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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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.
The Wild hosts the Philadelphia Flyers tonight in the first of a two-game homestand. The defending Stanley Cup champ Chicago Blackhawks come to town Thursday.
Josh Harding will start for the Wild. The Flyers, who will start slugger Ray Emery, will be without veteran Vincent Lecavalier, who hurt his back in Nashville on Saturday night.
MIke Rupp is officially back on the roster. He was away from the team for a few days because of a death in his family. Zenon Konopka was also on the ice today wearing a visor after taking a puck to his left eye Friday against Colorado.
Zach Parise-Mikko Koivu-Jason Pominville
Nino Niederreiter-Charlie Coyle-Dany Heatley
Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Torrey Mitchell
Mike Rupp/Erik Haula/Zenon Konopka/Justin Fontaine
One of the above forwards will be scratched. Coach Mike Yeo said it's a gametime decision, but there's a good chance Haula will play because of the speed he brings, his ability to take faceoffs and because he's been responsible in his own zone.
Defense pairs will go back to normal. Yeo switched his top two defense pairs in Colorado and it didn't go well, so in the third, Ryan Suter was reunited with Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella was reunited with Jared Spurgeon to get back to some familiarity. That definitely worked for Minnesota during a dominant period.
Clayton Stoner and Keith Ballard are again a pair, but they have been a little erratic and since Yeo said today that he skated up to Matt Dumba and Nate Prosser and told them that he doesn't plan on scratching them a bunch of games in a row and to get ready to play soon, it'll be interesting to watch Stoner and Ballard tonight.
Speaking of Dumba, as I wrote in Sunday's paper, GM Chuck Fletcher was strongly considering loaning Dumba to Team Canada for the world junior championships in Malmo, Sweden. It makes all the sense in the world because Dumba is barely playing here and the world juniors would be such a great developmental experience for Dumba, who has been cut the previous two years.
Barring a crazy amount of injuries in the next week, Fletcher has indeed made the decision to loan Dumba to Canada before its camp starts Dec. 12 in Toronto. The team will then head to Denmark to continue camp before the tournament starts Dec. 26. Again, if the Wild sustains injuries in the next week, Fletcher may change his mind.
Once Dumba leaves the team, that opens up a roster spot, which would also give the Wild more roster flexibility. Remember, when you carry eight defensemen, you have to make decisions like Sunday, when the Wild had to reassign Jason Zucker to Iowa once Rupp returned to the team. The Wild will also free up some cap space by Dumba not being on the roster. After the tournament ends Jan. 5, the Wild will decide whether or not to add Dumba back onto its roster or return him to Red Deer of the Western Hockey League.
The next threshold for Dumba to pass is 40 games on the Wild's roster. If he is on the roster for more than 40, his seven-year free agency clock begins to tick. With Dumba off the roster, that actually buys the Wild more time to make a decision. In other words, the games the Wild plays without Dumba won't count toward that 40-game mark.
In 1995-96, when Fletcher was assistant GM in Florida, the Panthers loaned defenseman Rhett Warrener to Canada. Warrener played 13 games before Christmas, being scratched most the time. Warrener came back from world junior, was added back to Florida's roster and was a huge part of Florida's run to the Stanley Cup final.
Coincidentally, Dumba has also played exactly 13 games.
Dumba will be Canada's go-to defenseman -- an absolute shoo-in to make the team -- and will likely get a letter on his chest from his former Red Deer coach, Brent Sutter.
"I think it’s going to be a good experience for me to go there and play my best and play a good role," Dumba said. "I hope that all works out for me. I'll work hard and do whatever it takes to reach our end result, which is getting our country gold again."
Pierre McGuire, a world junior expert, is here in Minnesota to work the NBC Sports Network telecast tonight with Doc Emrick.
"This is smart by Chuck," said McGuire. "It’s great for the kid and his time with Sutter and his connection to Red Deer is mammoth. Dumba's going to be a great player for Canada and for Minnesota in the future."
Konopka has a big shiner around his left eye and stitches on his eyelid, which had to be pleasant. He admitted that the eye doctor told him he was very, very lucky. He said he couldn't see for a few days. In that Colorado game, Konopka came back to the ice for a shift. Spurgeon sent him a pass, he knew the pass was coming, but his eye just couldn't focus, Konopka said. That's why he left the ice in a stick-swinging tantrum down the runway.
He said though he will not wear the visor permanently, that he just doesn't like it or feel comfortable with it.
That's it for now. Talk to you later.
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.
The Wild has recalled center/winger Erik Haula from AHL Iowa. Veteran Mike Rupp has been designated for non-roster status because he is heading home for a few days because of a death in his family, Rupp said today.
Haula was in town for Thanksgiving, so the Wild had his equipment shipped to Minnesota from Des Moines, Iowa. He got a call yesterday that this most likely would happen.
Coach Mike Yeo is keeping tonight's roster mum until warmups, but Haula, the former Gopher, thinks he is making his NHL debut during today's 5 p.m. game against the Colorado Avalanche.
"Every time I've been here, you always think of what it feels like," Haula said. "Now it’s actually happening. It’s pretty crazy."
Haula didn't even have his suit here, saying, "Thankfully it was Black Friday. I got a good deal."
The Wild does need a second-line center and Haula says he is playing center. The original plan was to play Justin Fontaine there, but with Rupp put on non-roster status, the Wild was able to open up a roster spot for Haula. Haula is tied for second on Iowa with 10 points (four goals) in 18 games and I felt was having a great training camp until about three or four days to go.
My guess now is Fontaine only plays if Zach Parise can't because the third line is expected to be Jason Zucker-Kyle Brodziak-Dany Heatley and the fourth line is expected to be Matt Cooke-Zenon Konopka-Torrey Mitchell. I'd think Mitchell plays over Fontaine because of his penalty-kill role.
I think Parise may be playing. Yeo wouldn't say for sure, but he was just on the bench listening to music doing his normal pregame visualization.
Jean-Sebastien Giguere in goal for Colorado. My guess is Josh Harding starts for Minnesota, but we will find out soon.
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