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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Update: The Wild has recalled Johan Gustafsson to back up Josh Harding tonight. The reason? Rather than ride pine, Darcy Kuemper is slated to start for Iowa against San Antonio.
The Wild held an optional practice today where most the heavy-minute Wild players – Ryan Suter, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville – didn’t practice. Nor did Mikael Granlund.
It sounds like Granlund was just kept off the ice as a precaution because he took the Nazem Kadri shot to the head last night. Coach Mike Yeo said, “With those things, you’re not in the clear for a couple days here, but we expect him to be fine” and play in Friday’s game against the Florida Panthers.
Niklas Backstrom won’t dress though. Backstrom took the blow to the head from Kadri, an infraction that cost Kadri a three-game suspension.
Here is former referee Kerry Fraser's take on the Kadri hits and ref responses last night. Good read.
Yeo didn’t give a diagnosis for Backstrom, but the Wild will call up Darcy Kuemper or Johan Gustafsson to back up Josh Harding (10-2-2 overall, 8-0 at home) against the Panthers.
I’ve still been peppered with tweets about the Wild’s lack of response last night after Kadri ran Backstrom and I skimmed through the blog comments.
I got a few emails and saw some tweets saying it’s clear Yeo doesn’t like tough hockey, of course discounting the fact that Yeo made his living as a minor-leaguer playing tough hockey and had the most fighting majors in Houston Aeros history – one slot up on Derek Boogaard.
“I’m probably the only coach that took boxing lessons [during the lockout] last year,” Yeo quipped.
I asked Yeo about the Wild being called a quote-unquote “soft” team.
“First off, obviously who’s the first [player] to jump on top of him [Kadri]?” Yeo said. “[Ryan] Suter. So to say that we didn’t do anything, that’s false actually. And if you want to get into it, it’s this simple really: They’ve got [Colton] Orr on the bench, they’ve got [Fraser] McLaren (he actually didn’t play, so I’m not positive whom Yeo meant), they’ve got [Mark Fraser]. They’ve got one after another. So if we go after Kadri, well, are they going to go after Konopka? No. They’re going to go after one of our top guys. They’ve got more down the line where they can keep playing that game.
“So where we have to be better is on the power play. Teams have to be afraid to pull that crap on us [because] they’re fearful of our power play. But at the same time, what I like is that our guys continued to play the game. I’ll take exception with anybody that tries to call us soft because that’s not true. Where it’d be soft is if they tried to have a physical impact on us. And as far as I’m concerned, we raised our game. And that to me is tough[ness]. It’s a different type of tough.
Going back to [Detroit Red Wings GM] Ken Holland speak on the radio when I was listening to one of his interviews at the beginning of the year and he was talking about Detroit in their heyday and what he was saying is in an 82-game season, there’s probably going to be five, maybe seven games where you wish you were a little bit tougher. But at the same time, there’s a lot of wins along the course of those 82 games that they got because of the makeup of their team. So what’s important for us is just to continue to prove that No. 1 that we have each other’s back, No. 2 that we’re not going to back down, and if teams want to play us physically, then we’ll rise to the challenge.”
This was my point last
season night. I’m getting tweets that the Wild’s a bunch of cream puffs. They’ve gotten points in 10 of its last 11. Last night was the first game all season where another team looked to challenge the Wild physically.
I’d be concerned if the Wild cowered. The Wild instead elevated its game and didn’t show any examples of a team that was intimidated by the rough stuff.
They’re just not built like Toronto. If you expect Jonas Brodin or Mikael Granlund or even Zach Parise to go in there and mix it up with the Dion Phaneufs and Mark Frasers, you’re going to be disappointed. But that's two games against this alleged rough and tumble Maple Leafs that the Wild outplayed the opponent.
Now, will this be a concern later in the year when the Wild plays against the St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings more? We will see. Obviously, the Wild doesn’t match up against the Blues from a size standpoint.
“But regardless, the other thing that we were looking at is first off, we were playing an Eastern Conference team, and when you look at the East, the East is made up – and especially that division – is made up different,” Yeo said. “We’re going through the Western Conference and it’s a different complexion of teams. There are a lot of teams that are built very similar to us. Not to get into it too much, but there were games last year --- our goal is pretty simple. We want to be a Cup contending team. And we felt even in the playoffs last year, I felt that there were many games where we played a lot tougher than Chicago but we came away on the bottom end of it. So we have to continue to play tough but there are other parts of our game that we have to make sure we’re dictating the game the way that we want to play it.”
I asked Matt Cooke about the immediate response to the Kadri on Backstrom thing. Let’s be honest: Cooke knows about responses after running the goalie. He’s done it a few times in his career.
“When Nik got hit, none of us knew he wasn’t OK. Then it turns out a few minutes later he wasn’t OK. But people need to understand is by that time, you’re in a game. It’s 0-0. It’s not because we don’t want to stand up for Nik or stand up for our teammates because in the second period, you see Brodzy go in and get in there for Nino. I just don’t know what the response that’s called for in that situation. Obviously we’re there for each other, stand up for each other and will continue to do so, but sometimes, at what cost?”
This isn’t the 70s and early 80s anymore. You can’t hop the bench anymore. You do, and you get a 10-game suspension the way Toronto’s David Clarkson did when John Scott got in Phil Kessel’s face.
Responses have to happen in the heat of the moment by the players on the ice, like Jason Zucker fighting a player last night after a dirty hit from behind on Brian Connelly. That was a situation where Zucker reacted to stand up for a teammate after seeing with his very own eyes exactly what a dirty hit it was.
In a situation where Backstrom is run, there is a hockey shift going on. I can promise you that none of the five players on the ice actually saw the forearm shiver to Backstrom’s melon from Kadri. Suter got in Kadri’s face and knocked him to the ice. If Suter starts pounding away, not only does he negate the ensuing power play, he probably earns more penalty minutes. And I don’t think you want your 35-minute defenseman chained to the penalty box and risking even a suspension.
Now later in the game you can say that maybe Kadri should have been challenged. I would have liked to have seen that response, too. Although, the Wild claims Brodziak tried to challenge Kadri to a fight and Kadri wouldn’t accept. And you know Zenon Konopka wasn’t going to get an affirmative from Kadri.
So to me, this is an overreaction. It was a 0-0 game. If the Wild lost its minds, earned a bunch of penalties and lost the game because of it, I can’t imagine the fans freaking over this would be satisfied with that because the Wild stood up for each other. They’d be ticked off because of a loss. I’ve got no problem whatsoever with what Zucker did. But the other side of it is he negated a power play with the Iowa Wild down 1-0 in an eventual loss. So you’ve got to pick as fans what you really want? There are no perfect teams. This is how the Wild’s built right now. If I was a fan, I’d rather have Brodin moving the puck flawlessly than risking his health by jumping Kadri.
But I agree with the overall semblance that you have to stand up for your goalie. Again though, I don’t see any patterns this season where the Wild’s not sticking up for each other. This was a one-game thing during a streak where the Wild’s getting points almost every single game.
I’m doing an article on the third line of Cooke, Brodziak and Justin Fontaine tomorrow. They’re going up against top lines and players every night, from the Ovechkins to Kessels, and they’re usually coming out of it even or on top at even-strength.
Cooke and Brodziak, the two constant third-liners all year, have been on the ice for two even-strength goals each in the past 12 games. There’s some good stuff in tomorrow’s article.
-- Konopka, who played seven shifts last night, broke his nose on a Carter Ashton hit. He said it was the 14th time he broke his nose and he woke up in a pool of blood.
--Zach Parise was getting ribbed for doing the flyby. If you didn’t see my article on Parise trying to weed it out, look back in the startribune.com archives from Washington. Parise said it was because it was a tying goal with 4:17 left and it was a reluctant one.
--Yeo on Ryan Suter’s 108 minutes the past three games: It’s such a big story now and I wish it wasn’t. First off, we’ve had three games that have gone to overtime – three in a row – and that obviously impacts things. It’s a ridiculous amount that he’s playing in these overtime periods. The 4-on-4s are a little bit less grinding. I would assume he’s probably playing four minutes out of a five minute overtime period, so there’s four minutes right there, plus you factor in the five minute major and I bet you he probably played at three and a half minutes of that too. So it doesn’t take long when you start adding it up – that’s seven and a half minutes basically right there toward the end of the game. These are close games, they’re one goal games, he’s playing well with the game on the line, and two points on the line. Who are you going to put out there? Well, he’s the guy.”
I just found the above quote humorous re-reading it. That’s it for now. I’ll be on Fox Sports North during Friday night’s Wild game (pregame, first intermission).
The Wild is having a very optional practice this morning. Fourteen skaters are on the ice with two practice goalies.
Niklas Backstrom, who took the head shot last night from Toronto's Nazem Kadri, isn't practicing, nor is Josh Harding, who was called into duty last night despite being sick the night before. Harding is probably just exercising his option.
Not practicing today are Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville. The Granlund one is a concern. Took the head shot from Kadri, has a history of concussions and he's the lone young guy not on the ice.
As of now, no goalie callup for Backstrom. Kadri has a noon CT phone hearing for the Backstrom hit. My guess: Dinged for two games.
The practice goalies today work with strength coach Kirk Olson at Total Hockey as part of the goalie training program, Pro Hybrid Group. They are A.J. Bucchino, 29, who has some pro hockey experience, and Tino Vasquez, who apparently may go back to school next year to play Division III hockey.
Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner, coming back from a leg injury, was just supposed to skate on his own today before the team practiced. But he felt so good after doing so that he joined the Wild and took part in practice.
And that means there is a chance Stoner could return to action Tuesday against Toronto. “We’ll see how it goes as far as tomorrow,” coach Mike Yeo said.
His return would be big. Because Keith Ballard, who has missed two games with an upper body injury, was put on injured reserve Tuesday.
Here are other items from today’s practice:
--A Toronto writer at practice today, doing a story on Josh Harding, asked Yeo if he felt goalie Josh Harding should be considered for the Canadian Olympic team.
“I do,” Yeo said. “Absolutely, I do. You look at numbers, you look at stats, you look at wins, he’s certainly made a case for himself. You want players to put themselves in a position where they’re opening eyes and getting attention from other people. I think he deserves that.”
Harding is first in the league in goals-against (1.22) and tied for first with two shutouts. He is second with a .947 save percentage and seventh in wins.
Harding, who is battling multiple sclerosis, is not talking about that condition this year. Indeed, his play has pushed that issue to the back burner, something Yeo emphasized today.
“The thing about him is, if it wasn’t for all the questions I get on a day-to-day basis, I’d probably forget about it, to be honest with you,” Yeo said. “What impressed me about him? Last year it was always there, because we had to learn so much about it with the doctors. We had to have so much communication with him and with the trainers, just how to deal with it. This year it’s almost been a non-issue. He just comes to the rink and he’s just another player. He’s gone out and played at such a high level you almost forget it’s there. We’ll never forget what he has to deal with. But, at the same time, it’s impressive the way he comes to the rink. We don’t talk about it, and he doesn’t want us talking about it.”
--As expected, Mike Rupp, who has yet to play this season after having off-season knee surgery, will put in a conditioning stint with Iowa Wild. “He’ll play there Wednesday and Friday,” Yeo said. “And we’ll get him back here.”
The Wild have a three-day break between games this week, and Russo also is taking a rare bit of time off. Rachel Blount here, with an update on a workmanlike Wild practice Monday at Xcel.
The biggest news of the day: D Keith Ballard, still bothered by an upper-body injury, will miss about two weeks. Coach Mike Yeo reiterated that the unspecified injury isn't related to the concussion Ballard had earlier this season, but it's significant enough to keep him out of the lineup. Defenseman Clayton Stoner, who injured a leg last week at Washington, didn't skate Monday but is expected to skate on his own Tuesday.
"(Ballard) is feeling pretty sore right now,'' Yeo said. "We're going to keep him off the ice and let him rest. It's nothing related to the concussion symptoms he was feeling before, but he's in a little too much pain to get on the ice, so we're going to give him a chance to heal up.
"Stoner is day to day. We expect him to go on the ice tomorrow on his own. Depending on how that goes, he may join our group (for Wednesday's game against Toronto at Xcel).''
Yeo said he didn't anticipate calling up anyone. He likes the six healthy defensemen he has, and with the Wild at home for the next week--and the AHL affiliate now close by in Iowa--he noted that he could get someone in on short notice if necessary. But he said he's been very pleased with the play of Nate Prosser and Matt Dumba, and he's enjoyed seeing Marco Scandella's growth this season.
That's it for now--it was a very quiet day. All of the players will do charity appearances this afternoon, with several slated to visit with kids involved in Defending the Blue Line--the group that helps children of military families participate in hockey--and others visiting local hospitals.
I'll be honest, I am dragging today, so this won't be a particularly special blog.
4 a.m. wakeup call after getting back from last night's game at 12:30 a.m., and then just as I'm walking out of my hotel room at around 4:30 a.m., the airline calls to tell me my 6 a.m. flight is now leaving Washington at ....... 1 p.m!!!
Uh, no chance. A couple phone conversations later, and I was rerouted to Raleigh through Detroit.
So I'm tired, cranky, still have my Sunday Insider to write, my back hurts, my head hurts, Falness is still annoying, it's cold out, the gas in my rental car wasn't all the way full, my buddy who lives in Raleigh had the audacity to go on his honeymoon, they're playing Matchbox 20 on Pandora right now, the Panthers continue to be an absolute trainwreck and the hotel Internet is slow.
But other than that, everything's just great!!!
(Note: For those of you who are probably steaming right now thinking that Russo doesn't know how good he has it and 'I wish I could cover hockey and get paid for it, so stop your whining,' I am tired, but the rest of the above stuff, I swear to you, I am kidding around. Well, I am cranky. And Falness is ...).
On the Wild front, not much going on.
--First, the good news. Zach Parise looks good to go for Saturday's game against the Staaaaaaal Brothers and the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena (it will always be RBC Center in my heart). Parise was working on his sticks this morning and he says he's OK. Big sigh of relief throughout the organEYEzation and the state of MinnesOHta. When he took that shot off the wrist last night, you can bet Mike Yeo's heart began to triple time.
--Second, defenseman Clayton Stoner, who crashed hard into the boards last night on a trip by Aaron Volpatti and sustained some kind of leg injury, got treatment today and is questionable for the Canes game. Yeo said he is feeling better, but they'll have to see how he feels in the morning.
If Stoner can't play, unless Keith Ballard or an Iowa reinforcement is being helicoptered in, Matt Dumba would play his 10th game.
You know that would be a sigh of relief for the 19-year-old, who is as tired of answering questions from the ink-stained wretches about the benchmark as the stinkin' ink-stained wretches are asking him about it.
Remember, Ballard is back home, and he's a left-shot D (although he has been mostly playing the right side). Stoner is a left-shot D.
So if Stoner can't play, Yeo would have a choice: Does he separate left-shot D pair Ryan Suter and Jonas Brodin OR does he play Nate Prosser or Dumba, both right-shot D, on the left side? That is not easy and remember one reason why Prosser was a continuous healthy scratch last season is because Yeo didn't have a lot of confidence putting Prosser on the left side.
But Yeo doesn't sound like a man that wanted to break up his top defense pair, especially against Eric Staaaaaaaaal.
Cue Yeozie on putting a right-shot D on the left side: "At the end of the year, I said we should have given [Prosser] more opportunity [even if it were on the left side]. We only gave him a few games there and sometimes it takes a little time to get used to it. We've never seen Dums play that, so I don't know. Sometimes you have to show the confidence in the players so they can show they can do it, so we'll see."
--Third, Yeo didn't reveal which goalie will start vs. Carolina, Josh Harding or Niklas Backstrom. Backstrom did get on the ice today, Harding played basketball. Harding continues to play well, but as I wrote the past few days, the Wild wants to get Backstrom in at some point. So we shall see.
-- Fourth, Yeo was still very pleased with the effort and game the Wild put forth in a shootout loss last night in D.C. He said you can argue that was one of the Wild's better games recently, saying, "Our forechecking pressure, that relentless pursuit, we were a very frustrating team to play against. I think we were really having an effect on them, but we need to find a way to close out that game."
Wild is 6-1-1 in the past eight.
-- Fifth, About 10 or 12 players skated at the Canes' practice rink.
The rest played hoops on the NC State's basketball court. Not exactly Cameron Indoor Stadium, but it'll have to do.
The Wolfpack (the guys from NC State, not the Hangover) play Appalachian State tonight, I believe, since the Wild tried to challenge a few of them to hoops.
On the court playing hoops today with Canes coach Kirk Muller scouting included off memory: ChAHlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville, Marco Scandella, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin, Matt Cooke, basketball star Josh Harding, Mike Yeo, Kirk Olson, Rick Wilson, Torrey Mitchell, Ryan Suter.
I did my Wild Minute for Saturday with them in the background. A few of the guys were surprisingly good. It's clear Harding is just an athlete-and-a-half in pretty much everything he does.
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