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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The Wild looks to rebound from last night's 4-3 loss at Dallas tonight against the red-hot St. Louis Blues.
Wild wasted what would have been a valuable two points last night when it coughed up a 3-2 third-period lead. The Wild went from potentially gaining a seven-point lead on Dallas and an eight-point lead on Phoenix to a three-point lead on Dallas and a six-point lead on Phoenix.
This with St. Louis on deck, a team that can leapfrog Anaheim for the top spot in the NHL with a win tonight. This is the first of three meetings with the Blues in the Wild's final 19 games and a potential first-round matchup. If the Wild makes the playoffs, it appears as if St. Louis or Anaheim would be the opponent.
The Blues have won 14 in a row against the Central Division and are 17-0-1 within the division. The Blues are 2-0 against the Wild this season and have won the past seven meetings, outscoring Minnesota 22-8 during the win streak.
Ilya Bryzgalov will make his Wild debut tonight. With Edmonton, he was 5-8-5 this season with a 3.01 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. He is 6-11-1 all-time vs. St. Louis with a 3.22 goals-against average and .895 save percentage.
Brian Elliott will start for St. Louis. He is 15-5-2 this season with a 2.08 goals-against average and 5-0 all-time vs. the Wild with a 1.83 goals-against average.
Same forward lines for the Wild tonight. Defenseman Nate Prosser will get back in for the Wild and Keith Ballard will be scratched. Yeo said the turnover that led to Erik Cole's winning goal last night played "no relevance," that this was the plan.
Yeo isn't fibbing. Yeo did indicated yesterday morning that Prosser would play tonight and with the big, bad Blues in town and their group of forechecking forwards, Clayton Stoner, the Wild's most physical defenseman, was obviously going to play.
Haula wasn't disciplined by the NHL for his charging major. He was tripped up by Cody Eakin. Still, that's a hard call for the official. Haula bulldozed over Kari Lehtonen, there's an obvious injury. That's a major. If that happened to Darcy Kuemper, you'd want a major.
My only issue is after the collision, Haula was attacked by the Stars. That's usually an area where the ref would at least give Trevor Daley, the first one in, a roughing minor to essentially make it a three-minute major.
It didn't happen, and like Yeo said after the game, the Wild did more than enough in that game to shoot itself in the collective foot. Now, it must bounce back tonight against a motivated team.
Costly loss for the Wild tonight. Up 3-2 in the third on Kyle Brodziak’s go-ahead goal, the Wild handed two points to the team right on its tail.
The Wild nearly crashed Mike Modano's party and could have been seven points up on Dallas with a win. Now it’s three with St. Louis, which can take the top spot in the NHL with a win, on deck Sunday in Minnesota to open a four-game homestand. A win could have given the Wild an eight-point lead on Phoenix, too.
Matt Moulson was talking this morning about how excited he was to parachute right into a playoff race. After all, this is a guy that didn’t have a lot of meaningful games late in seasons on Long Island and certainly not in the past four months in Buffalo.
Tonight’s game had the intensity of two desperate teams fighting for a playoff spot and the Wild battled back twice from one-goal deficits.
But then after taking a 3-2 lead 1:23 into the third, the wheels came off. It started a minute after Brodziak’s goal when Matt Cooke took a tripping penalty. I still haven’t seen the replay because I was pounding on my keyboard, but the Twitterphere was screaming that it was a knee.
Regardless, the Wild killed the two minutes off and it appears Valeri Nichushkin escaped injury.
But two minutes after the kid, Haula, who scored his first career shortie on a great play in the first to tie the game at 1-1, generated speed again. But as he drove the net, he locked skates with Cody Eakin and bulled into goalie Kari Lehtonen.
Lehtonen was injured, leaving the game with blood on his face and what coach Lindy Ruff said afterward was a likely concussion. Haula got a major for charging and game misconduct.
Darcy Kuemper did a terrific job killing the major, but on Dallas’ ninth shot on the power play, Tyler Seguin, who had a hat trick two nights earlier against Vancouver, scored the tying goal for his third point of the night.
Four minutes later, Brodziak sent the puck up top to Clayton Stoner. Stoner quickly slid it to his left to Keith Ballard. The puck barely stayed in the zone. Too bad it didn’t leave because Ballard looked to shoot, then tried to slide it back to Stoner.
It happened way late in their shift, too, so they were gassed and basically dead meat when speedy Erik Cole picked it off. Kuemper was the only hope to save Ballard’s bacon, but Cole scored the eventual winner with 4:49 left.
To Ballard’s credit, he was standing in the locker room just waiting for the buzzards.
“Bad read on my part. It was pretty obvious what I was looking to do. I don’t know if I telegraphed it, but I misjudged how high he was. Split-second decision. Bad feeling. Tough way to lose a game.”
He continued, “It’s not the first time I’ve done that. Every guy in this room has done that. It’s not the last time it’s going to happen. Do something like that, you can really talk yourself into you played a real bad game. I looked at my game a lot different than that. I’m not going to judge my entire game based on one shift. It was a tough mistake and it stinks, but you move on.”
We’ll see if he plays against St. Louis. The Wild has seven healthy defenseman and coach Mike Yeo made the questionable decision to scratch Nate Prosser, who has been nothing but consistent for two months (plus-9 in the past 20 games). I’ve got to think Prosser slides back in.
But tonight, Yeo said the Ballard mistake was bound to cost them eventually. He said the Wild gave up way too many odd-man rushes, and frankly, even the Wild’s most reliable players were playing the puck like a grenade. Normally reliable Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon each had tough nights.
Moulson had five shots, an assist on Charlie Coyle’s goal to snap a 15-game drought (actually had no goals in 25 of his past 26 games) and drew two penalties. Moulson said he has to bury his chances though.
Unfortunately the Haula penalty put a damper on what would have been an awesome story line with his shortie. It was so fitting because Saturday morning, Haula, who led the University of Minnesota in scoring the past two years, and I were talking about the pride he’s taking in his fourth line and penalty kill duties, saying, “I love my role on this team. I've accepted it.”
On the Haula penalty, Yeo said, “I’m not sure what else a player can do. You’re trying to score a goal. Unless you want the player not to try to score a goal. I feel bad for the goalie. He got hurt. But if you watch the replay, he’s trying to make a play to score a goal, he gets tripped up a little bit, there’s really nowhere for him to go. I would say it’s incidental.”
But Yeo stopped short and said he’s not about to complain about that call, saying, “We did enough things in this game to shoot ourselves in the foot. … Just not enough of a 60-minute focus.”
OK, I’ve got to get out of here. It’s midnight, and with the clocks moving ahead, my 4 a.m. wakeup is coming in, what’s that, three hours????
Afternoon from American Airlines Center, where the Wild and Dallas Stars play tonight.
It’ll be Minnesota’s first game since Monday, so it’ll be interesting to see how quickly players can adjust to the speed from the outset. Different playing than in practice.
It’s Mike Modano Night here at the Hanger. I wrote about No. 9 in today’s paper, so check that out here. Virtually everybody who’s anybody from Dallas and Minnesota North Stars history will be in the sold-out barn as Modano’s No. 9 rises to the rafters. He’ll join Neal Broten (No. 7), Bill Goldsworthy (No. 8) and Bill Masterton (No. 19) with banners on the rafters. Broten’s in the house, as are members of the family of Goldsworthy and Masterton. The ceremony starts at 6 p.m. and will be live on Fox Sports North.
Wild’s excited to play again and players were loose this morning going into a big game against the team five points behind in the standings.
Ilya Bryzgalov, already a beauty among teammates, comically came out of the locker room and asked GM Chuck Fletcher if he were a forward or defenseman growing up, would Fletcher have drafted him. Fletcher said, “Probably not.” Bryzgalov was blown away: “6-3, 214 pounds, I’d probably be a 70- or 80-point guy.”
Said Erik Haula, who humorously had his stall between the two goalies at the morning skate, just said, “Bryz is a funny guy.”
Darcy Kuemper will make his 16th consecutive start tonight. He’s 11-2-2 since Jan. 7 with a 1.95 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. It’s no sure thing, coach Mike Yeo said, but there’s a “good chance” Bryzgalov will start his first game with the Wild on Sunday against the St. Louis Blues. The Wild has a 2 ½-hour flight home after the game, loses an hour because of the daylight savings change and the puck drop is less than 24 hours after the start of tonight’s game.
The Wild acquired another goalie to spell Kuemper as the Wild begins a crazy sprint to the finish of 20 games in 37 days. So it makes sense for Bryzgalov to start against the Blues.
First things first, tonight. The Wild has lost 18 of its past 19 games in Dallas (1-13-5). This is a house of horrors.
Matt Moulson has no clue about that. It was hysterical listening to him talk about how much confidence he has playing in Dallas. I’ve never heard a Wild player say that in my life.
But Moulson has seven goals and 10 points in eight career game against Dallas and seven points in four career games in Dallas, including a career-high four-goal game in Dec. 2011. His first game with the Sabres, last game with the Sabres and first game with the Wild will come against the Stars, so he says it’s “familiar.”
“It’s exciting to play against the team you’re battling with for position and to get into games that mean a lot,” Moulson said, a reference to the Sabres being out of it. “I had a little taste of that last year (with the Islanders) and it’ll be good to get back into it this year.”
Cody McCormick will also make his Wild debut, while Justin Fontaine and Nate Prosser are the scratches.
Prosser has become one of the Wild’s most efficient defensemen the past two months, so I was a little surprised he was scratched. He’s plus-8 in the past 19 games.
Said Yeo: “I mean it’s going to be tough every game. We’ve got seven guys who are healthy and who are playing well. That’s what I told (Clayton Stoner) last game. I didn’t want to just get in a situation where we just scratch one guy repeatedly. So, if we have to rotate things a little bit here, we have a lot of games coming up in a not a lot of time, so we’re going to need everybody healthy. We’re going to need everybody on top of our game. So we get (Stoner) back in and (Prosser) out tonight and then there’s obviously a good chance (Prosser) will get back in tomorrow. We’re not going to be in a situation where we just repeatedly sit somebody night after night. If everybody keeps performing the way that we have, then we’ll keep getting everybody in. We’ll make sure everybody stays on top of our game. Like I said, I think it’s something like 20 days in 37 days. There’s going to be plenty of opportunity for everybody there.”
On Fontaine being scratched, Yeo said it hurts him that he’s not on power play or penalty kill.
“I think more than anything else, I’m not disappointed with (Fontaine) but truth be told, Heater’s outperformed him in this last little bit. We’ve got a new guy that I want to get him in the lineup (McCormick). I want to blend his physical presence into our game, so it’s kind of that how’s you end up finding yourself out in that situation.”
On McCormick, Yeo said, “We have come into this building and not shown enough of a physical presence and I think he’s going to help us with that. That’s part of why Stonie’s in there too, but that said, I think it’s a good opportunity for him to start to get to understand our game, start to get familiar with our system and the players that he’s playing with, so yeah, we have to give him that chance for sure.”
On how he’ll decide which of his power-play units will go out first, “We’ve got two good units. Obviously, if a line’s out there, Mikko’s line’s out there for 30 seconds and they draw a penalty, the other line will go. But otherwise, it’ll be a bit of a rotation. It might be a bit of who’s going and who’s not. We got two units that we consider No. 1 units and so, right now it’s only about the team. This is not about individuals. This is not about anything other than our group and winning hockey games, and so if you’re splitting a power play and each group’s getting a minute, then there’s really no benefit to one group going out first. Quite often you could actually have the benefit of going out second because you’re not getting the top penalty killing unit off the hop too, so we’re just going to rotate it pretty much and whoever is going is going.”
On what scares him about Dallas, Yeo said, “What scares me about this hockey team or more so this game is I want to make sure we’re ready to go. The long layoff, for one thing, that’s why we focused on a lot of battle drills yesterday in practice and obviously we tried to stay sharp with our systems and making sure we’re practicing with pace, so we’re ready for that. But at the same time, you worry about a bit of a drop in your intensity and your focus when the game starts. But more than anything else, I want to see us come out and be aggressive, assertive with our game. Yeah, they’re playing well. I respect that and they’re a good team. That’s great, but so are we. So let’s make sure that when we drop the puck, we should be ready to fight. We know that they’re going to come at us but we got to be ready to go at them.”
Jamie Benn – Tyler Seguin – Rich Peverley
Erik Cole - Cody Eakin – Alex Chiasson
Antoine Roussel – Vernon Fiddler – Ryan Garbutt
Ray Whitney – Shawn Horcoff - Valeri Nichuskin
Alex Goligoski – Trevor Daley
Jordie Benn – Brenden Dillon
Kevin Connauton – Sergei Gonchar
Afternoon from MSP, where I’m about to hustle through this blog to get to my flight for Dallas.
Finally, after four off-days, the Wild will play Saturday night for the first time since Monday. Unusual break in the schedule and coach Mike Yeo said today he’s “excited to put to action” the work the Wild did this week.
Saturday night will be Mike Modano Night in Dallas. I wrote a feature on Modano for Saturday’s paper. His No. 9 is being retired by the Stars/North Stars franchise. Star-studded event (Norm Green will be there!) with a golf outing, private dinner tonight and then a ceremony tomorrow that’s supposed to be off the charts.
There’s a “green carpet” event as guests arrive. Fans are encouraged to show up three hours before the game with the ceremony starting 90 minutes before puck drop.
So I encourage you to read Saturday’s story.
The Wild is 1-13-5 in its past 19 in Dallas since March 21, 2003. The Wild snapped a 16-game winless streak there last season but has lost two there since, including arguably the worst game of this season Jan. 21.
The Wild’s feeling much better about its game since, is 14-4-2 this calendar year and has won five in a row.
Darcy Kuemper will make his 16th consecutive start. He is 11-2-2 in 16 starts since Jan. 7 (one no-decision) with a 1.95 goals-against average and .934 save percentage.
Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick are also expected to make their Wild debuts. Moulson looks really good on that line with Mikko Koivu and Charlie Coyle (for the lines, see yesterday’s blog), by the way.
“We’re going to a building that typically we haven’t performed well in,” said Yeo, saying he wants his team ready for a good, intense game against a Stars team playing well right now.
During the Wild’s hiatus, the eighth-place Stars have pulled within five of Minnesota, ninth-place Phoenix within six.
Yeo doesn’t want to look past Saturday, but he doesn’t want Ilya Bryzgalov just sitting around either, so he said there’s “certainly a chance we put him in vs. St. Louis” on Sunday.
That’ll be a tough game for Minnesota. The clock springs forward after Saturday’s game, so the Wild plays in Dallas the night before and loses an hour on the way back. St. Louis plays in Denver also Saturday, but an afternoon game, so the Blues should be in Minnesota before the puck drops on the Wild’s game.
We had another fun one-minute press scrum with Bryzgalov today.
Q: How much are you looking forward to starting Sunday?
A: We practice to play in the game.
Q: How excited are you to play in front of the home fans?
A: Yeah, sure.
Q: Feel more comfortable in practice?
A: Yeah, better and better.
Q: Any superstitions or routines?
Maybe he just feels he’s been burned by the media before, so why bother? The Oilers writers say he was standoffish at the start of his tenure there, but he slowly but surely got better and became very cooperative.
He already had a Wild-esque mask today. Paul Deutsch, the gent who was the emergency goalie during warmups that one game a few years back, took Bryzgalov’s Oilers mask and wrapped a vinyl emblem around it with the BRYZ on the front. Looks pretty good.
Bryzgalov said he’s working toward getting his own painted mask.
Kuemper said Bryzgalov has been cool thus far.
On how he thinks playing time will be divvied ahead, Kuemper said, “I’m not sure how it’s going to work. That’s up to coaches. Things have been going well. I’ll take it game by game. Obviously I like getting out there and playing, so every opportunity I have, I’ll cherish it to the best of my ability.”
Clayton Stoner is excited to have McCormick on the team. They’ve been in two fights and “he’s a tough customer.” In Buffalo in October, McCormick bloodied Stoner’s nose during a scrap.
Talk to ya Saturday from Dallas.
Wild newcomers Matt Moulson, Cody McCormick and Ilya Bryzgalov, wearing his old Oilers gear, practiced for the first time with their new teammates and met with the media in person for the first time this afternoon.
The mood was tremendous around the Wild today, Zach Parise said.
“You could tell in the locker room before, and definitely on the ice,” he said.
Moulson and McCormick provided some good color on their day yesterday. Coincidentally, they were sitting side by side eating lunch outside at Jacksons, which is the restaurant attached to the Westin in Tampa, on Wednesday watching TSN’s TradeCentre on NHL Network when McCormick got a text from the Wild’s Jason Pominville asking if it’s true they were traded to Minnesota.
McCormick said it caught both off guard, so after doing “some digging” with their agents, they found out it was true.
Moulson knew he was all but guaranteed to be traded during the Sabres’ road trip, so he said he tried to pack as much of his life and clothes as possible into two bags. His wife will ship the rest from Buffalo.
Moulson and McCormick were both very complimentary about their time in Buffalo but are “real happy to be a part of this,” said McCormick.
Today was about meeting new teammates, learning the details of the Wild’s systems and getting to know the area. Moulson and McCormick landed at 10:30 a.m. and practiced by 12:30 p.m. Bryzgalov got in last night.
Moulson and McCormick will make their Wild debuts Saturday in Dallas (coincidentally, their second straight games in Dallas because that’s where the Sabres last played) and Bryzgalov will likely start his first game in a Minnesota sweater Sunday night at home against the St. Louis Blues.
I’ve made you wait long enough. The much-anticipated lines:
Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville
Matt Moulson-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle
Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Nino Niederreiter
Dany Heatley-Erik Haula-Cody McCormick/Justin Fontaine
If you assume Haula will continue to center the fourth line and consider the fact that coach Mike Yeo indicated that McCormick will play Saturday, it appears as if Fontaine will be the odd man out at least for Saturday.
It'll be interesting to see Yeo's shootout lineup. Moulson is 7 for 12 this year (4th in the NHL) and 13 for 25 in his career. Yeo's 1-2-3 when they're in the lineup together is usually Parise, Koivu and Pominville. Parise and Koivu are each 3 for 9 this season and Pominville is 3 for 8. Parise has the second-most shootout goals than anybody in the NHL (35 for 78). Koivu is sixth n the NHL at 33 for 79. Pominville is tied for 21st at 21 for 55.
As GM Chuck Fletcher said Wednesday, the Wild’s goal is to have four deep lines and 1A and 1B power-play units.
We saw that today:
The units had interchangeable pointmen with Ryan Suter-Jason Pominville and Jonas Brodin-Jared Spurgeon. The three forwards were: Parise-Granlund-Heatley and Moulson-Koivu-Coyle.
“If you have two strong units, then you’re a much more dangerous team to play against, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Yeo said.
As Cooke and Parise told me today, what they love about the Wild’s depth now is that Yeo will have options. If there are injuries, if lines aren’t going, Cooke said Yeo can mix and match and “it kind of guarantees us two scoring threat lines.”
Yeo on his lines: “I liked the look of them before we went out on the ice and I liked the look of them after we came off the ice, too. I thought there was real good energy in our practice today. Obviously guys are excited. We felt really good about our team and where we were at going into this trade deadline and we feel that we’re a strong team now, we’re a deeper team. So we’re excited to put it to work now.”
And that’s what Yeo told the players before practice. He welcomed the trio of newcomers but told the group, “now the work starts.”
Parise and every player echoed the coach, saying it’s time to deliver these next 20 games in 37 days that begin Saturday.
“This is a tough conference that we play in,” Yeo said. “We feel that we’ve been getting better and have been narrowing the gap. This is another strong move to put us to another level, we believe. This is a great opportunity for us, but the work has to be put in. We’ve got to work now to build chemistry, we’ve got to work to make sure that we got everybody in the right roles and we’ve got to make sure that we’re working to continue to build as a team.”
Yeo, who used to be an assistant with Pittsburgh, said of Moulson, “Always a guy that you notice every game, finds a way to get chances, finds a way to be a factor in and around the net. And obviously he has the ability to put the puck in the net. But there’s more to his game than that. He’s a hard-working guy, he fits the identity that we have here, he’s going to complement the players that he’s going to play with very well. So it’s a guy we were excited to grab, that’s for sure.”
On McCormick: “I’m expecting that he’ll play in Dallas, give him a real good opportunity to get in and get comfortable with our game. And I would like to not just put him in for one game and take him out. I want to see what he can do here. I want to give him a chance to get comfortable with his game. He’ll get that opportunity this weekend. :
On Bryzgalov: “[Darcy] Kuemper has been playing great, but at the same time we need to protect him a little bit. And obviously Backy isn’t at 100 percent and he’s battled and we give him an unbelievable amount of credit for the way he’s handled things. It’s been in a real difficult situation. Kuemper has really stepped up when we needed him to. But you need some protection there and to get a guy of that caliber and not only give you minutes but win hockey games for you – we’re very excited about that.”
On his lines: “You look at the top two lines and certainly they’re put together with the idea that No. 1 they can go out and create, but they’re also going to be difficult to play against. They are lines that are going to pressure, they’re lines that are going to work, they’re lines that are going to be strong and should be good two-way lines for us. And with that our third and fourth lines are deeper as well and we feel they can go out and contribute any night for us too. Obviously we need those guys to have an identity and an important role as well. We like the depth that we have, we like the way that this looks right now, but when you have a deep team like this it also gives you more opportunity to try different things whether it’s mixing up the lines from night to night or game to game you have that opportunity. Certainly if all things are going well you’re probably going to keep things the same, but if they’re not there’s certainly more opportunity to make some switches too.”
On whether he talked to Heatley about being on the fourth line, Yeo said, “Yeah, Heatley was awesome. That’s the way he’s been all year. He just wants to be here and help the team. I know that we’re going to count on him down the stretch. This is a guy who’s elevated his play lately. He’s been scoring a lot of big goals for us and he wants to be a part of this group. What’s great about having a guy like Heater there is he can be effective on that line, but he’s going to push guys. If somebody is not getting it done above him then he can push them in a hurry. He’s got the ability to go out and score goals for us anytime.”
A lot of folks were tweeting me upset that Niederreiter wasn’t on the power play and Heatley is. Heatley has scored more power-play goals since 2001 than any player and has probably screened the goalie on 10 power-play goals the past two months. He’s the best net-front guy the Wild’s had on the power play – by far – so to me he should stick there.
McCormick is familiar with the Wild from his days with the Avalanche, and he said, “They come to play every night. It’s a high compete level in that dressing room and they bring it on the ice.”
On his game, “My game is a lot of grit, a lot of body contact. I like to play an in-your-face kind of style.”
Bryzgalov’s not the easiest guy to interview. He almost seems to intentionally try to make things feel uncomfortable with one or two word answers or making reporters squirm like one today who asked, “How were the last 24 hours for you?”
Bryz: “You want to know minute by minute.”
Reporter: “Excited for the opportunity?”
Bryz: “Oh yes.”
It’ll be an interesting contrast with Kuemper, who’s one of the most affable goalies I’ve ever covered.
Hopefully he doesn’t become a distraction like he reportedly was during his tenure in Philly.
Bryzgalov on potentially being the No. 2: “It’s not my call. I came here to work and work hard and bring the best of me to help the team to have the best success.”
On Kuemper, whom Bryzgalov got to watch shut out the Oilers last week, “He’s a good young kid with a promising big future. I saw a couple games he played. He played very calm, relaxed and good.”
He also took a subtle shot at the Oilers by saying practice was tough because it was a "higher pace" than he was used to in Edmonton. Ladislav Smid said something almost verbatim after his first practice after being traded from Edmonton to Calgary. After Bryzgalov's presser, I checked with Bryzgalov to make sure I heard his quote correctly and he repeated "way faster pace."
I'm also no goalie expert, but Bryzgalov did have a difficult practice. Just wasn't sharp, uh, stopping pucks.
I’ll be on KFAN at 5:55 p.m. I’ve also rescheduled my live startribune.com chat for Tuesday at 2 p.m.
Talk to you Friday. I’ll have to hustle for my flight after practice, so I’ll likely blog from the air. So please be patient for it.
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