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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Captain Koivu wills Wild to victory, top spot in the NHL

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: November 20, 2011 - 12:02 AM

Your Minnesota Wild, by virtue of playing one fewer game than Philadelphia and Chicago, are on top of the 30-team NHL for the first time since Oct. 14, 2006, and on top of the West for the first time since Oct. 25, 2007.

 

 

When I announced the above fact on Twitter after Chicago lost, here's some of the rated G/PG reax:

@bchapman88: "So awesome;" @stateofhckynews: "It's a beautiful thing to see;" @nucksmisconduct: "Unreal. I never saw this coming;" @bennyc50 (my third favorite one): "*error, error, does not compute*" @iwasborntoskate: "OMG. Yessss!;" @kellypuckdrunk (my second favorite one): "Brain hurt;" @canadalscold: "This season is ridiculous;" @mcdillon27: "KING OF THE CASTLE!" @fearthefin (my favorite one): "Load up on non-perishables and bottled water, we're headed to a bunker."

And on and on. Hey, it's Nov. 20. Means squat.

But the reality is few saw this coming and the Wild deserve credit for continuing to win hockey games. The cool thing is there's no high horse in the locker room, no celebrating. They're keeping it cool, saying they've accomplished squat, know they're riding great goaltending and stingy defense and must keep improving.

The Wild rallied for a 3-2 shootout win tonight over the St. Louis Blues for its fifth straight home win and ninth out of 11 overall. It's now 6-0-1 vs. the Central, 12-3-2 vs. the Western Conference and rallied for a fifth time tonight to force overtime or an outright win in the final 10 minutes of the third period.

Much maligned Wild captain Mikko Koivu broke out offensively in a ginormous way. He scored a sick shorthanded goal to tie in the second. He forced overtime with a power-play one-timer with 1:38 left. And he scored with his signature forehand-deke-backhand, break-the-water-bottle-into-little-bittsy-pieces move, and that folks should be how we all know Mikko Koivu is back.

Wild teammates were genuinely tickled silly after the game that their heart and soul willed them to victory.

“He’s the guy, you see him after practice, he’s the one doing extra skating, extra shooting," rookie defenseman Justin Falk said. "He’s one of the last guys off the ice. The harder you prepare, the more work you put in, it’s bound to pay off. It just has to. ... What more can you ask from your captain."

Koivu's shortie -- his first goal at home since March 20, snapping a 14-game drought -- was awesome stuff. It came after Cal Clutterbuck was called for charging Roman Polak. Kyle Brodziak chased Kevin Shattenkirk around the St. Louis end to force a turnover. Koivu pressured, the puck came out, and Falk dumped it into the corner.

There must have been poor communication between goalie Jaroslav Halak and forward Patrik Berglund because Berglund went back to play the puck awfully casually and had no clue Koivu was ready to pounce. Pound he did, snatching up the puck, circling to the front of the net and roofing a beauty for his ninth career shorthanded goal -- four off FSN broadcaster/Mr. Intensity Wes Walz's team record.

T.J. Oshie, who was awesome tonight (man that guy is a tank), scored a backdoor tap-in in the third to give St. Louis a 2-1 lead, but the Wild responded impressively and pressured the Blues and Halak the rest of the way. Halak was scintillating, making 15 of his 30 saves in the third, including a couple robberies of Clutterbuck.

"He was good," said Matt Cullen. "If you don’t [tie it], you go to end of the game, you tip your hat to him. But we stuck with it and there was a strong belief that we were going to get it."

And that's the culture the Wild's creating. They believe they can win every game, they believe they can hang around any game, they believe they can rally when down. That's what playing so many one-goal game does (8-2-3, 13 of 20 games decided by a goal). 

I mentioned on the previous blog that Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and I sat down this morning for 20 or so minutes. He went on and on about the Wild, talking about how they don't break, how they always hang around. He asked me how many times the Wild's rallied in the third to win.

So when Jason Arnott slashed Pierre-Marc Bouchard with a 1:48 left, you just knew it was coming. Ten seconds later, Koivu buried his third goal of the season and second of the night. It came after Bouchard's shot hit Halak up high and fell at Clutterbuck's feet. He dished it back to Jared Spurgeon, who passed it over to Koivu for the one-timer.

Remember, Koivu flubbed one-timer after one-timer the past few weeks. He's not squeezing the stick tight anymore.

Prior to the goal, by the way, Hitchcock called time out. I only point that out because that's actually the second time this season the Wild scored a late tying goal to force overtime moments after the opposing coach called time. The other was in the Wild's first late rally of the season Oct. 20 in Edmonton (Dany Heatley tied it with 1.2 tics left).

In the shootout, Koivu scored his 24th career goal, Matt Cullen scored his 16th and improved to 4 for 4 this season and Josh Harding made two saves after 25 through overtime. I was shocked coach Mike Yeo went with Harding. But this coach keeps pushing all the right buttons, and Harding improved to 5-1-1.

Heck of an exciting game and finish. Again, enough can't be said about the Wild's young D.

Falk was great, playing 26:53 -- a team-high and career-high. Spurgeon played a career-high 25:52.

You have to be courageous to play the big, physical Blues. They hit, and they hit hard, so it's not easy going back and retrieving pucks. The Blues had a 17-6 hit lead after one period. At the end, the Blues outhit the Wild 30-26. Nice response by the Wild after one period.

The Wild has given up a ridiculous 17 goals in 10 home games and 39 goals in 20 games this season -- both league-lows. The Wild's given up 11 in the third, a league-low. Thirteen of the Wild's 20 games have been one-goal games (8-2-3).

This is craziness, already

The Wild will take Sunday off, so no blog barring news. I should have a good follow.

The Wild did reassigned Kris Fredheim after the game, meaning either Marco Scandella and/or Mike Lundin should be able to play Wednesday when Nashville comes to town.

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