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 has no explanation for crumbling on home ice to the Islanders

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: December 30, 2013 - 12:25 AM

The Wild’s a team in crisis right now and the frightening thing is nobody, from the players to the head coach, seems to know how to get out of this.

Nobody could explain how it was feasible that the Wild, so desperate for a victory, could be up 3-zip at home and lose to a sub-par Isles team that played 24 hours earlier in New York, was playing its backup goalie and had two key forwards out.

Nobody could explain how one could dominate the first half of a game and just absolutely collapse to a team that hadn’t rallied back from three goals down to win since 1994.

There were a lot of upset comments, a lot of “this is unacceptable,” a lot of “there is no excuse,” but there was nobody who could explain what happened and offer actual answers as to how to fix it.

The Wild has lost five in a row, have sunk to 10th in the West and has allowed 24 goals in the past five games. This is a lousy road team, but its safe haven, the cure for all that ails them was supposed to be at home.

But instead, the Wild again lost battle after battle the last half of the game, ran around its zone aimlessly and allowed the Islanders to storm back and kick them where it hurts.

Kyle Okposo made me pay for somehow forgetting to include him in my U.S. Olympic column in Sunday’s paper, an honest mistake, albeit a stupid one. The Bloomington native and former Gopher scored two goals 1:59 apart in the third period, including a go-ahead goal, then the winner 27 seconds after Justin Fontaine tied the score.

But the killer shift was a minute-plus one late in the second period that was capped off when old Wild pal Cal Clutterbuck redirected Thomas Hickey’s shot to cut the deficit to 3-2 with 1:02 left. After Mikael Granlund got out of the penalty box, Granlund and penalty killers Stephane Veilleux, Torrey Mitchell, Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon were traffic and scrambling endlessly.

You just knew what was coming. The players were exhausted, all of them seemed to hit the ice at one point or another, desperately trying to block shots or clear the zone. Veilleux was on the ice five or six times. At one point, he got the puck in the slot and just stopped. Veilleux, called up because coach Mike Yeo said he’s so defensively responsible and energetic and does the right things, proved that when you’re tired, it’s hard to make the right decision.

He froze and instead of just chipping it off the glass or icing it to let Yeo call time out, he coughed it up at the blue line. Another scramble and finally the momentum-turning goal. The Wild never recovered.

“In a situation like that, you have to fall back on your structure,” Yeo said. “You can’t start running around. If anything, you play a little tighter. You’ve got to stay composed.”

The Wild had two third-period power plays, one lifeless one to start the period with a chance to regain a two-goal lead, one after Okposo made it 5-4 where backup goalie Kevin Poulin made a string of huge saves, include right top stops on Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley.

You can read the gamer for the best quotes at www.startribune.com/wild

BUT, this is a major problem.

The most interesting thing that happened in my eyes after the game was Yeo, unsolicited, endorsing his system, saying, “It’s within us. Our game hasn’t changed. Our game is successful,” before saying that you can talk x’s and o’s all you want, but there comes a time where it’s up to the players to dig deep, win one-on-one battles, execute, do all the little things that are adding up to losses night after night after night right now.

After the Philadelphia game, Yeo also, “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 has lost two games since. The Wild has given up 11 goals in those two games since. The Wild has finally scored goals (eight in the past two games), but yet has completely lost its defensive foundation.

It was a total mess in the third period.

“We were on our heels, we weren’t pressuring, we weren’t winning the battles the same way,” Yeo said. “It’s our job to find the answers, but that’s a tough one to come up with right there. And it’s not everybody. We had some guys that were really bringing the emotion and some guys that were really bringing their game, but we had some others that have got to play bigger and better and stronger in those situations.

“In a game with little things that add up to make the difference, we’re not coming even close right now.”

Yeo said the Wild will keep leaning on leaders like Koivu, who had two assists, five shots, four takeaways and won 19 of 27 faceoffs, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville.

As I reported, Zach Parise is expected to be out for awhile with a broken bone in his foot.

Yeo said a coach once said, “an actor’s got to act, so this is a time, the players, it doesn’t matter who you are, if you’re a lead actor or supporting actor, you’ve got to step up and you’ve got to perform.”

Mitchell says it is an absolute must the Wild gets back to its defensive foundation.

“There were a lot of mental error defensively tonight. We need be better defensively. We’ve let up 25 goals the last five games, it feels like. Just not good enough. We got off to a great start, but it’s not good enough. You take five, 10 minutes off, and all of a sudden the momentum switches. I’ve played long enough, we got enough guys in here that know better, it’s just not good enough.”

The St. Louis Blues, maybe without David Backes and Alex Steen, come to town New Year’s Eve.

“Everybody’s frustrated. That’s a game we should have won,” Niederreiter said. “Big game against St. Louis. It’s a must-win for us.”

Yes, a must-win on Dec. 31. That’s the position the Wild has put itself in.

The Wild is 5-11-1 in the past 17, 5-8 this month with no regulation wins since Dec. 8 (9 in a row).

There is zero doubt Craig Leipold is beside himself over this collapse. The question is how and when he reacts.

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