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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The Wild flew to Winnipeg on Friday morning and practiced in the afternoon at MTS Centre. Making a bit of a surprise appearance: goalie Niklas Backstrom and defenseman Keith Ballard, both of whom had been out with injuries.
Backstrom had missed the past four games because of a concussion. He took lots of pucks in practice, as he and Josh Harding got most of the work while Darcy Kuemper watched along the boards. Harding will start Saturday against Winnipeg, coach Mike Yeo said, but he liked what he saw from Backstrom.
"I would say I'm pleased and also happy to see the way he looked out there,'' Yeo said. "He looked quick, he looked slick, but it’s one day, obviously, so we’ll keep an eye going forward.''
Backstrom said he has been skating for a few days and felt "pretty good'' after his first full practice in more than a week. "We'll see how everything feels after this,'' he added.
Ballard had missed seven games because of an upper-body injury. Yeo said he doesn't anticipate Ballard playing Saturday, but he said Ballard has "come a long way'' in the past couple of days and that his status is now upgraded to day-to-day. Ballard has been skating on his own and said he just needs to get used to contact again.
Torrey Mitchell (lower body) is still not with the team but could rejoin it in St. Louis, where the Wild plays Monday.
Other notes from practice:
--Matt Dumba will stay in the lineup. He was paired with Clayton Stoner in practice, and Yeo wants to give him a chance to play two in a row and establish some rhythm. "I liked his game in Ottawa,'' Yeo said. "Certainly when we’re playing in high-pace games he helps us with his skating ability, he helps us with his execution and his puck movement. He’s playing against a team that he’s played a number of times already, including preseason, so hopefully that gives him a little bit of comfort there.''
--Mikael Granlund did not practice but was simply taking a day of rest.
--Ryan Suter came off the ice with a towel to his face, surprising Yeo, who was in the hallway talking to the media when his workhorse defenseman walked past. Suter was smiling and had just a small cut to his lip.
Mikko Koivu’s winning goal with 2:57 left tonight lifted the Wild to a 4-3 win over Ottawa and as importantly helped the Wild forget a 6-2 pounding the night before in relatively nearby Montreal. Remember, Koivu won the Winnipeg game with a goal with 3:12 left.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Koivu and St. Louis' Alex Steen are the only two NHLers to score two go-ahead goals in the final five minutes of regulation this year.
Losses like Tuesday can be lasting if you don’t quickly brush it aside. The Wild, which has lost two in a row in regulation just once this season and that was more than a month ago, avoided that night tonight and improved to 11-2-2 in its past 15.
In the crazy West, the Wild hopped from eighth in the West to third with (32 points) and is one point behind Anaheim for the most points in the NHL (33). Of course, eighth in the West is now Colorado with 30 points, so it's not like there's a cushion (ninth is Vancouver with 26 points). The leader in the East wouldn't be inside the top-8 in the West (Boston with 29 points). As somebody joked with me on Twitter a few weeks ago, the East should just take a knee at this point.
The Wild's place in the standings is a little deceiving because the fourth through eighth teams in the West has played between one, two or three fewer games than Minnesota.
The Wild gave up a season-high 37 shots and lacked legs in the first period and had some sloppy moments, but the Wild certainly motored through it and pulled out a big W.
Jason Pominville (there was a scramble pregame amongst the media because the off-ice officials listed Pominville as a scratch even though he was in warmups; turns out the officials mis-read the lineup sheet submitted by the coaches, whether it be Pominville vs. Prosser or No. 29 vs. No. 39) scored a first-period power-play goal, Jonas Brodin scored a goal and assist for his first career multi-point game, Dany Heatley scored a goal and assist in the building that loves to boooooooooo him, Zach Parise had two assists, Justin Fontaine had his first career assist and Josh Harding made 34 saves one night after being pulled for the first time this season. Harding tied his career-high with 13 wins accomplished in 19 games (the other 13-win season in 2011-12 came in 34 games). He is also tied for the league lead with 13 wins.
Oh, and Koivu had three points – the 22nd 3-point game of his career – to continue a string of clutch performances by the Kaptain and his Linemates. Last four wins, that line has scored some huge goals, as I documented in the gamer on www.startribune.com/wild.
I’ll write a lot about Koivu in Friday’s paper. The much-maligned captain by many has been huge lately in leading this team. You know when it started? After Yeo split him and Parise and Koivu said he needed to contribute more. Coincidence or not, that seems to be the turning point.
Heatley, one of the two Ottawa villains on the Wild roster (Matt Cooke is the other), played his fourth game against the Sens – third in Ottawa – since asking to be traded in 2009. He has a goal and five assists now.
He was appreciative of coach Mike Yeo having his back before the game. The Ottawa press corps peppered Yeo with questions about the former 50-goal scorer playing on the fourth line. Yeo deflected a bunch of questions, stuck up for Heatley, talked about how professional he has been about the whole thing.
He then followed it up with a goal and assist.
On Yeo sticking up for him, Heatley said, “I’ve known that from the time I got here. He’s a good man. I don’t really read what they’re writing. I haven’t been their favorite guy for a lot of years, so I don’t really care what they’re writing. But it is nice to know your coach has your back.”
He also let me know in joking fashion that this goal -- a whiff of puck, then a jam inside the post from behind the goal line -- was more of a "garbage goal" than his one in Montreal, a reference to the way I described his goal with 1.3 seconds left down 6-1 in Montreal. By garbage, I meant meaningless. It was a funny moment and proof positive again that every player is secretly on Twitter.
Yeo went on and on about the Wild’s leadership tonight. He talked about how the vets went out and helped lead the Wild to the W in response to last night.
“Internally, everyone knows it was pretty ugly last night, so it’s on us veteran guys and the captains to lead on the ice and not necessarily vocally, but play the right way and get back to what we were doing well,” Parise said.
Jason Zucker was called up to add speed and energy to a team that lacked it in Montreal. He skated with Mikael Granlund and Pominville, and although he had a couple near costly turnovers like many of his teammates, he had a decent game.
Yeo talked about the one turnover where Zucker didn’t shoot between the circles and tried to force a pass (almost identical spot as the Koivu goal, interestingly), but Yeo said Zucker’s speed was a factor and if he continues to play like this, he’ll make an impact.
Not much of a blog, but it’s after midnight, I’ve got a long drive back to downtown, I think I have a flat tire and an early flight.
Wild is off Thursday, so no blog unless there’s news. Rachel Blount is covering practice Friday in Winnipeg and the game Saturday in Winnipeg. I’ll be on Fox Sports North in studio Saturday before, during and after that game.
On here, you may next hear from me Sunday in St. Louis after practice.
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.
Ugly, ugly performance tonight by the Wild really for the first time this season when the Montreal Canadiens outskated them from start to finish en route to a 6-2 victory.
The two goals make it sound closer than it actually was. Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley each scored with the Wild trailing by five goals, Heatley’s coming with 1.3 seconds left.
Max Pacioretty, who entered the game with two goals, an eight-game goalless drought and all but disappearing from USA Olympic talk, scored three goals (a natural hat trick) on 10 shots.
Josh Harding was pulled for the first time this season, and it was far from his fault. He held the Wild in a scoreless first period and did all he could in a one-sided second period. Coach Mike Yeo gave him the mercy pull so he didn’t have to endure any more punishment and could now have enough in the tank to start Wednesday in Ottawa.
From everything I’ve been told, the plan was to go with Darcy Kuemper in Ottawa (although Yeo was denying that after the game).
Regardless very doubtful that happens now. Kuemper, who gave up three goals on seven shots last month in Toronto, came in and gave up three goals on nine shots to the Canadiens. He was beaten on the first two shots he faced, meaning at that point, he had stopped four of 9 shots this season.
He is 3-7 in the minors with a goals-against just under 3.0. This is a problem, especially with Matt Hackett (who has actually been worse statistically in Rochester) no longer in the organization and Johan Gustafsson having next to no North American pro experience.
Niklas Backstrom is sidelined with a concussion. The Wild has a ton of games coming up, including back-to-backs the next three weeks and in four of the next five (not counting Wednesday). He is doing light workouts but not skating, so my guess now is the Wild will have to somehow add an experienced backup, whether it be trading a draft pick for a Scott Clemmensen-type or signing a Jose Theodore or a Rick DiPietro or a Mathieu Garon or somebody.
But Harding can’t do it all himself and it’s hard to be confident with Kuemper right now until he goes to Iowa and gets his game in order. He just doesn’t look comfortable in net. This kid knows how to play goal. He's played at a high level before. But right now, he's struggling.
Still, goaltending by Harding and Kuemper had nothing to do with tonight’s loss. The Wild, 10-1-2 in its previous 13, just had a clunker that happens over the course of every season.
The objective now it too get a little “ticked” as Yeo termed it and use it as a motivating factor in Ottawa.
The second and fourth lines had a tough time tonight. No sustained pressure, which led to a lot of playing on its heels and retreating. Jonas Brodin was a minus-4 (maybe he was getting used to his new half shield; just kidding), Ryan Suter was minus-3, Heatley was minus-3 and needs to be shown the video of his entire shift before Pacioretty’s first goal, a goal that started the snowball to roll. Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville and Torrey Mitchell were minus-2s.
Top line was even and Clayton Stoner, Nate Prosser, Kyle Brodziak and Matt Cooke managed to be plus-1s.
Mitchell hurt his leg tonight. No update from Yeo, although he didn’t think it would be too serious. Still, if there’s a chance he can’t play, the Wild will either have to dress seven defensemen or recall a forward from Iowa. Mike Rupp’s extending his conditioning stint to play two games this weekend, so it won’t be him. Prosser did play forward a little bit last season.
Anyway, that’s it for me. Wild may not skate in the morning, so may be a late update Wednesday.
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