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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Rookies, veterans alike lift Wild to big win and spot atop the Northwest Division

Posted by: Michael Russo under Rookies, Wild game coverage Updated: March 11, 2013 - 12:01 PM
The Wild ushered in the second half Sunday night with a very impressive 4-2 win over the rival Vancouver Canucks to at least for now take over the top spot in the Northwest Division.
 
Minnesota, now 9-2-1 AT HOME (revised), got a huge first goal right off the hop 24 seconds in by Zach Parise, had great jump from the start and rolled from there. Things got hairy when Henrik Sedin made it 3-2 1:02 into the third. One could tell it was going to get tension-filled when the Wild couldn’t capitalize on three 2-on-1’s in the second period, but the Wild responded well and continued to stick with the gameplan.
 
Finally, after a tremendous Charlie Coyle shift in which he evaded and bounced off defenders to help set up Parise’s second goal (read more about this impressive shift in the game story on www.startribune.com/wild), the Wild skated to the victory.
 
“Pretty impressive weekend all around,” coach Mike Yeo said, referring to Saturday’s win at Nashville, too. “I know I felt pretty good going into game looking at our leaders. I had a real good feeling.”
 
I’ll say. You’ve got to hand it to Yeo, who not long ago was under siege by the media and many fans. Along with his coaching staff and of course the players, he’s got this team turning the corner and heading the right direction. And he definitely knows the personality of this team because if you read my pregame blog and tweets, it was very, very, very crystal clear that he had a certain confidence about the type of game the Wild would bring two hours before the game.
 
He vowed the team would put it all on the line and his pregame talk was all about the “opportunity” to make a statement and catch Vancouver in the standings.
 
Parise scored two goals and an assist. Matt Cullen, who played another strong game, set up another Jason Zucker tap-in goal (more on that goal below). Jared Spurgeon scored the Wild’s sixth power-play goal in seven games for the eventual winner and had an assist on Parise’s first goal. Ryan Suter logged another 26:33 (light night for this guy), assisted on two goals, including Parise’s ice-breaker, and extended his point streak to seven games (one off career-high). Niklas Backstrom got the nod in consecutive nights and made another 25 saves. This guy continually gets victimized by the world’s flukiest goals, often somehow deflecting off Suter initially. Backstrom said he can laugh about em when they’re winning.
 
Jonas Brodin again was awesome. Coyle just keeps getting better.
 
“This was a fun game because you had young kids going out and doing their thing and older guys and veterans going out and doing their thing,” Yeo said.
 
Yeo loved the Wild’s response shifts after goals against, loved how the Wild came out and rallied around captain Mikko Koivu when 10:49 into the game, Alex Burrows was being Alex Burrows and got into it with the fiery Finn. All heck broke loose after.
 
That Mike Rupp-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell line continues to be real good. They play in the offensive zone and generate momentum. When the Wild struggled earlier in the season and last year, it was because shift after shift was in the defensive zone. Hemmed in the zone, chip it out, change. Then the attacking team attacks and you’re in your zone for another 30 seconds.
 
The fourth line continues to do that to other teams, and that’s what the fourth line did the shift before Coyle almost single-handedly set up Parise’s second goal. Rupp, a pro’s pro who plays his role to pretty much perfection, says the best defense is playing 200 feet from your net, especially in the second period when there’s long changes. The line keeps it simple and is one Yeo has full trust in.
 
“The amazing thing about that is they’re starting a lot of times in their defensive zone and Z (Konopka) with his faceoffs, that’s a huge asset to me as a coach and to our team, when you can put them out there and they can play against top lines and you can put them out there in defensive zone situations, and not only can they shut them down and play defensively, but they can execute, get to the offensive zone, play down there,” Yeo said. “Now we’re freeing up our skill lines [to play in the offensive zone].”
 
Every line is getting an identity now (even though the third line did struggle at times tonight). Struggling Pierre-Marc Bouchard may continue to be the odd man out until the Wild somehow is able to trade him or there’s an injury to get him back in.
 
Mikael Granlund has been scratched in four of eight games. He’s struggled to find his right role all year and with all four lines having Yeo’s trust right now, can the Wild continue to scratch him? Or, would it benefit him to send him to Houston so he can play and rediscover his confidence and dominant game?
 
I asked Yeo in the postgame: “I haven’t had a chance to think about that. I just want to enjoy this one right now,” he said, laughing. “We’re very focused on what is most important for this organization for us right now and for our group right now. But we’re also aware about what’s going on in the future and he’s a big part of our future, a huge part of our future, and we’re definitely aware of that. We’ll do whatever we can to try to help his development, make sure we’re not hurting it in any way.”
 
Frankly, I think it’s time he goes back to Houston and gets top line minutes. He’ll be back soon enough.
 
On Coyle, who was just terrific, Yeo said, “I feel like his game keeps getting better. He continues to play with consistency, and because of the way he plays the game, it allows him to do that. He’s not a high-risk player. He’s so strong on pucks that he can muscle guys off and take a look and make sure he’s making a tape to tape pass, not a force play. I believe he has the ability to keep getting better.”
 
Parise raved about Coyle tonight, as did Koivu.
 
I did want to mention Zucker’s goal. Tremendous work ethic by the line, which includes Devin Setoguchi. Zucker fought off a hook at the top of the left circle to drop a puck below the goal line for Matt Cullen. The veteran wheeled past Jason Garrison (who has been terrible for the Canucks and was in the middle of most bad tonight) to the opposite side of the net and whizzed a cross-crease pass for Zucker’s tap-in.
 
Zucker said, “I don’t think I’ve had tip goal like that in a game. Now I’ve had three this year. It’s nice having linemates like that.”
 
So don’t look now, after so much angst this first half, the Wild’s coming together, looking more like a team, sticking to the system and getting some regular line combinations.
 
The Wild won’t practice Monday. I will be live in studio on KFAN starting at 9:20 a.m.
 
Other tidbits:
 
It was Parise’s 25th career 3-point game (his hat trick try at an empty net just missed) and he scored in consecutive games for the first time since Jan. 25-27. He leads the Wild with 11 goals and is second to Koivu with 19 points.
 
Backstrom is now 10-6-3 in his career in the back end of consecutive starts. He doesn’t make them often. He also snapped a personal 0-6-1 streak against the Canucks. The Wild play them a week from Monday in Vancouver.
 
Suter is now tied for second among defensemen with 17 assists.
 
Koivu now has a four-game point streak and leads with 20 points.
 
Zucker is a team-best plus-4.
 
The Wild is 8-3 when it scores first and that’s happened four games in a row.
 
I mentioned this in the notebook, but after scrambling to get a half-dozen goalies into Houston’s lineup last season, Aeros General Manager Jim Mill is once again scouring the depth charts.
 
Both of Houston’s goalies are in Minnesota: Matt Hackett and now-injured Darcy Kuemper. So naturally, on the first day of Hackett’s recall, Shorewood native John Curry was injured in a shootout at Charlotte.
 
In Sunday’s rematch, Cody Reichard, picked up from ECHL Stockton, backstopped the Aeros to a 5-2 victory, while Mill signed ECHL South Carolina’s Jeff Jakaitis, a former Rochester Mayo standout, to a professional tryout to back up. He is the Aeros’ fifth goalie of the year. The Aeros are fifth in the AHL West.
 
“Just when you think you have the depth and have it figured out, a goalie goes down in a shootout?” Mill said. “So you get the list out, start making calls to get a goalie into to Charlotte for a 3:00 pm game and oh yea we lose an hour - Daylight savings time!”
 
Again, no practice Monday. Barring news, no blog. Talk to you Tuesday, and of course, on Twitter.
 
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