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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Middling Wild continues to tread water, and frustration has officially set in

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: December 17, 2014 - 11:34 PM

It was crystal clear after tonight’s 3-2 overtime loss to Boston that frustration is consuming the Wild locker room.

It has been crawling along for a month now, painstakingly chasing eighth in the conference from the outside just like it chases most hockey games.

It has been a month now since the Wild has won consecutive games. Tonight, it lost consecutive games for the first time since Nov. 8 and 11 and is a mediocre 5-5-2 in its past 12 and a yucky 2-2-2 in its past six at home. I think that's the definition of middling.

Zach Parise, who has voiced anger lately with the way the team has lacked excitement in its game, could barely get words out after the game. His simple message was the Wild needs to stop losing.

Jason Pominville talked about a lack of confidence inside the team and frustration, which coach Mike Yeo actually first mentioned before the game when he discussed just how hard it has been for the Wild to get any kind of traction.

Tonight, the Wild dominated the second period but fired 20 shots and still couldn’t beat backup Niklas Svedberg. It couldn’t score on Grade A chances, breakaways, crashes of the net and players hit three posts. In the third, the Wild rallied on a Pominville lucky goal, finally getting the puck luck it so lacked in the first two periods.

An atrocious overtime followed, the Wild couldn’t win a draw, spent 90 seconds in its zone and Loui Eriksson ended things.

Still, two months ago, the Wild may have found the silver lining in a game in which it had the wide margin in better chances and battled back to get a point. Not anymore. Not when the internal expectations are to be near the top of the conference, not 10th, not when you’ve been treading water for a month with a sensation that things could start to sink.

“It’s a fine line even for us as a staff right now,” Yeo said. “Normally what you do is you look at that game and you say, ‘If we play that way you’re going to get rewarded,’ and that’s what you focus on. And obviously we know that we need wins, so it’s tough. Like I said, it’s a fine line between trying to find positives and trying to build our game to try to build our confidence and to build the feeling, that winning attitude feeling, between also not being satisfied, not accepting losing and not getting the end result that we want. So we have to try to walk that line.”

Told how players in the room said they’re lacking confidence, Yeo said, “There’s no doubt. 100 percent it is. And it’s easy to say we’re big boys; we’ve got to toughen up. Like I said, that’s the line that we have to walk as a staff, that we have to find that right balance. We can’t just sit here and feel sorry for ourselves that we didn’t win that hockey game. We did a lot of good things. Well, if it wasn’t enough, we’re better than that. Let’s be even better next game. We did a lot of good things. We hit three posts. We made a play to tie up the game. But we can still do a little bit more, and that has to be our mindset. If we keep doing that, I’ve seen many stretches like this in the past where, you know what, you play good hockey, not great hockey, you play good hockey but don’t get the result that you want, the next game you come back a little bit better, the next game you come back a little bit better and before you know it you get on a roll. And that has to be what we understand right now.

“The balance right now that we have to find, and hopefully a couple days in between games will be good here, there’s part of it where we have to push through that and we’ll earn our confidence. It’s not just going to magically appear for us, but at the same time we have to look at the things we’re doing well. We have to concentrate on those and we have to figure out what we’re not doing well enough and get rid of those things. That’s how we’re going to get better.”

One thing the Wild’s not doing well are power plays in clutch situations, like tonight’s 1:13 5-on-3 in which Parise, Pominville, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund managed one shot, lots of attempts blocked and one blown attempted backdoor pass in which Koivu didn’t shoot despite half the net open.

The three lefty setup down low to me seems ridiculous and Pominville said the Wild was also caught off guard by the Bruins’ 3-on-5 setup.

Pominville said usually teams would use two guys to front the Wild’s point guys, but the Bruins’ high guy was trying to deny the pass between Pominville and Suter, “which not a lot of teams do. It’s one of those if you know it’s coming you might be able to adjust.”

Yeo said, “I didn’t like out 5-on-3. We scored the game before (he’s talking the Anaheim 5-on-3 goal) and we came back and I thought we had a different mindset to this one. It’s not a personnel question, it’s not an x’s and o’s thing. It’s just the mentality that we went out with.”

Yeah, but it’s the same personnel coming out with this supposed mentality, so…

As for the Bruins’ apparent strange PK, Yeo said, “They played it a little bit differently. They played it a little bit high, but I think there were shooting lanes there and I didn’t think our net front was good enough. Bottom line is, where you can outnumber them the most is around the net, and I didn’t think that we took advantage of that.”

Like I said, this was a game the Wild played well for the most part. The second, the Bruins couldn’t come close to contain Minnesota and the Bruins admitted how the Wild took it to them.

But, when you’re 5-5-2 in the past 12 and absolutely average lately at home, almost isn’t good enough when you’re on the outside looking in and there’s obviously problems surrounding this team right now.

There’s just not a good feel at all. Of course, there wasn’t a good feel last December either and the Wild completely turning things around.

The Wild is off Thursday and practice Friday in preparation for Saturday’s game against the Preds. Matt Cooke should return that night, which could give the Wild a much needed energy buzz.

Maybe Darcy Kuemper will be healthy by then, too. Jared Spurgeon did come back from that stomach bug tonight.

I am out of town this weekend. Rachel Blount will cover Friday’s practice, Saturday’s game and Sunday’s outdoor practice at the Roseville OVAL. Hey, when you’re a team that’s had the mumps and now a stomach virus, they’ll definitely avoid pneumonia, right?


Other than a story in Friday’s paper and my Sunday Insider, you may not be hearing from me again until Monday. Enjoy your weekend and Rachel’s capable coverage.

Backstrom starts, Spurgeon returns for the Wild tonight

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: December 17, 2014 - 5:58 PM

Wild and Boston Bruins in about an hour.

Niklas Backstrom feels good enough to start his second game in two nights and former Boston University goalie John Curry was recalled to back him up. Ill-stricken Darcy Kuemper was kept away today and is still not feeling well, coach Mike Yeo said.

The Bruins’ goalie is unknown as of now. Niklas Svedberg was the only goalie to skate with the scratches this morning. Skilled forward David Krejci is expected to return from a lower-body injury.

Jared Spurgeon is expected to return tonight, meaning the Wild will have its top-4 defensemen in the same lineup for the fourth time in the past 23 games.

Yeo said Spurgeon is not quite 100 percent, but the Wild needs him.

The Wild hasn’t win back-to-back games since Nov. 16 and 20.

“It’s been a factor in us not being able to grab some traction,” Yeo said. “We haven’t won back-to-back games in a long time. I give our guys credit because we also haven’t lost back-to-back games in a long time (Nov. 8 and 11).”

(“Knock on wood,” Yeo said, laughing. “I’d like to make sure we keep that going.”)

“There’s been some good things, but there’s probably been more frustration than anything else right now, and I think a big part of that is that defensive group, what they mean to us in terms of our offense, in terms of our execution, helping to alleviate pressure, helping to get the puck up to our forwards and how they defend, their gap control. I think that’s been very noticeable since we haven’t had them all intact.”

The Wild has rallied in lots of game, but an example of this frustration may be the fact that often the Wild gives up a goal and that one goal seems to quickly become two or three in a row.

Yeo said, “We know that we need to win hockey games right now. When something bad happens in a game, when we’re strong, it doesn’t take us off our game, it doesn’t rattle us, it doesn’t carry over into the next shift.

“I think right now we’re so wrapped up in the result, when something happens, we get a little bit off the tracks, off the rails and then one bad shift turns into two or three or four. It took us a full period to recover from that last game.”

Defenseman Christian Folin will be scratched tonight. He had the one mistake that led to Jonathan Toews’ goal last night. He didn’t move the puck quick enough and Toews picked his pocket.

Yeo said, “In some ways we could say it’s not fair for him to come out. It was one game and I’m certainly not putting that on him and that game aside, I like what he’s brought lately. But this game tonight is all we’re focused on now, back-to-back games and we’re going left shot, right shot (that’s why Justin Falk stays in) and with the right shot, for this game tonight, we decided on Pross (Nate Prosser) just because of the veteran presence.”

I asked Yeo about Nino Niederreiter only logging four shifts and 2:35 of ice time after his penalty-shot goal last night.

Yeo said the two penalties that were taken late in the third both were taken on shifts that he was due to come up on and then he was scheduled to come up with the goalie out but some guys extended their shifts.

Yeo also said he planned to use Niederreiter if the game got to a shootout presumably for Jason Pominville. Similarly, if the Arizona shootout got to Round 3, Yeo said Jason Zucker, who scored on a breakaway that game, was next up.

Of the top-20 goal scorers in the NHL, Niederreiter, who is tied for ninth in the NHL with 14 goals, is last in average ice time per game (14:18).

I asked Yeo about that.

“Are we saying he’d have 30 right now [with more ice time]?” Yeo said. “You could argue that he might have a lot more or you might argue that we’re doing a pretty good job with him right now, too.”

Basically, and I’ll write more about this in the paper the next few days, Yeo said this is not unlike Zucker last year. The Wild’s trying to develop him and there are little details in his game that the Wild is trying to improve. He’s a team-worst minus-5 and the Wild is really trying to get him to play better defensively. He is playing in a checking line role because of his frame and ability to skate and because of the top-6 guys ahead of him, so for him to play against good offensive players, Yeo is trying to help him improve defensively so he can trust him more in critical situations.

That’s the gist of what Yeo said, at least.

Wild calls up goalie Curry to replace Kuemper

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news Updated: December 17, 2014 - 12:27 PM

With Darcy Kuemper sidelined because of illness, the Wild is bringing John Curry up from Iowa of the AHL to back up goalie Niklas Backstrom tonight against Boston.

At least that's the plan -- Backstrom wasn't 100 percent himself in last night's 5-3 loss at Chicago, but coach Mike Yeo hopes Backstrom can play in tonight's game.

Curry has a 3.02 goals against average in 12 games for Iowa, and a .911 saves percentage. He played in two games for the Wild near the end of last season.

Defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who missed the past two games because of illness, should return to the lineup tonight for the Wild.

The illnesses of Spurgeon, Kuemper and Backstrom were flu-like in nature, but were not the mumps.

Both goalies sick, and a late penalty had the Wild fuming after its comeback fell short in Chicago

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: December 17, 2014 - 12:37 AM

Well, the star got the call.

Many in the Wild dressing room was spitting mad after tonight’s 5-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild rallied from 3-1 down in the third to tie the mighty Hawks, then superstar Patrick Kane got the benefit of a referee’s call on what the Wild felt was a ticky-tack penalty that should not have been called that late in a tie game.

In a game where Brent Seabrook got away with a blatant elbow on Justin Fontaine that basically caused the Wild to be short a man when Seabrook scored the tying goal in the second, in a game where there was reaching and hooks uncalled all game long, Erik Haula was called for hooking Kane at the blue line with 4:35 left in a 3-3 game.

Kane, one of the game’s great puck-handlers, lost the puck out of the zone, then motioned exasperatedly.

Referee Dan O’Rourke’s arm went straight up.

The Blackhawks were given a power play, and proving you’ve got to be good to be lucky, Kane intended a pass for Patrick Sharp and instead the puck caromed past Niklas Backstrom off Wild defenseman Jonas Brodin’s skate with 3:28 left for the winning goal.

“I thought they played well, but getting that power play with 4-5 minutes left there was nice and were able to bounce one in there,” said Seabrook. “It was a lucky one, but we’ll take it.”

Coach Mike Yeo let O’Rourke have it on the bench, both after the call and after the loss. Then, in the postgame, Yeo was still hot about the call.

“That time in a hockey game in a tie game, a one-handed hook on a dead play, pretty frustrating,” Yeo said.

Haula agreed.

“I don’t agree with his call at all,” Haula said. “It’s four minutes left and he decides to decide a good hockey game with a weak penalty like that. I’m definitely not happy about it.”

Haula said it stings even more because the Wild rallied from 3-1 down in the third on Nino Niederreiter’s penalty-shot goal (same move he tried in Dallas but couldn’t score on, he said; team-leading 14th in 29 games after a career-high 14 goals in 81 games last season) and Marco Scandella’s blast 2:50 apart.

“To come out and put it out on the line and overall play a great hockey game and it comes down to that, it’s frustrating,” Haula said.

More on the game in a moment, but the Wild has a goaltending problem on its hand.

Darcy Kuemper was supposed to start tonight’s game. After Niklas Backstrom arrived around 5:15, he was told to get ready because Kuemper had the same stomach issue that has sidelined Jared Spurgeon the past two games and Charlie Coyle from a recent practice.

Well, guess what? Backstrom got the same stomach bug in the first period. But knowing the Wild had nobody to put in to replace him, Backstrom battled through the rest of the game, Yeo said.

The Wild frantically called Iowa and John Curry was pulled by coach John Torchetti with a 3-1 lead after two periods in an eventual win over Rockford.

Kuemper still looked awful after the game. Backstrom was at least upright and drinks lots of colored liquids. But it’ll be interesting to see who starts for the Wild when it hosts Boston on Wednesday.

Remember, Josh Harding is back in Minnesota seeing specialists because of complications with multiple sclerosis. He was hospitalized two weekends ago in Charlotte for dehydration that occurred during a game.

So depending on how Kuemper and Backstrom are feeling, Curry, the former Boston University goalie, could make his second start. There’s also Johan Gustafsson, who relieved Curry tonight. Obviously who starts depends completely on the health of Kuemper and Backstrom.

Originally, Kuemper was supposed to start tonight and Backstrom against Boston. He’s 5-0-1 all-time vs. the Bruins.

Kuemper must have gotten sick in the afternoon.

After the Wild’s morning skate, Kuemper seemed perfectly healthy as he did his normal pregame stretching on the locker-room carpet and joked about the time he lost a “personal-record 10 pounds of water weight” during a start.

In fact, during Yeo’s availability two hours before the game, Yeo confirmed Kuemper would start at the exact moment Backstrom walked out of the locker room to begin his pregame “turtle trot” (super-slow walk) routine he does only when he starts.

In hindsight, that was the giveaway something was amiss. GM Chuck Fletcher wouldn’t say before the game that anything was wrong with Kuemper, largely because he didn’t want the Blackhawks to know the team was potentially without a backup. As it turns out, it wasn’t Andrew Shaw running Backstrom or something. It was the stomach flu that Backstrom had to fight through.

The Wild played a solid first period, took a 1-0 lead on a great Mikael Granlund to Thomas Vanek goal. But then, after Seabrook tied the game, it turned. The Wild stood around the rest of the period and watched the Blackhawks skate and gave them time and space to do whatever they pleased in the Wild end. The Wild went nine minutes without a shot at one point and Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews gave Chicago a 3-1 lead.

But the Wild was outstanding in the third to tie the game before the Blackhawks won it.

In the end, guys like Scandella, Niederreiter and Backstrom said it was the horrible second period that cost the Wild the game, not the Haula penalty and fluky goal Kane scored.

Backstrom noted how the Wild did everything right in the first and third periods, from getting pucks deep to pressuring the Blackhawks everywhere to not turning pucks over at each blue line. That all changed in the second and he said until the Wild, including himself he said, is able to do all the small details right for 60 minutes, it won’t be able to beat the Blackhawks, etc.

The Wild is now 0-5-1 against Anaheim, Chicago, L.A. and St. Louis. Chicago, Nashville, St  Louis and Winnipeg, all of Minnesota in the Central, all got two points tonight. Not good for a Wild team out of the playoff picture.

“You just have to find a way to be better so it’s not going to be about one call or one bounce,” Backstrom said. “Look at that team, they’re doing all the small things every night. That’s why they’re always on the top of the standings. It’s always a challenge to play against them. We want to measure and learn from them so next time we can be better.”

Niklas Backstrom gets surprise start tonight at Chicago

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news, Wild pregame skate Updated: December 16, 2014 - 7:41 PM

CHICAGO – Hours ago, Darcy Kuemper lay on the ground between defensemen Marco Scandella and Christian Folin doing his normal stretch routine in preparation to start tonight’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

The goalie was bubbly and even shot the breeze, talking about the time he lost a personal-record 10 pounds of water weight during a start.

Well, something happened between 12:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. because Niklas Backstrom will get the surprise start tonight vs. Chicago.

There is a stomach bug going around the Wild that has caused Charlie Coyle to miss a recent practice and Jared Spurgeon his second game tonight. And, of course there’s the mumps, but it's not the mumps.

During coach Mike Yeo’s availability two hours before the game, Yeo confirmed that Kuemper was starting at the exact moment Backstrom walked out of the locker room to begin his pregame slow-walk routine when he’s the starter around the bowels of United Center. In hindsight, that was strange.

Then, after Backstrom led the Wild onto the ice, General Manager Chuck Fletcher wouldn’t disclose what was wrong with Kuemper other than to say he would back up.

But during warmups, Kuemper didn’t move from his spot near the red line until the very end when he skated to the crease and basically stood stationary so players had a target to shoot around.

Must be something around the United Center. Remember, two years ago, Backstrom aggravated an abdominal injury in warmups prior to Game 1 and Josh Harding, who had just returned from weeks away with complications from multiple sclerosis, had to start the series.

The Wild hosts the Boston Bruins on Wednesday, so Backstrom may have to start consecutive games. If Kuemper is unable to dress, John Curry and Johan Gustafsson have a game tonight in Iowa.

In other news, Yeo said before the game that Spurgeon, Ryan Carter and Matt Cooke all skates this morning. Yeo didn't know if Spurgeon would be able to play tomorrow. Carter (shoulder) and Cooke (hip) may return Saturday vs. Nashville.


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