects not just the lines, but positioning, guys knowing where other players will be in the offensive zone in terms of puck support, guys knowing where players will be on breakouts and in their own zone, Yeo’s matchups.

Erik Haula likely played himself out of the lineup again.

Yeo was not happy with him.

He started in Koivu’s spot between Nino Niederreiter and Chris Stewart. It was a tremendous opportunity after being scratched Thursday.

By the second period, Charlie Coyle took Haula’s spot and Haula moved between Vanek and Justin Fontaine. He took the game’s first penalty for the Wild and it resulted in Nyquist giving Detroit a 2-1 lead.

By the third, he was on the fourth line with Kyle Brodziak and Jordan Schroeder and he was eventually benched.

“I thought he looked tired tonight, I’m not sure why,” Yeo said.

4. Still, as Yeo said, if the Wild win the game, everybody’s happy and there’s a different tone and different line of questioning afterward.

Of course, there’s tension because the Wild wasn’t up to snuff against a desperate Red Wings team in a game that arguably should have been the easiest of the remaining games.

Now, the Wild has four games left of the season and faces a very desperate Jets team on Monday. Then, it hits the road for three in a row to end the season at Chicago on a second of a back-to-back, at Nashville and St. Louis.

So, the Wild’s not making it easy on itself by losing two in a row for the first time since Jan. 19-20, albeit this one by getting an important point.

“I’m not worried,” Yeo said. “It’s not like we were that bad. Let’s not paint that picture. We played a pretty darn good hockey team tonight and we knew they were going to play their best game. …

“Their lives were at stake. We’ve seen ourselves do it to other teams.”

Dubnyk, too, said, “We’re fine. We’ve been playing at a really high level for a long time and that’s going to happen. It’s a long season. It’s strange for us because we have been playing so well. It’s not how we want to play. I don’t think anybody in here is worried. We’ll be fine.”

That’s it for me. Standings are squeezing. Wild better get its act together because Monday is a huge game. Talk to you after Sunday’s optional and enjoy your holiday. I'll be on Rosen's Sports Sunday on Ch. 4 if you're up late.

By the way, check out the bottom of rhe Pominville/Vanek game notebook because there's some news on some Wild prospects, including Mario Lucia and Stephen Michalek.

Wild's clinching scenarios tonight and how next week's trip is shaping up to be dramatic

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: April 4, 2015 - 11:25 AM

Wild and Detroit Red Wings tonight at 6 p.m. at Xcel Energy Center.

Pavel Datsyuk returns for the Wings. Devan Dubnyk vs. Jimmy Howard in goal. For Dubnyk, it'll be his 37th consecutive start overall, the most in the NHL since Evgeni Nabokov started 43 in a row for San Jose in 2007-08.

The Wild will be looking to rebound from Thursday's loss to the Rangers. The Wild has not lost two in a row in regulation under Dubnyk or two in a row (including shootout) since Jan. 19-20 (vs. Columbus, at Detroit).

Last time the Wild faced the Wings, it rallied from 4-1 down in the third, the tying goal coming on an incredible play by Zach Parise to steal a breakout pass from Jonathan Ericsson at the goalmouth. All the Wild's vets were great -- Parise, Mikko Koivu, Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Ryan Suter.

Erik Haula and Nate Prosser in for the Wild tonight, Ryan Carter and Jordan Leopold sit. Suter is fine to play, coach Mike Yeo said.

The Wild would clinch a playoff berth if they defeat the Red Wings in regulation or overtime AND any of the following occurs:
 
- the Flames lose in regulation
- the Flames lose in overtime or shootout AND either the Jets or Kings lose in regulation
- both the Jets and Kings lose in regulation
 
The Wild would clinch a playoff berth if they defeat the Red Wings in a shootout AND any of the following occurs:

- the Flames lose in any fashion AND either the Jets or Kings lose in regulation
- both the Jets and Kings lose in regulation
 
The Wild cannot clinch a playoff berth Saturday if they lose in any fashion.

Check out the top of the Central Division right now and how much the Wild's trip next week will mean to the top-4 teams in the division.

Basically, the Wild will have a large say next week who wins the Central and its likely first-round opponent if the Wild makes the playoffs.

The Wild closes the regular season at Chicago on Tuesday, at Nashville on Thursday and at St. Louis on Saturday.

DRAMA!!!!!

Remember, if the Wild finishes in the top wildcard spot, it plays the second-best division winner. The three top Central teams all have two games in hand on Anaheim, but the Ducks so far look in decent shape to win the West.

The Ducks' last two games are vs. Dallas and at Arizona.

Zucker aiming to return to action for Wild next week

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild practice Updated: April 3, 2015 - 2:58 PM

Wild coach Mike Yeo dropped a big surprise after Friday's practice at the St. Thomas ice rink. Jason Zucker, who wasn't expected back until May, might return to the lineup as soon as next week.

Zucker's recovery from a broken collarbone has gone quickly and well. The winger didn't hold back in a high-energy practice, his first full-contact workout since the injury. Zucker was hurt Feb. 9 in a collision with Vancouver's Luca Sbisa and had surgery to repair the fracture on Feb. 12; since then, the Wild has expected him to adhere to the three-month recovery timetable that is typical for this kind of injury.

Yeo isn't writing anything into stone just yet. He said after Friday's practice that he is "kind of eying possibly the last couple of games'' for Zucker's return, but added he would "make sure'' that Zucker is completely ready. After finishing the current home stand against Detroit on Saturday and Winnipeg on Monday, the Wild will end the regular season next week with road games at Chicago, Nashville and St. Louis.

"I was actually impressed,'' Yeo said of Zucker's performance in Friday's practice. "You can tell he's been putting the work in conditioning-wise. He's a little further ahead than what I expected.''

Yeo's standard line for the past couple of weeks has been that Zucker "is still a ways away.'' Zucker thought so, too. He has been skating and shooting pucks on his own for the past four or five weeks, but he wasn't anticipating that he'd return sooner than early May.

He has been cleared for full practice with contact, though he hasn't yet been cleared for actual competition. He feels good, he said, and his strength and stamina are still there. As long as he continues to get back in the groove at practice and sharpen his execution, Zucker expects he will be ready to get back into the lineup next week.

"It felt great,'' he said of the high-tempo practice. "It's always good to be back out there with the guys, and after skating alone for so long, it's always nice to be with the team.

"Conditioning-wise, I feel great. Today was a good first step, but I didn’t take a lot of contact today. I'm excited to get back, and today was a lot of fun.''

In other Wild news Friday:

--Defenseman Ryan Suter and winger Sean Bergenheim did not practice. Yeo said Suter was taking a maintenance day, and Bergenheim was sick.

--Defenseman Nate Prosser also practiced and will rejoin the lineup Saturday after missing eight games because of a knee injury. He's expected to take Jordan Leopold's spot.

--Forward Erik Haula also will get back in, taking the place of Ryan Carter on the fourth line. Yeo thinks Haula's speed will be beneficial against the Red Wings. While he praised Carter, who recently returned after missing time because of a shoulder injury, Yeo said "it's going to take some time for (Carter) to get his game back to where it was completely.''

--Winger Matt Cooke remains on track for a return to the lineup on Tuesday.

RACHEL BLOUNT

Feud with linesmen, wasted penalty-killing effort stand out in Wild's loss; Live chat at noon Friday

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: April 2, 2015 - 11:56 PM

The Wild’s five-game winning streak came to an end tonight with a 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers, who as coach Mike Yeo said Thursday, is a better team than the one that went to last year’s Stanley Cup Finals.

The No. 1 team in the East that clinched the Metro tonight is from top to bottom deep and well-balanced. They’re fast and skilled and big and have dangerous guys on every line. Their top-4 is as good as it gets on the blue line and in goal, there’s King Henrik. And when Lundqvist’s off or hurt, there’s Cam Talbot.

Just a very good team, and tonight the Rangers won their league-high and franchise-record 26th road win.

Yet, this game was very winnable for the Wild.

The Wild rallied from a 2-0 first-period deficit to tie the game on Thomas Vanek’s eighth goal in the past 12 games 5:53 into the third period. But on the very next shift, speedy Chris Kreider flew into the Wild end and skated through Matt Dumba’s attempted check behind the net. When Kreider skated free, Ryan Suter picked him up.

Dumba went to the front of the net to cover J.T. Miller, but when he saw Chris Stewart didn’t cover for Suter and pick anybody up, Dumba left Miller alone. That brief moment of not boxing out led to Miller scoring the go-ahead and eventual winner on a redirection of Ryan McDonagh’s point shot. The former Minnesota. Mr. Hockey had two assists.

Evening from the press box.

On Friday, Rachel Blount will cover practice so I can write my Sunday column and conduct a live chat on startribune.com/wild, so please join me at noon armed with questions and permission from your employer/teacher/parent.

I’ll also be hosting a podcast at O’Gara’s in St. Paul on Friday night at 6, so please join or listen to souhanunfiltered.com. Jim’s on vacation, so I’m flying solo with a couple Minnesota United players.

Tonight, I’m not going to repeat everything I wrote in my AWFUL gamer (I need some colorful locker-room quotes to save the gamer, and that, well, that didn't happen). I seemed to lose my desperation level, too. Save, send, move on to another day. As players say, the good thing about pro sports is there’s usually another game. I’ll get to move on to another article.

Still, please give that a read for all the ins and outs of tonight. It’s a lot on the sloppiness of tonight (the slow start, the lack of disciplined by taking five minors in 11:06 of the second period and the bad shift the shift after the Vanek goal) and maybe why. The Wild’s now got a five-point cushion with five games left. The Jets were bumped from the top-8 tonight by the Kings.

The officiating tonight was a big sore spot in the Twittersphere and by the crowd here.

“I don’t dispute those calls one bit, but I do think we did some things along the way to warrant a couple more power plays,” Yeo said of the second-period penalties. “But they saw it differently.”

I’ll tell you what though, referees Chris Lee, who seems to do every Wild game lately, and Dan O’Halloran were the least of the Wild’s problems.

Linesmen Derek Nansen and Ryan Galloway were at the heart of a lot of the booing and Bronx cheers, and it became a huge storyline late.

It started in the first period when the linesmen threw Mikko Koivu out of the circle four times, including twice on a power play.

But tonight, there were some questionable offsides calls and some dubious icings or waved-off icings. There was one waved off in the first period where there was no explanation. A clear icing, Marco Scandella goes to play it and they wave it off. There’s just no reason on video.

The one that I think caused the genesis of the Wild problems tonight?

Now, all this is my opinion. But in the second period, Nansen waved off an icing with Ryan Suter basically on the puck. The unbelievably late wave-off meant Suter couldn’t even make a play. He was just under pressure immediately and it created a mess.

It was very clear to me that Suter was angry the rest of the game. A couple times, he didn’t help retrieve pucks for the linesmen on actual icings, a common courtesy by players. He barked at them a few times.

I think they had long memories. With Devan Dubnyk pulled with 1:54 left for an extra attacker, the linesmen twice waved off icings on bang-bang plays or near ties … with Suter the one chasing.

A number of players were talking about the feuding with the linesmen after the game. There was also one icing where it looked like the Rangers got away with changing a few players.

Yeo said he was frustrated and probably got “too caught up in all that stuff. This time of year and even more so in the playoffs, whatever it is, we’re not going to change it. Frustration, it doesn’t help us. We can disagree all we want, but there’s still a game that has to be played.”

I waited for Suter after the game, but I was told finally he was unavailable. But players were very ticked because besides the fact that the non-icings ate up close, it also expended energy as players twice had to skate the length of the ice because of no whistles.

Again, these are arguable ones though. I will say the Rangers hustled on both chased and made them close judgment calls, and the linesmen in the NHL are more often right than wrong.

The Wild’s penalty kill gave up a goal in the first period, but Dubnyk obviously wanted that Rick Nash one back. He scored from the bottom of a faceoff circle by whipping a puck on net that ricocheted in off Dubnyk’s hand.

“The puck flipped up on his blade and he just went to shovel it across,” the goalie said. “It hit me on the inside of the hand. If that pucks stays flat, it’s probably not coming that high and there’s nothing in the way to get hit.”

In the second and early in the third, the Wild killed five penalties, including a double minor that turned into a 48-second 5-on-3. Just huge blocked shots in the second. Mikael Granlund had a memorable one from the ice. Marco Scandella at the end of the second. And Kyle Brodziak, back in the lineup after taking needles in his neck since sticking up for Jared Spurgeon last week and fighting Dion Phaneuf, on the 5-on-3. His stick snapped, so it was basically a 5-on-2, but he twice put his body in harm’s way to foil shots.

“Frustrating loss, Yeo said, “but it’s a group that cares about each other and is playing for each other. Brodzy’s a guy that’s been sacrificing himself all season long as far as his physical game, sticking up for teammates, the way he blocks shots. … The lift that gives the rest of the bench, that’s a huge momentum builder.”

Please join Friday’s chat. Rachel’s on for the daily coverage Friday. I’ll be back with you Saturday. We’ll see if the Wild can rebound vs. the Wings.

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