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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Postgame: Lots of evidence that the "cheating, soft" Wild's game has slipped bigtime

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: November 29, 2013 - 10:30 PM

The Wild lost 3-1 to the Colorado Avalanche for its third consecutive loss and fourth in six games.

After the game, the Wild and Avs raced to the airport to see who could take off first for Denver. If the race results went like tonight’s game, the Avs got a head start by a few miles, the Wild finally decided to push on the gas, nearly caught up and still ended up seeing Colorado’s taillights from the tarmac.

In fact, that’s been the way it’s gone for the Wild for six games now.

The Wild’s a shell of its former self – the team that got off to a 7-0-1 start this month and less than two weeks ago was 13-4-4. Now it’s 15-8-4 and sitting in eighth in the West.

After the game, the quotes were honest, starting with Zach Parise, who angrily sat in his locker tonight after returning from a foot injury that was supposed to keep him out for two to three weeks. Instead he missed one. Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville were minus-2 (includes empty-netter) with four shots and were part of a No. 1 power-play unit that managed one shot on a major tonight down 1-0.

“We played a soft hockey game,” Parise said, bristling. “We cheat. We turn the puck over … We turn away from everybody. We make it pretty easy for them, and that slows us down. We can’t get any speed generated because we keep backchecking.”

Dany Heatley, who scored his fourth goal in the past six games, agreed, saying, “I think it’s crept in a little bit. We’ve had some nights where we haven’t been as hard on the puck and as honest as a team as other nights and our goalies have bailed us out. Eventually that's going to catch up to you.”

The Wild has been scored on first in six straight games, has given up three straight 2-0 deficits and has been outshot 73-32 in the past six first periods.

“It seems to take us a 2-0 deficit to find the urgency level to be effective in the game,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We seem to think that we’re pretty good, that we don’t need to some of the things that brought us success, some of the things we need to do to be successful. Hopefully we’re taking a lesson, we’re taking notes.”

How does the Wild get it back? "Stop cheating," said Parise.

Tonight, Erik Haula made his NHL debut with Mikael Granlund sidelined with a concussion. He was real good other than one shift on the power play to start the second and his shift in the defensive zone on Nathan MacKinnon’s goal to give Colorado a 2-0 lead.

But on Minnesota’s late second-period goal, the former Gopher spun away from fellow former Gopger Erik Johnson and then was bumped to the ice by Johnson. From his knees, Haula astutely whipped the puck around the net for Nino Niederreiter.

Niederreiter raced around the boards and basically from the corner slid a goalmouth pass to a charging Heatley, who scored his sixth goal.

Haula’s speed was noticeable and he set up first-period golden scoring chances by Parise and Pominville. So we’ll see how he does Saturday in Denver.

Justin Fontaine was scratched for Haula because he’s not a center. It’ll be interesting to see what the Wild does in Denver because center Zenon Konopka sustained an eye injury tonight. He got hit by a puck in the first period and was taken to a hospital. Yeo doesn’t think it’s serious, but they didn’t pack his gear and he will miss Saturday’s game.

I asked Yeo if Fontaine will just slot into Konopka’s fourth-line center spot.

Yeo said, “The lineup is in flux. We have different guys going out there, playing with different people at different times. We’ve got to figure it out as coaches, figure it out matchup-wise, figure it out role and identity-wise, but more importantly, regardless of who you’re out there with, what’s your job, what are you supposed to do, what do we need from you? That’s what we need right now.”

The Wild’s power play was again a momentum-killing machine. It managed the one shot on the five-minute major and Josh Harding kept it at 1-0 because he robbed John Mitchell shorthanded. The power play is 3 for 29 the past 10 games.

“Right now we look slow and deliberate with everything we do, with the way we bring the puck up ice, to the way we play inside the zone,” Yeo said. “We get zone time and we can be in there for a minute and not get a shot, we just kind of move it around slowly. We don’t have an attack mentality right now. We have to change that.”

I wrote about this a few days ago, but to me the bigger indictment than the lack of success is the fact the Wild has drawn 29 power plays in the past 10 games. That’s 2.9 power plays a game (I’m good at math)! TWO POINT NINE POWER PLAYS PER GAME THE LAST 10 GAMES!

If that’s not an indicator that the Wild’s puck possession game has disappeared, nothing is. You draw penalties when you skate and forecheck. You don’t draw penalties when you backcheck all night. In the past eight games, it has 20 power plays (2.5) and three or fewer in each.

This is a huge, huge problem. That’s it for now. Early flight to Denver. Talk to you from Colorado, although I’ll be pushing it to make the morning skate, if there is a full one anyway. Niklas Backstrom likely in goal.

For all coverage, startribune.com/wild. I did my game notebook on Haula, Parise, Heatley, Fontaine, etc., so check that out.

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