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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Michelangelo wouldn’t have been able to sculpt or paint the Wild’s display into anything slightly tonight.
One night after rallying to beat the defending Stanley Cup champ Chicago Blackhawks at home, the Wild walked into Columbus and had the letdown of all letdowns during a 4-0 loss.
The Blue Jackets dominated, setting an early tone by testing the Wild physically, and honestly it was real obvious early that the Wild 1) had trouble finding its legs after playing the night before, wasn’t clean coming out of its own end, had trouble generating anything through the neutral zone and other than the top line, there was just no decent pressure all night.
Read the game story on www.startribune.com/wild for most of Mike Yeo’s quotes (he said it was the worst game of the year and one for the garbage) and some good ones from Keith Ballard and Zach Parise, but here’s a good one that describes the night from Clayton Stoner: “Coming out of our end, it was always chip-chip with them finishing the body. In the neutral zone, we weren’t even that clean there. We had trouble getting any momentum.”
The Wild looked like it may have found its legs late in the first on a couple chances by Jason Pominville and Nino Niederreiter, but nope. Niklas Backstrom gave up a knuckling goal 1:17 into the second and it was all Columbus from there.
The Wild gave up a season-high 41 shots one night after Chicago registered a season-low 19. It was also a season-high shots for Columbus, which has two straight shutouts. But Curtis McElhinney barely had to exert himself tonight in place of injured Sergei Bobrovsky.
The second line of the Wild was lousy tonight. Dany Heatley was minus-3 and is now minus-10 on a mostly plus team. Niederreiter was minus-3 and Charlie Coyle was minus-2. Jared Spurgeon, who turned the puck over for the first goal, and Marco Scandella were each minus-2.
The Wild just lost battle after battle tonight and was so sloppy coming out of its end.
Prior to the game, Yeo talked about how anxious he was to get Backstrom back in the net for his seventh start since Oct. 8.
“The biggest thing for us now is to try to get him into a rhythm, to hopefully get him to play more than one out of every three weeks,” Yeo kidded beforehand.
Backstrom’s performance won’t lessen Josh Harding’s workload. He just isn’t as clean as the Backstrom of yesteryear. He served up rebounds and allowed four goals – two long ones. Yeo said the way the Wild played in front of him, “we didn’t give him a chance.”
Backstrom said, “I feel OK out there. You have to find a way when you get a chance to play to be at your best. I approach it the same way, whether I play every night or every second week.”
On the fact he just doesn’t look like the Backstrom of old (rebounds, not swallowing pucks), he said, “I feel good. Some games it’s tougher to swallow the puck when you don’t see it or they’re tipped. Other nights it’s easier when you see it. It’s always what happens in the game that affects you.”
But Backstrom was hardly the lone culprit on this evening.
The Wild fed right into Columbus’ aggressive gameplan by turning pucks over, which allowed the Jackets to continually get pucks behind the Wild and wear down the defensemen. It just got harder and harder to execute, and it started with retrievals and exits.
Finally with the game out of reach, Ryan Suter was kept on the bench to give him a rare rest. He logged 23:37, his second-lowest ice time of the season by 10 seconds.
“The easiest thing to do is sit here and make that excuse,” Yeo said of a big, emotional win the night before against the Blackhawks. “We’ve all seen games where there are letdowns after emotional wins, we can sit here and point to the fact that we played last night, but I don’t think we should allow that to be an excuse at all for us. We’ve proven in back-to-back games that we have the conditioning and the game where we can be effective.”
Yeo said with and without the puck, “this is the worst game we played this year.”
Yeo praised the top line but said, “We needed a lot more from the whole group tonight.”
Wild has now been down by a 2-0 score in five of the past seven games and six straight losses. The Wild is now 0 for 5 this year on 5-on-3’s. The Wild had a 72-second one tonight with the chance to rally from 2-0 down and didn’t even get a shot on goal.
This was the first of eight of 10 away from the X for Minnesota. It is now 5-6-3 on the road. One of the rare home games coming up is Sunday’s 5 p.m. date with the high-powered, fast San Jose Sharks. Wild has some regrouping to do during Saturday’s important practice.
I’ll talk to you after that one.
Over the past several days, the Wild has discussed and worked on a number of troublesome issues. It resolved so many of those in Thursday's 4-3 comeback victory over Chicago that coach Mike Yeo joked, 'Anything else wrong with our game?'
He said that with a smile. It was clear that many messages got through, as the Wild looked much sharper on the power play, got scoring from its defensemen, scored a first-period goal for the first time in six games and stuck to its system when the game began slipping away. The result was a victory that fueled enormous pride in the locker room, as the Wild rallied late to beat the NHL's best team.
Yeo said his team can't feel too giddy for too long, with a game at Columbus on Friday. Both before and after the game, Yeo talked about the Wild still being a work in progress, with consistency one of his primary goals. He warned them before that recent four-game winless streak that they couldn't be complacent, and that same theme cropped up after Thursday's dramatic victory over a division rival. But while he didn't want to attach too much significance to this single game, it certainly felt like a big stride forward.
Read the game story here: http://www.startribune.com/sports/wild/234693261.html
Yeo said the team spent a lot of time recently talking about the shortcomings that took some of the shine off a November that started with a 9-1-1 record. "There's parts of our game that we have to work on,'' he said. "Parts of our game are going to be up and down through the course of the year. We know we have a good power play. We know we have defensemen on the back end that can help us create offense. They're not always going to be there, but these are things in your game that through the course of the season, if you're struggling a little bit, you've got to pick them up.
"I've got a lot of confidence every day I come to the rink and have a chance to coach this group of guys. It's ongoing. Every day is a new challenge, and we've just got to stay on top of it.''
Yeo lauded his team's leadership, noting that the top line of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville contributed to the tying goal by drawing a penalty (Pominville was hooked by Chicago's Brent Seabrook). The defensemen did a better job of getting pucks to the net, generating nine shots on goal (at least one from everyone except for Ryan Suter) and scoring the tying and winning goals. The defense was sturdy for most of the game, holding Chicago to a season-low 19 shots on goal (including a paltry four in the third period).
Parise said the Wild had a "good shot mentality'' on the power play and cited shooting the puck and creating traffic around the net as the keys to scoring twice on three opportunities. He also was glad to see the Wild retain its composure when it lost the lead.
"(The Blackhawks) were able to erase a two-goal lead pretty quickly,'' he said. "I don’t think we strayed too far away from what we were trying to do. We didn’t go away from our game plan, and that’s what was working for us. We were able to get back into the game.
"Any time you beat a team like that, it's important. Everyone knows how good they are. It's been a tough stretch for us; some games we didn’t play as well as we need to. I thought we played with a lot more energy, and we handled the puck much better. Coincidentally, we scored more goals. Those two things usually go hand in hand.''
Marco Scandella, who scored the winner with 1:48 left, was particularly proud. "It feels great,'' he said. "We were relentless tonight. We never gave up.''
A few other tidbits:
--The Wild is now 8-0-1 when leading after the first period and 13-0-3 when leading after two.
--Brodin has five goals and five assists through 27 games and is one point off last season's total of 11 points, which came in 45 games.
--Parise has six points in his past seven games. His power-play goal was his seventh this season, tying him for second in the NHL.
--Josh Harding did not allow a goal through the first 39 minutes, 43 seconds. Jeremy Morin's goal 17 seconds before the second intermission ended a shutout streak of 131:36 over three games, the longest of Harding's career. Harding is 12-1-0 at home this season.
That's it for tonight. Russo returns Friday for the festivities in Columbus.
Good win for the Wild tonight against a Philadelphia team that was trying to get above .500 after a 1-7 start and had been 8-2-1 in its past 11.
The Wild snapped an 0-3-1 skid with a 2-0 victory thanks to Josh Harding’s 21 saves and goals 57 seconds apart early in the third period by Jason Pominville and New Englander ChAHlie Coyle.
This morning, coach Mike Yeo went on and on after how it’s been too many games that the Wild had allowed the game’s first goal (seven in a row) and that sometimes the Wild’s trying so hard to score that it does stuff that’s creating messes defensively.
So you just knew the Wild was going to go back to its winning blueprint and defend tonight. In the first period, just like the third in Colorado, the Wild almost always had the puck (well, except when it kept losing faceoffs) and that kept much of the activity in Philly’s end.
The crowd appreciated the effort, giving the Wild numerous ovations for rare sustained pressure on home ice of late. Problem is, as we all know, the Wild doesn’t score as easily as it would like and most the Grade A chances it sent slugger Ray Emery’s way was fired right into the Flyers logo on his chest.
The second was a snoozzzzzzzzefest and a half, but maybe the tight-checking Flyers, who have scored two or fewer goals in 21 of 27 games, was lulled into a catnap. That’s because the Wild stormed out to open the period with two goals by the 4:49 mark to force coach Craig Berube to use his timeout and kick his Flyers back into attention.
For Pominville, it was his team-leading 14th. For Coyle, it was his first in nine games and third in 17 games this season. Kind of ironic, too, because I was starting to wonder if Yeo should toss Coyle back on the top line and Pominville back onto the second, maybe with Erik Haula as center.
Even Pominville after the game said it’s weird how the Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Pominville line “do a lot of good things” and create chances, yet even since his trade last season, the line has trouble finishing. But this is two games in a row the Koivu line came up huge. In Colorado, it was Pominville and Parise assisting on Koivu’s goal.
Koivu tonight made just an awesome pass to set up Pominville. Koivu has made three or four, as Parise calls them, “world-class passes” this year.
Lot of unsung heroes tonight:
--I didn’t like Jared Spurgeon’s game in Denver. Tonight he assisted on Coyle’s goal, drew a penalty and blocked four shots. Also, the play Marco Scandella made down low to protect the puck and allow an entire line change, then get puck to Spurgeon while falling before Coyle's goal is a play to be re-watched over and over. Click this link and then play on Coyle goal to watch.
--The Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Torrey Mitchell line has been so good the past two games. Yes, everybody would like them to score on some of these bona fide scoring chances, but the key is every shift is spent in the offensive zone creating momentum. The three were all huge on the penalty kill in the third and Yeo credited them for getting momentum back after two momentum-killing, no-shot power plays tonight.
--Zenon Konopka, after an eye injury, going out there tonight, winning draws and getting offensive-zone time.
--Coyle, on the penalty kill in the third, going up against three Flyers and eating clock in the Flyers zone.
--And Mike Rupp, in his 600th game and third this year, standing up for his teammates and throwing down with Jay Rosehill after the player was running around creating havoc. Rupp has played a lot of games being in Philly’s division with New Jersey, Philadelphia and the Rangers. This was his 12th fight against the Flyers and his teams are 10-1-1 in those games.
-- And of course Harding making big saves in the third. He wasn’t tested often in the first two periods because the Wild was good defensively, allowing only 10 shots through 40 minutes, but in the third he made 11 saves, including a robbery on Jakub Voracek with Philly on the power play. Harding now has a career-high 14 wins and three shutouts. He is 11-1 at home with a 1.12 goals-against average and .949 save percentage. Yeo said it’s a long season and the Wild needs him to continue, especially with Niklas Backstrom’s game injury-riddled and the fact that Harding has sustained a couple leg tweaks this season.
The Wild is 9-3-2 against the East this season and 11-3-2 at home.
That’s it for me. Yeo went on and on in the postgame about how much-needed the next two days of practice would be, in large part to get some of the less than confident shooters some confidence by scoring goals and feeling the puck. But Tuesday's practice has since been scrapped with two days off before Thursday’s huge test against Chicago, which has won six in a row heading into Tuesday’s game against Dallas.
So I'll come to you next Wednesday.
I’m looking forward to Sunday because I’ll actually get to sit down and watch Saturday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche over again – or for the first time.
All I know, every time I took a break from writing my file-at-the-gun metro-edition article (that actually needed to be in before the game ended, like when the Wild trailed 2-0!), I looked to my right and the Wild was in the offensive zone.
It seemed to me almost every waking moment the Wild got pucks deep and went to work on Colorado in the offensive zone. But this is the Wild. Scoring goals never comes easy, and tonight, it took Matt Cooke’s goal with 3:27 left and Mikko Koivu’s dramatic tying goal with 4.3 seconds left to force overtime.
The Wild didn’t score in the shootout and fell 3-2, but the way the Wild has been losing and most notably the way its game has fallen apart, this could be a huge point and stepping stone in the right direction.
“We’ve been pressing offensively,” Kyle Brodziak said. “It was a good job by everybody of not getting frustrated, not getting caught up in negative thinking. We just kept on playing. It was nice to get rewarded for that. We have to keep doing that, coming out and playing aggressive and being hungry.”
That sentiment was the common theme afterward and I’m still trying to wrap my head around what exactly happened here tonight.
The hockey cliché (and if you’ve been a Wild fan since its inception, you know it by heart), “If we keep playing like that, the goals will come and we’ll win more games than we lose,” was uttered more than a few times tonight. The reality is, the Wild got to the hard areas, outchanced the Avs 2 to 1, outshot them 37-25 and would have won this game if not for Semyon Varlamov.
Now again, I know the cynics out there will all say the Wild makes every goalie look like the second coming of Patrick Roy, but the reality is even when the Wild fell behind 2-0 tonight, it was all over Colorado for seven or eight shifts in a row. Then one Marco Scandella whiff, and Nathan MacKinnon made the Wild pay.
But coach Mike Yeo said he told the players that if they kept playing the type of game it was and didn’t stray from it, even if it took 59 minutes, 59 seconds, they would get rewarded.
Koivu came through … again. In the past eight games, he has a winner with 3:12 left, a winner with 2:57 left and now a tying goal with 4.3 seconds left.
It was an interesting game. It was a weird start because the Wild had a lot of scoring chances, but it was loosey goosey in the neutral zone, turned a lot of pucks over and Colorado was able to come with speed time and again. Things finally settled down.
First, Yeo gave us some different looks, reuniting the Zach Parise-Koivu-Jason Pominville line – a line that for some reason just hasn’t clicked for the most part, although they were much better tonight and obviously teamed for the Koivu equalizer – and the Cooke-Brodziak-Torrey Mitchell line. That line was sensational, spending almost every single shift in the offensive zone creating chances. Cooke had five shots, was hard on Colorado’s defensemen, was all over the net and finally scored for the first time since Oct. 12, snapping a 22-game drought. Mitchell had a slew of chances, too, and Brodziak and Mitchell assisted on Cooke’s goal.
Charlie Coyle started on a line with Jason Zucker and Justin Fontaine but was quickly elevated to a line with Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley. That line was real good, too, spending lots of shifts in the offensive zone. Niederreiter was a beast down low and Heatley had a solid game for the most part.
Coyle’s exposed weakness right now is faceoffs. Coyle lost 12 of 16 faceoffs and has lost 27 of 33 in the past three games he has played predominately center. Regardless, Coyle will probably have to stay at center with Mikael Granlund and Zenon Konopka hurt.
Yeo also scrambled his top two defense pairs, separating Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin by pairing Suter with Jared Spurgeon and Brodin with Scandella.
Spurgeon had a real rough game tonight. Scandella had a mostly good game other than the one turnover on the MacKinnon goal, but he redeemed himself with a huge play to keep the puck in on Cooke’s goal.
One giant mea culpa. Yeo didn’t want to talk to us before the game about who was starting in goal. When I found out Josh Harding was starting, I assumed it was a reflection as to how badly the Wild wanted to win (Harding’s been the more reliable) and that it was a reflection as to where the team thinks Niklas Backstrom’s game is.
After all, Backstrom is 24-5-3 all-time against the Avalanche and 11-2-1 in Denver with a 2.02 goals-against average. Turns out Yeo said after the game that Backstrom was supposed to start, but he was sick, so Harding got the last-second nod and Backstrom backed up.
Referees Dan O’Halloran and Gord Dwyer called a penalty-free game, the first in Wild history and the first in the NHL since Feb. 28 (Toronto at Islanders).
Wild certainly did enough to draw a penalty tonight, but nevertheless, the Wild now has drawn 29 power plays in the past 11 games and 20 in the past nine.
Anyway, the Wild took the positives tonight.
“Fair to say, our game’s been more down than up lately, and the most important first step for us was to go out and play a really good game and have everybody on board,” Yeo said. “It was a different feeling on the bench than what we’ve had lately. There was a lot more talk, guys were a lot more engaged.”
There were even two flybys by Cooke and Koivu!!!
That’s it for me. I believe practice will be scrapped now Sunday after two back-to-back games and the team not due into MSP until 2 a.m. Flyers are in town Monday. Talk to you then if no news Sunday.
The Wild lost 3-1 to the Colorado Avalanche for its third consecutive loss and fourth in six games.
After the game, the Wild and Avs raced to the airport to see who could take off first for Denver. If the race results went like tonight’s game, the Avs got a head start by a few miles, the Wild finally decided to push on the gas, nearly caught up and still ended up seeing Colorado’s taillights from the tarmac.
In fact, that’s been the way it’s gone for the Wild for six games now.
The Wild’s a shell of its former self – the team that got off to a 7-0-1 start this month and less than two weeks ago was 13-4-4. Now it’s 15-8-4 and sitting in eighth in the West.
After the game, the quotes were honest, starting with Zach Parise, who angrily sat in his locker tonight after returning from a foot injury that was supposed to keep him out for two to three weeks. Instead he missed one. Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville were minus-2 (includes empty-netter) with four shots and were part of a No. 1 power-play unit that managed one shot on a major tonight down 1-0.
“We played a soft hockey game,” Parise said, bristling. “We cheat. We turn the puck over … We turn away from everybody. We make it pretty easy for them, and that slows us down. We can’t get any speed generated because we keep backchecking.”
Dany Heatley, who scored his fourth goal in the past six games, agreed, saying, “I think it’s crept in a little bit. We’ve had some nights where we haven’t been as hard on the puck and as honest as a team as other nights and our goalies have bailed us out. Eventually that's going to catch up to you.”
The Wild has been scored on first in six straight games, has given up three straight 2-0 deficits and has been outshot 73-32 in the past six first periods.
“It seems to take us a 2-0 deficit to find the urgency level to be effective in the game,” coach Mike Yeo said. “We seem to think that we’re pretty good, that we don’t need to some of the things that brought us success, some of the things we need to do to be successful. Hopefully we’re taking a lesson, we’re taking notes.”
How does the Wild get it back? "Stop cheating," said Parise.
Tonight, Erik Haula made his NHL debut with Mikael Granlund sidelined with a concussion. He was real good other than one shift on the power play to start the second and his shift in the defensive zone on Nathan MacKinnon’s goal to give Colorado a 2-0 lead.
But on Minnesota’s late second-period goal, the former Gopher spun away from fellow former Gopger Erik Johnson and then was bumped to the ice by Johnson. From his knees, Haula astutely whipped the puck around the net for Nino Niederreiter.
Niederreiter raced around the boards and basically from the corner slid a goalmouth pass to a charging Heatley, who scored his sixth goal.
Haula’s speed was noticeable and he set up first-period golden scoring chances by Parise and Pominville. So we’ll see how he does Saturday in Denver.
Justin Fontaine was scratched for Haula because he’s not a center. It’ll be interesting to see what the Wild does in Denver because center Zenon Konopka sustained an eye injury tonight. He got hit by a puck in the first period and was taken to a hospital. Yeo doesn’t think it’s serious, but they didn’t pack his gear and he will miss Saturday’s game.
I asked Yeo if Fontaine will just slot into Konopka’s fourth-line center spot.
Yeo said, “The lineup is in flux. We have different guys going out there, playing with different people at different times. We’ve got to figure it out as coaches, figure it out matchup-wise, figure it out role and identity-wise, but more importantly, regardless of who you’re out there with, what’s your job, what are you supposed to do, what do we need from you? That’s what we need right now.”
The Wild’s power play was again a momentum-killing machine. It managed the one shot on the five-minute major and Josh Harding kept it at 1-0 because he robbed John Mitchell shorthanded. The power play is 3 for 29 the past 10 games.
“Right now we look slow and deliberate with everything we do, with the way we bring the puck up ice, to the way we play inside the zone,” Yeo said. “We get zone time and we can be in there for a minute and not get a shot, we just kind of move it around slowly. We don’t have an attack mentality right now. We have to change that.”
I wrote about this a few days ago, but to me the bigger indictment than the lack of success is the fact the Wild has drawn 29 power plays in the past 10 games. That’s 2.9 power plays a game (I’m good at math)! TWO POINT NINE POWER PLAYS PER GAME THE LAST 10 GAMES!
If that’s not an indicator that the Wild’s puck possession game has disappeared, nothing is. You draw penalties when you skate and forecheck. You don’t draw penalties when you backcheck all night. In the past eight games, it has 20 power plays (2.5) and three or fewer in each.
This is a huge, huge problem. That’s it for now. Early flight to Denver. Talk to you from Colorado, although I’ll be pushing it to make the morning skate, if there is a full one anyway. Niklas Backstrom likely in goal.
For all coverage, startribune.com/wild. I did my game notebook on Haula, Parise, Heatley, Fontaine, etc., so check that out.
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