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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One more day.
This endless respite in the Wild schedule will actually end Thursday when Alain Vigneault’s New York Rangers invade Xcel Energy Center.
In fact, the Rangers, who have lost two of three, are on the ice now practicing. They’re a fairly decent team, like the best team in the Eastern Conference. How good are they? When Henrik Lundqvist was injured, they went 18-4-3 with mostly Cam Talbot in goal.
They’ve got an exceptional blue line and three awesome scoring lines.
“Playing a great team,” coach Mike Yeo said. “They went to the Finals last year for good reason and I think they’re better this year than they were last year. Well coached, very fast team. Their speed’s a factor every night, they play the right way both sides of the puck.”
Yeo said as much of a challenge as the Rangers present, so does the four-day break. The Wild is 24-5-1 since the All-Star break and has won five in a row. Magic number to make the playoffs is five points. Combination of points attained and/or lost points by the Kings and Jets. I wrote more about the Wild's crazy goal differential since Jan. 15 here, by the way.
“It’ll be a challenge bringing our intensity and focus to where we were when we were in a rhythm. That’s not just going to carry over. We’ve got to find a way to make sure we start that up again.”
Not much going on. Lots of kids have been running around the locker room the past week, like little Kyle Leopold, who is 14 years younger than Matt Dumba, who is 14 years younger than defense partner Jordan Leopold. Consider that Dumba grew up watching Leopold play in Calgary.
When some short, stocky, slow-witted, balding reporter asked Yeo why there have been so many kids around, the entire press scrum (it felt like) yelled, “Spring break.”
“We do try to encourage our players to have their kids go to school,” Yeo deadpanned.
Devan Dubnyk was named the NHL's Third Star of the Month today after being named First Star in February. He led the NHL with 11 wins, compiling a 1.78 goals-against average and .942 save percentage to lead the Wild (44-25-7, 95 points) to an 11-3-0 March and the first Wild Card position in the Western Conference.
Dubnyk becomes the only Wild player to be part of the NHL’s Monthly Three Stars twice in a season/career. In just over two months with the Wild, he has been named NHL First Star of February, NHL Third Star of March, NHL First Star of the Week twice (2/9 and 3/30) and NHL Third Star of the Week once (2/2).
The only other Wild player to ever be awarded NHL monthly honors was Josh Harding, earning NHL Third Star of the Month in Nov. 2013.
Defenseman Nate Prosser, who sprained his MCL March 14, was already back in practice today. Crazy, fast recovery.
That gave the Wild three goalies, 15 forwards, eight defensemen and six coaches on the ice. Thirty-two people on the ice! As I wrote today, feels like training camp.
“Felt like a lot. Strange thing to have for sure, but a lot of pluses to it too,” Yeo said.
Prosser said his knee felt good, his endurance felt good, “So whenever I’m needed, I’ll be ready.”
“There’s a lot of bodies out there,” he said. “Good to have depth. Chuck [Fletcher’s] done a great job bringing in all this depth. We all got to compete and battle to get in the lineup.”
Yeo said there’s “no set date yet as far as when he’ll return to game action. He’s been out for a little bit of time here, but good to get him back on the ice with the group.”
Prosser was playing well, especially on the penalty kill, when he got hurt in St. Louis. He was plus-13 since the All-Star break. He was especially playing well on the left with Dumba. My gut says Prosser eventually plays over Leopold, but we’ll see.
“He’ll get back in,” Yeo said. “We look at these games down the stretch here -- we’ve got to make sure we get in, but we also got to make sure that our game’s sharp and we’ve identified the group we want to start Game 1 with.”
And obviously things change in the playoffs. Heck, at times last postseason, Justin Fontaine, Kyle Brodziak and Dany Heatley were scratched.
Against the Rangers, Erik Haula will be scratched for the sixth time this season and first time since Jan. 29.
Yeo said again everybody can make a case why they deserve to play and have done things for them at different points to get them here, “but we have to make some choices, so we’ll do the best we can.”
Yeo talked to Haula.
“He’s done a great job getting us to here and I’d expect him to play the next game against Detroit. He’s coming out [Thursday]. After his last scratch, I thought he really elevated his game. I think he’s been doing an outstanding job on the penalty kill. There’s a couple parts of his game that crept towards some of the things he was doing [before]. I don’t think that he’s playing bad, but I don’t think he’s playing at quite of the level he was at.”
Yeo reiterated Haula may play Saturday. Asked if there will be a fourth-line rotation, Yeo said, “I don’t know that we have necessarily a plan, but we’ve got to find a way to get some guys in. We’ve got to find a way to make sure everybody’s getting some game action and trying to keep everybody involved. Everybody’s had an impact getting us to this point. We’ll sort through it day by day.”
Asked if this could be a problem, Yeo said, ““We’ve got a good group of guys. Every player wants to play, and as long as they’re handling it with a good attitude and making sure that when they’re out of the lineup they’re supporting the rest of the team and bringing a positive attitude to the rink and working hard so that when they get back in they’re ready, I don’t foresee it being a problem. We have a goal to make the playoffs and then go a long way in the playoffs and depth always come into play in those situations. This is what we have today, but things change rather quickly. What we’re seeing, what we’re talking about a week from now, it’s a good possibility it’ll be different than today.”
I’m writing a story for Thursday’s paper on Dubnyk entering the Hart Trophy conversation in the NHL. So please read that.
On Thursday, I’ll be on KFAN in the morning with Paul Allen and from 3-6:30 p.m., I’ll be filling in for Dan Barreiro on KFAN. My guests include Zach Parise at 5:55 p.m., actor/comedian/Wild fanatic Erik Stolhanske on the Wild and Super Troopers 2 from 4:55-5:30, Rangers play-by-play man Kenny Albert (5:35 p.m.) and Minnesota United coach Manny Lagos at 4:20. I’ll also have Kevin Falness in studio with me (I’m hosting from his lair at the arena, so I thought that was only fair). We’ll be talking hockey and taking calls.
On Thursday, I’ll also be on Fox Sports North during the pregame show and first intermission.
On Friday, I will be hosting a live chat at noon at www.startribune.com/wild and will be hosting a podcast at O’Gara’s at 6 p.m. You can come down or listen at souhanunfiltered.com.
Good afternoon from Xcel Energy Center’s spacious press room. Two days until the Wild resumes its schedule and five-game homestand against the East’s elite, New York Rangers. Thanks for being patient.
Couple Russo (overexposure) housekeeping items:
-- On Friday at noon, I will be hosting a live chat on startribune.com.
-- I will be on KFAN with Paul Allen (VOX in the BOX) Thursday morning.
-- I will be filling in for Dan Barreiro from 3-6:30 p.m. Thursday on KFAN. Guests will include Wild leading scorer Zach Parise, actor/comedian/writer/director/#oneofus Erik Stolhanske to talk about Super Troopers 2 and his second passion, the Wild (4:55 p.m.-5:30 p.m.), Rangers play-by-play man Kenny Albert (5:35 p.m.), Minnesota United coach Manny Lagos (4:20 p.m.), Wild radio personality Kevin Falness (throughout) and much more.
--I will be hosting a Podcast at O’Gara’s in St. Paul Friday at 6 p.m. You can come listen live or on souhanunfiltered.com. I believe Minnesota United’s Jamie Watson will be my guest.
--Friday’s, I’m usually on with Barreiro at 4:30 p.m., too.
Since I mentioned jokingly on a recent blog that I also wrote articles, I was told by a few readers it would be helpful if I threw links on here. You can always see the Star Tribune’s Wild stories on www.startribune.com/wild, BUT if you missed the last couple:
-- Here was Monday’s story on Jason Zucker’s road back from a broken collarbone and much he is champing at the bit to start playing because he feels 100 percent.
-- Here is the behind the scenes look at the NHL’s Situation Room (video review room) in Toronto. I shadowed the room March 22 -- the day before the Wild played in Toronto. This is one of those days where it’s a good idea to pick up the actual NEWSPAPER though because the layout and pictures on the C1 centerpiece are cool.
-- Here is Chip Scoggins' column today on veterans Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter and Thomas Vanek and their solid second halves.
Today felt like training camp. Soooooooooooooooo many players on the ice.
Three goalies, 15 forwards to the point there was a full fifth line (Matt Cooke-Erik Haula-Sean Bergenheim) and seven defensemen with Christian Folin back up with the team. The only players who did not skate with the team but did before practice were Zucker and Nate Prosser. Prosser is getting closer from his sprained MCL.
Cooke, who has missed 27 games starting Feb. 3 with a sports hernia that was surgically repairs, practiced for the first time since. I thought he looks great personally.
Asked how long he thinks he’ll need before he can play, Cooke said, “Today was the first day. I’ll see how it reacts tonight to see if I can skate tomorrow and yada, yada, yada. Then we can get a better sense. First real practice. I’ll take it, not to go cliché-ish, day by day. I just hope it’s before the end of the season (so he can get some games before the playoffs).”
Kyle Brodziak, who has missed three games with a neck issue, took a couple shots, took a couple days of rest and returned to practice. He will play against the Rangers.
Coach Mike Yeo said the lineup Thursday is up in the air. However, Yeo said the top three lines will stay intact and he said Brodziak is returning, so that means two of Ryan Carter, Jordan Schroeder and Haula will play. And since Haula was on the fifth line wearing all red today, one would assume he’s the odd guy out initially. That’s what I guessed in my game notebook Sunday here.
On how difficult these decisions are, Yeo said, “It’s going to be hard and everybody’s going to have an argument, and everybody’s going to have an opinion. In many cases, it’s going to be right. In a lot of ways it’s going to be difficult for us to make a wrong choice. In other ways, difficult for us to make the right choice just because everybody that’s here has had an impact in getting us here. Everybody has had success with us at different points of the season. And everybody that’s here we feel could help us. So, what that means is there’s going to be people out of the lineup that are very tough decisions to make. But at the same time, the people that are in will recognize that and they’ll take advantage of the opportunity.”
On the amount of guys on the ice, Yeo said, “It obviously presents some challenges. The ice gets chewed up a little bit quicker and fewer repetitions for guys, both for the guys that have been in the lineup and the guys trying to get ready to get back in the lineup. So, yeah, it’s not easy to do. But I thought it was still a pretty good tempo to our practice and a good skate.”
How does that change the way he coaches practice? “It makes it a little bit different in how you prepare and plan your practices. You have to be a little bit more mindful of some of the drills that you’re doing, making sure there’s not a lot of standing around time. And making sure trying to find a way for everybody to get their reps. It changes some of the things that you might do at this time. Certainly looking at our game, it’s tough to have a type of practice where you’re going to have a lot of teaching and system focus. I just think looking at these couple days, the one thing that was going to be important to us, our priority had to be to make sure that we get our battle level ramped back up and the pace of our play, and obviously a little bit of conditioning.”
On the luxury of depth, Yeo said, “It can be a good thing if we handle it the right way. Obviously, we want to make the playoffs, but we don’t want to just make the playoffs. We want to have a real long run here and depth always comes into play for something like that. Certainly we have a lot of depth here. But it does present some challenges as far as making sure that guys in the lineup are not worried about every single shift that they’re going to be coming out of the lineup. And guys that are out of the lineup trying to keep them positive and motivated and ready. But bottom line is we have to make sure everyone is focused on their job and it’s up to us to try and navigate around all that.”
Cooke said of the fact there will be tough decisions as to who sits, “I think the thing that makes a team the best is whoever’s in the lineup or not in the lineup is going to go out and get the job done. The biggest thing the last two months is it hasn’t always been the same guy, it hasn’t always been the same group, guys have been hurt, guys have floated in and out through different parts of this stretch, but the job gets done. The only way that can happen is if there’s no worry or no hesitation about the decisions that are made. If the decisions are made, everyone accepts it and takes on the responsibility of what’s given that night and moves forward.”
Carter and Brodziak can kill penalties, and because of the speed of Schroeder and the fact he’s suddenly killing penalties, it makes Haula a bit expendable. That could be vice versa soon, too, because Haula has been an important fixture to the PK and had such a good playoff for the Wild last year.
Yeo said, “Penalty killing is a huge factor in the makeup of that fourth line. I definitely will say that’s true. I will say also just the idea of a fourth line that is going to be reliable, that’s not going to get scored against, that’s going to be bring momentum to us with the way that they play the game. You look at the way our top three lines are, we believe that those are three lines that really should be able to go out and contribute and create offense for us. Not that we’re not asking our fourth line to generate anything but priority has to be on defense and momentum, and like I said, that penalty killing role.”
On the top three lines, Yeo said, “I don’t see any reason why we would change anything up right now in the immediate future. Obviously things could change, but I look at a guy like Fonzie (Justin Fontaine) and there’s no reason why he should be looking over his shoulder. Certainly you look at the Islander game, we felt that we needed to switch for that game (he means that Schroeder took Fontaine’s in the third period and overtime), but this is not situation where if he has one bad game, one bad period. Doesn’t mean you might not change things during a game, but he’s earned enough to give him a chance to go out and respond.”
I just looked it up, and I have the Wild 4-0-1 this season after three-day breaks and 1-1 after four-day breaks (the win after the All-Star break, the loss being in Anaheim when the Wild had five days off between Games 2 and 3 and frankly played great).
Yeo said of the four-day break, “You want to be careful. We’ve got to make sure, especially during this break, that we don’t sit around feeling too good about ourselves. I think that Thursday’s game will be a real challenge for us. That’s going to be real difficult to ramp it back up and take it back to the level; … we were playing so many games in such a short period of time that we were just in a rhythm that we could just keep on going. That rhythm we’re going to try to have to start it again, which is always a bit of a challenge.
“I think the break is good,” Yeo said. “We’ve got to find a way to get our game back up to that level that we were playing that, and hopefully it happens right from the drop of the puck. The key is to make sure we build every game, every period toward the goal of getting to the playoffs but more importantly making sure our game is at the level we want it at once we enter the playoffs.”
Asked if the break benefits Devan Dubnyk the most because he has started 34 straight games for the Wild and 35 in a row overall, Yeo said, “I think a lot of guys benefit. I’ve had to answer the question over and over and over again. I don’t think he’s shown any signs of fatigue. I know it’s been a hot topic. But there’s no signs of it whatsoever. But I think the fact he gets a couple days off is certainly good for him, probably a bit of a mental break as well. But I think for everybody, more so the mental part of it than the physical part of it. I think we’ve managed things pretty well [the second half] as far as making sure guys get days off, off days not pushing guys too hard. That was a big factor in why we’ve been able to be on this [24-5-1] run. You don’t go on a run like that if you’re showing signs of fatigue.”
Parise isn’t worried about the team ramping things back up after the break, saying, “We played a lot of hockey. It felt like we were playing every other day. You get tired. It was a welcome break. I don’t see us losing any of that momentum that we had. It was good timing.”
Asked if it’s hard not to look ahead at potential playoff matchups against Nashville, Anaheim or St. Louis, Parise said, “It’s not hard. It’s still tight. There’s still a lot of different things that can happen. There’s a lot of different matchups and teams behind us that are winning. We still can’t afford to not play well. A lot of stuff can happen. As exciting as it is and exciting as it has been the last little while, we can’t look too far ahead. Thursday we play a really good team.”
Wild has 95 points. Most points the Kings can get is 100. So 5 is your magic number (Wild has 5 regulation/overtime wins more than L.A., by the way, which is the tiebreaker. Wild’s in sensational shape as it has more points than L.A., Winnipeg and the two teams second and third in the Pacific, Vancouver and Calgary, who can max get 101 points.
It was a quiet morning at Xcel Energy Center, with just nine skaters and two goalies on the ice for the Wild's optional practice. Most of the team's top players got some more rest on Day 2 of the Wild's unusual four-day break from competition. So did coach Mike Yeo, who also took a break from talking to the media.
Jordan Leopold and Matt Dumba were the lone defensemen who practiced. The seven forwards included fourth-liners Ryan Carter, Erik Haula, Jordan Schroeder and Sean Bergenheim, as well as a trio working their way back from injuries. Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke were able to participate in the three-on-three work that ended practice, while Jason Zucker went to the other end of the ice and worked one-on-one with coaches.
Brodziak, who has missed three games because of an upper-body injury, said he has been cleared to play and expects to get back up to speed quickly. Cooke still has no timetable for a return from the sports hernia surgery he had last month.
"It's unfair to put a timetable on it,'' said Cooke, who has played in 27 games this season but hasn't felt completely healthy since the second game on the schedule. "I'm going to practice (Tuesday) and see how it reacts and move on from there.
"It's frustrating. It's hard. But injuries are a part of it, and you have to be able to deal with it and move on. I've gone my fair share of games without getting hurt. I went almost eight years without missing a game because of injuries. It just so happened it all happened in one year.''
Cooke said the biggest hurdle to clear in recent weeks has been regaining the ability to fully extend his stride. He had a hard time generating the power he needed in his legs, and he didn't want to rejoin the team for practice until he had gotten that back. Cooke also said he had "a few other issues going on'' besides the sports hernia and wanted all of those to clear up before he resumed full practices.
"Each time I'm out there, I'm testing it,'' he said. "You get some bumps, you get in the corners and battle a little bit, different types of reaction plays, the stops and starts you have to do in a game. Every day is going to be a test.
"As soon as I'm ready to play, I'm ready to play. It's all a matter of when you feel well enough to get out there and play and be a factor.''
Leopold was on daddy duty, bringing son Kyle--who is approaching his sixth birthday--to the rink for a little post-practice skating. Kyle, on spring break from school, was outfitted in a Wild helmet with his dad's number 33 on the back and a gold Potulny Hockey jersey. He seemed right at home in the Wild's room, plopping down in dad's locker stall and getting Dumba to untie his skates.
Leopold and Dumba both said the four days off are completely positive for the Wild. A long break like this, when the Wild has been playing at such a consistently high level, could be seen as a possible momentum-stopper. Mr. Russo points out that St. Louis is 1-6-1 this season when it gets three days or more of rest.
Neither Leopold nor Dumba was buying the suggestion that there were any dangers for the Wild, saying they expected the team to get its mental edge back with two high-intensity practices on Tuesday and Wednesday before resuming play Thursday against the New York Rangers at Xcel.
"Rest is a weapon,'' Leopold said. "We're going to use (the break) to get some good rest, to heal our bumps and bruises. We've got a good pace ahead of us coming up. Rest is something that’s key this time of year, and we're lucky to have the break.
"We've got a good vibe going on now, and guys understand when it's game time, it's time to prepare and be ready. We'll have a good couple of days of practice coming up, and we'll take advantage of it.''
For the second time since coming to the Wild on Jan. 14, Devan Dubnyk was named the NHL's First Star of the Week after winning back-to-back, back-to-backs last week. In February, he was named First Star once, Third Star once and the February First Star of the Month. It's the first time a Wild player has gotten four honors in a season.
Last week, Dubnyk went 4-0 with a 1.22 goals-against average and .962 save percentage to lead the Wild (44-25-7, 95 points) to four consecutive victories, including their franchise-record 10th straight on the road. He opened the week with 35 saves in a 2-1 triumph over the Toronto Maple Leafs March 23. Dubnyk followed that performance by stopping 37 shots – and all three attempts he faced in the shootout – in a 2-1 win over the New York Islanders March 24. He capped the week with victories on consecutive days, making 23 saves in a 4-2 triumph over the Calgary Flames March 27 and 31 stops in a 4-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings March 28. The 28-year-old Regina, Sask., native has won a career-high 35 games while ranking second in the NHL with a 2.05 goals-against average and .930 save percentage in 53 appearances this season. That includes a 26-6-1 record with a 1.70 goals-against average, .939 save percentage and five shutouts since joining the Wild Jan. 15.
When Dubnyk came to the Wild, Minnesota and Edmonton were tied for the worst save percentages in the NHL (.889). The Wild's .940 save percentage since (which included 14 saves on 14 shots by Darcy Kuemper in relief Jan. 20 in Detroit) has the Wild up to a tie for 11th with a .912 save percentage.
Defenseman Christian Folin got his game with Iowa yesterday and was recalled back up. Folin has been scratched in five straight games and nine of the past 11.
Rachel Blount is covering today's optional practice as I write an enterprise piece on the NHL's Situation Room for tomorrow's newspaper. Should be a fun read.
UDPATED WITH SCOUTING REPORTS
The Wild has dipped into the college free-agent market again.
Six days after signing University of New Hampshire forward Grayson Downing to a two-year, entry-level contract, the Wild has signed Minnesota State senior defenseman Zach Palmquist and University of Vermont junior goaltender Brody Hoffman to one-year deals.
Because both players are 24, the one year is the max term for an entry-level deal. They'll be restricted free agents in the summer of 2016.
Palmquist impressed during last year's Wild development camp as an invitee.
The 6-foot Palmquist, a native of South St. Paul, served as an alternate captain this past season and tied for fourth on the Mavericks with 29 points (eight goals). In four years in Mankato, Palmquist didn't miss a single game. He set a school record by playing 160 consecutive games, scoring 96 points and 109 penalty minutes. He tied for first in defensemen scoring in Maverick history (since the Mavs became a Division-I school in 1996-7). Palmquist was named to the All-WCHA First Team in 2013-14 and 2014-15 and a WCHA All-Academic selection in 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15.
Prior to playing at Minnesota State, he collected 57 points (13-44--57) in 124 games during parts of three seasons with Waterloo (USHL, 2008-11). Palmquist played at South St. Paul High School and was a finalist for the 2009 Mr. Hockey Award. He will report to the Iowa Wild on an amateur tryout for the remainder of this season.
From Wild scout Brian Hunter: Puck moving D who plays a smart game, will get up in the play offensively to join the rush, competes in all 3 zones, very good skater, with a smooth, long stride. His style and skating allows him to play big minutes like he did at MSU.
The Wild loves Hoffman's 6-foot-4 frame, and I think we're starting to see the Wild believe in what is becoming a leaguewide trend of big goalies. Heck, look at Devan Dubnyk.
Hoffman went 13-6-2 in 22 games this past season. He ranked 18th in the NCAA with a 2.06 goals-against average and tied for 29th with a .922 save percentage. He was 34-33-9 in three years there with a 2.45 goals-against average and .914 save percentage.
The native of Wilkie, Saskatchewan, was recently the NCAA First Star of the Week in part for helping the Catamounts upset Boston College in the first round of the Hockey East playoffs. Hoffman will not be playing for Iowa this season.
Hunter: Obviously can't teach size at 6'4. Decent puck handler, He tracks the puck well, plays quiet in goal, doesn't get too swimmy, but is athletic enough to have the ability to scramble if needed. But his strengths are cutting angles down, controlling or swallowing up rebounds and using big frame to be a blocker.
The Wild is trying to influx more goalie prospects into the organization.
Darcy Kuemper can not play minor-league games without going through waivers.
Iowa goalie Johan Gustafsson, 23, who once backstopped Sweden to a gold medal at the world junior championships, is a restricted free agent this summer and has yet to play an NHL game. He is 8-20-1 this season with a 3.41 goals-against average and .895 save percentage. Last year as a first-year North American pro, he went 12-20-4 with a 2.98 goals-against average and .903 save percentage.
Fellow Iowa veteran goalie John Curry is an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Draft picks Stephen Michalek, Alexandre Belanger and Kaapo Kahkonen are currently unsigned.
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