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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Business as usual at Wild practice one day after blowing 3-goal lead to Islanders; Jon Blum recalled

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: December 30, 2013 - 2:29 PM

Most players and … all coaches were present and accounted for at Monday’s practice.

Hey, you never know after Sunday night’s meltdown at the X. The New York Islanders snapped an NHL-record 380 consecutive games of being down three goals or more without winning. That streak dated back to 1994.

In the social mediasphere and blog and article comments, coach Mike Yeo is under the gun. Today, Leslie Frazier was fired by the Vikings. I asked Yeo about that and how tough this is that eyes are starting to zero in on him.

“I feel bad for Leslie,” Yeo said. “I’m not a football guy, so I don’t know the ins and outs of that. But I do know he is a great human being. That’s part of it. Same as our team, same as everything else, I want our guys to look at me and say that’s how we’re going to deal with this. It’s adversity. That’s fine. But come to the rink the next day and you work a little harder.”

Sunday was the Wild’s fifth consecutive loss as it fell to 10th in the West heading into Tuesday’s New Year’s Eve 5 p.m. showdown with the big, bad St. Louis Blues. Remember, this 5-11-1 freefall down the standings began with a 3-0 loss at St. Louis on Nov. 25. That was the game Zach Parise had a bogus goal disallowed because of a high-stick (the shot wasn’t even over the cross-bar, so how could the puck be tipped with a high-stick?) in the first minute and the game the Wild actually outshot St. Louis 12-0 in the third period before Alex Steen scored an empty-netter.

It’s been downhill ever since. The Blues are real banged up but are 4-0-2 in their past six road games. Steen won’t play Tuesday, nor will Roman Polak or Jordan Leopold. David Backes (upper body) is skating in the optional practice going on now at the X, so his status as of now is questionable. He didn’t play in Sunday’s overtime win over Dallas, a game in which stud defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk scored the OT winner a game after scoring a shootout winner in an exhilarating game against Chicago.

Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon didn’t practice today. Remember, he missed much of the second period against the Rangers last week, was tripped up badly last night against the Islanders and missed part of the second. Coach Mike Yeo said it was just maintenance, but just in case, the Wild called up Jon Blum from Iowa with Clayton Stoner also hurt.

Yeo indicated that there is a chance Blum makes his Wild debut even if Spurgeon can play. If that were to happen, it’d likely be for Nate Prosser.

Blum, 24, was signed to a two-way contract last offseason and has played 91 games for Nashville.

Yeo said if Blum plays, he should add experience, composure in his own end, he makes a good first pass and should bring consistency.

With 22 players, Yeo said the Wild may call up a forward later.

Yeo said today’s practice was “understandably not joyous and chipper. But as practice wore on, we had some more life and had some more talk. Certainly we put the work in.”

Injured Zach Parise watched from the bench in workout clothes and sneakers.

He said viewing the tape again just reaffirmed the issues the last half of the game in an eventual 5-4 loss.

“You just lose some of the good things you did,” Yeo said of seeing the late mistakes. “For a team that’s struggling with confidence, there’s opportunities and things that are there that you would like to be able to grab onto. If we were able close that game out, you could talk about the way we were scoring goals and creating chances, some of the things that were ailing us before this last stretch.”

But Yeo said some new problems have crept in. He said the positive that the Wild feels it should be able to rectify these mistakes because it’s been a “very, very strong team in our own zone,” so it should have the confidence to get that back very quickly.

Yeo said the Wild just has to get back to being better in its own zone after a series of bad decisions and reads Sunday.

Again, I just think this team is in between in so many areas. It’s relying on three 21-year-old’s among its top-6 forwards. Mikael Granlund has had a tough last two games after two great games. There are times in games when Charlie Coyle is dominant and strong on pucks and times where he takes too long to make a decision or is easily knocked off a puck.

The epitome of good and bad last night was Nino Niederreiter, who had a goal and assist but was responsible for losing Thomas Hickey on the 3-3 goal early in the third.

These kids will get it, but they’re young and the good news is they want to get better. Every practice, the three of them are the last off the ice as they work with Andrew Brunette and Darby Hendrickson. But you can’t just magically snap your fingers and make them polished. It takes time.

It’s not just the kids. After Justin Fontaine made it 4-4 last night, the Wild let Kyle Okposo into its zone too easily. Then when Jonas Brodin went into the corner with him, Matt Cooke should have hung back seven or eight feet off the boards to create a layer. He didn’t, instead opting to go in for a check. When the puck took a funny bounce, Thomas Vanek was able to walk out with no Wild player between the boards and the net.

Josh Harding couldn’t smother the puck and Okposo beat the Wild to the net for the rebound.

The Wild just doesn’t usually give up goals like that.

The second goal by Cal Clutterbuck that turned the game around, Yeo said the Wild – Granlund, Stephane Veilleux, Torrey Mitchell, Marco Scandella and Spurgeon -- was in “borderline panic” mode. They were exhausted, running around and made bad decisions, exemplified best by Veilleux getting the puck six feet in front of the net and just freezing before turning it over moments before the goal.

“Every game against every team there are times in a game where you have spend a long shift in your own zone, but you have to be able to defend it,” Yeo said, adding that’s when you have to stay within your structure, keep things to the outside and simplify.

The Wild has given up 24 goals the past five games, has scored eight goals the past two and lost them both. This is not a team that is built to go run and gun. If it doesn’t find a way to get back to its defensive foundation, a lot like that 2-0 game earlier this month against Philadelphia, this losing streak will continue to grow.

The big thing now is finding a way to rebound against the Blues.

"Learn from it, tweak the minor mistakes that happened and get ready for [Tuesday]," Cooke said. "That’s the whole thing in this world as a professional athlete. You can’t let the highs get too high, and you can’t get the lows get too low. If you do that, you can usually find a pretty good measure of where to be and how to play.

"We all understand there’s a desperation level that has to be there [Tuesday night], but it’s not going to help us by fretting over last night. You can learn from it, but you can't hang onto it until tomorrow night."

I’ll have more on the losing streak, Yeo’s job security and whether maybe a trade is on the horizon to shake things up in Tuesday’s paper.

Keith Ballard sidelined with upper-body injury

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: November 6, 2013 - 3:44 PM

UPDATED

Defenseman Keith Ballard did not accompany the Wild to our nation's capital this morning.

He will miss the two-game trip that starts Thursday against the Capitals and continues in Raleigh on Saturday with an upper-body injury. Coach Mike Yeo said it is in no way related to the concussion that kept him out of seven games recently and that the team has gotten Ballard checked out and it doesn't believe he'll be sidelined "long-term."

But he was in a lot of pain, Yeo said, so the team obviously left him back. Ballard was back for three games and had three assists before getting hurt again.

With the Wild in need of a right D against the Capitals, Nate Prosser will get the call. Prosser has two assists in five games and is plus-3.

He played well during a recent four-game stretch before being removed again because of the return of Ballard and Jonas Brodin on the same night against Montreal.

Coach Mike Yeo said Prosser's play warrants him getting back in and this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Matt Dumba's next game would be his 10th -- meaning his three-year contract kicks in.

Against an intimidating Caps lineup with a lights-out league best power play, Yeo said the Wild needs Prosser, who is a solid penalty killer.

Carson McMillan was reassigned.

The Wild has won six of seven. It's looking for its fourth consecutive win. It has won three in a row twice previously without winning that fourth straight, so there's one goal for Thursday.

The Wild is 1-5 all-time at Washington, being outscored 14-4 in the five losses. Its lone win was Nov. 21, 2002, by a 4-3 score.

The Caps have the best power play and best penalty kill in the NHL. It has given up one power-play goal in the past 10 games and scored four power-play goals in a 6-2 win over the Islanders on Tuesday.

So big challenge. The Wild has the second-best power play in the NHL.

"Our power play's been very good this year, too, so we should take it as a chanllenge that it’s us against them," Yeo said. "Likewise our penalty kill, it’s a good opportunity to go out there and prove we can continue to go in the right direction. It'll be a challenge. First and foremost, we have to be focused on staying out of the box."

Ryan Suter is coming off his best game in a long time. Two assists in 30-plus minutes and great defensively.

"Some of the plays he made, just watching it, you can't help but marvel," Yeo said.

I talked to Dany Heatley about being on the fourth line. That will be in Thursday's notebook in the paper, as well as a feature on the always fun Nate Schmidt, the former Gophers star D who has played 11 games and is on Washington's top defense pair with Mike Green.

Fun story to write. I also have a few interesting notes that'll be in Friday's game notebook.

Same forward lines against the Caps as Tuesday against Calgary. I didn't ask about the goalie, because we know Josh Harding's in net.

Be prepared, I think this Sunday column will be another blog Q&A mailbag. I will post a blog in the morning asking for questions.

I will be on KFAN at 4:15 p.m. CT and on Fox Sports North's pregame show and first intermission on Thursday. Remember, with the radio conflict with the Vikings, the Wild will be on 107.9 FM Thursday.

Kings goalie Bernier traded to Maple Leafs

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: June 23, 2013 - 12:27 PM

The Toronto Maple Leafs, expected to be very active in the free-agent market, got the ball rolling today when they acquired goaltender Jonathan Bernier from the Los Angeles Kings for former University of North Dakota standout Matt Frattin, Ben Scrivens and a conditional second-round pick.

The Wild, as reported here Saturday, were in the mix for Bernier with the Maple Leafs and Flyers. The Kings were looking for a top prospect from the Wild and at least Darcy Kuemper, sources say.

The Wild continues to talk contract with Niklas Backstrom. He can become a free agent July 5, but the Wild has also been investigating trade options. Remember, salary-cap space is limited as of now. The Wild technically has about $6 million available to spend this summer (that's before potentially re-signing Backstrom, Cal Clutterbuck and Jared Spurgeon), so it's clear the Wild will need to make some trades or execute some buyouts in order to free up more flexibility.

For more on that, see this report.

Things should start to heat up as next Sunday's draft in Newark approaches. GM Chuck Fletcher and assistant GM Brent Flahr are available to talk about the draft Monday.

By the way, I will be filling in for Paul Allen on KFAN Monday and Tuesday from 9-noon.

Actor/comedian/Super Trooper Erik Stolhanske will be sitting in with me Tuesday, which will be a hoot.

On these days, I'll have Kevin Falness joining from the Wild Road Tour, likely Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker, Matt Cullen, St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, Vikings sackster Jared Allen, Star Tribune baseball writer Lavelle E. Neal the Third, Fox Sports North's Jamie Hersch and Ben Clymer and some other surprises as well.

 

Guessing tonight's Wild lines

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: February 17, 2013 - 10:14 AM

The Wild hosts the Detroit Red Wings late this afternoon at 5 p.m. at the X.

Jason Zucker will make his season debut, Johan Larsson his NHL debut. This puts five players 22-and-under in the Wild lineup tonight -- backup goalie Darcy Kuemper is 22, Zucker is 21, Larsson and Mikael Granlund are 20 and Jonas Brodin is 19.

I will be on Fox Sports North's Wild Live at 4:30 p.m. today and also during the first intermission around 5:40ish.

Here is today's Zucker-Larsson-Nate Prosser notebook.

Here is my Sunday column on how Kevlar socks should be made mandatory in the NHL. Only a handful of Wild players wear em, and Mike Rupp, in reaction to the awful Erik Karlsson injury in Ottawa, decided to try them against Colorado. He liked the feel and plans to continue.

Remember, at 11 a.m. on NBC, there will be a pretty moving piece on the relationship Jack Jablonski has with Vikings star Adrian Peterson.

Good morning from Chateau Russeau, where for a rarity, I didn't have to be at a morning skate. Because of the early game, the players didn't go down to the X today, so I can't give you the lines so many of you are curious about. We will talk to coach MIke Yeo at 3 p.m., so I will blog and tweet them soon after.

Niklas Backstrom vs. Petr Mrazek tonight. Mrazek is a 21-year-old Czech who tore up the AHL during the lockout and won his only start of the season vs. St. Louis.

To guess lines, one we know. After combining for two goals in the shootout loss to Colorado on Thursday, you know Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Dany Heatley will remain intact.

From there, it's just a guess because Pierre-Marc Bouchard was sick yesterday and likely won't play today and because Yeo will have to choose one other forward to come out.

My guess is Zucker slots right into a line with Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi because Torrey Mitchell filled in there yesterday.

The other line in practice was: Mikael Granlund-Kyle Brodziak-Cal Clutterbuck in practice. So if that stays the same, perhaps Yeo just slots Larsson onto the fourth line with Mike Rupp and Zenon Konopka and sits Mitchell? Or perhaps he plays Mitchell and has Larsson center the fourth line with Rupp. I'd think Rupp plays because he scored last game and was the forward Yeo pretty much chose to get more ice time once Clutterbuck left the game. Remember also, Konopka took a bad penalty against the Avs and Yeo made his displeasure known by not giving Konopka another shift.

Still, my guess is that Mitchell sits.

The only caveat to all this is if the club isn't comfortable playing a banged up Clutterbuck, who did feel better yesterday but was having issues with peripheral vision in the second period of the Colorado game. That's why he left the game.

Again, despite Brodziak's rough start to this season and tough shift after the Mikko Koivu go-ahead goal the other night, I can't see the only right-shot center being scratched. He comes in handy on defensive-zone right-circle draws.

Funny tweet, by the way, from Konopka yesterday at @zenonkonopka: "I think that Jonas Brodin should get some serious consideration for the Calder trophy (rookie of the year), side note- I may adopt the kid"

OK, that's it. I'll update blog after we talk to Yeo.

Reilly, Lucia, Potulny go for gold with the U.S. at the world junior championships

Posted by: Michael Russo Updated: January 4, 2013 - 4:44 PM
Moments after beating Canada in the semifinals of the world junior championships in Ufa, Russia on Thursday, Gophers defenseman Mike Reilly texted back and forth with buddy Jake Gardiner, the former Minnetonka High star that plays for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
 
In 2010, Gardiner represented the United States and won gold with fellow Minnesotans Derek Stepan, Danny Kristo, Jordan Schroeder and Mike Lee in Saskatchewan.
 
“We talked quite a bit the other night and Jake says it was one of the best moments of his life to win, so that’s what I’m shooting for – to bring back a gold,” said Reilly, who hails from Chanhassen, played at Holy Angels and won a BCHL title with Penticton last year.
 
Reilly and Mario Lucia, the son of Gophers coach Don Lucia, are the two Minnesotans wearing red, white and blue (Lucia was born in Alaska but moved to Minnesota in kindergarten). The team is coached by three Minnesotans – head coach Phil Housley and assistants Mark Osiecki and Grant Potulny.
 
They are going for the Americans’ third-ever gold medal in the Under-20 world championships Saturday (7 a.m. CT; can be watched on NHL Network and NHL.com) against Sweden.
 
I talked with Reilly, Lucia and Potulny late last night from Russia.
 
“You watched [the U.S. win gold] on TV twice and think, ‘Wow, what a great day to be an American. Now getting an opportunity is obviously very exciting. We’re halfway home,” said Potulny, a Gophers’ assistant. “You almost want to stay in the moment here a little bit so you don’t start planning ahead too far because there will be plenty of time to celebrate if we do in fact win the game [Saturday].”
 
The Americans opened the tournament with an 8-0 win over Germany in the prelims, but then suffered 2-1 losses to Russia and Canada. That caused a must-win against Slovakia, and the Americans blew them out, 9-3.
 
They advanced to play the Czechs in the quarters, winning 7-zip, before beating Canada, 5-1. Boston College's Johnny Gaudreau continued his offensive assault with two more goals (seven in the past three), Wisconsin's Jake McCabe, the U.S. captain, had two goals and an assist and John Gibson made 36 saves.
 
“I think game by game we’re getting better and better as a team and that’s just what we need coming into the gold-medal game,” the superb-skating Reilly, now Connor Murphy’s defense partner after opening the tournament as Seth Jones’, said. “Playing the first games against Russia and Canada gave us a little scare there, but we just got to stay the path and keep betting better as a team. We played well against those two teams but just couldn’t put enough goals in the back of the net.”
 
Reilly and Potulny say the issues against Russia and Canada in the prelims were as simple as running into hot goalies and just not doing enough to create around the net.
 
“We had to create chemistry between one another,” said Reilly, who has three points and is plus-4. “We’re all used to playing on different teams – almost every guy, so in a quick tournament like this with only about seven games, it does take a bit of time to come together as a team. I feel we’re there now.”
 
Added Potulny, “With some of the guys, you hate to say it, but you almost had to stay patient because you knew that their history has shown that they can score. They’ve scored at every level. We juggled a little bit with moving a couple guys around. That may have kickstarted it. But my opinion is after awhile you play together, you get a little chemistry going.”
 
Defenseman Jacob Trouba has been outstanding throughout the tournament with eight points, while JT Miller and Alex Galchenyuk have caught fire with eight each as well.
 
Reilly says the U.S. will have its “hands full” with Sweden. The Americans beat Sweden 3-2 in overtime in an exhibition game in Finland, but both teams didn’t play their full lineups.
 
Sweden beat Russia in a shootout to advance to the gold-medal game and Potulny said, “That game was like a track meet. The pace of that game was crazy. The Swedes are probably the best team here at protecting the puck. It’s almost like keep-away. You’ve got to find a way to shut them down because otherwise, they’re going to hold onto it and hold onto it and hold onto it. You can’t puck watch because the moment you leave a guy open, they’re going to make a play because they’ve got skill.”
 
The U.S. coaching staff got to watch Sweden practice before they left Finland and Potulny said, “It looked like a North American practice -- competing and 1-on-1’s and 2-on-2’s and net battling and things at least I didn’t expect to see out of the Swedes.”
 
It’s been a tough tournament for Wild prospect Mario Lucia, the Notre Dame freshman (CCHA Rookie of the Month) slotted as the team’s 13th forward the past two games. He has sat on the bench the past two games but didn’t see a shift. After the win over Canada, his father, Don, sent him an email.
 
“I said, ‘Just think, you got hurt in August (broke tibia, tore ligaments in his ankle) and now you’re a part of it. This is your role right now. There’s only two Minnesota kids on the team and only one forward. Think of those odds. Be the best teammate you can be,’” Don Lucia said. “And he understands that. He’s an injury away, so be ready to go. Would he like to play? Sure. But this is the role he’s been given and be proud of the fact you’re a win from gold.”
 
Potulny said Lucia has handled this maturely.
 
“Anytime you come here and move guys around and juggle lines, a lot of times when you juggle, whoever becomes that 13th forward, it’s not because of what he hasn’t done,” Potulny said. “It’s just trying to get a different look for your lineup after losing to Russia and Canada.
 
“Unfortunately for Mario, the moment we did roll those around, that’s when Gaudreau gets hot, that’s when the power play gets going. By no fault of his own, almost bad timing for him, we caught fire when he became 13th forward. But he’s handled everything with class. He’s been our biggest cheerleader on the bench. He’s been into it and engaged. Right now it’s hard, but we had a conversation, two years ago when he was at Wayzata if we would have said, ‘hey, you’re one game away from playing in the gold-medal game at world junior,’ he would have taken it and thought it would be cool to be part of it. And if we do need him [Saturday], he’ll be ready.”
 
And that’s exactly what Mario Lucia said.
 
“The first time I was slotted as the 13th forward, it was a little hard to swallow,” Lucia said. “But I accept it. I worked my butt off to get back and get healthy and to be here. I’m looking at it this way and looking at the glass half full, not empty. My goal was to make the world junior team.
 
“Any kid would be dying to be in my shoes right now, to be here and be at this tournament. I’m thrilled to be here. We’re winning and that’s all that matters. When you look at it 10 years down road, you’re not going to know who scored the goals, they’re just going to know you were part of the team that won. Hopefully we’ll win gold on Saturday.”
 
And as Reilly said, “It would be awesome. I’ve never really put the USA jersey on a lot, but a lot of guys here have and it’s special to all of us. I know a lot of people are watching and rooting for us. It would be great for our country.”
 
--------------
 
The No. 1-ranked Gophers face Mario Lucia’s No. 2-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Mariucci on Tuesday, and Lucia made clear he plans to play despite returning to Minnesota on Sunday night and the 12-hour time difference.
 
Reilly hopes to play, too, but Don Lucia says he may give him the game off to rest up for the weekend conference series against Alaska-Anchorage.
 
Mario Lucia and Reilly are buddies, were teammates on Penticton and roommates in Russia.
 
“I want him to play obviously,” Lucia said. “I think he wants to play. I think it’ll be a fun game, too, and the fans should make it a sold-out barn – No. 1 vs. 2.”
 
I will have a lot more on Mario Lucia facing Don Lucia in Tuesday’s newspaper, but Reilly did say he hopes to play.
 
“I’ll worry more about it when we get home, but I for sure want to play because it’s Notre Dame. They’re the second-rated team and I know Mario’s playing in that. But it’s a coach’s decision. I know the time change will be different. I’ll see how I adjust.”
 
(For Don Lucia’s reasoning as to why he may not play Reilly, see two blogs ago).
 
Potulny and Reilly are excited that the Gophers won the Mariucci Classic with wins over Air Force and Boston College and took the No. 1 ranking in the country.
 
“I think they cut the dead weight and got me out of there,” Potulny joked. “They’ve been rolling. It’s almost the same thing with our group here, you have stay patient with your guys because you knew Nick [Bjugstad], Kyle [Rau], Nate Condon would score. And [goalie] Adam [Wilcox] has given us a chance to win the whole time. We just hadn’t been scoring, and if you think about it, that would have been an odd thing for us to say at the beginning of the year.
 
“But the guys regrouped during the break and they know what the end goal is here.”
 
Ryan Reilly, Mike’s older brother, scored his first collegiate goal in the win over Air Force.
 
“Mom texted me right away. That was awesome,” Mike Reilly said.
 
(By the way, I met injured Connor Reilly for the first time today down at the rink. Nicest kid and he’s coming along well with his rehab on his knee).
 
Potulny, a huge Vikings fans, is looking forward to getting home. He spent a lot of the conversation asking for Vikings and NHL lockout updates.
 
On Ufa, Russia, where the sun rises close to 11 a.m.: “We can take it off my bucket list. We don’t have to come back.”
 
(He was actually very complimentary of the city and the experience.)
 

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