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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Young mistakes, blown offensive chances doom Wild in Anaheim

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: October 18, 2014 - 9:24 AM

UPDATED: Nothing will come from the league stemming from the Kesler and Parise majors at the buzzer.

A couple young mistakes and a boatload of goals left on the ice doomed the Wild on Friday night in a 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.

Eight periods, no goals against this season for the Wild until tonight’s third.

Then the Wild, in pretty good control of the game early in the third with a 1-0 lead, made a critical mistake on a power play that turned the game around.

Late in a power play, rookie Matt Dumba took Ryan Suter’s pass and tried to wiggle along the boards through traffic with no support. He lost the puck. Veteran Thomas Vanek covered for him at the point, but his attempt to get the puck deep was blocked.

Andrew Cogliano popped out into the neutral zone, took a bank pass off the dasher and was off to the races for the tying goal 4:02 into the third. That snapped Darcy Kuemper’s franchise-record shutout streak at 163 minutes, 46 seconds to open the season.

Later, another bad mistake. Keith Ballard hit Jason Zucker with an outlet along the wall not far from the blue line.

Instead of chipping the puck out, Zucker tried to cross a pass to the center of the defensive zone for Dumba. The puck hit Dumba’s skate and, gulp, right to Corey Perry. Kuemper robbed Perry, but Nate Thompson got the puck back to Perry, who has 32 points in 33 career games against the Wild. He didn’t miss from the goalmouth.

That would be the eventual winner.

Zach Parise said Zucker had the right idea and it was the right play, but “we just didn’t execute it and it’s in the back of our net and that’s the game.”

Coach Mike Yeo said, “We put ourselves in a situation where a mistake like that ends up being the difference.

“The easy thing to do is just chip it out, chip it out, chip it out, but if we want to become a team that’s better than that, if we want to become a top team, then you have to make plays. You have to be ready to use the middle of the ice. Now you’ve got to execute. It’s got to be on the tape. And I think in that situation we probably could have taken ice, we could have moved our feet before we made that play, but it’s easy to sit here and just point to a couple young kids. There are other plays in the game that led to that moment.”

Like, not burying an absurd amount of chances. Zucker was the only one who did, flying by Clayton Stoner to score early in the second. He also was solid on the penalty kill.

Maybe it was the six-day layoff that made the Wild so rusty offensively, but the amount of blown chances were astronomical.

Nino Niederreiter shanked two shots in the first, including one where he stood all alone in the slot and couldn’t connect with Erik Haula’s setup. Niederreiter fell on the knife after the game and said he needed to execute better and the Wild had a lot of similar blown chances that “cost us the game.”

Jason Pominville, sharp in the first period, wasn’t as sharp in the second. On back-to-back shifts, he fanned on chances with wide-open nets in front of him. Charlie Coyle couldn’t convert five shots and seven attempts, including a hit post. And right before the shorthanded goal, Jared Spurgeon missed a net from point blank.

“The shorthanded goal livened up the bench and the crowd,” Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It propelled us for the rest of the game. Before that, we weren’t very good. We were getting dominated.”

The Wild killed four power plays and is now 11 for 11 on the PK this season. But its power play, so good in the preseason with seven goals, is now 0 for 11, plus a minus-1 for the shortie tonight.

Yeo said the scoreless power play this season is in his mind the biggest factor as to why they made a mistake before the shortie. He thinks frustration set in because the Wild hasn’t scored, so at the end of the PP, the Wild lost its focus.

“We’ve got to get that in order. We’ve got the personnel. It’s a mindset, an attack mentality that’s missing right now,” Yeo said, reminding how he said after the preseason that the power-play success in the preseason meant squat.

“We’re still playing like it’s preseason right now,” Yeo said. “The best chance we had, we finally shot a puck from the point. We have to address that.”

I actually thought the Wild had some good looks on the power play in the first, but Frederik Andersen stopped Parise twice from in tight and Thomas Vanek once.

Speaking of Parise, at the end of the game, Ryan Kesler, being Ryan Kesler, took a gigantic long run at Mikael Granlund and creamed him along the boards. Parise immediately jumped to Granlund’s defense.

Kesler got a major for charging and Parise a major for cross-checking and a game misconduct. We’ll see if anything comes of that Saturday.

“Game’s over. It’s stupid,” Parise said of the Kesler cheap shot at Granlund.

The Ducks, getting dominated like Boudreau asserted, definitely tried to go after the Wild’s lesser players physically in the second and third periods. Ryan Getzlaf went after Jonas Brodin all game, and once Coyle jumped to Brodin’s defense. Astonishingly, referee Eric Furlatt gave Coyle four minutes and Getzlaf two (nothing for two cross checks on Brodin) and no extras for Anaheim even though both Getzlaf and Matt Beleskey removed their gloves to fight. The ignored calls on Anaheim and the fact the Wild wound up on the PK turned the momentum bigtime for several minutes here. The Wild still escaped though.

This is the makeup of the Wild. The Wild is built on speed. The Ducks and Sunday’s opponent, Los Angeles, and St. Louis are built with size. No way to turn that over at this point, so the Wild will have to find ways to combat that and Yeo said for the most part the Wild did tonight, outplaying Anaheim for vast chunks of the game.

Anaheim especially had trouble with the Wild’s first-period forecheck. The Ducks were turning pucks over left and right. The Wild just couldn’t bury its chances.

One good sign is the Vanek-Mikko Koivu duo had its best game, maybe jolted by the season debut of Justin Fontaine, who created several turnovers, read the game well and set up his linemates all game.

Vanek, who entered the game with four shots in two games, had seven on this night.

That’s it for me. The Wild practices at noon PT Saturday, so you’ll hear from me in the afternoon at some point. Reminder, Sunday’s game is at 2 p.m. CT.

Wild will try to spoil Anaheim's home opener; Lineup updates

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild pregame skate Updated: October 17, 2014 - 4:31 PM

UPDATED

Good morning (it’s morning in California!) from Anaheim, where the Wild finally dusts off its road whites and plays a game again at 9 p.m. CT (FSN, KFAN). I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m. CT.

If you want to read a little about what the Wild has been up to since beating Colorado, 3-zip, Saturday, check out this story.

For the second straight game, the Wild walks into an arena with a division championship banner already hanging. Saturday in Denver, the Wild spoiled that Central Division title party for the Avs in their home opener. The Ducks have their Pacific Division title banner up in the air already as they finally play a home game after a 3-1 road swing to open the year.

“In the end, no matter how great it feels to win the division against the teams that are in our division, if you don’t go further than that, nobody cares," said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau. "It is saying something you won it, but we want no fanfare with that. Hopefully there will be a bigger banner there some time in the next year.”

As expected, Darcy Kuemper in goal, Keith Ballard and Matt Dumba will be the third pair and the fourth line will be Matt Cooke-Ryan Carter-Jason Zucker with Justin Fontaine making his season debut on the second line. Nate Prosser and Christian Folin are expected to play Sunday in L.A., perhaps with Niklas Backstrom in goal. That's all subject to change.

On Fontaine playing with Vanek and Koivu, coach Mike Yeo said, "We’re hoping to see that line click. We’re hoping to see that line create a lot of 5-on-5. They got the one big goal when we spotted Zuck up there, but then after that, the rest of the game they were pretty quiet. I want to see those guys be a threat every time that they’re on the ice and when they’re not on the attack that they’re defending the right way."

In Game 3 of the first round against Colorado, Kyle Brodziak was scratched for the first time in his Wild career. Despite two quality games on the fourth line to start this year, Brodziak’s first scratch of this season will come in Game 3.

"We’re a deeper team," Yeo said. "We’ve had some healthy guys out of the lineup already and this is the lineup we’re going with tonight. The one thing we want to create is we want the idea that guys are pushing each other, and so obviously we have that right now.

"Actually I haven’t been disappointed with his games at all. It’s just a matter of where other guys fit right now and we’re happy with a lot of other people’s games, so the message is pretty simple: Work hard today and get ready for the next one."

Said Brodziak, "I understand it’s part of it. It’s a long year and you’ve just got to stay positive and keep trying to build your game up as much as you can. When you get a chance to get back in, you’ve got to make the most of it.

"When you have a team that’s as deep as we are up front, it is going to create higher competition amongst the team and that’s never a bad thing when you have guys that all want to accomplish the same thing and contribute and be a part of it. As much as everybody else there’s a competition that comes along with it and that should be a good thing for the group."


Carter, who won a Stanley Cup in 2007 with the Ducks (see that story here), will center the fourth line.

As I wrote in this story here, Clayton Stoner is excited to face the Wild tonight. Dany Heatley won’t play because of a groin strain.

“It’s frustrating to be hurt. I felt real good in training camp and preseason and I’m just trying to get healthy again,” Heatley said.

Heatley said it was a freak, innocent thing and disappointed because he showed immediate chemistry on the Ducks’ first line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in the preseason.

“Perry is one of the best goal scorers in the league, and Getz is the best center or definitely right up there. He looks to pass a lot and that’s good for a shooter.”

On his three-year Wild career, Heatley said, “Ups and downs. The first year there I thought was a decent year. The lockout year was a weird year, kind of struggled with some injuries and the same thing in the third year.”

In the playoffs, Heatley was scratched the first two games. He drew in Game 3 of the first round and finished with a goal, five assists and a team-best plus-6 in 11 games. His saucer helped set up Nino Niederreiter’s Game 7 OT winner in Denver.

“It was fun,” he said. “It was obviously a tough start to the playoffs, but once I got into the lineup, it was fun playing with those guys. I think I left on a pretty good note.”

Yeo on Heatley: "I really enjoyed coaching Heater. You always know a little bit about the player coming there, and when you have the chance to coach them, especially players like that, you end up appreciating them so much more. First off, you get to know the human being and what kind of person they are and what kind of teammate they are. … It was a real pleasure for me."

Boudreau again raved about the Wild, its players, what Thomas Vanek adds to the team and all of the Wild’s young kids, especially Charlie Coyle and Erik Haula.

Oh, also Kuemper.

“I don’t think they’ll go 82 games without giving up a goal,” Boudreau said. “I don’t think we’re licking our chops to be the first team that scores on him. We just want to come out and play hard and hopefully it’s good enough to win. We love to play in front of our home crowd, so hopefully the guys aren’t too preoccupied with it and play a little bit like they were on the road.”

Rikard Rakell is the Ducks’ scratch tonight. Emerson Etem takes Patrick Maroon’s slot on the first line. Frederik Andersen starts. And Chris Wagner, the Player of the Week in the AHL, will make his NHL debut.

Clayton Stoner to face his old Wild on Friday, but Dany Heatley won't

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: October 16, 2014 - 6:37 PM
UPDATED
 

Look who's here! Dany Heatley, the Wild vet of the past three years, is 33, but it seems California has been good to him. He looks younger and in good shape.

"It's the California sun, Roose," said Heatley.

Heatley won't play in Anaheim's home opener against the Wild on Friday though. He is out with a groin injury.

This guy will those....

Clayton Stoner, fresh off signing a four-year, $13 million deal to triple last year's $1.1 million salary from the Wild, will be paired with offensive defenseman Sami Vatanen.

“I kind of just felt like I needed a change from Minnesota,” Stoner said. “Nothing against it. Just sometimes change is good for somebody and keeps you motivated for a new team, new teammates and a good opportunity here.”

He already has stitches on his left eyebrow from being checked into the glass, has gotten into a scrap and believes he has put himself in a position here to win a Cup.

“[Playing the Wild in the home opener] makes it more exciting to play the game," Stoner said. "I love those guys so much that it probably will be more smiles at them. I’ll be playing as hard as I can like I do every night but after playing for so long with those guys, it’ll be fun.”

Stoner joked he looked forward to checking his old buddy Kyle Brodziak “because he probably wouldn’t get too mad at me,” although Brodziak may be a healthy scratch Friday. That's the way it looked in today's practice.

Stoner said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau hadn’t yet asked him for background on the Wild.

“I’m surprised. I thought he’d been asking for my expertise,” Stoner joked.

On playing with stars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Stoner said, It’s unbelievable. It’s pretty amazing. They just have a different dynamic than I’m used to with them being so big and able to protect the puck."

More on Stoner and Heatley, coincidentally close friends on the Wild, in Friday's paper.

After taking yesterday as a team building day by the pool and golf course and upscale resort and awesome meal, the Wild had a good, hard practice today and will have to figure out a way to go right back into combat after so much time off. It hasn't played since Saturday.

Just like Tuesday, it appears as if Ryan Carter will center the fourth line with Matt Cooke and Jason Zucker, although coach Mike Yeo said they still have to talk about that. Justin Fontaine will make his season debut on the right side of Thomas Vanek and Mikko Koivu.

Vanek gets to move back to where he feels most comfortable -- the left wing, and Fontaine's there because the line looked good together before Fontaine got hurt. Yeo doesn't want to mess with the Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Charlie Coyle line. He's very happy with that line. And even though Zucker will play right wing on the fourth line, Yeo doesn't know if he's quite ready to play the off wing full-time yet. If he looks good at right wing and Fontaine doesn't, Yeo said he may spot up Zucker the way he did during his big goal in Colorado with Vanek and Koivu. Yeo liked the way Zucker was playing, so he moved him up.

But, basically, Yeo wants to insert Fontaine without touching the top line and the third line, and he wants Fontaine on the second line because they're three offensive guys who think the game well.

By the way, retired Saku Koivu watched his brother practice today.

Keith Ballard and Matt Dumba is a pair, as is Nate Prosser and Christian Folin. As I have indicated all week, that leads me to believe one pair will play against the Ducks, the other Sunday at L.A. Yeo said the Ballard-Dumba pair will go vs. Anaheim.

"I don’t want to go three weeks into a season and all of a sudden we need a defenseman and they haven’t played," Yeo said of Ballard and Prosser. "They have no foundation, they've got no base for a season. All of training camp would be pretty much a waste. So, try to get them involved here early and we’ve got a team here, too. We don’t have a bunch of guys and a few extras. We’ve got a team. It’s always good to make sure that guys know they can work hard to come into the lineup and guys know that they have to work hard to stay in the lineup. Nothing’s given to anybody."

Big test for the Wild going up against Anaheim and L.A. Ducks were 29-8-5 at home last year.

"We really believe that Minnesota is a really good team," Boudreau said. "They were good in the playoffs. They could have beaten Chicago. As a matter of fact, even though Chicago won in six, I thought Minnesota outplayed them for most of the time. It was just that karma or whatever that Chicago had that let them win that series. They’ve come in, and a good Colorado team, they beat them badly twice. We know it’s a great test for us, for our young players. We’re going to use them as a measuring stick to see where we're at."

Patrick Maroon is out with a sprained knee for the Ducks, so speedster Emerson Etem looks like he'll slide onto the line with Getzlaf and Perry.

Justin Fontaine likely to debut Friday; Lineup shuffle in the works

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild practice Updated: October 14, 2014 - 1:53 PM

The Wild had a long, workmanlike practice today at Xcel Energy Center and is about to take off from MSP for Orange County, where it will spend the next few days prior to Friday's game at Anaheim.

Good afternoon from MSP myself. The team will have an off-ice workout Wednesday, a golf outing and team dinner before ramping back up at practice Thurday in Anaheim.

Justin Fontaine looks like he will make his season debut Friday night on the right side of the Thomas Vanek-Mikko Koivu line.

Coach Mike Yeo is looking to keep his real quality Nos. 1 and 3 lines intact, especially that solid Nino Niederreiter-Erik Haula-Charlie Coyle line. Ryan Carter said today that line reminds him of a certain Anaheim young line that helped lead the Ducks to a Cup in 2007. The names on that line -- Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Dustin Penner -- became eventual stars (at least two of them), and that's not what Carter's saying. He's saying the makeup, the role and the age is very similar.

Carter centered the fourth line today with Jason Zucker and Matt Cooke. Kyle Brodziak was switching in and out.

I think Carter will indeed center that line Friday and Yeo talked more today about just how much Carter knows his role and is playing it well.

Last week, I mentioned how I thought Fontaine would slide into the second line because the best that line has looked so far came with Fontaine there in training camp and the Pittsburgh exhibition game.

I started to wonder if initially Yeo would start Zucker there just because of the goal with Vanek and Koivu in the second Colorado win, but Yeo said today, "I saw some things earlier in training camp. Unfortunately Fonzie got hurt and we want to give it a little more of a go, but what we like about Fonzie is his whole life he’s sort of been in that role. You could see what he has done at various levels, the way he has had the ability to play with top players and had the ability to put up points. What I like is the way he thinks the game. That gives him a chance to read off of those two guys and make the plays that he needs to make. We saw a couple instances of that in practice, whether it was darting to a hole or making a play into space with those guys. Very hopeful that works out."

Fontaine also played the No. 2 power play with those two in practice instead of Niederreiter or Coyle. Yeo said that may not be a full-time thing, that he wanted to give them more time to skate together.

BUT, it sure sounds like that's what he's thinking to start.

"We’re trying to find the right mix there," Yeo said. "I wanted to give him a good opportunity to go in practice today. Both those guys – Nino and Charlie – had a chance to factor in on the power play, but I grabbed them before that I wanted them to really have a good focus on their penalty killing today. Nino’s really been doing a great job and I’ve been using him a lot and Charlie, I would like to get him more involved in it as well. It’s not just a power-play practice when we’re working that stuff. We’re working our penalty kill too and I just like that we’re much closer to a place where our penalty killers are penalty killers and our power-play guys are power-play guys. There’s not much crossover. The guys that go out on the penalty kill, that’s their baby and they have pride in that, and I think we’ve seen that so far and likewise on the power play."

Keith Ballard was paired with Matt Dumba today and Nate Prosser played the left alongside Christian Folin. Folin had been playing the left, but that's really not fair to a young guy to put him on his off side when he's rarely done it before. The irony is Prosser in previous years was always the healthy scratch when the Wild needed a left-shot D because Yeo didn't feel he could play that side.

Regardless, it's pretty clear the plan is for Ballard and Dumba to play one game together this weekend and Prosser and Folin the other. Subject to change, of course, but the Wild doesn't want its extra D sitting around for three weeks not playing and when the two rookies played together in Denver, they only logged 9 and 10 minutes, respectively.

Same thing for Niklas Backstrom. Again, subject to change, Yeo is heavily considering playing him in Los Angeles on Sunday. Remember, it was at LA last year that Kuemper came out of nowhere in January to sub for an ailing Backstrom and won in a shootout during a game the Wild was severely outshot.

BUT, Yeo said, "When I talked about trying to get everybody in, [Backstrom's] part of that equation too. It’s too early to predict what’s going to happen right now. We were considering heavily putting him in last weekend, but Kuemps really didn’t give us a chance. Just going forward here, we are very conscious of trying to get him in. The schedule’s pretty light right now, but there will be a time where it will pick up and we’re going to need both goaltenders going and we just have to make sure he’s prepared for that."

Stu Bickel cleared waivers and was assigned to Iowa.

Also, if you remember back at the draft, Richard Park interviewed with GM Chuck Fletcher for a player development role. In almost a tryout basis, Park then worked development camp as a coach. Today, in a move that was coming for some time, Park was officially hired as a player development coach to work in Iowa.

Park, 38 (5/27/76), recorded 241 points (102-139=241) and 266 penalty minutes (PIM) in 738 career NHL games during 14 seasons with Pittsburgh, Anaheim, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Vancouver and the New York Islanders. The forward skated in 40 career NHL playoff games, including 18 with the Wild in 2002-03 when the team advanced to the Western Conference Finals. The native of Seoul, South Korea, tallied 74 points (37-37=74) in 217 games during three seasons with Minnesota (2001-04).
 
 Park retired as a player after spending the last two seasons playing for Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland (2012-14). He was originally selected by Pittsburgh in the second round (50th overall) in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft.

Wild practice: A little fun during a long wait

Posted by: Rachel Blount under Wild practice Updated: October 13, 2014 - 1:43 PM

With five days until its next game, the Wild turned Monday's practice into a spirited session of pond hockey for pros. The team spent much of the workout playing three-on-three on a compressed rink, with the nets parked just outside the blue lines. There was plenty of laughter and one-upsmanship, along with some complaining about the calls being made by assistant-coach-turned-ref Darryl Sydor.

Team Green celebrated its victory with some chest bumps and a group hug. Coach Mike Yeo said the unusual early-season break mandated a creative approach to practice time this week, one that allows the team to throttle down for a couple of days while keeping it on its toes for Friday's game at Anaheim. The Wild leaves for California on Tuesday afternoon, with Friday's game followed by a Sunday matinee at Los Angeles.

Yeo said there was a lot of "hidden work'' in Monday's practice, along with an off-ice workout. The Wild also made a roster move, putting forward Stu Bickel on waivers to make room for Justin Fontaine. Fontaine said he is fully recovered from a gluteus strain, and Yeo said there was a good chance he would play on the road trip. The coach expects to mix others into the lineup as well to ensure everyone on the roster is getting the playing time they need to be at their best.

"I'm not afraid to make changes,'' Yeo said. "This is a weekend where we have to see guys get in. If they don’t play this weekend, we're looking at three weeks into the season where guys haven’t played a game.

"This is a long season. To sit here and say we're just satisfied with where we are and what we've done, that’s not going to be the case. We've got to keep trying to work to get better. Whoever is in the lineup and wherever they're playing, they have to be ready to go.

"We don’t want guys on our roster sitting around for three weeks without playing a game. These guys, we're going to need them down the road. We've got to make sure we give them a chance to make sure they're ready to have a good season. That doesn't mean we're going to be going game after game just rotating things here, but certainly, we have to eye this weekend as an opportunity for us to make sure guys get into the lineup.''

In other practice news Monday:

--Kuemper was named the NHL's second star of the week after making 46 saves in his back-to-back shutouts of Colorado to open the season. Yeo--who seemed uncomfortable with the praise heaped on his team for its two victories--said he was happy for Kuemper but wanted him and the rest of the team to look forward. The goalie echoed that opinion.

"It's exciting to get mentioned like that,'' he said. "But I was fortunate our team played so well. I just benefited from that. It's exciting, and we'll move forward from that now. ... Just our preparation, we can't let that level drop. We've just got to stay on top of it and start looking forward to the next game.''

--Yeo said he isn't certain what Fontaine's role will be, but he does want to see him increase his scoring this season. "We weren’t playing him in skilled roles a lot of the time (last season), or in more of a scoring role. But that said, I think I'd like to see him take another step in that department this year.''   

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