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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Great news. Second trip back to Ottawa since the 2009 Wild equipment fire and no equipment has burned … yet.
I was looking back on yesteryear earlier today, and I found this inventory blog on the Wild’s lost equipment Dec. 18, 2009, in Ottawa. Other amazing thing that went on then? Swine flu was going around and Eric Belanger, Gui Latendresse and Robbie Earl ended up not playing in the game. The Wild had to play short skaters that night in a blah 4-1 loss.
The Wild lost 6-2 last night in Montreal and coach Mike Yeo will be looking for a rebound tonight in Ottawa.
“I feel confident because of our leadership, because of the group that we have,” Yeo said two hours before gametime. “That doesn’t mean there’s any guarantees. We’re playing against a team that’s going to be looking to bounce back as well [after a 5-2 loss at Philadelphia last night], so it’s going to be a challenging game.
“But where my confidence lies is in our leadership and our players to come out and put forth a really great effort. I sit up here and I do believe that. I’d be surprised if we saw otherwise.”
Yeo on recalling Jason Zucker: “From what we’ve heard, he’s played well [in Iowa]. It’s been warranted. … Zuck, with his speed and his skill level, he’s shown he’s capable of being a top-6 forward. If we’re going to call him up, we want to give him an opportunity to play with good players.”
Zucker will skate with Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville on the second line. Remember, he had success last year with Matt Cullen and Devin Setoguchi, and that line seems to have a similar makeup and identity.
Nino Niederreiter moved to the Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak line last night and that’s where he’ll skate to start tonight’s game, while Justin Fontaine will skate with former Senators and no longer a fan favorite, Dany Heatley, and former Senators Zenon Konopka.
Josh Harding will start in goal. Matt Dumba will play. Nate Prosser is scratched.
Yeo on Torrey Mitchell’s leg injury: “I don’t think it’s going to be very serious.”
Also, Niklas Backstrom went on the ice today in Minnesota and took shots. Yeo didn’t have an update on how Backstrom (concussion) felt: “We’ll have to see how things went today. When we get back, tomorrow we’ll have a better idea once we get a chance to talk to him personally.”
The Wild will fly back to Minnesota after tonight’s game. The team has Thursday off before flying to Winnipeg on Friday for practice leading into Saturday’s 2 p.m. matinee vs. the Jets. The Wild then will fly to St. Louis and practice there Sunday before completing its four-game trip against the Blues on Monday.
Talk after the game.
Wild fans #freezucker campaign (which I believe is ripped off from Allan Walsh's former #freesykora campaign) came to fruition this morning when the Wild recalled Jason Zucker from AHL Iowa to presumably play tonight against the Ottawa Senators.
Torrey Mitchell appeared to injure his left leg last night in Montreal.
Zucker has been Wild fans' BFF for some time, and he's not even from Minnesota. But Wild fans fell for Zucker because of speed, finish and goals like this:
Zucker seemed to be a shoo-in to make the roster before training camp began, but the emergence of Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter cost Zucker his opening night gig because Zucker would be a waste on the fourth line. Zucker also strained his groin at an inopportune part of training camp. He so wanted to make the team that he probably pushed himself back onto the ice when he was still sore. The rest of camp he lacked that burst we've grown accustomed to seeing.
Zucker burst onto the scene last year with some big goals for Minnesota (four goals, one assist in 20 games) but went the final 10 regular-season games without a point before scoring the overtime winner in Game 3 against Chicago. He also hit the post in overtime in Game 1. Zucker has driven the Wild a bit nuts with his defensive-zone play, ability to read defensively and lack of puck support in the offensive zone.
That's what he was sent to Iowa to work on and he has played well lately. I watched a lot of Saturday's 1-0 loss by Iowa and I thought Zucker was great.
Zucker, 21, has tallied four goals and eight points, including three power-play goals, in 12 games with Iowa this season. Zucker played one scoreless game for the Wild earlier this season. He has recorded seven points (4-3=7) in 27 career games with Minnesota.
The Wild didn't have a morning skate today, so the lines are unknown. I'd think you'd want Zucker in a scoring role, so if that were the case, maybe he goes to the second line and Niederreiter moves to the third and Justin Fontaine the fourth. Of course, if you do that, you're fiddling with a second and third line that's been going pretty well in recent games.
We'll find out later. No confirmation yet, but the hope is for Josh Harding to return to the nets. Talk later.
Bonjour from Montreal, where the Wild and Les Habitants square off tonight in the front end of back-to-back games for Minnesota.
Wild plays in Ottawa tomorrow. This is the first of four straight away from the friendly confines of the X (league-best 10-1-2) for the Wild, which hopes to improve on its 3-3-2 road record.
If you didn't read my feature in today's paper on Team Finland's brass talking about potentially naming Mikko Koivu captain at the Olympics and the evolution of Mikael Granlund, that article can be read here.
Josh Harding starts tonight and Darcy Kuemper is expected to start tomorrow. Despite several teams in the NHL dealing with goalie issues including the Wild, Jason LaBarbera cleared waivers for Edmonton.
So that pretty much sums up where he is in his career.
Not much news to report other than Clayton Stoner's revolving D partners.
"They're trying to keep me guessing," Stoner said with a wink.
Stoner has played with injured Keith Ballard this season, Jared Spurgeon this season and most recently interchanging Nate Prosser and Matt Dumba.
Tonight, Prosser gets back into the lineup and Dumba will be scratched. My guess is Dumba plays tomorrow in Ottawa, and coach Mike Yeo said that's a possibility.
I figured it had to do with the big Montreal stage and the fact it could intimidate a 19-year-old like Dumba, but Yeo said that wasn't the reason.
"You know what, we've got seven guys right now," Yeo said. "I liked a lot of things I saw in his game [against Winnipeg on Sunday]. We have a large number of games coming up here, so there's a good chance we'll get him back in there. It was the same thing with Pross. It was hard to take Pross out of the lineup [Sunday], but we're just trying to keep everybody involved."
Improving Marco Scandella, as I wrote today here, will play his second game in the rink five or six minutes from where he grew up. He only had to buy 12 tickets and got a home-cooked meal last night, "so in the end, I won."
He also set up 30 postgame passes and he's just excited, saying how cool it is to get text messages from old teachers saying how excited they are to watch him in person.
Different atmosphere around the Wild from the bilingual press when we come here now. It used to be mayhem when Jacques Lemaire coached the Wild. Now, it's much less crowded, although Scandella and Quebec-born Jason Pominville were popular interviews today, as well as Mikko Koivu -- the brother of longtime former Canadiens captain Saku Koivu.
That's it for moi. Talk after tonight's game and on Twitter during the game (www.twitter.com/russostrib).
Wild and Winnipeg Jets look to continue their hot streaks tonight when they clash at the X in a Central Division matchup.
Josh Harding vs. Ondrej Pavelec.
Rookie defenseman Matt Dumba, scratched in six of the past seven games, gets back in the lineup tonight for Nate Prosser.
Prosser has played well, but the Wild needs to give a 19-year-old a chance to play or it’ll need to eventually make the decision if it needs to return him to Red Deer despite already hitting that 10-game mark to trigger the first of his three-year deal.
It’s a fine line right now because the Wild can’t hurt Dumba’s development by having him collect dust, but as I wrote in today’s article here, in a conference where every point is absolutely crucial, you can’t also risk continually throwing out an erratic defenseman.
And Dumba has had some hairy moments his last two games against Chicago and Carolina. But, how do you get Dumba out of that if he’s not continually in the lineup?
Tonight’s game against Winnipeg makes sense because he played well against Winnipeg in the preseason (scored a goal in Winnipeg and was great alongside Clayton Stoner) and in his second NHL game Oct. 10 (three shots, even rating in almost 12 minutes).
“He’s played well against these guys, so just want to see him continue to evolve and continue to grow,” coach Mike Yeo said. “He’s in here for a reason. I want to see his strengths come out in the game. Physical down low and strong in D-zone coverage but executing and getting up ice when there’s an opportunity, and looking for opportunities to get pucks through to the net.”
Regarding about the fine line between needing to play him but not being able to afford mistakes, Yeo continued, “Those guys are always under the microscope a little more. If some of your other defensemen are in the lineup night in and night out and they make a mistake, then you kind of brush it aside. We can’t expect a perfect game from him. There’s going to be some mistakes with the puck and without the puck. That’s the same for every player, but we just have to make sure we keep working to limit those and continue to grow his game. It’s just real important that we show the confidence in him to give him the chance to go out and do the things that he can do.”
Same lines as the past several games for Minnesota.
Couple other things from the skate:
-- Johan Gustafsson will again back up Harding tonight. Wild isn’t saying, but I’d guess tomorrow that the team flips Darcy Kuemper and Gustafsson and brings Kuemper to Montreal and Ottawa with Kuemper likely to start in Ottawa on Wednesday. He has been very up and down in Iowa but played real well in a 1-0 loss last night.
This is all barring a trade for a goalie. Again, as I wrote the other day, if Niklas Backstrom is going to be out long with his concussion, GM Chuck Fletcher is contemplating acquiring a backup goalie or signing one. However, even if say he signed a Jose Theodore, Theodore would need time in the minors to get ready to play in the NHL. The Wild is also looking at some goalies playing in Europe, but they would have to first clear waivers before being allowed to be added to the roster.
So in the meantime, unless there’s an imminent trade coming, Kuemper, I’m guessing, starts in Ottawa. No update on Backstrom, but he was at the rink this morning.
Again, Fletcher has said he’s not going to overreact and needs to first figure out what Backstrom’s timetable is medically. Problem is with concussions you never know and Chicago and the Islanders lost goalies last night, so with so few goalies out there, one wonders if Fletcher may have to act quickly so he’s not left standing at the alter.
Also, I’m getting emails about guys like Ryan Miller and Viktor Fasth, etc. The Wild has $1.8 million in camp space and Harding has taken the reins as the No. 1. The move – if there ever is a move -- would likely be to get a stopgap until Backstrom is healthy -- either a free-agent pickup or a trade for a Scott Clemmensen-type goalie.
-- Mike Rupp has played three games for Iowa and it appears as if his conditioning stint will be extended for the week. The Iowa Wild plays three in three next weekend, so he’d likely get into a couple. Conditioning stints can last 14 days continuous. Once he is recalled, the Wild does not have to send anybody down to make room on the roster. If the Wild is healthy, my guess is Rupp becomes the 13th forward for the time being and somebody Yeo maybe spots in from time to time against physical teams.
-- The other night against Florida, Yeo used his timeout early in the second when he sensed momentum turning and Jonas Brodin iced the puck. You only get one timeout a game in the NHL, so when Florida rallied with two goals 5 ½ minutes apart early in the third, Yeo said to the team, “I don’t have a timeout. Can’t use it. We better figure this out right now and they did.”
Just pointing it out because it’s a kinda interesting look at the bench and something we don’t normally get to see/hear about.
-- I talked to Yeo about Brodin, who has been struggling with the puck lately. He had three goals and six points in his first nine games before breaking his cheekbone against Nashville.
In seven games since his return, Brodin has NO points and ONE shot. He’s iced a puck a ton and is turning pucks over. I think it’s the bubble, but Yeo says he has worn it long enough by now to get used to it.
Regardless of the reason, Yeo said the Wild is working with Brodin to find his game again.
“Parts of his game are really strong,” Yeo said. “Every night you’re still going to see what a great player he is. Right now, there’s a little more inconsistency with his play with the puck. And the confidence isn’t quite there yet. You can tell. He doesn’t have the same confidence getting up ice, …” skating with the puck, getting involved with the Wild’s offensive game and “we haven’t seen him shoot as many pucks.”
Yeo said it’s just building his game back to the level he was before the injury.
-- Keith Ballard’s upper body injury is clearly broken ribs. Hopefully he won’t be out too much longer, but he hasn’t begun skating.
Wild and Florida Panthers tonight at the X. Josh Harding vs. Tim Thomas.
Niklas Backstrom is considered day-to-day with what I am told is indeed a concussion. Johan Gustafsson has been recalled to back up Harding tonight as Darcy Kuemper gets some games in for Iowa in case the Wild needs him to start next week.
The Wild plays Tuesday in Montreal and Wednesday in Ottawa, and I’ll have more on the goaltending situation. Coach Mike Yeo says goalie coach Bob Mason says that Backstrom says he was feeling a little better last night.
That’s a lot of hearsay.
Same Wild lines and D pairs tonight, meaning Matt Dumba is the lone healthy scratch again for Minnesota. Yeo said the Wild wasn’t sharp in this morning’s skate and he hopes it doesn’t filter into tonight against a Panthers team that has played well since Kevin Dineen was fired a week ago and is coming off a win over one of the West’s elite, albeit a flu-ridden Anaheim squad.
Jimmy Hayes, acquired in last night’s Kris Versteeg thievery by Chicago, is a gametime decision. He arrived this morning. Hayes is 6-foot-6 and if I remember has had a few good games against the Wild. He has a goal and assist in three games and fought Justin Falk once.
Nick Bjugstad, on the fourth line when we were in Florida last month, will center Jonathan Huberdeau and Tomas Fleischmann tonight. That is quite the opportunity in the former Gophers’ first pro game at the X.
“I’ve got to capitalize on it,” Bjugstad said. “Hopefully it works out with them.”
Bjugstad has about 70 friends and family members coming, and his mom made it easy on him by purchasing a group package through the Wild.
Bjugstad is “one of if not our best most consistent forward at this point,” coach Pete Horachek said. “A lot of that comes down to that size that he has. He’s able to do things that other players can’t.”
One of Horachek’s assistants is former Panthers captain Brian Skrudland. He is elevated from his director of player development role, meaning he did what Brad Bombardir does with the Wild. That’s traveling, seeing, talking and helping to mold team prospects. So Skrudland was the guy who often came to Minnesota to chat with Bjugstad and be the liaison between the player and the club.
Now the former center’s behind Bjugstad on the bench.
“He’s been a good mentor ever since I was drafted by Florida,” Bjugstad said. “He’s great vocally and enthusiastic, and brings a lot to the table. He’s played the game, knows the game. He’s been really good at giving me advice.”
I also talked with Panthers assistant John Madden, the former Wild center who lives in Edina. He saw his family last night, but they are in Brainerd tonight at a hockey tournament. His oldest son’s a good one.
Madden landed last week at MSP from a scouting trip in Boston when GM Dale Tallon called and told him he was elevating Madden to assistant coach and firing the coaching staff. Madden scouted almost every Wild home game this season, so that should give Florida some good advance scouting tonight. I’ll have some more quotes from Madden in tomorrow’s Star Tribune.
Not much else going on. I’ve got to get started on my Sunday package. Big game as always in the West. Eighth-place LA is on pace for 107.8 points now compared to the eighth-place Rangers in the East at 82. Wild’s on pace for 112 points, yet is as close to the top of the standings as it is to falling out of the bubble.
Crazy conference the West, which means the Wild must continue to rack up points.
I’ll be on Fox Sports North during the pregame show and first intermission tonight.
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