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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Tumbling Wild enters the Christmas break with the pressure mounting

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: December 23, 2013 - 11:19 PM

Wild coach Mike Yeo said after tonight’s 4-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers that the NHL’s three-day Christmas break couldn’t come at a more “perfect” time.

The Wild, in the midst of its annual midseason funk, probablys need a good mental break away from hockey.

The team has scored 22 goals in the past 15 games and nine goals in a 1-7-1 road slide that has pushed the Wild to ninth in the West (tied with Phoenix, which has played three fewer games).

Zach Parise missed tonight’s game with a lower-body injury. Yeo wouldn’t reveal his injury, but it certainly sounds like it’s the foot injury that was supposed to keep him out two to three weeks starting Nov. 27. He missed one game, but as I’ve mentioned on here the past few weeks, Parise has been limping visibly in the rink and locker room and hasn’t been as effective. The 1-7-1 road slide began on Nov. 25 when he blocked the Alex Steen shot on the penalty kill in St. Louis.

He has one assist and is minus-7 in nine road games since. In the notebook on www.startribune.com/wild, you can see Mikko Koivu’s numbers on the road this year and during this stretch, too. It’s further evidence as to why I think Yeo should consider breaking them up after the break. I just think it’s easy for teams to load up on them with their best defenders.

Tonight, the Wild gave up a goal on the first shot of the game when Scott Hartnell was knocked off the puck by Justin Fontaine and that puck went right to Luke Schenn, who unloaded a cannon 1:52 in by Niklas Backstrom. It came after Dany Heatley was slow to get into the zone and then seemed to lose Schenn.

The Wild responded well, spent time in the offensive zone for a change (outshot Philly 11-5 in the period), but then Marco Scandella, who had a very tough road trip after a string of solid games, took a penalty on Claude Giroux. Ten seconds after Koivu lost a faceoff, Giroux began a tic-tac-toe that Wayne Simmonds converted for the eventual winner.

The one-goal-a-game Wild was basically toast right there, but Mikael Granlund pulled Minnesota to within one with the Wild’s first 5-on-3 goal on seven tries this year. That would be the Wild’s only shot on five power plays, and that includes one to start the second that could have tied the game and one to start the third period that could have pulled the Wild within one.

When Giroux deflected a shot for a 3-1 lead, the Wild was actually outshooting Philadelphia 17-8. But that rattled this fragile team and the Wild was outshot 19-4 during a 27-minute span of the second and third periods.

Enough on the game.

This team’s a shell of the team that went 12-2-1 from Oct. 22-Nov. 23. Early in the season, the Wild routinely gave up 25 shots a game or fewer and one or two goals max. Now it’s three or four goals a game and over 30. It can’t score for the life of them and is spending way too much time in its end.

“I’m not going to try to paint a rosy picture and I’m not going to make any excuses,” Yeo said. “Flat out, we need to better. It’s every one of us, it starts with me.”

What’s that mean?

“This is not us. There’s no way we can accept this,” Yeo said. “It’s not us and we have to fix it. With that said, this is the same group that will fix it. I have no doubt. Am I worried? No. Ticked off? Yeah, that we’re in this funk. But I also don’t have any doubts that we’ll fix it. This is the same group that raised the expectations, this is the same group that got us to a point where we were in a good spot and this is the same group that’s going to get us out of it.”

The Wild, like all NHL teams, cannot practice Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. On Friday morning, it will gather at Minneapolis airport and fly to Winnipeg for a game that night against the Jets, again, without the virtue of any practices this team so desperately needs.

The Wild says 18-5-3 Josh Harding will rejoin the team, but at that point, he may be off the ice for 10 days if it’s true he isn’t skating during this alteration of his multiple sclerosis treatment. So I can’t imagine he’ll be able to play immediately, although Yeo didn’t rule it out this morning. Parise’s injury is hopefully minor and maybe the break and staying off the ice will help, but we likely won’t know his status until Friday?

After Winnipeg, the Wild has a huge four-game homestand. Homestands are played at the X, you know, the only place the Wild has proven capable of winning, the only place it has proven remotely capable of playing well these days.

This homestand is not only critical to the Wild’s place in the standings, it may be even critical to Yeo’s immediate future.

Chuck Fletcher’s got to do something. The Wild doesn’t have a lot of cap space, so a significant trade may be unlikely. But the pressure is on Fletcher, too, and I can’t imagine owner Craig Leipold is going to sit idly by and let this season crumble.

When I asked Yeo if he’s worried his seat was heating, Yeo said, “I’m not worried about that. I don’t care. I believe in this group and I believe we’re going in the right direction. I believe this is the group that’s going to get it done. We’ll keep hammering away at it.”

Yeo said it’s all “between the ears” right now with his team. It lacks confidence, it can’t score, so anything badly happens in games, it disintegrates.

“But what are we going to do, feel sorry for ourselves? Come on,” Yeo said. “We’ve got to battle through it. We just come back and we get back to it, let’s get back to who we are.”

Wild just need to dig deep and get itself out of this. Things can change quickly in this sport. A few wins will lower the temperature and stop the bleeding a bit.

Again, no practice the next three days and there’s no access to the team until Friday in Winnipeg. I’ll talk to you next in Winnipeg … hopefully because sadly I have some family issues going on right now that could prevent me from joining the team there.

Have a wonderful holiday. There are much bigger, more important, more precious things than the Wild, so forget about the angst for a few days.

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