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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Until this morning, I hadn't had a chance to talk with Wild rookie Erik Haula since his major penalty and game misconduct for charging Saturday night in Dallas.
Haula, the Wild's fastest player, gained speed coming into the offensive zone, blew by a defender, cut to the net and crashed hard into Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen.
Lehtonen's mask popped off, his head hit the crossbar and he sustained a concussion. He also emerged with blood on his head. Haula was assessed a major for charging and Stars stud Tyler Seguin scored the tying goal in an eventual win.
Replays did show Haula was tripped by Stars player Cody Eakin and Haula wasn't disciplined by the NHL.
Understandably frustrated Stars coach Lindy Ruff called it a "dirt play" by a "fourth-liner," although those of us who know Haula also know he's not your typical fourth-liner. It's just his current role as a first-year NHLer, but he's a past scoring star at the University of Minnesota with blinding speed, not a thug. Before that game, he had eight penalty minutes in 28 games.
Still, Ruff was frustrated just like Mike Yeo would have been if a Dallas player did that to Darcy Kuemper.
On the incident, Haula said, "After a play like that, when I go to the locker room, first I want to see it myself. I think it’s pretty clear that my intention is definitely not to run the goalie or anything like that. I think it’s self-explanatory. We’re up 3-2 and I’m going hard to the net, I’ve got a lot of speed, my foot gets tangled up with [Eakin], I basically fall forward. I’m trying to score a goal. That’s my main intention. It’s unfortunate when I go into the locker room and see that [Lehtonen’s] hurt. It’s not a good feeling ever. I wish all the best for him and hopefully a speedy recovery."
Was he worried he'd be suspended? "I wasn’t thinking about it. I was so nervous about the game. I didn’t feel too good about the penalty and then the team losing. I was really disappointed about that. Having a tight race like it is, the points are crucial. That was my only focus at that point. I knew that everything was going to take care of itself. If the league saw it as a dirty play, they would have suspended me. But I think that everyone can see – even if you want to or don’t want to look at it that close – that I do get tripped up and was kind of helpless (meaning he had nowhere to go)."
That's my feeling on the play. I don't think he had intent to run Lehtonen. Just look at the replay in real time. The kid was absolutely flying, he cuts to the net, tangles skates and next thing you know, he's at the crease with uncontrollable speed. He just ran out of room and had nowhere to go.
I also think it's a tough call for the ref there. It was a scary site seeing Lehtonen get crashed into. There's an obvious injury. If you don't see the trip or you think Haula could have still avoided Lehtonen, a major there is probably the right call. Like I said the other day, I do think the only thing that was in dispute is Trevor Daley probably should have gotten two for roughing, which would have made it essentially a 3-minute major.
Either way, Lehtonen is hurt and hopefully he gets better quickly. Thank goodness from Dallas' perspective that it traded for Tim Thomas three days before.
I will be hosting a live chat at www.startribune.com/wild at 2 p.m. CT and if you didn't see my previous blog, there's a Josh Harding update.
But when the Wild drops the puck on its game tonight against the Edmonton Oilers, Matt Cooke will play in his 1,000th regular-season game. He will become the 286th player in NHL history to hit the milestone and fourth to do so in a Wild sweater (Keith Carney, Andrew Brunette and Matt Cullen).
Cooke, 35, has scored 162 goals and 384 points in 999 games with a plus-61, 2,013 hits and 1,120 penalty minutes.
His first NHL game, first NHL goal and 1,000th game have come against Edmonton.
His career have been full of ups and downs, going from a super-pest (somebody many considered dirty) to reinventing himself after a 17-game suspension (including playoffs) for elbowing the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh on March 21, 2011. He knew that if he didn't change the way he played the game that he would be out of the NHL in a jiffy.
Nobody can watch him now with unbiased eyes and say he’s the same player he once was. I can tell you from my standpoint, I definitely had a previous perception about what kind of player Matt Cooke was (I was just reading two columns I wrote on Cooke after the McDonagh incident and a Nick Schultz kneeing incident) and thus what kind of person Cooke must be. My opinions have changed after watching him and talking to him for three-quarters of a season. I can tell you, from a teammate standpoint, he’s very much a respected leader in the Wild’s room. Some of the “kids,” like Charlie Coyle, were going on and on about Cooke today.
I know that doesn't change some of his previous acts and doesn't help guys like Marc Savard, but there's no doubt he's a different, much more effective player today than he was in yesteryear.
Cooke has 24 friends and family members in town to enjoy tonight’s game. His wife and three children will be on the ice with him when the Wild and NHL honors Cooke in the pregame.
Here’s a pretty candid Q and A with Cooke from this morning:
On 1,000 games: “It’s a huge accomplishment for me and my family. You don’t get here by yourself. I’ve had great people around me who have supported me through thick and thin. And I think those will be the things I think of during the ceremony.”
You don’t think about 1,000 games when drafted? “I’ll go back even farther than that. I was a 10th-round draft pick to junior (Windsor Spitfires), 144th overall. Crazy enough, I was a sixth-round pick, 144th overall in the NHL.”
How does a player drafted that late twice make it? “You don’t get hindered by the draft pick number. My biggest thing was at the end of the day when I leave training camp, I don’t want them to go, No. 46, who’s that? When they see my number or my name, I want them to have a visual image of what kind of player that is. I was fortunate enough to have some great coaching along the way to help me out. If you want your dream, work at it. Just because you’re a high draft pick doesn’t mean you’re not going to make it.”
How’d you go from a three- or four-minute a night guy who would run goalies to a 15-minute guy trusted on the ice late in games? “That was the [Mike] Keenan-[Marc] Crawford transition for sure. He put a lot of faith and trust in me, believed in the way that I played. His big thing was there’s a style of play that I play. For me to be most effective is to be underneath at least three or four guys’ skin and quite often that led with us skating around in the morning skate and him mentioning last names of players on the opposing team. But that also led me to playing 12 to 15 minutes a night and getting opportunities with seconds left needing a tying goal. That gave me a lot of confidence and belief in the way I was playing.”
Have you thought that you would have gotten to 1,000 quicker without the suspensions? “In reality, I have 20 [regular season] games of suspensions, so it still would have been this year. I probably missed close to 100 games with injury and I spent the first two years half and half, which is another 80 games and a lockout and a half and that gets me to today. I can’t really look back. I can’t change any of that and that’s made me the person and player I am today. I’m thankful that I’m in a great organization to celebrate this with.”
Are you surprised how quickly Wild fans embraced a former detested Vancouver Canuck? “We all know the history that was there and we all know my interviews when I first signed here were not the most generously questioned, even by yourself (laughs), but I expected that. And I believed that with the Wild logo that they would appreciate me just as the fans in Vancouver did back then.”
And in Pittsburgh, you seemed to be beloved? “It’s a very blue-collar town, a very hard-working city and they love their sports there. I was fortunate to win a Cup there. I think anybody that’s done that there is an icon in that city and will be for the rest of their lives. That’s a cool place to be and it’s my goal to do that here.”
How gratifying is it that you admittedly reinvented yourself the past three years? “There’s been times throughout my career where you’re injured and you’re like, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this.’ But the last three years have been a lot of fun for me. With my change in approach has come a lot of realizations and understandings of emotions and events that happen in a game that I never even knew took place because I was putting myself somewhere else to be that player. So the last three years have made me feel like I have a lot more to give, and that’s fun for me, that’s exciting.”
Some fans and critics still look at you like the old Matt Cooke, like in Dallas with the tripping minor Saturday? “I’ve always been a guy that said people are going to have their opinions and they’re entitled to them. I don’t hold it against them. That’s their belief and understanding and that’s their right.”
Are you happy with your new approach? “Absolutely. I can go out and play 18 minutes fairly easily without feeling like I might not make it through the next week. Five years ago there’s no way I can do that with the stress I put on my brain and my body. I enjoy my teammates more, I enjoy the game more. Just everything is in a better place with me.”
Also, I talked to Erik Haula today about his major penalty on Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen this morning. I'll toss those quotes up on the blog later. Please join the chat in a matter of minutes.
Josh Harding, who still technically leads the NHL with a 1.65 goals-against average and is second with a .933 save percentage, took the ice at Xcel Energy Center this morning for the first time since January.
Harding, who hasn’t started since Dec. 31 because of the effects of multiple sclerosis, has been feeling much better in recent days.
“I saw him this morning, and I can’t say that I have a plan right now,” coach Mike Yeo said. “The first step was just to see him at the rink and I know he was here last game and I had heard how much better he was doing. And when I got a chance to talk to him this morning, you could see it. You could see it in his face, you could see the relief. You could just see he’s in a much better place right now. I think it’s great. It’s great to have him around. The next step is getting him on the ice and talk more about what the plan is. We haven’t discussed that.”
Harding, indisputably the Wild’s first-half MVP with an 18-7-3 record, had an adjustment to his treatment after beating Vancouver on Dec. 17. He missed the Wild’s four-game road trip and returned to start two games Dec. 29 against the Islanders and Dec. 31 against the Blues.
He missed the next smattering of games, came back to practice, but then had to leave again because he wasn’t feeling well. He has missed the past 22 games.
Obviously, Harding taking the ice is a great sign, but obviously there’s a long road yet to getting back into a game. Still, outstanding news that Harding is feeling better.
Also, Niklas Backstrom, one week after being “shut down” by GM Chuck Fletcher, skated today in pads with Harding. Apparently, this is part of Backstrom’s treatment plan from a Toronto specialist.
So, is Backstrom shut down?
“I don’t know with Backy,” Yeo said, laughing. “We don’t want to shut him down because you never know, he might all of a sudden come back and feel great. We don’t have a plan there. I know that he’s still not feeling great, so he’s going out there and keeping sharp just in case he can come back.”
Darcy Kuemper vs. Viktor Fasth (Oilers debut and first game since Nov. 18) tonight against the Edmonton Oilers.
Clayton Stoner, Justin Fontaine and Mike Rupp will be scratched for Minnesota. Oscar Klefbom will make his NHL debut for Edmonton.
Matt Cooke will skate in his 1,000th game and I’ll return soon with his thoughts.
I will be hosting a live chat at startribune.com at 2 p.m.
After a pair of intense back-to-back games at Dallas and St. Louis, Wild coach Mike Yeo predictably gave most his big-minute players a mandatory practice off.
With the Wild near the start of 20 games in the final 37 days of the season, I'd expect a lot of this down the stretch as Yeo weighs the importance of rest vs. work. I was shooting the breeze with a coach the other day and he too was saying the most important thing this time of year is rest.
Besides keeping players fresh, rest, the coach said, is the most critical thing when trying to avoid injuries down the stretch. Scheduled to practice today for the Wild were Erik Haula, Cody McCormick, Nate Prosser, Keith Ballard, Mike Rupp, Justin Fontaine, Clayton Stoner, Ilya Bryzgalov and Darcy Kuemper.
Couple housekeeping items:
1. The final Star Tribune Chalk Talk with Wes Walz and I is Tuesday night prior to the Oilers-Wild game. If you want to come to the Chalk Talk and attend the game, tickets are at www.wild.com/chalktalk.
2. I will be hosting a live Star Tribune chat right here at 2 p.m. Tuesday. Please join.
3. On Wednesday, from 12-3, I will be co-hosting Common's show with Brandon Mileski on KFAN (100.3-FM). Lots of hockey talk, which is the best kind of talk.
4. If you missed, here's David La Vaque's article on Minnesota Mr. Hockey, Avery Peterson, a Wild draft pick.
The Wild, 0-1-1 in its past two, hosts the Oilers, who have won two of their past three, in the second game of its four-game homestand Tuesday night at 7. The Wild is 20-2 in its past 22 home games against the Oilers and 24-11-2 all-time against them at home.
Oilers coach Dallas Eakins said today that goalie Viktor Fasth and defenseman Oscar Klefbom will debut on the Oilers' four-game road trip. Eakins didn't necessarily say Minnesota, I don't think, and the Oilers are hitting the road this afternoon for four games.
If Klefbom plays vs. the Wild, it'll be the NHL debut for the 2011 first-rounder. He's one of Jonas Brodin's best buds.
Fasth, if he plays, it'll be his Oilers debut after being acquired from Anaheim last Tuesday -- the day Bryzgalov was traded from Edmonton to Minnesota. If Fasth plays over Ben Scrivens against the Wild, it'll be Fasth's first game since Nov. 18. He's been hurt all year. He won 15 games as a rookie for the Ducks last year.
Kuemper is expected to start against the Oilers.
For the Wild, Matt Cooke is slated to play his 1,000th game. He'll become the 286th NHL player to play in 1,000 games and the fourth to do so while wearing a Wild uniform.
Keith Carney, Andrew Brunette and Matt Cullen were the others. With his family on hand, Cooke will be honored before Tuesday's game with the customary silver stick from the Wild and a crystal from the NHL. NHL official Jim Gregory will be on hand from the league.
Cooke, 35, has collected 162 goals and 384 points, a plus-61, 2,013 hits and 1,120 penalty minutes in 999 regular-season games over 15 years. He ranks 10th among active players in hits, 13th in penalty minutes and 28th in games. He has played another 97 playoff games and won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009.
Also, captain Mikko Koivu is now up to 435 points, putting him two from tying and three from passing Marian Gaborik to become the Wild’s all-time leading scorer. Koivu has 38 points in 49 games against Edmonton, tied for his most against any opponent.
Talk to you after the morning skates Tuesday and again, please join my 2 p.m. Star Tribune chat.
I tweeted a bunch of quotes about how positive the Wild was after its 3-2 shootout loss tonight to St. Louis. I was hit back with so many cynical replies, my Twitter followers would make awesome sportswriters.
Read the game story on www.startribune.com/wild for some of the best.
Hey, nobody likes moral victories. You pay $100 for a ticket and your team loses a shootout, you walk out disappointed. But if the Wild pulled that extra point out from tonight’s game by winning the shootout, did that really change anything in regards to how it actually played the game?
No. Obviously, it’s disappointing the Wild couldn’t get the extra point if you’re a fan, but the reality is the locker room was upbeat after the game, the team played quite well and I think any Wild fan would have settled for one point after the Wild fell behind 2-zip early in the first.
Now, a lot of the positivity postgame was them trying to convince themselves that they can play and match up against the Blues, and as a fan, you better pray the Wild truly does believe it can match up against arguably the best team in the NHL because not only does the Wild have two more games this season against the Blues, the Wild could very potentially play St. Louis in the first round.
Again, #1 in the West plays the second wildcard team, #2 plays the first wildcard team. So, by St. Louis leapfrogging Anaheim tonight for the top spot in the NHL, if the season ended today, the seventh-place Wild would play Anaheim. But if the Wild falls to eighth OR St. Louis falls to 2 and the Wild stays 7, the Wild plays the Blues.
Now, it’s just one game, and in the end, the Blues did, by virtue of that shootout, beat Minnesota for an eighth straight time and has beaten Central Division teams 15 straight times and are 18-0-1 against the Central. It was a team playing on the road and it was a team that, like the Wild, was playing for the second time in two days and it was a team playing without Ryan Miller, although let’s be honest, Brian Elliott was certainly up to the task and usually is against Minnesota (6-0 in his career).
But the Wild certainly had its chances tonight and certainly didn’t cower to the big, bad Blues, even at times taking it to the Blues. The Wild got pucks deep, spent long shifts in their end and hit their defensemen, forcing them into turnovers. The Wild started to pick up the intensity and play fast hockey, and according to coach Mike Yeo, showed that the Blues aren’t “unlike anybody else. You put them under pressure, you take away their options, it’s going to be tough.”
But again, it’s one game. Did the Wild prove once and for all tonight that they match up with the Blues? Uh, no, they didn’t. I still think it’d be a terrible matchup, and frankly, until the Wild shows they can play the Blues well in St. Louis, I’ll still be skeptical.
But, hey, it was an entertaining game and the Wild played well, so it was natural for the Wild to feel as it did after the game. Even when the Wild was down 2-0, it wasn’t getting overwhelmed, and in fact, held St. Louis to one shot through a 23-minute span between the first and second periods.
Jason Pominville and Matt Moulson (first with the Wild) helped the Wild rally in the second. Moulson, in two games with the Wild, has a goal, an assist, seven shots and three drawn penalties.
With the game tied at 2-2 in the third, the Wild lucked out early when Alex Steen looked to score. But referee Brad Watson ruled Ilya Bryzgalov, who made 21 saves in his Wild debut, had the puck covered.
A few minutes later, Elliott robbed Mikael Granlund’s goalmouth shot with a desperation stick save. The Wild drew a power play with 1:29 left in regulation but failed to score for a third straight time. In fact, Pominville’s turnover inside the blue line (very same spot to his boo-boo in San Jose that led to the Sharks’ OT winner in January) led to Steen nearly winning it. But his hit the post shorthanded with seven seconds left.
That would have been absolutely devastating after the blown game in Dallas. But the Wild got the point and is now four up on Dallas and seven up on Phoenix with Edmonton, the Rangers and Columbus coming in the rest of the homestand.
Yeo on Bryzgalov, who looked like he was fighting it at times, “He didn’t need to be exceptional, but I thought he got better as the game went on.”
Yeo on the 0 for 3 PP: He said they’re still trying to find chemistry with two brand new units, but “bottom line is we’ve got the personnel that we have to find a way to get one in.”
On Parise and Koivu being 3 for 10 in shootouts and whether maybe he should change up his shootout list: “We’ve got more guys down the line that have the ability, but usually when I’m back there and we’re making the decisions as coaches, we want those guys having the opportunity to make the difference.”
I liked this quote from Kyle Brodziak, who fought Steve Ott early and got into it again later when Ott got too close to Bryzgalov: “That’s definitely one of the most intimidating teams in the league. They’re big, they play physical. It was a good response by everybody. Maybe early on, we didn’t go all-in with it, but as the game wore on, we started to have a pushback and saw the benefit. Not a single guy shied away.”
Again, please read the gamer for a more comprehensible look at the game and the quotes.
The Wild is having a very optional practice Monday after back-to-back road and home games, so there’s a chance there won’t even be a blog. Reminder, I’ll be hosting a live chat on startribune.com at 2 p.m. Tuesday.
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