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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Wild postgame: More of the same

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild game coverage Updated: December 21, 2014 - 1:57 AM

While the Wild locker room is supposed to be opened to the media about five minutes after each game, it was closed considerably longer than that Saturday. When it did open, only a handful of somber players remained to discuss another upsetting loss.

The Wild fell 6-5 in overtime to Nashville, losing an opportunity to gain ground in the Central Division. The evening started with an unfortunate surprise for the Wild when center Mikael Granlund was announced as a late scratch because of illness. It ended with an unassisted goal on a nice move by the Predators' Mattias Ekholm--his first goal of the season--to extend the Wild's winless streak to three games.

It was another poor outing for Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper, who was pulled after allowing three goals on 14 shots in the first period. He's gotten the hook in four of his past five home starts; in those games, he's given up 14 goals on 44 shots. But coach Mike Yeo kept his criticism soft, acknowledging his team's goaltending issues while chastising Kuemper's teammates for not protecting him better.

He has a point, but Kuemper did not look sharp. Calle Jarnkrok fooled him when he skated in from the left side, got Kuemper to drop and then easily glided around him to score. Craig Smith's goal, which gave the Predators a 3-2 lead and was scored with 1:46 remaining in the first period, hit Kuemper's glove and got past him.

Niklas Backstrom fared better, with three goals allowed on 30 shots. Here's what Yeo had to say about the goaltending and what the Wild can do about it:

"I'm not going to sit here and say it's been good enough. But I don’t think we're doing a great job in front of them to help them get on top of their game. So I would say (goaltending) has been an issue, but at the same time, we've compounded things.

"We (need to) pull together as a team and play the type of game we need to in front of them. Our goalies have given us lots of good games this year. We know they're capable of it. When things aren't going well, what do you do for that person? A good team would band together and have a real strong defensive effort in front of them. That has to be our mindset right now.''

Yeo didn't elaborate on Granlund's illness, simply confirming it appears to be the stomach bug that has afflicted several other players recently. When asked if Granlund's absence affected the team, Yeo said, 'We should be way stronger than that. I wouldn't accept that as an excuse.''

While Nashville consistently got pucks behind the Wild defense, Yeo lamented that his team's weak play in the neutral zone led to lots of turnovers and an inability to break through a solid Predators defense. Zach Parise, who scored two goals, pointed to the same problem. "We spent a lot of time in our own zone,'' he said. "They had a game plan to throw everything at the net, and we spent too much time in our zone. You lose your offensive flow.''

Still, the Wild did score five goals on one of the NHL's best goalies, Pekka Rinne. That's the most Rinne has given up all season, and Yeo said when the Wild scores five, a win should be "automatic.'' But the Predators made it a "track meet,'' which isn't the Wild's strength. 'We can't give up (44) shots,'' Parise said. "They had a shooting mentality.''

Captain Mikko Koivu said the Wild needs to stop talking and start doing. "We've got to come back and win these games,'' he said. "It's about the whole picture. We're not where we want to be. It's on us. It's on us being better each and every day, not just one day or one period or one shift. We've got to be consistent and help each other and start building. It's not going to happen overnight. In this league, we have to work each and every day if we want to be a good hockey team.''

Wild morning skate: Cooke, Carter in; Granlund sick

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild pregame skate Updated: December 20, 2014 - 12:48 PM

UPDATE: Mikael Granlund is sick and will not play tonight vs Nashville. Justin Fontaine will take his place in the lineup. Charlie Coyle will play with Zach Parise and Thomas Vanek on the top line with Granlund as a late scratch.

 

It's official: Matt Cooke will rejoin the Wild lineup for tonight's game against Nashville at Xcel Energy Center, after missing 22 games because of a hip flexor injury. Ryan Carter will be back, too, healed from the shoulder injury that cost him three games. Darcy Kuemper, who missed his last start because of a stomach bug, will get the start in goal tonight.

The return of Cooke and Carter means the Wild has a completely healthy forward corps for the first time in weeks. Justin Fontaine, who hasn't registered a point in his past five games, will be scratched. Stu Bickel and defenseman Justin Falk also will sit out.

Cooke last played Oct. 28 at Boston. He said he's looking forward to everything, including the pregame meal. Coach Mike Yeo is excited to have Cooke and Carter back, too, with the Wild looking to play with more physicality and pressure against a Central Division foe that is 8-3 over its past 11 games.

"They bring something different to the table, something I think we've missed a little bit,'' Yeo said. "Just the board work, the presence on the forecheck, the finishing checks and making us a team that’s not fun to play against. These are things that will be valuable to us.''

Yeo did note that Cooke and Carter will have to be diligent early in the game as they shake off the rust. And with their return, other forwards will have to adapt to some shifting of roles. But he thinks Cooke's leadership and experience can help "refocus'' the Wild and settle it down when necessary, a quality Yeo said the team has particularly missed over the past month.

Nashville will be without winger James Neal, who is sick and didn't make the trip. (No, it's not the mumps.) That's a significant loss. Neal is second on the team in goals (11) and third in points (19), and he had two goals and three assists in his past six games. He's also among the league's most prolific shooters, with 106 shots on goal.

Yeo has been touting the importance of this game for two days. The Wild has not won consecutive games for a month, and after the players admitted their frustration at failing to gain any ground, they need a home victory against a strong Central Division rival to get their minds right. A loss would give them a three-game winless streak and prolong that funk.

"We recognize this is a big game,'' he said. "We don't need guys going out there trying to be heroes. We need guys going out there doing their jobs. When we have 20 guys doing that, then we like where we're at.''

Wild practice: Returning to health

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild practice Updated: December 19, 2014 - 3:46 PM

It was a relatively quiet day at the Wild's Friday practice at Xcel Energy Center. Matt Cooke and Ryan Carter both practiced at full speed, working on the penalty kill as well as even-strength drills, and both said afterward that they felt good. Ditto for goaltender Darcy Kuemper, who also participated fully in the workout.

It's still uncertain whether Cooke (hip flexor) and Carter (shoulder) will play Saturday against Nashville. Both said they need to see how their injuries respond to the work they put in on Friday, and a decision won't be made until after Saturday's morning skate. Kuemper confidently said he is ready to go, after missing Wednesday's scheduled start against Boston because of a stomach ailment. Coach Mike Yeo won't reveal Saturday's starter until tomorrow morning.

Kuemper lost a little weight during his illness, but he felt better Thursday and began regaining strength. Yeo thought he lacked energy early in practice but saw him gain steam as he went along.

"I'll be ready to go,'' Kuemper said of a possible Saturday start. "I was able to get three good meals in me (Thursday) and drink lots of water. So I got most of (the lost weight) back, and I'm feeling pretty good.

"I only missed two days off the ice, so it's not like I was gone for a long time. Hockeywise, I didn’t feel rusty. You're sick, so you know your energy won't be 100 percent, but I felt good. I'll just take care of my body today, and I'll be back to 100 tomorrow.''

Cooke skated with Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle in Friday's practice. The hardest part about his protracted rehab, he said, was not having a clear timeline. Cooke injured his hip in the second game of the season, continued to play until the pain became too great, then dealt with uncertainty as doctors determined the severity of the injury and laid out a course of treatment.

"When I broke my jaw, we knew it was going to be six weeks, and that’s the timeline,'' said Cooke, who called his current injury the most complicated recovery of his career. "This has been such a hit-or-miss thing. We didn’t get a real understanding of the magnitude of it until four weeks, when the MRI was clear without the swelling. That’s when we got a better understanding of what I was dealing with.''

The Wild will need all the help it can get Saturday, against a powerful and well-rounded Nashville team. The Predators are in third place in the Central Division and have the sixth-best record in the NHL. They roll four lines and feature one of the top defenses in the league, backstopped by goalie Pekka Rinne, whose 1.76 goals-against average is the lowest among regular goalies. Center Filip Forsberg is the highest-scoring rookie in the NHL (12 goals, 18 assists) and is an astonishing plus-23.

Yeo said that while his team needs to rid itself of the frustration it has been feeling, he has seen lots of good signs lately. He noted that the Wild is spending more time in the offensive zone, putting more pressure on the forecheck and creating more turnovers, and executing better as it comes out of its zone.

"If we keep playing the same way,'' he said, "we're going to get a lot of wins.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right?

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

Backstrom starts, Spurgeon returns for the Wild tonight

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

Wild and Boston Bruins in about an hour.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I asked Yeo about that.

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

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

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

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