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 hopes to start a roll at home

Posted by: Chris Miller under Wild practice Updated: March 26, 2015 - 4:58 PM

The Wild prepared for a five-game homestand that begins Friday with a long practice on Thursday, staying on the ice for an hour and 20 minutes. Some players lingered longer than that as they look to inject some of their road mojo into a series of critical games at Xcel Energy Center.

The homestand starts with a back-to-back set, Friday against Calgary and Saturday against Los Angeles--two other Western Conference teams that are scrapping for playoff spots. The Wild then has a long four-day break before home games against the Rangers next Thursday; Detroit on Saturday, April 4; and Winnipeg on Monday, April 6.

Though coaches love to talk about how you have to win on the road this time of year, you also can't afford to let any games slip away at home. The Wild has won 10 in a row on the road but is just 4-4 in its past eight at Xcel Energy Center.

"You always want to protect home ice and be a good home team,'' forward Zach Parise said. "I think for the most part, we've done that. We haven’t played as well as we'd like to at home as of late. We need to put together some good ones.

"We don’t play different at home. We've just played good teams at home as of late, and we haven’t played well in some games, which is going to happen. We've had games where we haven't played great and we've escaped with a win, and we haven’t done that at home.''

Coach Mike Yeo said he has been trying to resist the temptation to obsess over the scoreboard and the standings. He praised his team for doing a good job of concentrating on itself, and he said it will be important to keep a tight focus during the homestand.

"We're trying not to look at the teams below us or the teams ahead of us,'' Yeo said. We're trying to look at the team we're playing tomorrow night. That’s got to be our focus.

"Our last game versus St. Louis at home (a 6-3 victory last Saturday) is a game we should feel good about. At the same time, we've got five games at home. We have to make sure we get back to being a really tough team to play against in our building. That’s not just about going out and making nicer plays; that’s part of it, but that stuff comes from the little things in your game and playing with speed, playing physical, playing the type of game that brings momentum to your team. That's what we've got to make sure we're focused on.''

Yeo put Thomas Vanek back on the Wild's first power-play unit in Thursday's practice, teaming him with Parise, Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville. The second unit featured Nino Niederreiter, Mikael Granlund, Chris Stewart, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba. Yeo didn't rule out making some in-game adjustments to those groups, but he thought Vanek played his way back onto the top unit.

"He's been performing,'' Yeo said of Vanek, who saw an eight-game point streak end in Tuesday's victory over the New York Islanders. "He's playing really good. Those guys have had success. We tried switching things up, and we didn’t create a whole lot off of that. So we'll go back to this.''

Yeo said the only potential lineup change Friday could be the return of forward Ryan Carter, who has missed 22 games because of a shoulder injury. That decision won't be made until Friday morning. Of the Wild's other injured players, Yeo said Matt Cooke (sports hernia) continues to skate, Nate Prosser (knee) is "coming along well'' and Jason Zucker (broken collarbone) is skating but "still a ways away.''


Overwhelmed early, Wild discovers its game for come-from-behind 10th straight road victory

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild game coverage Updated: March 24, 2015 - 11:37 PM

I wrote a ton about Devan Dubnyk and Zach Parise in the game story, so I’ll try to touch on some other stuff from tonight’s come-from-behind 2-1 shootout win over the Islanders. 

On an aside, funny story, but I met a person the other day that said, “I love your blogs.” I laughed and said, “How about the articles?” He goes, “What articles?” Yes, I write those, too. That's what I'm doing when I disappear on Twitter every third period.

I just thought that was funny, and on a night like tonight where I spent the majority of the gamer talking about Dubnyk, I don’t want you to think I’m completely out to lunch if I don’t touch on him as much in here. Start reading the articles, too, if you don’t (ha). I try to make this more of a supplement.

Obviously, Dubnyk continues to be the Wild’s MVP and lifted the Wild to yet another gigantic win tonight. The Kings just keep winning, so the Wild stayed five points up on a playoff spot with eight games left. Winnipeg blew a 2-0 lead in Vancouver and lost 5-2.

That means the Wild is three up on the first wildcard spot.

I knew the Wild had a travel delay out of Toronto last night, but I didn’t realize until after the game that the Wild got to its hotel at 3 a.m. I think the Wild kept that to itself in order to make sure that the Wild’s potential fatigue wasn’t part of Jack Capuano’s gameplan. Didn’t matter. The Islanders always come out hard and home and they had the Wild firmly planted on its heels in a first period in which the Wild was outshot 16-5 and out-attempted 32-9.

“First period, we were turning pucks over like crazy, turning pucks over in front of their defensemen, making hope plays and forcing plays and allowing them to counter back with their speed,” Yeo said. “You can’t play with good structure when you’re turning pucks over like that.”

But Dubnyk, the rock star, kept the Wild in a scoreless game.

“They’re big on their starts and they try to overwhelm you and sometimes on the road like that, it’s important to just survive, just get through that first wave and gather ourselves,” Dubnyk said after his 37-save effort. “Exactly what we did.”

The Wild started to play much better in the second, started to get some chances on Jaroslav Halak, who didn’t have to exert himself early, started to come with speed. Halak made a nice save on a deflected Thomas Vanek (his eight-game point streak ended) shot and a great save on Jason Pominville off a Parise setup.

But with 23.7 seconds left in the second, the moment a penalty on Mikael Granlund expired, John Tavares jammed in the game’s first goal.

But Yeo altered his lines in the third to create some offense and the Wild responded by buzzing shift after shift for eight or nine minutes. Parise and Pominville played with Mikko Koivu, Granlund played with Nino Niederreiter and Chris Stewart and Thomas Vanek and Charlie Coyle played with Jordan Schroeder (more on him in a sec).

Finally, Pominville found Parise in front, Halak stopped Parise’s first shot and Parise scored his 29th goal on his rebound. Parise scored 29 last season, so he’s a goal from his personal-best with the Wild. He was great again. Goal, shootout winner, four shots, four hits, four blocked shots (huge one in last minute).

The Wild got to overtime and Dubnyk was great again, especially on a robbery of Johnny Boychuk.

“I can’t even count the times that guy’s scored on me in the American League and even when he was in Boston, so I was lucky I could at least return the favor a couple times,” Dubnyk said. “It probably would take about 10 times before I could get him back on all the goals he scored on me.”

In the shootout, Dubnyk wasn’t beaten on three attempts and Parise’s 39th career shootout goal was the difference.

“I’ve seen that before. Just never happened to me,” Parise said of his post and in goal.

10th straight road win to extend franchise-record and 14-1-2 on the road under Dubnyk. He is now 14-1-1 on the road in 17 starts with a 1.44 goals-against average and .952 save percentage.

He is now 3-0-1 with a 1.20 GAA and a .967 SV% in the second of back-to-backs since being pulled Jan. 20 at Detroit in his first try with the Wild in such a situation.


“He deserves this story right now and deserves to be talked about. It’s a guy you want to cheer for,” Yeo said of Dubnyk.

The Wild now has eight wins when trailing after two periods. That’s fourth-most in the NHL.

“We shouldn’t get in the habit of it,” Ryan Suter, who logged 32:04 of ice time, said. “The past two weeks, we’ve been coming out slow and finding ways to win at the end, which is a good thing to have. But we don’t want to make a habit of it.”

Dubnyk said, “We’ve won games where we’ve absolutely dominated, we’ve won games like this. But we always find a way to gather ourselves and get our game going and get the important goals. We just find ways to do it in every way imaginable. Road wins are huge in the playoffs.”

The Wild has won once on the road in the past two playoffs, so this is big the confidence the Wild has on the road. And if the Wild makes the playoffs, it’ll start on the road barring a mathematical miracle.

Finally, Schroeder. Scratched in eight straight because of a number’s game. He played his first game since March 6 tonight because of Kyle Brodziak’s minor upper-body injury.

Schroeder’s speed was a threat all night, and after starting on the fourth line with Erik Haula and Sean Bergenheim, he was elevated to the third line, played on the Wild’s one penalty kill and played in overtime.

“He brought a lot of energy, he brought a lot of speed,” Yeo said. “I do think that part of our [problematic] start is the game was happening fast for us and he was a guy that was thinking the game and playing the game at the speed it was going out there.”

That’s pretty impressive for a guy who hadn’t played in 2 ½ weeks.

“Every time he was on the ice, he was bringing some momentum to us, he was having some good shifts and he earned  more opportunity through the game,” Yeo said.

Even though I liked Bergenheim’s game much better the past two games, I’d have to think now if Brodziak can play this weekend, Schroeder would stay in and Bergenheim would come out. But we will see.

The Wild is off Wednesday. I’ll write a follow and I’m actually staying in New York for the day and will be back Thursday. Rachel Blount has Thursday’s practice and I will be doing another podcast with Jim Souhan Thursday afternoon at the Liffey in St. Paul. You can also listen at souhanunfiltered.com.

Wild signs New Hampshire's Grayson Downing

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news Updated: March 24, 2015 - 10:13 PM

The Wild is again delving into the college free-agent market.

The team signed University of New Hampshire forward Grayson Downing to a two-year, entry-level contract starting in the fall. Downing also signed an amateur tryout and will play in Iowa for the rest of the season.

Downing, 22, scored 36 points in 38 games his senior season and tied for 13th in the nation with 21 goals (coincidentally tied with Mario Lucia, whom I wrote about in Tuesday's paper. Downing also had five power-play goals and four game-winning goals.

He led the Wildcats in goals and ranked second in scoring. His goal total tied for third in Hockey East. A native of Abbotsford, British Columbia, the 6-foot Downing had 56 goals and 56 assists in 144 games at New Hampshire.

It's likely too soon for him to compete for a roster spot next season, but after trading so many draft picks the past few years and with so many of its top prospects playing in college, the Wild's trying to add some depth and skill to Iowa next season.

The Wild also plans to pursue a few other college, junior and European free agents. The Wild has been successful on some of these signings: Jared Spurgeon (junior), Christian Folin, Justin Fontaine and Nate Prosser to name four. Obviously, many don't pan out. The reason why a lot of them are free agents and were never drafted is because they're late-bloomers.

Wild makes final trip to Nassau Coliseum; Dubnyk awesome on the road; Brodziak injured

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild pregame skate Updated: March 24, 2015 - 1:09 PM

Afternoon from across the street of Hofstra University on Lawng Island, my old stomping ground where I don’t mind admitting I’m exhausted from my 3:15 a.m. “wakeup call” in Toronto. I put that in quotes because I’m not entirely sure I actually got any sleep to “wake up” from.

Barring a Wild-Islanders Stanley Cup Final (which would be epic), tonight will be my last game at Nassau Coliseum. I’m not kidding you when I say it actually had me a bit glum walking around the bowels of the arena this morning as I stared at the banners on the rafters, the stained seats, the plaques in front of the Islanders room. I’ll be on Fox Sports North gushing about this great franchise (sorry North Stars fans) tonight during the pregame show and first intermission. Or, if you want, you can read my gushing of the Coliseum and how I became a hockey fan in this old 2011 blog here.

The Wild will be trying to extend its franchise-record 9-game road winning streak tonight against John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and the always-affable Nick Leddy. Leddy, whom I bumped into for a few minutes this morning, and Johnny Boychuk recently signed mega-extensions and this talented Islanders team looks like it’s got something cooking for the next several years IN BROOKLYN!!!!

WHAT THE %&$@#???????????

But I digress.

Jaroslav Halak vs. Devan Dubnyk tonight, and more on Dooby, Dooby, Doo in a minute. If you didn't see my game notebook from last night on Mario Lucia and Thomas Vanek's return to Long Island, here it is.

Kyle Brodziak, a big part of the Wild’s penalty kill and a solid fourth line for awhile, won’t play tonight due to an upper-body injury sustained in last night’s fight with Dion Phaneuf. Coach Mike Yeo said it’s not a concussion and that it’s minor tightness that just won’t loosen up, so probably neck or back. He doesn’t anticipate Brodziak will miss Friday’s game against Calgary.

Brodziak, in six seasons, has played 440 regular-season games for the Wild. This is the fourth game he has missed due to injury or illness, and technically the final regular-season game of last season was to rest him in a meaningless game because he had something nagging. Brodziak’s games played entering this season for the Wild were 82 of 82, 80 of 82, 82 of 82, 48 of 48 and 81 of 82.

Brodziak got hurt standing up for Erik Haula and Jared Spurgeon. Players were still giving him props in the locker room this morning and, Yeo said, “Obviously, we wish he was in the lineup tonight, but those types of things are things that you have to do for your teammates. He sent a pretty good message to our group there.”

Jordan Schroeder, scratched the past eight games, will play for the first time since March 6 at Raleigh. In his past 14 games, he has seven points and is plus-9.

Ryan Carter’s return will wait at least a few more days. If you read between the lines from his quote in today’s paper, he has to be comfortable he can play his brand of physical hockey after separating his shoulder. So a few more days won’t hurt.

Dubnyk will start his 33rd consecutive game tonight and 32nd in a row for the Wild. The 33 is the most since Antti Niemi started 34 in a row in 2010-11. Next up is Dwayne Roloson, who started 36 straight in 2009. Obviously, at this point, Dubnyk in there until the Wild clinch. Pretty much no choice now considering Darcy Kuemper hasn’t started since Jan. 6, Niklas Backstrom since Jan. 13 AND all Dubnyk does is win.

In last night’s 2-1 win at Toronto, a game in which the Leafs drew an announced 18,366 fans (lowest attendance in 16 years at Air Canada Centre), Dubnyk made 35 saves to improve to 32-11-3 this season with a 2.10 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. Since debuting with the Wild on Jan. 15, Dubnyk has a 23-6-1 record, 1.74 goals-against average, .937 save percentage and five shutouts. He has allowed two goals or less in 23 of those 31 games.

Asked if he’s worried about starting Dubnyk over and over again, Yeo said, “I worry about not starting him.” When all the reporters laughed, Yeo said, “Sorry, that’s as honest as I can be.”

Dubnyk is 13-1-1 in 16 road starts with a 1.48 goals-against average and .951 save percentage (one no-decision in Detroit on Jan. 20, pulled at 4-1, Wild rallied for three in the third to make Kuemper the goalie of record. He stopped 14 of 14 shots in a great effort before a shootout loss).

Dubnyk has won a franchise-record nine straight road games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two other active goaltenders have posted a single-season road winning streak of nine or more consecutive decisions: Jimmy Howard (10-0-0) with the Red Wings in 2010-11 and Carey Price (10-0-0) with the Canadiens earlier this season (Dec. 23-Feb. 26).

This will be the fifth time he starts back-to-backs. Since being pulled Jan. 20 at Detroit, Dubnyk is 2-0-1 in the second of back-to-backs with a 1.30 goals-against average and .965 save percentage.

Yeo was more displeased with the Wild’s game yesterday this morning than last night. Not a shock, since he got to watch it again and he’s trying to ramp up the Wild’s urgency.

“We weren’t good enough in our game in a few areas,” Yeo said. He said the Wild lost the details in its game, did a “a little too much circling, a little too much getting away from the structure we normally play with.” He said the back and forth game suited the Leafs and because of the way the Wild managed the puck, there were too many one-and-done’s in the offensive zone.

“We’ll take the two points, but we’ve also got to understand we’re going to need a lot better tonight,” he said.

Tonight’s start will be big. The Islanders usually come out fast and hard, so the Wild’s got to be ready to try to jump out to a lead in case the legs become mush in the third period. Isles have been off since Saturday.

Before I go, I actually put the news of the day at the end: The Property Brothers were on my flight to JFK this morning. Seemed like good dudes and my hope was they were parachuting into Uniondale to save the Coliseum, but bummer, no. They’re on their way to New Yawk City to film, I believe, and they were cool to the freaking-out flight attendants who were posing for pictures with them as we taxied out to the runway. One of the flight attendants didn’t want me to feel left out, so she humorously posed for a picture with me after taking pictures with Drew and Jonathan Scott.

The real news of the day?

It wasn't pretty, but the NHL's hottest team for nine weeks grind out ninth straight road win

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: March 23, 2015 - 11:52 PM

This was pretty much what I expected tonight in Toronto, a grind-out-two-points and get-out-of-dodge victory.

Anybody who thought the Wild would just roll into Toronto and blow out the lowly Leafs hasn’t watched a lot of Wild games. Even through the Wild’s 13-1-2 road record under Devan Dubnyk and now franchise-record nine consecutive road wins, the Wild grinds out victories.

The scores of the 13 road wins under Dubnyk: 7-0 (OK, discount that one because it was in Buffalo), 2-1, 1-0, 4-2, 3-2, 4-0 (at Edmonton), 4-2, 3-1, 2-1, 3-1, 3-1, 3-2 and now 2-1 tonight.

This game was a scary one because the Wild was facing a bunch of underachieving veterans who have just been getting annihilated in town and a bunch of no-names trying to make a name for themselves. Ryan Suter said the first period was a feeling out process because you’re just trying to get used to how the Leafs would play and how these kids he never heard of would play.

What also made this game scary is the Leafs had zilch to play for. So after a string of tight-checking, defensive-minded, hard-fought contests against the playoff contenders, the Wild suddenly was playing a loose team that wanted to play run and gun hockey.

“We couldn’t generate our o-zone because our D had to make sure to stay on the blue line because they were sending one, two, three guys,” said Thomas Vanek. “It’s tough to play, especially the way we like to play, to cycle the puck and get deep in the o-zone. We couldn’t establish that o-zone time. But at the end of the day, got two points, so we can’t be too sad about that.”

Coach Mike Yeo said, “They were spreading us out. I don’t think we were necessarily playing as tight in our structure and with as much detail as we normally do, which allowed for some of those situations to build some speed. One area we definitely have to be better is with the puck. We didn’t manage the puck very well. We weren’t strong enough on it.”

Showing off its depth yet again, the Wild got two goals from the third line, one from Charlie Coyle off a Vanek rebound, the other from Vanek himself for, finally, a big 2-0 lead off a Suter drop pass 9:08 into the third. Six goals, four assists now on an eight-game point streak for Vanek.

Devan Dubnyk, who was so good, had his seventh shutout bid of the season ruined by the pride of Minnetonka High, Jake Gardiner, with 6:24 left, but Dubnyk made 17 of his 35 saves in the third period and lifted the Wild to a big W heading into Tuesday’s game against the Islanders.

All playoff contenders the Wild is battling with – Calgary, Winnipeg, Los Angeles – won, so unless Dubnyk says he can’t go, one would assume Dubnyk will start his 33rd consecutive game Tuesday. That would be the most in the NHL since Antti Niemi started 34 in a row in 2010-11.

The Wild’s PK went 4 for 4 tonight and is now 33 for 34 the past 14 road games.

2 of the PK’s came with Erik Haula in the box and Kyle Brodziak in the locker room for impressively standing up for Haula and Jared Spurgeon by confronting big, tough Dion Phaneuf, who once annihilated the Wild’s Stephane Veilleux in a memorable fight in Calgary (a game the Wild coughed up a 3-0 lead after the fight if I remember correctly; Jacques Lemaire was ticked), and fighting the Leafs captain.

On a PK, Phaneuf had checked Haula hard and then slashed Spurgeon, which is what ticked off Brodziak. The Wild gave bigtime props to Brodziak for the scrap.

“We have different guys step in for teammates at different times, but nobody’s done it more than [Brodziak] this year,” Yeo said. “And that says an awful lot to your teammates when you do something like that. Not that we want to play that game, but at the same time, there comes a time where if things are going the wrong way, you have to let the team know we have that pack of wolves mentality.”

But on an 18-second 5-on-3, Mikko Koivu won a massive draw to kill off the 2-man advantage and then the Wild killed off the rest of the power play in the waning seconds of the second to preserve a 1-0 lead.

The Wild lost 35 of 61 faceoffs, but Koivu won 15 of 26. Coyle won 1 of 10, but that one was the faceoff that led to his 11th goal and eighth point in 10 games. Tired of getting roasted by Trevor Smith, Coyle said he tried a new way to beat him by not even going for the puck and driving forward through him. Luckily, Justin Fontaine and Vanek also went with him, something he said he didn’t tell them to do. Coyle scored off Vanek’s rebound.

Humorously, I thought it was a set play. When I asked Coyle if it was, Koivu chimed in, “Keep it quiet,” to his teammate with a big, mischievous grin.

Coyle finally said when Koivu walked away and stopped being the peanut gallery, “Just happened like that, Van shot the puck and rebound. I didn’t tell Vanek to jump like that or Fonzie to go. And it worked out. I was just trying a new way to beat him.

“I don’t think we were playing our game, kind of going back and forth with them, and not getting pucks deep and leaving pucks up for grabs. They’re a good transition team. But we won.”

That’s it for me. Unbelievably early flight to JFK in the morning, so I have a wakeup call in three hours. As an old Islanders fan, my last emotional trip to Nassau Coliseum tomorrow (well, unless the Wild faces the Isles in the Stanley Cup Finals)!

I’ll be on Fox Sports North pregame and first intermission. I’ll blog whenever we have lineup information. Not sure the Wild will skate in the morning.


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