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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Mike Yeo said this morning that the Wild “can’t just snap our fingers and make it reappear. There’s going to be some work involved.”
It is absolutely going to take a lot of work for the Wild to brush off all this negativity and all the frustration and the unbelievable amount of adversity that is engulfing this team to get back into this race.
Things have been going great for the Winnipeg Jets. Their confidence is sky high, they have lost once in regulation now in the past 14 games and when you’re playing with that type of strut in your step, you find ways to win. Things have been going hideously for the Wild for some time. It has lost 10 of 15 games (four in overtime or shootout), its players have lost confidence, frustration is palpable whenever you talk to anybody and when you’re playing while waiting for the next ugly shoe to drop, you almost find ways to lose.
Tonight was a perfect example. The Wild played with more energy and structure and excitement and anger and passion than we’ve seen for some time.
And yet, when it was time to make a play, it couldn’t make that final one to get a victory.
What if Charlie Coyle had scored that goal when he was in all alone in a tie game with 1:09 left? What if Mikko Koivu shot the puck and didn’t turn the puck over en route to the first shortie for the Wild since Oct. 17? What if Koivu hadn’t missed that wide open net a minute before Adam Lowry scored early in the third? What if Jared Spurgeon didn’t have his first goal in 15 or 16 games disallowed because of Zach Parise’s incidental contact (whether you agree with the call or not) that would have put the Wild up 2-1 in the second? What if Kyle Brodziak scored on that first-period shorthanded breakaway or didn’t have a pass broken up on a first-period 2-on-1? What if Marco Scandella didn’t whistle one wide on a 2-on-1 in the first?
And what if Blake Wheeler didn’t have a shorthanded goal go in off his skate? What if BOTH Wild goalies didn’t get sick? What if Jason Zucker also didn’t come down with the plague and could play? What if Mikael Granlund and Jonas Brodin didn’t get hurt in the third period (pretty good chance Justin Falk wouldn’t have been on the ice to turn the puck over before the losing goal tonight)? What if somehow that puck didn’t ricochet off the glass, off the top of the net, off the NAMEPLATE of the Wild’s third goalie and into the cage in overtime?
If any of those things did or didn’t happen, we may be talking right now about a Wild team that made a giant, defining step tonight toward turning things around. Instead, we’re once again talking about a defeated, frustrated team that continues to spin its wheels.
When things are going well, you find a way to shoot a puck off the glass, off the top of the net, off a third goalie’s back. When things are going badly, you can’t find a player to make a play to win a game.
Another game winnable, another loss for the Wild. Another game losable for the Jets, yet they again find their way into overtime and find a way to accumulate points.
Such is life right now for the Jets and Wild, who are going in opposite directions. Another game where the Wild’s hole deepens.
I have said the past few days on radio and I think on the blog if the Wild has any prayer of making the playoffs, it probably has to catch Vancouver or Winnipeg because I’m willing to bet the defending champ Kings figure it out. Well, the Kings won tonight against San Jose to knock Vancouver to the eighth spot.
So, the Wild at least moved within six points of the Canucks but fell nine points behind the Jets heading into Monday’s rematch at the PEG.
Who plays in that game will be determined Sunday. The Wild lost its No. 1 center and a top-pair defenseman tonight.
Granlund looked to injure his left wrist tonight when he was roughed up by Big Buff, Dustin Byfuglien, who took two huge extracurriculars on Granlund on back-to-back shifts for Granlund. Granlund actually came back with his wrist taped and assisted on Jason Pominville’s tying goal early in the third before leaving the game for good, I’m assuming with the same injury.
Who comes up? Tyler Graovac? Brett Sutter? We’ll find out. At a minimum, Yeo said Granlund will miss Monday’s game, but he called the injuries to Granlund and Brodin indefinite. That’s right, Brodin got hurt, too. He was crushed in the third by Grant Clitsome and he too sustained an upper body injury.
Lots of pressure now on GM Chuck Fletcher to make a trade for a defenseman now that the holiday roster freeze was lifted at 11 p.m. Saturday.
With Brodin hurt, the Wild’s D corps is Ryan Suter, Marco Scandella, Spurgeon, Falk, Stu Bickel, who played pretty well tonight, Nate Prosser and Christian Folin.
But the Wild’s already demanding too much from its top-4 (now 3) D and this team needs a defenseman badly.
This team also needs a goalie.
John Curry, who played Friday night in a win at Rockford, bussed five hours to Grand Rapids, Michigan, after the game, woke up late Saturday morning and got a call to get to the airport to fly to Minnesota because Darcy Kuemper had food poisoning and Niklas Backstrom was still sick from the norovirus or whatever that's desolating this team. It was weird in hindsight this morning when Backstrom left the ice a few moments before Kuemper, the scheduled starter. Typically, the non-starter stays on the ice to work with the scratches.
Of course, this is the Wild, so Curry’s flight was delayed til about 2 p.m. He landed in Minnesota, came to the rink thinking he’d be the backup (he was told it was 50-50) and found out after the long travel day and playing the night before that he’d be making his second career Wild start in a fairly critical game for Minnesota.
So, Curry did as well as could be expected. Tying goal in the second period was a bad one, but he battled in a game where the Wild didn’t give up a ton of chances and probably deserved better.
But this goalie situation is so typical. The players are frustrated, too, that this team can never, ever, ever, ever have a goalie that can stay healthy and carry the load. Injuries, illnesses, it is absolutely remarkable how often this happens. Imagine being the players on this team and what it does to you mentally when you walk in the room before a big game and see the team’s minor-league goalie suiting up to start.
“Not surprised by anything,” Parise said of the goaltending.
“It's something that in the past I've never really seen before,” Pominville added. “Since I've been here it's kind of been that way where there's been unfortunate injuries and guys sick. It's really been unfortunate we can't have somebody that just takes the load, takes the lead and takes the net for awhile. It's adversity. We'll have to battle through it and find a way.”
But it’s been the same story for three years now, and really, the entire Fletcher regime. Now, of course, a lot of this has to do with Josh Harding’s unfortunate illness hamstringing the team and then his broken foot this year. Remember, the goal this year was for Kuemper to develop in the minors. Harding got hurt and everything was turned upside down and the second Kuemper passed his waiver threshold, his game took a turn for the worse.
Again, very typical when you’re the Wild.
So, it’ll be 1) interesting if Kuemper or Backstrom can start in Winnipeg (it won’t be Johan Gustafsson since he gave up eight tonight for Iowa) and 2) interesting to see how Fletcher proceeds.
Do you give up something significant to acquire a goalie when there’s no assurances a goalie can even save this season? Or do you wait it out, continue to ride this instability out and make the “correct” long-term move for a goalie? Maybe it’s still Kuemper? Maybe it’s not. But it’s the elephant in the room that is again creating mayhem on the Wild.
But the Wild is not a playoff team unless it either gets a goalie or one of its two goalies takes the reins consistently and starts backstopping this team to wins.
Anyway, at least the Wild got the point. After Wheeler’s shortie exasperated the fans, Thomas Vanek, with the Wild still on a power play, scored his fourth third-period tying goal since Nov. 28.
Like I said, it’s a shame the Wild couldn’t find a way to make that one extra play to win this one because it was there for the taking and it could have been painted as a defining game.
“We're trying to build our game, we’re trying to be better, we’re trying to improve in different areas, and sometimes you make small steps to end up making big steps," Pominville said. "But we know that this team is a team we’re chasing, a team we want to catch, this is a team we have to beat and it’s unfortunate we weren’t able to do that.”
Parise said, “It is hard to take when you lose. We need the results and we lost the game again. That’s the bottom line. … We’ve got to snap out of it. That’s a team we’re chasing. We needed to get that win.”
Said Vanek, “We need the points right now, we can't wait for them.”
Yeo said, “I’m not disappointed in any way the way we played the game. Just disappointed in the outcome.”
He said he’s disappointed that again the Wild can’t hit the net on all these odd-man rushes, but he felt they built its game and took a step in the right direction, although he knows it needs wins and can’t be giving Winnipeg points.
He praised Curry and said, “We cannot hang our heads right now. It would be real easy to feel sorry for ourselves, but winners don’t do that and we’ve got to make sure we handle this adversity the right way.”
OK, that’s it for now. Real late (1:15 a.m.), and sorry for the late blog. Rachel Blount is covering practice Sunday as I fly up to Winnipeg. There will obviously be news because of the injuries, so I’d expect callups at a minimum. Like I said though, Fletcher’s going to have to address this defenseman situation pretty soon with Keith Ballard and now Brodin hurt.
UPDATE: John Curry was recalled from Iowa and will start tonight. Niklas Backstrom was placed on IR (retroactive) with the stomach plague. He did skate this morning. Darcy Kuemper is sick, too, and will back up Curry.
Wild and Winnipeg Jets tonight at Xcel Energy Center as the Wild opens a critical home-and-home (completed Monday at the PEG). Morning from the arena’s press room. I’ll be on KFAN at 11:30 a.m. and I’m doing a Podcast today with columnist Jim Souhan at 3 p.m. on souhanunfiltered.com.
If you didn't read my state-of-the-team article with GM Chuck Fletcher today, here is the link (also see last blog for full transcript).
Wild’s eight back of Winnipeg for the top wildcard spot with three games in hand. Win both games in regulation somehow, and it’ll be four back with three games in hand. Lose both in regulation, and it’ll be 12 back with three games in hand.
The Jets, who have overcome a devastated top-4 all year long, are 8-1-4 in their past 13 overall, 4-0-3 in their past seven on the road and are 10-4-4 on the road this season. They did lose in overtime at Minnesota on Nov. 16.
The Wild is 5-6-3 in its past 14 overall and 2-3-3 in its past eight at home. The Wild is 11-4-3 all-time vs. the Jets/Atlanta Thrashers and 5-2-1 since Atlanta’s move to Winnipeg. The Wild is 3-0-1 at home against the Jets.
Coach Mike Yeo met with the team prior to this morning’s skate. Nino Niederreiter said the message was simple: “We have to start a new chapter. It’s not the end of the story. That’s the main thing. It was a chapter. We passed it. We just have to look forward. We have 50 games left. We just have to make sure we leave it all out there to make sure we get a playoff spot.”
The norovirus (not kidding) that’s been hammering Wild players the past three weeks. It’s now hit Jason Zucker. “It’s his turn,” Yeo said with defeated sarcasm.
Darcy Kuemper will start in goal. The first game after the break is usually hairy, and as we know, the Wild and Kuemper haven’t played well for awhile. Remember, both teams haven’t been allowed to practice or play the past three games (the Jets flew here this morning).
Last year in the first game after the break, the Jets had a 4-3 lead after one period against the Wild en route to a 6-4 win. Sloppy game, to say the least, particularly by the goalies.
Asked if Kuemper may have taken shots during the break, Yeo said he didn’t ask and hoped not.
“I actually hope that he turned his brain completely off, to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “That’s what our entire group needed. Sometimes mentally, just to step away, that’s the best thing that can happen.”
Kuemper has an .860 save percentage and 4.23 goals-against average in his past seven appearances (23 goals against).
As for the team, “First game back, the biggest challenge is finding your execution level, finding your timing, conditioning. I find that the guys are a little bit heavy, a little bit more winded as the game goes on. But I think more than anything else, it’s the details, the challenges of finding the details in the game.”
On the Wild’s struggles and lack of confidence recently, Yeo said, “We can’t just snap our fingers and make it reappear. I think that’s the main thing that we have to understand. There’s going to be some work involved. Every game is big for us because it’s another opportunity to move closer to the way that our game should look, and once we get our game looking the way it should look, then results will follow that. there’s no better time to start than right now. You look at this game tonight, this is a team that occupies a spot that we want to get. This is a team that we want them to know that we’re coming for them.”
He said the past 14 games are irrelevant as far as he’s concerned.
“What matters is what’s in front of us,” Yeo said. “At the end of the year, there will be a story. The story has not been written yet. There’s been a couple chapters in the story, but we get to decide how it plays out still.”
Yeo is scratching Nate Prosser and Christian Folin tonight for … Justin Falk and Stu Bickel. It’ll be Bickel’s sixth game and second on the blue line (he played there at Arizona when Jared Spurgeon got the norovirus).
Why Falk and Bickel? “That’s what we thought we needed for tonight,” Yeo said. “Big, physical pair against a physical team.”
I asked Yeo if the Wild needs to trade for a defenseman immediately with a string of games where clearly there’s not a lot of confidence in the third pair when they’re playing six, seven, eight minutes a night.
“I’m not going to sit here and say they’re only going to play six, seven minutes tonight. We’ll see what they bring tonight,” Yeo said. “I’m definitely not going to say that we need anything right now. We’re very confident and comfortable with our group. There’s no question that we need to find a little bit more consistency, and some of that will lend itself to having a little bit more of a consistent lineup, but we are very confident with the group that we have.”
Good evening from a snowy Minnesota.
I’ll be on Fox 9 Sports Now tonight with Dawn Mitchell at 10:15, KFAN on Saturday at 11:30 a.m. and a live podcast with Star Tribune columnist Jim Souhan at souhanunfiltered.com at 3 p.m.
Big home and home with the Winnipeg Jets starting Saturday night. If the 10th-place Wild, which is 5-6-3 in its past 14 games, can manage to win both games in regulation, it’ll be four points back of the Jets with three games in hand. Lose both in regulation, and the hole digs to 12 points.
You can read my state-of-the-team story with Wild GM Chuck Fletcher at this link, but as I mentioned a few times this week, Fletcher did a state-of-the-team interview with the beat writers Tuesday night during the second intermission (so time was a little restrained).
Here’s the transcript:
What’s your assessment of the first 32 games? “I think it’s been two different seasons so far. The first month we played as well as any team in the league. We dominated games, we didn’t always score, the power play was poor, but we were arguably as good a team as any the first month. The last month or so we’ve gotten away from our game a bit. I think we have players that are struggling, that have lost their confidence, that are trying to find their game again, which certainly we’ve seen a lot of plays that are uncharacteristic of certain players. To me the big thing is, and Mike [Yeo] says this a lot, but to me we’re focused more on the result than the process. And by that I mean I think we’ve lost our way a little bit in terms of simple things. Retrievals need to be better, wall play needs to be better, we need to manage the puck better, reading the situation and getting pucks in deep instead of trying to make a play. Our net front has been very inconstant in the offensive zone. Middle lane drive, we’re very inconsistent in that area.
Just the little facets of the game, the little details of the game, and that was such a strength of our team last year. And right now, whether it’s guys trying to go out and make a big play every shift to make a difference, maybe it’s because we’re trailing in games, but we don’t seem to have the patience to play the right game, stay within our structure and let things come to us. We’re always forcing things and as a result I think we’ve gotten away from what we are. We’re making too many unforced errors and the confidence is starting to wane. So it’s sort of been a tale of two seasons. The fortunate thing is we still have 50 games to go. We have a long way to go. From a positive standpoint, you look at it and we’re still in the top 5 teams in the league in puck possession metrics, our shot differential is high, we’re scoring a lot of goals. On paper to me, this is the most talented team we’ve had since I’ve been here. On paper, to me, there’s a lot of positives. But we need to stick with things longer. Frustration has creeped into the game which tends to happen when you’re not getting the results you want. But if we can stick with it longer, we will get the results even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.”
You didn’t mention goaltending? “I think our defense has been a problem the last month. And everything has been a part of it. Our forwards have not done a good enough job defensively. Our defensemen are making way too many uncharacteristic mistakes and we’re not getting enough saves. So it’s a complete team effort. I know the goalies have become a lightning rod for criticism for our defensive play. But to single them out and absolve the other 18 skaters would be a huge mistake. It’s a total team effort right now, but we have a lot of confidence in both guys. Darcy [Kuemper] is a guy that’s been successful at every level he’s played at and he’s been successful in this league. We have no doubt he’s going to be a top-notch goalie in this league. There’s going to be ups and downs. We know that. We said that before the season any time you have a 24-year-old goalie. And again, we’re going to ride these things out. In Nik’s case (Backstrom), he missed a lot of hockey last year and has come back and given us some pretty good play and he’s trying to get his rhythm again, get his game again. It bothers me a little bit when we separate the goaltenders from the rest of the play. We’ve given some unbelievable chances against and chances we don’t typically give.”
How much do you need to add a defenseman pretty quickly with a third pair that’s only getting seven or eight minutes a game? “We’ll see. I think a part of that is we’ve had a light schedule. We’ve been at home, then have two or three days between games. So I think the coaching staff has loaded up our big guys with a few more minutes. But I think [Justin] Falk and [Nate] Prosser have played well. I think [Christian] Folin is a pretty good young player. We’ll have to monitor [Keith] Ballard’s health. But in a normal situation where you’re playing three of four games per week, you wouldn’t see those kind of minutes there.”
Are trade talks heating up around the NHL? “I think it’s the same as every year where most of the stuff will happen closer to the deadline. I don’t know why this year would be any different. We might see a few tweaks here and there. It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of teams either in LTI (long-term injury relief) or very close to the cap. Money and cap space is a big factor right now.”
How important are these next two games against Winnipeg? “Well, every game is important right now. I mean, we’re chasing. We have games in hand on the teams ahead of us, but we’re behind in the standings, so every game’s important now. It’s no different than what it's been last year and the year before. It seems like we seem to be in this situation. We’ve never had really any off nights since I’ve been here. Every night’s been a battle. They’re two important games, but we’re still going to have 47, 48 odd games after that, so again, we’ve just got to stick with it. If we keep getting caught up in the results on any given night and any given shift, I think you get in trouble. And that’s what we have to get back to, just get back to the basics, the details, play the game the right way, be patient. It’s not always going to work out, but more times than not, it will. I feel right now we’re rushing things, we’re getting ahead of things and that’s a dangerous, dangerous game to play.”
How frustrated are you though that you’re in this position again scratching and clawing for the eighth spot? This was supposed to be the year to join the top tier. “We still have some time to go. We’ll see. Every team is going to go through tough stages in the season and the last month we’ve been a fairly inconsistent team. We’ve done some good things, too. This team has shown a lot of resiliency this year. We’ve battled back from a lot of deficits and there’s a pretty strong heartbeat in that room. There’s a lot of character in that room. And I think there’s a lot of talent in that room. So that’s what keeps me optimistic and I think we can get the details in our game back, we’ve got to get that trust back and we’re just going to have to work through this stretch and hopefully we can get through it pretty quickly.”
Is there any way the GM can make a spark now with a trade? “Well, I like our group. Every year since I’ve been here, we’ve routinely got outshot, we routinely can’t score goals. We dominate most games we play in, our goal scoring’s getting better. Now we’ve got to get our defensive structure back, get back to the details of the game, but I think anybody’s that has watched our team this year sees the talent and the ability of the team. It’s a good hockey team and right now we just have to get back to doing what we do well.”
How concerned are you with the play of youngsters like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula? “I think that’s symptomatic of every young guy of every sport in every league throughout the world. That’s just what happens. Every league’s a tough league, and hockey’s no different. And we have some of them playing really well, and some of them not playing as well. But maybe the second half it switches. The guys that are hot now, maybe they struggle the second half. It’s a hard league. You look around, every team has that. It’s not something that was unexpected.”
What do you want to see here the next 50 games? “I just want to see us play the right way and just trust each other, trust themselves and trust the system. That trust is lacking right now. We had an expression last year or slogan last year, ‘When it’s your turn.’ Basically it meant when you were on the ice and you were in position to do the right thing, you do it, whether that was a middle lane drive or whether it was net front or whether it was taking a hit to make a play, whether it was going back and making the right retrieval or making the right decision with the puck and sometimes there was sacrifice involved. We have to get that team orientation back and getting everybody focused on the process, doing things the right way, and if you do that, things will take care of themselves. You can’t go out every night and say geez, ‘We lost last game, now we’ve got to go out and start off right away and score right away.’ Just go play the right way. Stick with it and show some patience. The longer it goes, the more the frustration builds, but we’ve had these before and we’ve popped out of it before and we’ll pop out of this one, too.”
How do you feel Thomas Vanek is fitting in? “I think he’s getting better every week. I think it’s been a big adjustment coming to the Western Conference. It’s a lot different hockey in the Eastern Conference. He’s had some challenges on and off the ice. I think he’s getting better on a weekly basis. His production’s getting better, his attention to detail’s getting better. He’s never going to win the Selke Trophy, we all know that, but every night you see more and more examples of him grasping what we’re trying to do away from the puck.”
Is Mike Yeo safe? “Oh my God. I’m not even going to answer that. … Yeo’s absolutely safe. The coaches have done a great job. That’s a quote.”
So the gist of what you’re saying is you believe in this team, a roster shakeup is doubtful and plan to stay the course? “You can’t every time you go through a little slump or have your struggles look to the outside and airlift somebody in and assume they’re going to solve all your problems for you. You’ve got to battle through. That’s part of the process of learning how to win. You have to learn how to win. Learning how to win means you have to see your mistakes and overcome adversity. It’s all the clichés, but especially with young players, this is how they grow, this is how they gain experience. To me, it would be the wrong time and the wrong message.”
That's it for now. Talk to ya after the morning skates Saturday.
Hope you all enjoyed your holiday the past few days.
The Wild resumes its season Saturday night (6 p.m.) when the Winnipeg Jets come to town. The Jets are 4-0-3 in their past seven on the road and 10-4-4 on the road this season. Neither team has played or practiced since Tuesday, so that first game after the break is usually an interesting one with some sloppiness.
Huge couple games for the Wild as it starts a home and home with its geographical divisional rival (alliteration).
It has three games in hand on the Jets but are eight points behind them for the first of two wildcard spots. There are several red-hot Jets players right now, from Mathieu Perreault to Mark Scheifele to Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and both goalies. They also have overcome a devastated blue line for much of the year.
I did a state of the team analysis for tomorrow's paper where I quote GM Chuck Fletcher throughout from an interview he did with both paper beat writers during the second intermission Tuesday's game. I'll put a more detailed transcript of the quick, 10-minute interview on the blog once the Insider gets up later tonight.
Today, from 3-6 p.m., I'll be filling in for Dan Barreiro on KFAN (100.3-FM).
Wild defenseman Ryan Suter will be joining at 3:35 p.m. Also joining to talk Wild will be Fox Sports North's Anthony LaPanta and KFAN's Brandon Mileski. My pal from the Winnipeg Sun, Ken Wiebe, will be joining to talk Wild-Jets.
I'll also be talking Gophers and Vikings with Fox 9's Dawn Mitchell and KFAN's A.J. Mansour and Justin Gaard.
Cities 97's Paul Fletcher will also sit in the first few segments.
Tonight at 10:15 p.m., I'll be Fox 9's Sports Now with Dawn Mitchell and tomorrow at 11:30 a.m., I'll be on the season debut of Beyond the Pond on KFAN.
I'll be back later with the Fletcher Q and A, and then talk to you tomorrow after the morning skates. Please tune in later on KFAN though.
Happy holidays everybody.
It dawned on me the other day that I have yet to do a Sunday column Russo's Rants Q and A, so here's your shot to ask a question that may be answered in my Sunday Insider.
Here's the deal though: They have to be quick, easy-to-answer questions because space is at a premium in the newspaper (I'll do a longer live chat in the coming weeks) and I'd like to include as many of your questions as possible.
So fire away, and understand that for space reasons, I may have to edit (trim) your question.
Try not to repeat questions asked by others and please don't use this space to comment on reader questions. This way I can easily snip out the questions I'll answer in my Sunday Insider.
Thanks, and again, enjoy the holidays and your mental break from your slumping favorite team.
Remember, I'll be filling in for Barreiro on Friday from 3-6 p.m. There will be plenty of hockey talk. I'll also be on Fox 9 with Dawn Mitchell at 10:15 p.m. Friday.
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