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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Afternoon from Xcel Energy Center, where the Wild held another practice today as it anxiously awaits opening the playoffs Thursday in St. Louis.
"Like a kid on Christmas, two more sleeps," Chris Stewart kidded. "That’s the only way to put it. It’s kind of like you’re waiting for judgment day. You just kind of wait around, but you do get some time to get ample rest and get ready for the next series."
Said Blues captain David Backes: "You want to get into it. Five days of prep and things that Hitch probably relishes and enjoys but we want to put our skates on and play for keeps and we finally get to do that on Thursday."
Here's our coverage from today's paper:
Zach Parise and Ryan Suter talk about how trying a year this was for them with the deaths of their fathers and how they supported each other.
Rachel Blount's story on how the Wild hopes to counter the Blues' physicality with speed.
Tomorrow's paper, I'll be writing a pretty cool personality profile on Jason Zucker, a feature on David Backes (I chatted with the Blues captain via phone yesterday) and a notebook. Rachel is writing about how important special teams will be in this series, particularly solving the Wild's poor power play.
This afternoon at 5 p.m., I'll be at the Local in Minneapolis with columnist Jim Souhan doing another podcast. Come on down or listen live or at a later date at souhanunfiltered.com or IHeart Radio or Itune or your Podcast app on your iPhone or spreaker or...
Some news from today's Wild practice:
Matt Cooke didn't practice today with some "discomfort" that coach Mike Yeo said is unrelated to the sports hernia surgery he had in February.
Yeo said, "I'd say he's definitely a possibility [for Thursday]. It'll just be a matter of us deciding if he's not a hundred percent, then we wouldn't put him in. We've got healthy guys but I don't think this is something that's going to linger."
Ryan Carter replaced him on the line with Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine today. Yeo said, "That's the way we went today. Lots of special teams work today. I'd say there's definitely a possibility for that but we've got other options, based on identity, based on roles. But that's the look we went with today."
My gut? In St. Louis, the Wild wants to go with a grittier lineup and Carter draws in if Cooke can't play. At home, when Yeo can dictate more of the matchups, I bet he goes with the speedier Erik Haula and maybe tries to get him out against Vladimir Tarasenko the way he did last year against Nathan MacKinnon in the Colorado series.
On Haula, Sean Bergenheim and Jordan Schroeder potentially be scratched for Game 1, Yeo said, "That’s part of the challenge, but guys that were here last year remember and guys that have been part of the playoffs (know) things change quickly. Haula went from barely being in the lineup to barely playing in the first couple games to having an elevated role and obviously having quite an impact as things went on. Things change quickly and we just have to make sure they stay positive, and they stay ready as far as what they’re doing on the ice."
Remember, Fontaine, too. And Brodziak. I was talking to Fontaine about that this morning. He didn't even play Games 1 and 2 in Denver last year. Now Yeo says he has played so well, he doesn't have to look over his shoulder.
Well, for now. If Fontaine doesn't make an impact in St. Louis, it wouldn't shock me if Schroeder draws in or Bergenheim, who has a history of producing in the postseason.
Lots of bodies right now.
The Wild will practice here in Minnesota on Wednesday, then fly to St. Louis for Thursday's Game 1.
In St. Louis today, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock again didn't name Brian Elliott or Jake Allen starter for Game 1.
Yeo joked, "I’m not ready to declare my starter yet."
Hitchcock indicated he would name his starter Wednesday.
Yeo said it makes no difference to the Wild, as in it won't change anything.
Dubnyk said, "We’ve been playing these games for months now, and we’ve done a real good job of really being able to focus on a single game at a time and regardless of winning or losing just forgetting about it and shifting our focus to the next game. And we’ve had to do that for months now. So I think we’ve grown as a team to know how to do that well and that should help us going forward here.”
On beating St. Louis twice since March 14, Dubnyk said, "You look at the two wins we had against St. Louis, those are both games you can look at. We go in and we hang around in a back to back in a tough building and score two big goals in the third period, and the game here at home we played how we do at home and we put a ton of pucks at the net and went hard at the net and scored six goals. Those are both games I think it’s important to have that winning feeling against a team going into a series, and we certainly have that. We’re certainly not worried about the last game of the year; that didn’t count much. But we’re going to latch onto those last two and really hold onto those feelings and try to use that.”
A look at the Wild vs. St. Louis Blues series and here's today's story looking more in depth at the Blues and the challenge they present.
Here are the lines at today's Wild practice:
Jason Zucker-Mikko Koivu-Chris Stewart
Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Jason Pominville
Thomas Vanek-Charlie Coyle-Nino Niederreiter
Matt Cooke-Kyle Brodziak-Justin Fontaine
Ryan Suter-Jonas Brodin
Marco Scandella-Jared Spurgeon
Jordan Leopold-Matt Dumba
Extra forwards: Sean Bergenheim, Ryan Carter, Erik Haula, Jordan Schroeder.
Extra defensemen: Christian Folin, Nate Prosser.
Extra goalie: Niklas Backstrom.
Injuries: D Keith Ballard (concussion), out.
Here are the Blues lines from today's practice:
Jaden Schwartz-Paul Stastny-T.J. Oshie
Alex Steen-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Dmitrij Jaskin-David Backes-Patrik Berglund
Steve Ott-Marcel Goc-Ryan Reaves
Carl Gunnarsson-Alex Pietrangelo
Jay Bouwmeester-Zbynek Michalek
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Extra forwards: Olli Jokinen, Chris Porter, Ty Rattie.
Extra defensemen: Robert Bortuzzo, Chris Butler.
The Wild and Blues have clashed three times since March 14 and on Thursday open a playoff series against each other for the first time in history.
Wild’s all-time record vs. Blues: 25-19-12 (16-7-6 at Xcel Energy Center, 9-12-6 at Scottrade Center).
Wild’s record this season vs. Blues: 2-1-1, Wild outscored Blues 13-10.
Playoff appearances: Wild’s 6th in 14 years (3 in a row, 0 championships); Blues’ 39th in 47 seasons (0 championships).
Nov. 29 at Minnesota -- Blues 3, Wild 2 (shootout): Vladimir Tarasenko scored the game’s first goal, but Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu scored in the second before David Backes forced overtime with 5:33 left despite the Wild outshooting the Blues 27-12 through two periods. Tarasenko scored the lone shootout goal past Niklas Backstrom.
March 14 at St. Louis -- Wild 3, Blues 1: In a game the Wild was outshot 32-10 through two periods and 42-19 for the game, Devan Dubnyk made a season-high 41 saves to steal a win. He entered the game 0-7 in his career against the Blues with a 4.72 goals-against average and .843 save percentage. Thomas Vanek scored 46 seconds after Vanek in the second period before Nino Niederreiter and Kyle Brodziak scored 17 seconds apart in the third.
March 21 at Minnesota -- Wild 6, Blues 3: Six different players scored goals for the Wild with former Blue Chris Stewart, Vanek, Parise and Jonas Brodin building a 4-0 lead as Brian Elliott was chased from net. The Blues made it a game with Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz cutting the deficit in half, but Justin Fontaine and Koivu stopped the bleeding with goals.
April 11 at St. Louis -- Blues 4, Wild 2: In each team’s regular-season finale, the Wild rested Koivu, Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon and the Blues rested Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. Tarasenko continued his outstanding season against the Wild with a goal and assist, Alex Steen had two assists and Jori Lehtera scored twice. Marco Scandella and Parise scored for the Wild.
Wild’s power play in 4 games: 3 for 15 (20 percent); Blues power play in 4 games: 3 for 10 (30 percent).
Wild’s penalty kill in 4 games: 7 for 10 (70 percent); Blues penalty kill in 4 games: 12 for 15 (80 percent).
Good evening from St. Louis, where I could probably just stay.
For the first time in history, the Wild and St. Louis Blues will face off in the playoffs and the Wild stays in this side of the bracket rather than crossing over. That means the Wild would face the winner of the Chicago-Nashville series in the second round if Minnesota advances.
The Blues have been bounced in the first round in two of the past three years despite home-ice each time.
The series will start Thursday. Here is the schedule:
The NHL released the first-round playoff schedule early Sunday morning:
Game 1 – Thursday at St. Louis, 8:30 p.m. (NBCSN)
Game 2 – Saturday at St. Louis, 2 p.m.(Ch. 11)
Game 3 – April 20 at the X, 7 p.m. (CNBC)
Game 4 – April 22 at the X, 8:30 p.m.(NBCSN)
Game 5 – April 24, at St. Louis, TBD (if necessary)
Game 6 – April 26, at the X, TBD (if necessary)
Game 7 – April 29, at St. Louis, TBD (if necessary)
No. 2 St. Louis Blues vs. No. 7 Minnesota Wild
The Blues are one of the biggest, deepest, most physical teams in the NHL.
Led by former Minnesota State standout David Backes and budding star Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues can outhit you or outskill you. They’re three lines deep offensively and have one of the best blue lines in the NHL, led by Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester.
Where most consider them exposable is in goal with young Jake Allen or veteran Brian Elliott.
Records: 51-24-7; 46-28-8
Home: 27-12-2; 22-13-6
Away: 24-12-5; 24-15-2
*Season-series: 2-2; 2-1-1
Goals For: 239 (2.91, 5th in NHL); 227 (2.77, 13th)
Goals Against per game: 2.40 (5th); 2.42 (6th)
Goal differential: +47 (3rd); +30 (7th)
Shots per game: 30.9 (11th); 30.8 (T-12th)
Shots Against per game: 27.2 (2nd); 27.6 (4th)
Power play: 22.3 (4th); 15.8 (28th)
Penalty kill: 83.7 (8th); 86.3 (1st)
5-on-5 for: 160 (7th); 168 (5th)
5-on-5 against: 137 (10th); 145 (16th)
* Wild outscored the Blues 13-10
Goals: Blues – Vladimir Tarasenko 37, Jaden Schwartz 28, David Backes 26, Alex Steen 24; Wild -- Zach Parise 33, Nino Niederreiter 24, Thomas Vanek and Jason Zucker 21.
Assists: Blues – Steen 40, Alex Pietrangelo 39; Wild – Jason Pominville and Ryan Suter 36, Mikko Koivu 31.
Points: Blues – Tarasenko 73, Steen 64, Schwartz 63; Wild – Parise 62, Pominville 54, Vanek 52.
Power-play goals: Blues – Backes 10; Wild – Parise 11.
Penalty minutes: Blues – Ryan Reaves 116, Backes 104; Wild – Marco Scandella 56, Ryan Carter 55.
Time on ice: Blues Pietrangelo 25:24; Wild – Suter 29:03.
Blues: Jake Allen 22-7-4, 2.28 goals-against average, .913 save percentage, 4 shutouts.
Wild: Devan Dubnyk 36-14-4, 2.07 goals-against average, .929 save percentage, 6 shutouts.
First things first: Nobody got hurt in the Wild’s 4-2 regular-season-ending loss at St. Louis, a game the Blues handed the Wild its first road loss since Feb. 16 to snap the team’s NHL-record-tying 12-game road winning streak.
It got a little scary in the final minute when Robert Bortuzzo cross-checked Zach Parise hard to the ice, then Olli Jokinen did the same with a kidney shot. But Parise, after lifting himself up off the ice slowly and in pain, scored his 33rd goal, 11th power-play goal and 62nd point to finish his season.
But that would be all she wrote, and now the Wild awaits the outcome of Anaheim’s game at 29th-place Arizona. I guess we’ll see how much the players on the Ducks want to play Winnipeg (if they win in regulation or overtime) or the Wild (losing or winning in a shootout).
If the first scenario happens, the Wild plays the Blues. If the second scenario happens, the Wild plays the Ducks.
The schedule is expected to be released late tonight.
I will write more of a playoff preview in Monday’s paper with quotes from players with their thoughts.
Yeo and Blues coach Ken Hitchcock gave several key players the game off. Captain Mikko Koivu, No. 1 defenseman Ryan Suter, second-pair defenseman Jared Spurgeon and Justin Fontaine didn’t play for the Wild. The Blues were without captain David Backes, first-liner T.J. Oshie, top defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk and checker Steve Ott.
If the Wild had won, it would have needed Colorado to beat Chicago in regulation in order to play Nashville in the first round.
“It’s not like we dressed a lineup that we didn’t think was capable of winning,” Yeo said.
The Wild also played a strong first half of the game, held St. Louis without a shot for the first 10 minutes, to one overall in the first period and was the better team until the Blues struck first.
Dmitrij Jaskin, a sneaky good player, scored after the Jason Zucker-Kyle Brodziak-Chris Stewart spent a long shift in the offensive zone but couldn’t convert. On this shift and the third goal – the first of two goals by sneaky good player (also) Jori Lehtera, Stewart’s backcheck was less than be desired.
Yeo felt it was a “Game 82 of the regular season” shift and “not a concern.”
Players said this is a tough game to play. Jason Pominville said you want to put on a good showing and win, but it’s also in the back of your mind that you don’t want to get hurt with the playoffs on the horizon.
He said some players were “going through the motions.”
It was the first time the Wild allowed more than two goals in 13 road games, and Devan Dubnyk watched the third period from the bench. The plan before the game was to put Darcy Kuemper in for the third, I believe, only if the Wild was down a couple goals.
The Wild was trailing 3-1.
To me, the biggest storyline of the game was that fourth-line left wing spot.
It was also a final audition for players like Matt Cooke, Erik Haula and Sean Bergenheim. Those three forwards, along with scratched Ryan Carter and Jordan Schroeder, were essentially battling for one fourth-line left wing spot available for Game 1 of the playoffs.
The Zucker-Koivu-Stewart and Parise-Mikael Granlund-Pominville lines are set. Thomas Vanek, Charlie Coyle and Nino Niederreiter are lineup locks, and Yeo has indicated that so are Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine.
Things can obviously change in a hurry with injury or one playoff loss, but this left one forward slot open for Game 1. Cooke and Haula assisted on Marco Scandella’s goal, were each plus-1 and weren’t on for St. Louis’ lone power-play goal.
“Some guys have helped themselves and some guys probably didn’t help themselves as much [the past few games],” Yeo said. “We have a lot of guys available that we know that can come in and be effective in different types of roles. You need depth this time of year. I know that it’s tough for the guys that are out of the lineup, but if you want to have any kind of run, you need that at your disposal.”
With the Wild set to play a heavy first-round opponent, Yeo admitted Cooke or Carter have the advantage.
“In the playoffs, you want to have guys that are able to finish checks and play a hard game and be tough to play against,” Yeo said.
Cooke, 36, may have the initial advantage on the other four forwards based on his 103 games of playoff experience and one Stanley Cup. He had two assists in two games since missing nine weeks with a sports hernia.
“I feel like my style is programmed for playoff-style hockey,” said Cooke, who said his skating was uninhibited the past two games.
He also thinks his hard-nosed style will be good against a big, physical opponent.
“Not that all our players can’t handle it, but it’s different than just playing against a team once,” Cooke said. “You’re potentially signing up to play seven straight games against a team. It has its cumulative effect.”
Cooke said it’s a numbers thing that he understands and a coach’s decision, but “I feel like I bring an element, physical play and penalty killing is something I take a lot of pride in. Those are two things important in the playoffs.”
Like I said, I’ll look more toward the first-round opponent Monday and will be back later tonight.
Morning from St. Louis. Follow me on Twitter at @russostrib for Wild-Blues lineup information between 1:30-1:45 when we see the players and lines in warmups. As I guessed yesterday and in paper, it wouldn't shock me if players like Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu or Jared Spurgeon don't play. Wild lineup is so deep right now. Looks like Cooke, Carter, Haula, Schroeder and Bergenheim are fighting for one spot if you consider top two lines are set and 5 other forwards are likely locks to play Game 1: Coyle, Nino, Vanek, Brodziak and Fontaine.
Here is today's article on today's game and how it will only partially determine the Wild's first-round opponent. We won't know for sure until 10:30 p.m.
The Wild will either face the Blues, Predators or Ducks in the first round.
From the NHL:
IT ALL COMES DOWN TO THIS
Entering the final day of the regular season, none of the eight matchups for the First Round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs has been completely settled (opponents and home-ice advantage).
Just five of the 16 postseason bracket slots have been locked. Three teams – the Canadiens, Rangers and Lightning – still have four potential opening-round opponents.
Two playoff spots (both in the Eastern Conference), the Atlantic Division title and the Western Conference crown also remain up for grabs.
In the regular-season trophy races, two players are tied in a historically close Art Ross Trophy race, while two goaltenders are tied in quest of the William M. Jennings Trophy.
Today’s clinching scenarios:
* The Senators would clinch a playoff berth if they get at least one point against the Flyers OR if the Penguins lose to the Sabres in regulation OR if the Bruins lose to the Lightning in any fashion.
* The Senators would clinch the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic Division if they defeat the Flyers in any fashion AND the Red Wings lose to the Hurricanes in regulation.
# # #
* The Penguins would clinch a playoff berth if they defeat the Sabres in any fashion OR if they get one point against the Sabres AND either the Senators lose to the Flyers in regulation or the Bruins fail to defeat the Lightning in regulation or overtime OR if the Bruins lose to the Lightning in any fashion.
# # #
* The Bruins would clinch a playoff berth if they defeat the Lightning in any fashion AND either the Senators or Penguins lose in regulation. If the Bruins defeat the Lightning in regulation or overtime, they would qualify with either a Senators regulation loss or Penguins loss in any fashion.
# # #
* The Canadiens would clinch the Atlantic Division title if they get at least one point against the Maple Leafs OR if the Lightning lose to the Bruins in any fashion.
# # #
* The Lightning would clinch the Atlantic Division title if they defeat the Bruins in any fashion AND the Canadiens lose to the Maple Leafs in regulation.
# # #
* The Red Wings would clinch the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic Division if they get at least one point against the Hurricanes OR if the Senators lose to the Flyers in any fashion.
# # #
* The Rangers, who are locked in as the top seed in both the Metropolitan Division and Eastern Conference, will face the No. 2 Wild Card team in the First Round – either the Red Wings, Senators, Penguins or Bruins.
# # #
* The Capitals would clinch the No. 2 seed in the Metropolitan Division if they defeat the Rangers in any fashion OR if they get one point against the Rangers AND the Islanders fail to defeat the Blue Jackets in regulation or overtime OR if the Islanders lose to the Blue Jackets in any fashion.
# # #
* The Islanders would clinch the No. 2 seed in the Metropolitan Division if they defeat the Blue Jackets in regulation or overtime AND the Capitals lose to the Rangers in any fashion OR if they defeat the Blue Jackets in a shootout AND the Capitals lose to the Rangers in regulation.
# # #
* The Ducks would clinch the top seed in the Western Conference if they defeat the Coyotes in regulation or overtime OR if they defeat the Coyotes in a shootout AND the Blues fail to defeat the Wild in regulation or overtime OR if they get one point against the Coyotes AND the Blues lose to the Wild in any fashion OR if the Blues lose to the Wild in regulation.
# # #
* The Blues would clinch the top seed in the Western Conference if they defeat the Wild in regulation or overtime AND the Ducks post a shootout win or a loss of any kind against the Coyotes OR if they defeat the Wild in a shootout AND the Ducks lose to the Coyotes in any fashion OR if they get one point against the Wild AND the Ducks lose to the Coyotes in regulation.
# # #
* The Predators, who are locked in as the No. 2 seed in the Central Division, will face the No. 3 seed in the division in the First Round – either the Blackhawks or the Wild.
# # #
* The Blackhawks would clinch the No. 3 seed in the Central Division if they get at least one point against the Avalanche OR if the Wild lose to the Blues in any fashion.
# # #
* The Wild would clinch the No. 3 seed in the Central Division if they defeat the Blues in any fashion AND the Blackhawks lose to the Avalanche in regulation.
# # #
* The Canucks would clinch the No. 2 seed in the Pacific Division if they get at least one point against the Oilers OR if the Flames lose to the Jets in any fashion.
# # #
* The Flames would clinch the No. 2 seed in the Pacific Division if they defeat the Jets in any fashion AND the Canucks lose to the Oilers in regulation.
# # #
* The Jets, who are locked in as the No. 2 Wild Card, will face the Western Conference’s top seed in the First Round – either the Ducks or the Blues.
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