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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Minus-1 on special teams, failed power play yet again costly for the Wild in Tampa Bay

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: November 22, 2014 - 10:34 PM

Part of the maturation of the Wild the past year or so has been coach Mike Yeo putting the young guys out on the ice in more significant roles, like in the final minute in Philly on Thursday when Jason Zucker scored the winning goal or protecting the lead in the final minute Nov. 15 in Dallas when Yeo tossed Zucker, Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund on the ice.

In fact, after that game, Yeo admonished the media that they’re no longer “young guys,” that they’re members of the team.

Fair enough, but the one area where Yeo typically defers to the same vets over and over again with the game on the line is on the power play. And over and over again, and not just this season, the same vets haven’t gotten it done.

Now it’s easier said than done for a coach to NOT throw a Mikko Koivu on the ice or a Thomas Vanek or a Ryan Suter or a Jason Pominville in that situation. It’s certainly easier to say, “Do it,” from the press box or from your couch at home than if you’re standing in Mike Yeo’s shoes.

And if Yeo didn’t throw those guys out tonight with the game on the line with 1:17 left and on a 6-on-4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, if Yeo went with other personnel and they didn’t score, it’d be easy Monday morning quarterbacking, too, to question the decision.

But there may have to come a point (and very soon) where Yeo says, “You know what, we’re 1 for 38 on the power play on the road (2.6 percent!) and 6 for 62 on the power play overall (9.6 percent), so enough is enough.”

Tonight, with 1:17 left and the Wild searching for the tying goal, Yeo put out his usual cast of Zach Parise, Koivu, Vanek, Pominville and Suter, and playmaker Mikael Granlund. The Wild failed to score on a third power play of the game, registering one shot, a couple near misses on goalmouth scrums and a whole lot of passing.

Parise was fourth in the NHL last year with 14 power-play goals, Koivu is the franchise leader with 165 power-play points, Vanek has 114 career power-play goals, Pominville 223 career goals and Suter is the team’s most trusted defenseman.

So that is why they’re out there.

But of the six players Yeo sent on the ice to tie the game, the only one who has even scored a power-play goal this season is Vanek, and as we have seen, he seems to no longer want to shoot. He had no shots again tonight and has one goal and 35 shots in 19 games. We know Granlund loves to pass and Koivu rarely shoots on the power play.

So there was a big passing mentality on the ice that last 77 seconds. In the meantime, left on the bench was the team’s hottest goal scorer and leading goal scorer Nino Niederreiter, who has scored four of his nine goals on the power play, Coyle and defensemen Marco Scandella and Jared Spurgeon, who have both played well lately and have shooting mentalities.

“There’s a lot of guys that are there based on what they’ve done in the past, and every coach is going to operate like that,” Yeo said. “But it comes to the point that what you’ve done also involves this season, too.

“We’ve probably tried nine, 10 different forwards on the power play and different D pairings. We have to find something that clicks here. It’s tough to keep switching every game, but we’ve got to find something here.”

Parise said it “feels like it’s repetitive. At least we were moving it around and getting chances as opposed to the last couple games where we were just standing around and staring at each other. At least we were moving and getting some shots and some good chances. We had some really good looks at the end but couldn’t get it.”

But Parise said the theme of the power play all season has been “a lot of sitting around and waiting for someone else to do something. We don’t support each other very well. When you’re scoring, you do that stuff naturally. When you’re not, we stand around, we look at each other, we don’t support each other, we don’t retrieve pucks. I don’t think that was so much the case tonight, but that’s kind of been a theme for us for a long time.”

The Wild played an even game with the Lightning, which has scored the most goals in the league. It jumped out to a 1-0 lead on Parise’s seventh when Vanek set him up for a layup … after not even considering shooting. Still, great play for Vanek's team-leading 10th assist.

The Wild had an 8-1 shot lead in the period but still was passing up shots. The most blatant was when Coyle picked off a puck and the Wild didn’t even get a shot off because Granlund and Vanek tried to force passes to Coyle.

In the third, there was a 2-on-1 with Zucker and Vanek and Zucker deferred to Vanek and the pass was turned over.

“For a team that hasn’t scored a lot of goals on the road, we seem to be willing to pass up opportunities to shoot a puck on a scoring chance,” Yeo said. “I can count at least four times where we were in a prime scoring area and we deferred and tried to make a prettier play instead of shooting the puck.”

Then, the game turned when the Wild couldn’t clear the zone on a penalty kill and get a line change. The puck actually got out of the zone, but Jason Garrison retrieved it at the red line and quickly countered so Erik Haula, Kyle Brodziak, Suter and Spurgeon couldn’t get off. By the time their 1:15 shift ended, Steven Stamkos scored a power-play goal with eight seconds left in the power play to cap a 2:19 shift.

The Lightning had the Wild on the ropes the rest of the period and after Granlund and Pominville lost a board battle and Parise blew the zone (he took responsibility for the “mistake” afterward), Alex Killorn deflected Anton Stralman’s shot for the go-ahead goal and eventual winner. Stralman was awesome again tonight just like he was in that 7-2 loss in Minnesota.

The Wild pushed hard in the third, but by then, Ben Bishop was dialed in.

“We played with that desperation that you’d love to see all game,” Parise said.

Pominville sustained a pretty gruesome injury tonight. With 30 seconds left in the first period, he got hit on the right ear by the puck. The puck sliced open the cartilage on top completely, so they needed to sew both sides to stitch it back together. He returned to the game about six or seven minutes into the second and said afterward he’s fine.

Four-game win streak snapped. On to Florida to face Nick Bjugstad, who has been a rock star lately, and the Panthers, who are playing quite well.

Betty Jo Leipold, mother of Wild owner Craig Leipold, passes away at age of 89

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news Updated: November 22, 2014 - 3:05 PM

I wanted to express my heartfelt condolences to Wild owner Craig Leipold and his entire family after their beloved Betty Jo Leipold, Craig's mom, passed away unexpectedly at the age of 89.

Betty Jo was married to her husband, Werner "Lefty" Leipold, for 65 years.

Betty Jo was in great health, but she had a cardiac arrest during hip surgery resulting from a fall in a parking lot walking into church Thursday, Craig Leipold said.

Leipold left after the Wild's game in Philadelphia on Thursday night to be with her.

"She was the kindest, nicest lady you could ever meet," Leipold said. "The family is devastated."

In early October, Leipold invited some reporters down to his suite to watch an exhibition game. Columnist Jim Souhan wrote a column on the Leipold family that can be read here.

Here is Betty Jo's obituary.

My thoughts are with the entire family.

Mikko Koivu expected to play tonight; anecdotes from father-son trip

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: November 22, 2014 - 1:10 PM

Wild captain Mikko Koivu skated this morning and the anticipation is he’ll be able to play tonight when the Wild visits the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Afternoon from the Bay area of Florida, where the Wild looks to extend its win streak to five games and hand the Lightning a third straight loss for the first time this season. Minnesota beat Tampa Bay 7-2 at home last month, but coach Mike Yeo said the team can’t hang its head on that. Yeo reminded that the Lightning was banged up and tired at the end of a five-game trip. Also, Evgeni Nabokov started and was awful.

Lightning players this morning over and over said they were “embarrassed” by the beat down from the Wild last month and wants to make amends, especially coupled with the fact they’re in their first losing streak of the season and by consecutive 5-2 defeats at the Islanders and Maple Leafs.

So Yeo expects, like Philadelphia on Thursday, a very motivated opponent tonight and a very good one. No team in the league has more goals than the Lightning’s 75, so Tampa Bay is far from a one-trick pony with Steven Stamkos. The Wild does catch the Lightning for a second time without top defenseman Victor Hedman though.

As for Koivu, Yeo is expecting him to play and “we’ll need him. We’ll need him. Good test tonight not only playing a top team in the east, but a top team in the league.”

The Wild silenced Stamkos in Minnesota, but the Lightning has last change tonight.

“We’ll do what we can to try to get matchups,” Yeo said. On Stamkos, Yeo said, “You can’t defend that guy with one guy or two guys. It’s going to have to be a five-man unit, always an awareness of when he’s on the ice and always making sure you’re doing the right things with and without the puck, and it’s not enough to do them well, you have to do them really well. But it’s not just [Stamkos on the Lightning].”

Koivu missed the final 18:50 of the third period in Philly.

He said it’s probably some flu or virus. At first, he was worried it was the mumps.

“You think about it when it goes around,” Koivu said. “You know it’s an option, but the symptoms were different. After the game, the next morning, they said it’s something else. So it shouldn’t be that one.”

The pattern though with the previous guys is illness, feeling better and then swollen glands a few days later, so Koivu doesn't sound completely confident he's out of the woods. His plan is to play tonight, but he didn’t want to say for sure until he got some lunch into him this afternoon and a nap.

If Koivu plays, Kyle Brodziak will play wing on the fourth line with Erik Haula and Ryan Carter. Koivu would center leading goal scorer Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine and Mikael Granlund would be reunited with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville.

Stu Bickel would be the lone scratch.

Darcy Kuemper vs. Ben Bishop.

Koivu said the virus in Philly was “building up all day and just the first two [periods], I couldn’t recover.” He said when he came to the bench after that third-period turnover on the power play about  a minute in, it was a decision they all made together to sit out the rest of the game.

On staying on the bench the rest of the game, Koivu said, “Usually you don’t do that. It was an awkward feeling. I probably should have just taken off, but you never know what happens in a game if someone else goes down.”

As you know by now, the Wild is having its father-son trip to Tampa Bay and Florida. There are dads, brothers and other mentors of players, coaches and staff.

The coolest part is trying to figure out which dads belong to which sons. For instance, you don’t need them wearing a jersey to figure out Steve Ballard is Keith Ballard’s dad: “You know how I’m going to turn out,” Keith said. Brent Kuemper has the exact same face as Darcy. Same expressions, same grin. I loved chatting with Scott Zucker, mostly because as you probably know by now I am a Vegasaholic. He is Director of Construction for Station Casinos, so not only is he in charge of 18 hotel/casinos, they have 30 or 40 other things they own. Fascinating job to say the least.

Here’s a picture of Brent chatting with his son’s goalie counterpart’s dad, Dick Backstrom today.

The Finn’s – Erik Haula and Mikael Granlund’s dads -- have been hanging out with … Matt Dumba’s dad, nonstop. No dad is funnier to shoot the breeze with than Tomi Haula.

Jamie Brunette, Andrew’s brother, sounds like and laughs like his bro.

This morning, coach Mike Yeo had all the mentors into the team’s pregame video session with the players.

“We wanted it to be as inclusive as possible so they get a good feel what we go through,” Yeo said, “but at the same time there’s a time today where we have to turn the switch” and concentrate on prepping for game.

Yeo said, laughing, that all the dads and mentors were “pretty quiet. I felt like a school teacher. I asked a couple questions and nobody wanted to talk and a couple guys started to put up their hands and their sons started to grab their arms and push them down.”

Andrew Brunette, who’s in charge of the power play, said jokingly it was a good thing Yeo didn’t bring up the power play during the morning meeting (PK and PP meetings come after the players arrive to the rink before the game) because “there would be lots of opinions, I’m sure.”

I’ll have some funny stories in tomorrow’s paper, like when Chris Prosser – Nate’s dad – took a couple funny shots at his son during an interview and how Dan Hendrickson – Darby’s brother – let me know that in 1993, the player taken right ahead of Andrew Brunette in the seventh round was … Dan Hendrickson.

Yep, the Washington Capitals had back-to-back picks and took Dan Hendrickson 173rd and Andrew Brunette 174th.

“I like to look at it as we had a great career -- we played 1,100 NHL games combined,” Hendrickson, a former Gopher, quipped.

The joke being of course that Brunette played all the games. Hendrickson was the faster skater though. :)

“I’m still Darby’s brother, but I was one pick in front of Bruno,” Dan Hendrickson said.

Talk about karma though that years later, Darby Hendrickson and Andrew Brunette would become longtime teammates, buddies and now coaches on the same staff. Brunette has become very close with the entire Hendrickson family, going camping and fishing with them, helping their dad coach at Benilde-St. Margaret’s during the 2004-05 lockout and even skating on Dan’s roller hockey team at times and his pond hockey team.

I also talked to Paul Yeo, Mike Yeo’s brother, who is four years older and has a lot more hair. Here's Paul Yeo, Jamie Brunette and Dan Hendrickson shooting the breeze.

As you can imagine, big bro is very proud of little bro.

I remember talking to Paul on the phone after Mike was hired in 2011. Mike Yeo may still be the youngest coach in the league, but he’s in his fourth season behind the Wild bench.

“Like anything, the more experience you get, the better you are, the more confident you get,” Paul Yeo said. “He’s always learning.”

I talked to Paul about the turmoil his brother fought through last winter and you can read that in tomorrow’s paper.

Josh Harding is expected to start next weekend for Iowa. He backed up last night, but with three games in three nights, Johan Gustafsson is expected to start tonight and John Curry will be recalled to start tomorrow for Iowa. Just too soon to throw Harding in as a starter.

That’s it for me. Talk tonight.

Mikko Koivu questionable to face the Tampa Bay Lightning

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: November 21, 2014 - 1:29 PM

Afternoon from the Sunshine State, where the Wild held a short, brisk practice today at the (former) Ice Palace. I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m. CT today.

Mike Yeo’s Wild visits Jon Cooper’s Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night for the first of a two-game father-son trip that continues to South Florida, where the Wild plays America’s team, the Florida Panthers.

Speaking of the Panthers, anybody notice Nick Bjugstad lately? What a trip to Cali. Two goals, two assists the other night in Anaheim, and last night he scored twice at San Jose plus the shootout deciding goal.

Thirty-four guests – dads, brothers, mentors, fathers-in-law – of Wild players, coaches and staff are here on the Gulf coast of Fla.

“Our challenge is to make sure that we’ve got our focus,” said Yeo, whose team is riding a four-game winning streak and defeated the Lightning, 7-2, at home 3 ½ weeks ago. “We want our players to enjoy their time with them, we want it to be a special trip. It’s a special trip if you win. I’ve been on a lot of these, and it’s a big difference when you get wins. But the challenge is the focus.”

As I mentioned yesterday, the Wild doesn’t have a history of winning on these types of trips. Maybe the dads should threaten to ground em or something.

Captain Mikko Koivu missed practice today because he’s still under the weather. Koivu only played 1:10 of the third period in Philadelphia and sat on the bench the rest of the third period. He stayed there in case the game went to a shootout apparently.

Koivu, Zach Parise and Brad Boyes each have 37 career shootout goals, the most in the NHL.

Watching the game over again last night before my 45-minute, uh, nap before my flight, he lacked energy almost all over the ice. On the one power-play turnover to start the third (he crossed a bad pass along the blue line to spoil the rest of the advantage), you could see the frustration as he turned to retreat.

Yeo said he saw Koivu at the hotel this morning and just told him to stay away today and rest up and hopefully he’ll be available Saturday.

Yeo said there’s a chance. “I’m definitely not ready to rule him out. Still no swollen jaws or anything like that, which is good. But still he’s under the weather.”

If Koivu can’t play tomorrow, we’ll see the lines at the morning skate. In practice today, Yeo just slotted Kyle Brodziak into Mikael Granlund’s spot and Granlund into Koivu’s, but that may have just been to not disrupt the other lines in case Koivu can play.

We shall see, but as of now, the Zach Parise-Granlund-Jason Pominville line has been reunited. After combining for the winning goal last night, Thomas Vanek-Charlie Coyle-Jason Zucker stayed intact today. Watching the game again, Coyle was as good as Yeo described afterward. And frankly, that confidence seemed to filter into today’s practice because ChAHlie was flying.

Zucker, who scored the first last-minute regulation go-ahead goal by the Wild since Marek Zidlicky scored one in Dec. 2009 against Columbus, also had a great game and I forgot to mention how impressive it was for him to beat out yet another icing and draw a penalty late in the second to draw that early third-period power play. 

Interestingly, from the NHL, Zucker is the sixth player to tally a go-ahead goal in the final minute of regulation time this season, all of which have come on the road. The other late winners were scored by Montreal's Tomas Plekanec (19:17, Oct. 8 at TOR), Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf (19:36, Oct. 11 at DET), Colorado's Daniel Briere (19:59, Oct. 13 at BOS), Dallas' Tyler Seguin (19:57, Oct. 16 at PIT) and Columbus' Mark Letestu (19:39, Oct. 23 at SJ)

With Granlund back between Parise and Pominville, Brodziak centered Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine at least in practice and Erik Haula and Ryan Carter skated with Stu Bickel, who only played three shifts last night. But Yeo likes having the Bickel element in the lineup and then he can limit his shifts and alternate one of the forwards on that line during every rotation.

That line with Haula, Carter and a third forward had some real good shifts last night.

Really, not much more going on. Scandella continues to impress. He already has a career high four goals and Yeo talked today about how every year he just adds a new part to his game without losing the other parts. So slowly but surely, Scandella added the consistency, then being a force in the defensive game. Now he’s adding the offense. Yeo said he’ll continue to get more power-play time and “we’ll keep pushing him to grow. He’s showing that he’s becoming a heck of an NHL defenseman.”

That’s it. I should get writing for the paper. Doing something on the father-son trip tomorrow, mostly focusing on the Minnesotans.

Zucker's late winner, Kuemper's goaltending leads Wild to fourth straight win

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: November 20, 2014 - 11:17 PM

The Wild won its fourth in a row tonight here in Philly after a tremendous response to Claude Giroux’s tying power-play goal with 3:30 left.

Jason Zucker, who had no goals in the previous 10 games and no points in the previous eight, buried Ryan Suter’s goalmouth pass for the winner with 45.4 seconds left en route to a 3-2 Wild win, the team’s fourth in a row as it starts a three-game road trip that continues to Tampa Bay and Florida.

Evening, and I am going to be very quick. You can please read the gamer and notebook for the details, but I have a wakeup call in less than three hours.

Darcy Kuemper, who was so good tonight, was rewarded with his ninth win after making a season-high 37 saves behind a team that was throwing pucks away left and right in the first 40 minutes and was outshot 14-6 through one period and 27-13 through two.

On the winner, Thomas Vanek slipped a pass through Wayne Simmonds legs to Suter. He inched in and took a shot that deflected wide, but Charlie Coyle won the race to the puck to get it back to Suter, who then made a great pass to Zucker for the big goal.

Mikko Koivu didn’t play the last 18:50 because he’s sick, coach Mike Yeo said. Yeo doesn’t think it’s mumps symptoms and I saw Koivu after, and although he was unavailable to interview, he definitely didn’t have the classic swollen glands the others had. So the Wild hopes it stays that way.

Koivu was definitely noticeably off his game tonight. Just little energy and the final straw was his blue-line turnover at the end of the early third-period power play tonight. He didn’t play again. But at 1:42, Marco Scandella put the Wild up 2-1 one game after scoring the OT winner vs. Winnipeg.

The Wild missed Koivu in the circle late, especially on that late Philly power play that Giroux scored on.

Nino Niederreiter, who also scored a goal (power-play goal to snap the Wild’s 0 for 32 road PP string), did so many good plays on the shift it was ridiculous. The sequence started with him getting the puck into the zone, then he outworked two Flyers on the forecheck to gather Jared Spurgeon’s rebound.

Finally, after Mikael Granlund outworked Scott Laughton in traffic to keep a puck in, Niederreiter found it and whistled it across for Scandella. He had all the time in the world to skate to the top of the circle and unload.

Scandella made amends for a couple mistakes he made before Philly’s tying goal in the second period to make it 1-1. Not normally on the power play, he seemed unaware that Giroux was coming out of the box. Giroux took it right from him. Then in the D zone, Scandella put Matt Dumba in a bad position with a bad pass, and Dumba turned it over before Mark Streit’s goal.

Check out the game for the strange sequence involving Spurgeon that led to Giroux’s tying goal with 3:30 left.

Yeo looked smart after this one. With many folks critiquing his changing of the lines after a three-game winning streak, that newly created Vanek-Coyle-Zucker line created the winner. Coyle, at center, was real good tonight. Yeo loved Coyle’s game at both ends of the ice. He was plus-2, had six hits, had two shots, drew a penalty and assisted on Zucker’s winner.

Zucker also was good again and his hustle led to a beat-out icing and drawn penalty late in the second. Vanek had glaring turnovers (so did every teammate), but he made play and had the “third assist” on the winner.

The Wild was beyond sloppy the first two periods, but Kuemper kept the Wild in it. Finally Yeo went in between the second and third and told his team to forget the first two periods and go out and win a 1-1 game on the road there for the taking. Make a play or two, he told them, after not moving their feet or trying to make plays in the second, just “throwing it right back to them.”

“We were defending hard, we were blocking shots, guys were willing to pay the price, but I really felt like we were just playing not to lose that hockey game,’ Yeo said. “I liked the way our guys came out in the third period. We really got after it.”

The Wild had 16 shots in that period.

Humorously this morning, Yeo said the Wild needs to start scoring three goals a game on the road.

“And it took all of them and it took almost the whole game to get it,” Yeo said afterward.

Kuemper was awesome and he said he knew he had to be good tonight because the Flyers were going to be hungry.

Yeo said, “He was good and I’m going to make sure he’s ready to be good for the next one, too.”

That's it for me. Josh Harding is backing up for Iowa in Rockford on Friday, by the way.

Talk to you after practice in Tampa on Friday.

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