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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In return of Parise and Scandella, Parise scores 2, Scandella the OT winner as Wild survives Jets scare

Posted by: Michael Russo under On the road, Wild game coverage Updated: November 17, 2014 - 5:26 AM

I joked on Twitter at the start of the third period that the Wild was “clinging” to a 3-0 … lead, and while I maybe didn’t envision exactly what transpired in the third, that is exactly what I meant by the word, “clinging.”

It wasn’t that I felt the wild was playing poorly. But I have seen it so many times after teams get into penalty trouble:

The Wild, with a 3-0 stranglehold on the game and dominating 5-on-5 play against the Winnipeg Jets (the Jets didn’t even have an even-strength shot on goal this game until 3 ½ minutes in the second period!), killed five penalties in the second.

Guys like Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville played four shifts in the second, Charlie Coyle three. The momentum of the game completely turned because the Wild spent basically the entire period on the PK. The Jets were skating forward so to speak, the Wild backward.

So I didn’t think it would be easy for the Wild to return to its first period play. I expected the Jets to push and the Wild to be on its heels, but of course, I didn’t expect to see a 3-0 lead evaporate in a span of 4 minutes, 52 seconds on goals by Michael Frolik, Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd. It was the second time this season the Wild coughed up a three-goal lead in the third, but this time it didn't lose.

The last goal came at 10:47 of the period. The Wild survived the final 9:13, somehow, someway, got to overtime, got the 5-minute Zamboni dryscape to settle down and came out and scored 61 seconds in when Marco Scandella, fresh off the mumps, whistled his first career overtime winner for a 4-3 win.

Evening from the press box, where I was actually off tonight. Rachel Blount is busy to my right banging on the keyboard working on her game story, so I figured I’d help out and blog.

Shame the way things unfolded tonight for Niklas Backstrom because he was so good in the first two periods. The veteran was a huge part of the Wild’s 8 for 8 penalty kill, being the man in net for seven of them before Darcy Kuemper entered to replace him. He made three saves for his eighth win of the season in his 14th appearance, which means he can no longer be sent to the minors without clearing waivers. So he’s here for the long haul.

Player after player jumped to Backstrom’s defense afterward, saying they were fluky goals.

“Three-nothing in the third period, there’s no reason that game needs to go to overtime,” said defenseman Keith Ballard, who played old-school hockey tonight, laying one of his typical hip checks on Adam Pardy and fighting Andrew Ladd after Ladd asked him to go following Ballard admittedly getting away with a couple cross-checks. “They scored three lucky goals. I mean, every single one of them went off one of our guys before it went in. We spent a little too much time in our end in the third and I think we got away from that constant pressure that we saw in the first of getting pucks deep and battling down there and then we get a line change and the next line’s doing it, too. It was too much one and done in the third.”

But, Scandella, who missed the previous two games with what the team thinks was the mumps, capped a 25-minute night with the winning goal. Scandella said he didn’t get confirmation that he indeed had the mumps, but the team definitely thinks he does and vaccinated players, staff and broadcasters. Jonas Brodin is still out with the illness and was hit harder than Scandella, coach Mike Yeo said before the game.

Scandella said his jaw was very swollen. “It didn’t look very pretty,” he said, laughing, adding that he was depleted of any energy and only started skating for the first time in five days this morning.

“It feels great,” Scandella said of his winner. “Rough third period. We didn’t get the bounces that we wanted. Sometimes that hockey. They had momentum. They came hard. We bent, but we didn’t break. Everyone was focused. No one was panicking. We played resilient.”

He said the “excitement of the game and adrenaline” got him through. “Little bit down from beating the virus, but once you’re in the game, you don’t think about that. The fans helped a lot. It was a loud building tonight.”

Zach Parise returned from a concussion for the first time in six games and scored two goals – one Jason Pominville pass that ricocheted off Parise’s leg, one Parise-to-Pominville intended flubbed pass that deflected in off Jets winger Blake Wheeler’s skate. Parise three or four times flirted with his third career hat trick and first with the Wild, but he couldn’t get it to go.

Parise said he felt pretty good, but “a couple times I probably had more time than I felt like I did and rushed a couple plays. But hopefully it will get better as I get into some more real practices and play some more games.”

He said he lost his conditioning a bit: “It's always hard to replicate that game speed, even though it wasn’t that long being out. These guys played five games and you lose that pretty quickly. You need to get a couple games to get back to normal speed.”

On the game, Parise said, “Of course we were frustrated with the way we let them back in the game. Unfortunately, we gave them a point we shouldn’t have. It was good for us to come back and win in overtime, but it wasn't the ideal thing to crawl back in there when we had a 3-0 lead.”

Weird game, to say the least.

Why did the game change?

“I think we spent the entire second period killing and they spent the entire second period either on the power play or acting like idiots,” Ballard said.

Defenseman Ryan Suter, the NHL’s time on ice leader the past two seasons and leader again this season at 29 minutes, 13 seconds a game, still logged 28:24 Sunday despite being whistled for a career-high four minor penalties (eight penalty minutes).

The Wild killed all of Suter’s minors and all eight Winnipeg power plays in the game, as I mentioned above.

“It was unbelievable. They called me for them, but our PK did a really good job stepping up,” said Suter, unhappy with a few of the calls by referees Brad Watson and Justin St. Pierre.

The Wisconsin native added with a laugh, “Guys were joking that the Packer game was on in the penalty box. It wasn’t. It was a tough night. I don’t think I’ve had four penalties this year.”

In fact, Suter entered with only four penalty minutes.

The Wild was very frustrated with Watson and St. Pierre all game and got into some barking matches throughout.

There is no doubt the refs’ involvement in the game – whether you agree with the calls or not – affected the way the game evolved.

“You could feel things starting to slip,” Yeo said. “Our PK was outstanding tonight but you never want to put yourself in that position because we’ve got other guys that we’ve basically lost in the game. That was not the recipe for success. We just lost the rhythm of the game through the second period and with that things came out in the third. In the end we found a way to win and that’s all that matters.”

On Scandella and Parise’s returns, Yeo said, “We got two very important pieces back into the lineup tonight and both those guys had a huge impact on the game. From a defensive standpoint, Marco is such a big part of the way we want to play the game, taking away time and space, being in guys’ faces and helping us with the execution. I thought he played a really strong game before he scored the overtime winner. That was the icing on cake. Zach, the way he came out in the first period, and it was tough to get him involved in the second, but whenever we needed a momentum shift or to help get things going the right way, he was the guy getting after it and playing the game the right way as well.”

More on the game, Yeo said, “Listen, things happen, you can blame bounces, you can get frustrated with your play. But in the end the game is sitting right there for you.  And I liked that we regrouped and went after it in overtime. I thought we got back on the attack and that’s the way we have to play the game (Context from Russo, not a quote: Parise set up Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon, but both swung and missed).

“We’re not a back-up team and let them come at us. We’re a team that dictates and initiates, and when we play that way we’re effective, and when we don’t we’re not so much.”

On Backstrom being pulled, Yeo said, “That was just momentum, that was not on him by any means. He was making some good saves. There were a couple tough bounces that were tough for any goalie. But I’d already burned my timeout and I felt they still had the momentum after that, and obviously they scored that goal. So you’re looking for anything to do.”

Kuemper made three saves for the winner one home game after Backstrom replaced him and got the win with 25 saves. Not often you see consecutive home wins where the starting goalie didn’t get credit for either win. If I remember correctly, Backstrom’s first three NHL wins were all in relief of Manny Fernandez – a first in NHL history.

More on Parise, Yeo said, “What I like about Zach, you see that end result but there are things leading up to that that are the reason he scores those goals. He doesn’t take shortcuts. You talk about doing something before the game and you draw it up on the board, then you see that first goal go in because he does exacly what we’re talking about. That’s leadership.”

On Nino Niederreiter’s team-leading eighth goal, a highlight-reel goal where he took a Thomas Vanek pass in the high slot, weaved around Jacob Trouba and tucked a backhander from behind the goal line inside the post, Yeo said, “Good to get another one on the power play. “We want to have competition between the two groups. The last three games we’ve gotten power-play goals, they’ve all come on the back half of the power plays. That whole two minutes is important. That was a heck of a play. He’s got to be a guy who just keeps getting to that area. He’s so dangerous around the front of the net. The more times you get there the more times you get rewarded.

Odds and ends:

Pominville was plus-3 and three assists for the sixth time in his career. Jared Spurgeon has eight blocked shots and has blocked 15 in the past two games. On one of Parise’s goals, he turned a 2-on-2 into a 3-on-2. He has at least one point in 7 of 12 games this season.

The Wild is 7-1 at home, outscoring opponents 32-16 here. The Wild is second in the NHL on the PK at 89.3 percent (50 for 56, 5 for 5 on 3-on-5s. The Wild killed three abbreviated two-man disadvantages tonight).

Parise has 35 multi-goal games now. Justin Fontaine has three assists in the past three games. Pominville now has 128 career multi-point games. Mikko Koivu won 18 of 28 draws. Since Oct. 30, he has won 131 of 210 (62.4 percent).

After the game, Justin Falk and Jordan Schroeder were reassigned to Iowa.

That’s it for me. I’ll talk to you after Monday’s practice. The Wild’s off Tuesday (I’m getting revaccinated for the mumps that day!!!) and Rachel is covering Wednesday’s practice as I head to Philly.

Wild is 3-6 on the road and plays four of its next five on the road, including the Flyers-Lightning-Panthers trip coming up. The latter two games will be the team’s father-son trip.

That’s it for me. Tuesday’s paper, I’m doing a big story on the NHL’s Department of Player Safety, which I got to shadow during last Sunday’s NHL slate of games. Should be some great color and anecdotes in that story, which I better get home and write, in fact.

OK, there you go. A 2,100-word blog on my day off!!!

Wild pregame: Parise--and likely Scandella--are back

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild pregame skate Updated: November 16, 2014 - 3:24 PM

At a pregame media session, Wild coach Mike Yeo confirmed that Zach Parise will play Sunday afternoon against Winnipeg at Xcel. Parise was expected to return after being activated from injured reserve earlier Sunday, but Yeo sprung a bit of a surprise when he said defenseman Marco Scandella could be back, too.

Scandella has missed the past two games with symptoms that appear to be mumps. He will skate in warmups, and if he feels OK, he will play. Parise will play on a line with center Mikko Koivu and right wing Jason Pominville.

Yeo said defenseman Jonas Brodin, another apparent mumps victim who was put on injured reserve Sunday, has been hit harder by the illness than Scandella was. "Marco's been skating,'' Yeo said. "He's been on the ice, and he's ready to go, as long as everything goes well in warmups.''

As for Parise, Yeo sounded relieved to have the Wild's leading scorer back, with no apparent limitations. "I told him we'd probably get him a good, solid eight or nine minutes tonight,'' Yeo said, laughing. "He's been keeping himself in great shape, so I'm not real concerned about that.

"He's obviously a huge part of our team as far as a leader, and just the relentlessness he plays the game with night in and night out.''

Niklas Backstrom will start in goal for the Wild, making his first start at Xcel since Jan. 11. The Jets will start regular goalie Ondrej Pavelec (7-6-2, 1.99 GAA, .928 save percentage), who will be facing a challenging situation. Pavelec played Saturday night in Nashville--taking the loss in a 6 p.m. game--and is making back-to-back starts for the first time in his NHL career. He made 27 saves in Saturday's 2-1 loss.

RACHEL BLOUNT 

Zach Parise activated off injured reserve

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild news Updated: November 16, 2014 - 11:12 AM

The Wild has activated left wing Zach Parise off injured reserve, an indication he will return today when the Wild hosts the Winnipeg Jets at 4 p.m. Defenseman Jonas Brodin was placed on IR to make room on the roster.

Parise, the Wild's leading scorer with 10 points, has missed five games with a concussion.

Coach Mike Yeo will be available before the game, but he said last night there's a good chance Niklas Backstrom makes his first home start since January. Backstrom stopped 25 shots in a win at home against Buffalo on Thursday after replacing Darcy Kuemper.

For today's Wild coverage, please go to www.startribune.com/wild. There's the game story, a notebook, preview box for today's game and my Sunday column on the cap recapture punishment the Wild may one day be facing if Parise and/or Ryan Suter retire prematurely.

Mike Yeo talks about Darcy Kuemper's response and the former "young guys" after Wild wins in Dallas

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: November 15, 2014 - 6:44 PM

It was very clear Friday night that Mike Yeo was sick to his stomach when he learned that Patrick Schoonover, the 14-year-old from Apple Valley who played in the Eastview Hockey Association, died while playing in a tournament in Brainerd.

Yeo has two teenage children, so this hit home for Yeo, who is all about his family when he’s not at the rink. So it really wasn’t a shock after today’s 2-1 win over the Stars that Yeo emerged from the coach’s office here in Dallas and began his press conference by talking about Patrick and the boy’s family before addressing the Wild’s victory.

“Since we heard about what happened yesterday, Patrick, it’s been him, his family, the Eastview community, they’ve been in our thoughts,” the Wild coach said. “So it’s a tough thing. It’s a game that brings a lot of joy and happiness to a lot of us. So when something like that, something terrible, happens within it, it definitely hits you hard.

“I just hope that we can be there any way that we can.”

And knowing Yeo, he means it from the bottom of his heart. My best as well to Patrick’s friends and family and everyone affected by his tragic loss.

No easy way to transition, of course, but on to the trivial blog about today’s game.

Not a good first half for the Wild, but unlike the last three road games, the Wild didn’t unravel in the second. It stuck with it and finally discovered its game after getting a spark from a huge Ryan Carter to Erik Haula tying goal.

After the goal with 4:19 left in the second period, the Wild put together four or five real good shifts in a row and easily could have carried a lead into the third period. Didn’t matter, because 40 seconds in, Kari Lehtonen hand-delivered a Charlie Coyle rebound right onto a driving Mikael Granlund’s stick, and the centerman, like his Finnish countryman Haula, scored his second goal of the season.

Darcy Kuemper, pulled Thursday against Buffalo after allowing two goals on two shots, responded impressively with 27 saves for his second road win of the season and the team’s third. Kuemper stopped all 11 shots he faced in the third and made a number of big saves early to hold the game scoreless and then the deficit to 1-0. It was only the Wild’s second win at Dallas in its past 21 visits. The Stars have been poor at home this season, going 1-4-4, but the Stars had the better of the play by far in the first half of the game.

But the Wild, despite being shorthanded from a defensemen point of view with Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin sick and Zach Parise missing his fifth straight game, gutted out a hard-fought win. Ryan Suter was great, logging 31-plus minutes and being plus-2. Trust me, Jared Spurgeon is still very much hurting, but he played his second straight game, and one game after a career-high eight shots and a goal, he blocked seven shots today and logged almost 28 minutes.

The Wild blocked 28 shots and the Wild was outshot (28-22) for the first time this season.

“I was eager to get back out there,” Kuemper said. “That Buffalo game was weird. Bad break on the first one, bounces off a body, and then beat by a good shot, and all of a sudden your night’s over (laughing), so it was kind of a tough one to get into. But it definitely left me hungry. I was eager to get back out there. I was even eager to get on the ice for practice yesterday.”

On the win today, Kuemper said, “Without a morning skate and traveling, maybe we were a little heavy legged, but we stuck with it and we did a good job defending. Great boxouts allowed me to see it. We didn’t change our game like we were when we were getting ourselves in trouble on the [four-game] losing skid. Got that goal [from Haula] and it gave us life.”

Yeo was real pleased with Kuemper. Niklas Backstrom has a “good chance” of starting Sunday against Winnipeg in a second of a back-to-back. After seeing the way Kuemper responded, I can’t imagine the Wild will mess around with its goaltending now for contractual reasons, but one more game now, and Kuemper requires waivers to play in Iowa. And there’s no chance the Wild would ever, ever, ever risk waivers with Kuemper, it’s $1 million No. 1 goalie.

So, what’s this likely mean? After Josh Harding’s conditioning stint, the Wild will either keep three goalies on its roster initially or place Harding on waivers and try to get him to Iowa for the time being. GM Chuck Fletcher did tell me in New York in late October that was a possibility.

After the game, Yeo kind of let slip a little motivational message he has given Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula and Jason Zucker in recent days during the Wild’s struggles. Yeo didn’t know he was letting it slip, but since Coyle basically repeated Yeo’s words verbatim to me prior to us talking to Yeo, it was pretty obvious that Yeo met with the now former “young guys.”

The Wild’s former “young guys” didn’t play well during the four-game skid, from the young goalie on out. As I said when Parise got hurt, Guy Lapointe told me now the Wild will get to find out which of its kids will drive the bus rather than being on the outside pushing.

The problem with youngsters though is they often go with the flow of the rest of the team, and since none of them proverbially stepped up, Yeo basically said enough is enough and clearly sat them down.

Asked about the “young guys” after the game, Yeo said, “I’ll let you guys keep doing it, but I’m going to quit referring to them as young guys because they’re part of our team. They’re just players on your team. They’re no longer young guys. These guys are on second lines, first PPs, whatever. We need these guys not to be young guys and get excited when they play. These guys have a lot of potential and the reason that they’re in high spots in our lineup is because we know what they’re capable of, so we count on them to do it regularly.”

The response has been impressive.

One game after Niederreiter’s hat trick and Coyle’s two assists, Haula scored the tying goal Saturday, Coyle assisted on Granlund’s winner and Yeo tapped on the shoulders of Coyle, Zucker and Granlund to defend the game in the final minute with a Stars extra attacker on.

Now, Coyle was beating himself up bigtime after the game for two failed clears in that final minutes, but Coyle echoed his coach, saying, “We’ve got to know that we’re a big part of this team, so we’ve got to be ready for that. We want that. We want to be the guy to be called on at the end there to help your team win.”

For a second consecutive game, the Niederreiter-Granlund-Coyle line was arguably the Wild’s best, which means there’s a chance Parise will be reunited with Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville when he returns from a concussion. Yeo said there’s a “possibility” that happens Sunday.

That could drop Zucker, who played another strong game Saturday in all areas (except the power play, down to the third line. Maybe that’ll somehow motivate a struggling Thomas Vanek, who still has one goal and has taken 32 shots in 16 games (14 of those came in two games, meaning he has 18 in the other 14 games).

Guys are getting what they deserve,” Yeo said. “You look at Zuck’s season so far and he’s got a long way to go still, there’s no question. We’re going to keep pushing him, but he’s gone from the fourth line to getting a regular spot on the penalty kill, getting an opportunity on the power play, playing on the first line and that’s what happens when you go and you do the right things and you play the right way. Like I said, we’re going to have to make sure that we continue to keep pushing him because we’re not completely satisfied with where he’s at. He’s playing really well but we want to keep pushing him to get better and we’re going to do the same for the rest of the group.”

Haula, whom Yeo has not been happy with really since training camp, had a good game and scored a huge goal to spark the Wild today. Carter set him up with an impressive play all around. They spent 59 seconds on the ice that shift and mostly defending, so they had to be tired. But Carter read a weak pass by Brenden Dillon perfectly, picked it off and set up Haula’s first goal since Oct. 25.

On Haula, Yeo said, “I saw him pick it up through the course of the game. I think that we’re trying to work with him to bring the consistency into his game and understanding I look back to a couple games ago here in Buffalo and I thought he did some good things and there was some progress made, but there were some other areas that didn’t fit with his identity. He’s got to be a really good defensive player. He’s got to be hard in his battles and I thought that he took an understanding that he needed to pick that part up into tonight and so the fact that he got rewarded with the goal was a plus.”

Carter by the way has nine points, tied for second on the team. Pretty impressive for a guy who logs 9:30 a game.

Carter said, “With some personnel out and playing on the road, it’s a difficult situation. But in this league, there’s no time for excuses, so it’s nice that we came in on the road, which I think we needed. To get a road win, third-period win, it’s huge for us.”

Haula said, “We stayed patient and we had great life on the bench tonight. That’s really carried us to victory. It’s a great road win. We needed that. It’s good for whole the team after the emotions we have gone through for the last stretch here.”

Yeo, by the way, still has not officially said Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin tested positively for the mumps. One would think they did because the team, staff and broadcasters have the ability to get re-vaccinated, but regardless, Yeo didn’t rule out Scandella or Brodin from playing Sunday. That would seem like a longshot, but we shall see.

That’s it for me. I’ll be going to the game to tweet and maybe blog, but Rachel Blount is covering the game itself. Check out Sunday’s paper. Lots of stuff in there, from the gamer and notebook to my Sunday package on NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly talking candidly about the cap recapture punishment the Wild faces if Parise and/or Suter retire prior to 2025. If you’re not familiar with it, give it a read. He also talks to me about the Olympics, etc.

Wild Friday: Parise staying home, and mumps shots for all

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild practice Updated: November 14, 2014 - 2:05 PM

You know things have taken a weird turn when you find out the NHL has an "infection control subcommittee.'' The league announced Friday that the group is monitoring the mumps outbreak that has hit the Wild, St. Louis and Anaheim. The Wild took more concrete precautions after Thursday's 6-3 victory over Buffalo, as team doctors offered mumps vaccinations to all who wanted them.

Coach Mike Yeo took a shot in the arm, after his team gave him a symbolic one with that much-needed win. He's still waiting for the booster he really wants: Zach Parise's return to the lineup. Parise won't go to Dallas for Saturday's game there, but Yeo said he hasn't been ruled out for Sunday's home game against Winnipeg.

The status of the latest apparent mumps victims, defensemen Marco Scandella and Jonas Brodin, is murkier. There's no telling how long they might be out. And the illness played a part in the team's decision to recall defenseman Justin Falk on Friday and send rookie Christian Folin to Iowa. Yeo said Falk will add a left-handed shot to the blue line, which will be helpful against a pressing team like Dallas and aid the Wild's transition game. Folin, he said, was not the same after missing five games because of symptoms that appeared to be the mumps.

"After being sick, I didn't feel he was playing quite with the same pace and assertiveness,'' Yeo said. "And that's normal. You know that guys are starting to come back, and you start to think there might be a roster move made, and you start fearing that the next mistake might be the one that puts you down. For him to have an opportunity to play and not worry about making a mistake, I think that will be useful.''

Yeo said his other rookie defenseman, Matt Dumba, is sticking around largely because of his ability to play on the power play.

Going to Dallas presents a particular challenge for the Wild, which has won once in its past 20 games there since March 21, 2003. Yeo said that number of losses is "way too big'' and that the Wild needs to toughen up on the road. It has not played with the same confidence and urgency in road games this season, getting quickly derailed by mistakes far more often than it does at home.

It took the team half the season to get over that last year, Yeo said, and fixing that problem sooner is a point of emphasis. He urged his team to stop trying to be "too cute'' with its playmaking away from Xcel; its strength, he said, is the gritty type of offense it created in Thursday's victory, via a strong forecheck and a consistent attack on the net.

"Every game is important,'' Yeo said. "Teams around us are winning, and you go up against a division rival and it increases the importance. It increases the intensity of the games. The most important thing for me is I want to continue building our game.

"I thought we did something good last game, but the thing about building is that you have to follow it with work. What we did last night, it only means something if we build off of it. So we've got to get to work.''

RACHEL BLOUNT

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