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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Wild right wing Justin Fontaine will miss Game 2 with what I'm told is a groin injury.
Coach Mike Yeo said it's the type of injury that could be day-to-day or a week or so. Fontaine was being seen by Wild doctors during the Wild's optional practice today after Friday's series-opening 4-3 loss to the Blackhawks.
Yeo said there are several options, but he wouldn't divulge who will play for Fontaine.
Normally, Yeo would put the right-shot Jordan Schroeder in that spot, and he has played well against the Hawks and had one game with seven shots this year against them.
But Yeo also reminded that Erik Haula had a great series against Chicago last year. He hasn't played yet in the postseason as he's been deep in the doghouse after a tough regular season.
If Haula were to play, my guess is Kyle Brodziak would move to right wing. Yeo also said there's Ryan Carter and Sean Bergenheim, but my guess is Yeo will want to put a speedster in the lineup, so I'd think it would be Haula or Schroeder. Haula would be able to play penalty kill for Fontaine. Schroeder is an offensive weapon, but there is no doubt the Wild hasn't been pleased with his play in his own zone.
"It’s been tough for sure, but I’m so full of excitement," Haula said. "It’s hard to describe what it feels like being out and feeling kind of helpless. But I’ve been working hard. If they call upon me, I’m going to give it my all and make sure it’s going to be tough to take me out."
The Wild's looking to respond Sunday. This is the first time it has trailed in a series this postseason and it has fallen behind 2-0 in a series in three of its past four series.
"We still feel fine," Zach Parise said. "We’re not freaking out or anything. … We’re not sitting here thinking, ‘Oh here we go again.’"
The Wild hasn't lost consecutive games in regulation in the Devan Dubnyk era and he responded impressively from two losses in the St. Louis series.
"All year, we’ve done a good job of putting things behind us and moving on – win or loss," Dubnyk said.
The gist of today is the Wild felt the first period was not nearly as bad as a 3-0 deficit would seem to indicate and that the pushback in the second period off a terrific forecheck and more speed has the Blackhawks' attention.
"I know one thing against this team, I think we have their attention probably a little more than we have in the past," Yeo said. "But with that comes maybe a greater sense of preparation on their part going into every game and I think we’ll see that again tomorrow."
"It took us to go down 3-0 and start from scratch and start building," said Chris Stewart, who is still looking for his first goal this postseason. "We know we’re going to get our chances against them. The more we get in their zone and grind them down and make them work 200 feet for their chances and frustrate them will play more into our gameplan.
"They won the game, but they're probably not feeling too well about the pushback we had. We came here to get one and hopefully we get one."
Added rookie defenseman Matt Dumba, "Our first period [Sunday] night will be a lot better than that. I think we’re going to bring a lot more speed to our game. I think that’s going to be a big one and that will play a big role in the game. I think we weren’t up to speed where we wanted to be and we need to pressure them into situations they don’t want to be in."
Yeo said, "Looking at the game again, there are a couple things we can do a little bit more consistently on a little bit more throughout the entire course of the game. I think speed is number one. We only saw it enough in spurts, so picking up the pace of our play, but also the forecheck, pressure, the physicality. Once that started to come into play, we started to find our game a little bit more.
"Our first period, I would say, was actually pretty decent. But pretty decent’s not going to cut it. I think we spent more time in their zone than they spent in ours. We had some shots, we had some moments, we had some opportunities, but I would say the assertiveness of our start and making sure we’re not giving up quality chances that we did early in the game, I think being a little bit more whether it’s aggressive or physical in the puck strength battles, I think that’s something we have to be a little bit more prepared for. Whatever the case is, whether it was rust or whether it was just not being ready from the drop of the puck, we have to make sure that we change that for tomorrow."
On the Blackhawks' rush goals, "They’re a great team, but again I’m not overly concerned about those two plays that developed. I don’t know that there should have been a penalty on the play, but they tried to chip it in and [Brandon Saad] grabs [Ryan] Suter’s stick and kind of slingshots himself past him. That’s an odd play on that one. And on the second one, we got caught in a little bit of a bad gap. That’s something we’re a little bit more prepared for now. But again, maybe the rust, maybe the time off – normally we’re a very strong 1 on 1 team so that’s not a big concern."
On the importance of Game 2, Yeo said, "That’s a good question. I don’t really want to get into what ifs to be honest with you. If you ask me if I want to win that game tomorrow I would say yes I would definitely like to. Being 1-1 would definitely be better than being down 2-0. Last year we proved that being down 2-0 doesn’t mean the end of you. We were able to come back, but certainly we are putting a great emphasis on that game tomorrow. It’s a much different situation if you can grab a game and go back, as we saw last series."
On Thomas Vanek's game, "If you’re talking to him, you hear his comments, our thoughts as well, not to say that this is the type of series where he could be more of a factor but certainly when a player has that type of feeling it leads to a lot more confidence and I think we saw that confidence from him right from the start. He was involved in an awful lot of scoring chances for us last night and he certainly is a guy, if you want to call him an X factor, he’s definitely a guy who can be a difference maker in a series like this."
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville expects the Wild to push hard Sunday.
"Minnesota’s going to make you deserve everything you get," he said. "They’re not going to give you anything. We’ve got to be ready for a hard game. You’re going to be seeing progression the emotion, the intensity, every game we’re going to be playing. And I would expect the pace to be like that, as well."
Most shocking about the start of Game 1 was just how rusty the Wild's defensemen were. They quickly learned the Blackhawks have a different push the pace rush style than the chip and chase Blues.
“I think their defense and defensive schemes as a group of five defend better than anyone, beating guys one-on-one or getting those situations,” Quenneville said. “You have to take advantage of them but don’t anticipate getting many of them. We cashed in on them. … But getting scoring chances against Minnesota is not easy."
Couple interesting Blackhawks things:
Antoine Vermette won 11 of 14 faceoffs in Game 1, none bigger than the defensive-zone draw that Brad Richards turned into a Patrick Kane goal in seven seconds.
It was like the perfect storm of bad for the Wild just because the way its set faceoff play was being deployed, Jared Spurgeon and Marco Scandella were on their wrong sides.
Vermette shoveled the puck forward toward the Blackhawks blue line for Richards to skate into. Scandella never looked comfortable and took a strange route to Richards and the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner took advantage of the poor gap.
Vermette indicated the shovel ahead was because he noticed that Wild center Mikko Koivu looked to be trying to win the draw to Spurgeon for a one-timer.
“The way the centerman was taking his draw, I gave a look to Ritchie and fortunately enough it worked out,” Vermette said.
Also, prior to Saad’s goal 75 seconds in, Suter (as you read above, Yeo) felt Saad ripped his stick out of his hands. By the time Suter caught it, Saad was behind him before scoring Chicago’s first goal.
Asked if he had a hand in Suter losing his stick, Saad said, “It’s a hockey play and it worked out.
Every time the Wild loses to the Blackhawks, I have the same feeling after every game.
It just seems like every single time the Wild goofs up in a game or there’s a bad bounce, the Hawks have a way of putting the puck behind Minnesota’s goalie. Every time the Hawks mess up, the Wild don’t.
The Wild showed rust early in tonight’s hockey game, the Wild’s top-4 defensemen made some uncharacteristic mistakes and the Hawks struck three times.
Then, after the Wild rallies on three goals by Jason Zucker, Zach Parise and Mikael Granlund in the second, a tiny thing became a giant thing when Devan Dubnyk never saw a puck come up the wall to Teuvo Teravainen. Dubnyk, getting set, caught sight of Teravainen’s shot at the last moment, waved at it and missed.
But 12 seconds before, Thomas Vanek, who had a solid game, messed up. I don’t know if he misunderstood the rule or thought Jordan Leopold committed a hand pass from the defensive zone (Mike Yeo thought maybe it was the latter), but Leopold sent a hand pass to center ice.
Vanek waited for the referee to blow it dead. He thought if he touched it, the puck would have been a defensive-zone draw. But rule 79.3 states if Vanek touched the puck, it would have been a neutral-zone draw outside the Wild blue line.
Vanek hovered over it waiting, and suddenly Niklas Hjalmarsson pounced and played it up to Patrick Sharp, who got the puck deep. Leopold wheeled it to Charlie Coyle, who wheeled it to Vanek. Vanek was hit along the boards, the Blackhawks gained possession, popped it up high and Teravainen scored on a fluttering shot from 56 feet.
Yeo said it wasn’t the difference in the game and it’s easy to look at now, but in hindsight, Vanek’s got to touch that puck. Vanek, too, said looking back he wishes he touched it.
Who knows what would have happened? But like I said, it just always seems little mistakes like that kill the Wild against the Hawks.
Still, in the third, the Wild had plenty of chances to tie. Two power plays that were fruitless, Zucker swung and missed at a Matt Dumba rebound and couldn’t execute a carbon-copy wraparound to the one he scored on in Game 1 of last round vs. St. Louis. The biggest was Jason Pominville, like he’s done so often this year, shanking a pass by Granlund after a Blackhawks outlet hit, wait for it, a stanchion and ricocheted into the slot.
Chicago scores on those as you know. The Wild apparently doesn’t.
Rust early tonight. Brandon Saad scored after Ryan Suter stepped up. Suter felt Saad ripped the stick out of his hand. Suter went to catch it, but by the time he did, Saad scored.
Later, after Vanek hit the post, Antoine Vermette vs. Mikko Koivu on a defensive-zone faceoff. Seven seconds later, the Blackhawks made it 2-0. On the faceoff setup, Jared Spurgeon was on his forehand I think waiting for a potential one-timer.
So Spurgeon was on his off-side left, Scandella on his off-side right. That proved big because Brad Richards exploded out of the zone catching up to the post-faceoff puck. Scandella, on the right, awkwardly skated toward Richards and the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner wheeled around him to set up Patrick Kane’s sweet one-timer goal from atop the right circle.
Later, after Jonas Brodin turned a puck over to Duncan Keith and was tripped up by Andrew Shaw, Dubnyk was left hung out to dry all alone with Marcus Kruger.
Yeo felt Dubnyk wasn’t at fault for any of the first-period goals and redeemed himself early in the second by robbing Sharp on a 2-on-0.
That save came right after Vanek set up Zucker for his second goal of the playoffs.
The Zucker-Coyle-Vanek line had tons of offensive chances tonight and as I said before the series, I think they’ll continue to get lots of chances as Chicago concentrates on shutting down the Granlund and Koivu lines.
Later, Vanek pounced on a Koivu rebound and set up Parise’s power-play goal, his fourth goal of the playoffs. Later, Parise’s hard work on a forecheck set up Granlund. Parise now has 24 playoff points for the Wild, a team record.
The Wild now is 0-7 in the playoffs in Chicago in three years and Yeo said this is an opportunity now to prove that something is different by getting better with its game.
“If you want to ask, we’re not rattled right now,” Yeo said. “It was obviously disappointing to lose the game and it puts a pretty big emphasis on the next one for us and we know that we’re going to have to be better than that. That’s what we do, we get better as the series goes on.”
Dubnyk fell on the knife for Chicago’s winner and said, “I felt pretty good about my game for most of the night. Obviously, I gave up three in the first period, but as the game wore on I felt pretty good. Disappointed in myself to not work to find that puck to put it away. That’s a play I certainly don’t want to give up after we worked so hard to come back, but I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again. I have all the confidence in the world that we’ll come back and have a really nice game on Sunday.”
Vanek said, “You could look at it two ways. We could have quit and look forward to Game 2. We regrouped and came back hard. The fourth one stun.”
The Wild did lose Justin Fontaine with 8:19 left in the second. No obvious incident, but he turned and started limping to the bench with what looked like a lower-body issue.
I’d think Jordan Schroeder takes his spot if he can’t play Game 2.
“They came out flying and we weren’t really up to speed. Finally in the second period we got playing the way were capable of.”
“We’ weren’t terrible in the first, other than the score, but I thought we had some chances and we had the puck i guess it doesn’t matter if you’re down 3-0.”
On Chicago always capitalizing on mistakes, Suter said, “They have dangerous players, a lot of skill over there and if you make a mistake, most of the time it ends up in the back of your net. That’s how they play and they’ve always done that.”
To not win on rallying from a 3-0 deficit, Suter said, “You gotta put it behind you. If you win the game, you gotta forget about it. We lost the game, we gotta forget about it too. So just prepare for the next game on Sunday and be better.”
Yeo on the first period: “They’ve got some players that can make some 1-on-1 plays and I think we saw some of the that. I think that some of our puck strength in the offensive zone, we weren’t quite as strong on the puck. The 1-on-1 plays aside, there were plays that led up to that. I didn’t think we were pressuring as hard as we normally do, especially on the forecheck and finishing our checks like we normally do. I think we started to get back into that a little bit more in the second period, started to create a little but more momentum off that.”
That’s it for now. Blackhawks are available at noon, Wild at 1:30. Talk to you Saturday.
Finally, Game 1 between the Wild and Chicago Blackhawks is upon us.
It only requires just a little more waiting on your part for the Central Division time slot of 8:45 p.m. CT for the opening puck drop.
By now, unless you didn't read a word this week, you know the lines and lineups.
No changes, but if you don't know, click the scouting report links I'm about to post for the projected lines for both teams.
Today, at 5 p.m., I will be doing a podcast with Jim Souhan live from Chicago. You can listen at souhanunfiltered.com, iHeart Radio or subscribe on iTunes.
Also, at 2 p.m. Tuesday, Jim and I will be doing a podcast at the Liffey in St. Paul. Our special guest will be Wild owner Craig Leipold.
Also, at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, I will be doing a live chat at startribune.com/wild. Please join and pepper me with questions.
I will be on KFAN today at 4:30 p.m.
Twitter follows tonight:
Team Star Tribune: @russostrib, @souhanstrib, @schustee, @CarlosGphoto, @fromjefferson
Some Blackhawks scribes: @MarkLazerus, @TramyersCSN, @ChrisKuc, @BrianHedger and @ESPNChiPowers.
Here's today's Star Tribune coverage:
Here's my Zach Parise/Patrick Kane feature on how they're very different players with different styles and personalities, yet they have a ton of respect for each other and it gives some insight into how both tick.
Here is Jim Souhan's column on Iron Men Ryan Suter and Devan Dubnyk
Here is the notebook on how the Wild wants to keep up with its good discipline, on Dubnyk being a finalist for the Masterton, on the sick bay and Las Vegas odds on this series.
Here's some coach Joel Quenneville stuff from this morning:
"Minny is probably he most disciplined team as far as positionally aware of denying either access through the middle of the ice, through the zone, to the middle fo the net. as good a checking team as you’re going to see, that we’ve faced all year. we know how tough it is to generate shots, chances, and the willingness to be patient and improvising when you can. you have to be aware of cautioning yourselves: when you try to create, you’re vulnerable. so let’s make good decisions with the puck."
On Jason Zucker: "He’s played well, very dangerous player, excellent speed, use him in a few ways. but his speed jumps out at you. has some presence aswell, dangerous off the rush. whether they use him offensively or defensively, he’s a factor."
How "Minny" has changed: "In the last three years they’ve improved each and every year, they’re deeper up front, very balanced on the back end as well. improvement in team game – goaltending’s improved as well – they’ve progressed."
Here's Devan Dubnyk on being a finalist for the Masterton: "That’s a completely different side of it compared to the Vezina [finalist]. It’s been a big story and a big part of my life over the last year turning it around, so to get that recognition, I’m certainly honored."
Here's some Mike Yeo, who opened his presser by eating a doughnut (so he's loose):
On Mikko Koivu the last two series against Chicago: It’s always a tough challenge and he’s going to face some of the toughest challenges. He’s always going to face good d pairings or whether it’s Toews or a checking line to try to match them up, he’s going to be in a role that’s going to challenge him at both ends of the ice. We’ve been pleased with what he’s done so far. I think when you come out on the short end of it like we have in a series, you’re always looking for a reason. We haven’t scored enough goals. I think the biggest difference really is there has been times where he’s done very well in his matchup, making sure he hasn’t lost in very difficult matchups, but we’ve gotten beat elsewhere in our lineup and that’s where we have to see if we’re different this year.
Biggest gut-punch the way the series ended last year? "That was a tough one, yeah. That still stings a little bit that one. You know, I think there’s some good things that we can take out of that series, but bottom line was we still fell a little bit short. Even if we won that game there’s still no guarantees. We said the last couple of days, ‘We haven’t won a playoff game in this building.’ So obviously if we’re going to win this playoff series then we have to find a way to do that."
What convinces you that you can beat them this time? "Again, there’s nothing that’s convincing here. I’ve said this for the last couple of days, there’s a lot of reasons for optimism, there’s a lot of reasons why we could feel good or feel confident. We have a quiet confidence about us and we know what we’re capable of. We also know what we’re up against. For the last several months we’ve been at it pretty good and we’ve had to be at our best. And with that we’ve been probably pretty close to the best team in the league, and obviously with respect to the other teams out there, but the bottom line is until we get into this series, until we find something different, or prove that something’s different, then nothing’s changed. We have to change something here along the way."
Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk, named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy last week, was named a finalist for the Masterton Trophy on Thursday.
The trophy is presented annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey and is named after Bill Masterton, the North Stars player who died on the ice in 1968.
The other finalists are Ottawa’s Andrew Hammond and Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang.
Wild goalie Josh Harding won the Masterton Trophy in 2013 to become the first player in Wild history to win a voted-on NHL Award.
Dubnyk was nominated by the Twin Cities chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association because of his remarkable second-half run after being traded to the Wild from Arizona. He became the toast of the NHL after starting 38 consecutive games with the Wild and saving Minnesota's season.
After playing for three teams last year and ending up in the minors, Dubnyk went 27-9-2 with the Wild with a 1.78 goals-against average, .936 save percentage and five shutouts.
Overall, he finished the season second in the NHL with a 2.07 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
Finally, the wait is over. As much as coach Mike Yeo appreciated the time to prepare for the Wild's second-round playoff series against Chicago, he seemed antsy to get going Thursday. The Wild held its last pre-Round 2 practice at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday morning, then flew to Chicago in the afternoon.
Yeo said the Wild would have a team dinner Thursday night, then watch some hockey and relax. Everyone on the active roster remains healthy, and everyone participated fully in practice. Jason Pominville, who sat out Wednesday because of illness, looked up to speed Thursday. Yeo said Pominville was given the day off to ensure he got "all his energy back.''
Despite the Wild's 0-6 playoff record at United Center, several players seemed excited to kick off the second round in that raucous arena. The Wild does have a 14-12-2 record there and defeated the Blackhawks 2-1 at United Center on April 7 in the game that clinched its playoff spot.
Charlie Coyle said he gets chills during the ultra-loud national anthem in the building, and he doesn't expect the Wild to be bothered by the rowdy environment.
"It’s just how you look at it, really,'' he said. "You know they’re going to be loud. Chicago’s a great building to play in with their crowd. They’re into it. They love their hockey. So it’s going to be fun. We always look forward to playing in their rink.
"As of late, we’ve been doing pretty good over there. We’re not really worried about what happened in the past. It’s a new year. We’ve got a new team here. We’ve got a different mindset. This group has so much confidence in our team, what we have in here, and what we can accomplish. We have to keep the mindset of going into this building, it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a good atmosphere. We’ve been a good road team as of late. So we want to keep that going.''
The Wild worked on several phases of its game in Thursday's practice, which lasted a little more than an hour. That followed a long, detailed practice on Wednesday. Yeo said it had been a productive week, and the long layoff prevented players and coaches from having to scramble to get ready for a new opponent. They could spread out preparations over a few days, so players weren't overwhelmed by a flood of information in a short period of time--and as the week went on, Yeo said, they had the time to focus on their own game.
Matt Cooke also was happy to have more time between the first and second rounds. Last year, he said, the Wild was "still hung up'' on its first-round victory when it traveled to Chicago for Game 1 of the second round, only two days after defeating Colorado in an emotional Game 7 on the road.
"I think it’s been good for us,'' he said. "It allows us to get time for preparation, and it allows us to heal a little bit. Last year, we rushed right from Colorado to Chicago to get started. This year, we were able to come home and refresh a little bit, enjoy the first-round win, but really get focused for the second round.''
Cooke said he thinks the Wild have a great matchup in the Blackhawks, and he added that the Wild will be looking to control the pace of Game 1 on the road. While his team shouldn't overemphasize Game 1, Cooke said, it shouldn't underemphasize it, either. He stressed that it's important for the Wild to be assertive in the opener.
Mikko Koivu said the Wild has a better understanding of how to advance in the playoffs, now that the team has won a series in each of the past two years. "I think that makes a difference, when you know what it takes,'' he said. "You’re not going to get anything with luck, or if you’re hoping you might get away with something; it’s not going to happen that way. You need to play really good hockey for a lot of games.
“(Chicago has) been there. They know what it takes. You have to be ready from Game 1 and be ready to do what it takes to even win one hockey game and stick with that. I think we’ve done a good job with that lately. We spent the last couple months day to day, just getting ready for the next one. That’s what it’s all about.”
Russo was in Chicago for today's Blackhawks practice and reports that winger Kris Versteeg--who wasn't expected to play in Game 1--sat out the practice because of a lower-body injury and is day-to-day.
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