Good afternoon from Montreal, where the Wild, which has lost two in a row for the second time this season, practiced today at the Bell Centre.
I’ll be on KFAN at 4:30 p.m. CT, and just a note if you don’t realize, even though Saturday’s game is listed at 6 p.m. CT, it actually starts at 6:30 p.m. FSN+’s Wild Live will start at 6 and KFAN’s pregame show at 6:15.
The reason for the 6:30 p.m. start is because at 5:30 p.m. CT/6:30 p.m. ET, Hall of Famer’s Guy Lapointe’s Montreal Canadiens’ No. 5 sweater will rise to the Bell Centre rafters during a 25-minute ceremony before warmups. Lapointe will be reunited with the “Big Three,” – Larry Robinson and Serge Savard. Their banners were already at center ice today so Lapointe’s can go right next to theirs.
Lapointe’s No. 5 has been painted onto the ice between both nets. Here’s a feature I wrote on Lapointe in June, and in Saturday’s paper I wrote a story on Lapointe and in Sunday’s paper I wrote a column on just how good Lapointe was.
Most cool Saturday – the Wild players will be on the bench during the ceremony. It’s cool because Lapointe was partly responsible for drafting many of these Wild players as the team’s chief amateur scout. He has been with the Wild since the inception when hired by former teammate Doug Risebrough. In fact, in hockey ops, I believe the only guys from Day One still with the team are Lapointe, equipment manager Tony DaCosta, athletic therapist Don Fuller, PR guy Aaron Sickman and scout Ernie Vargas.
Robinson, who’s the associate coach for the San Jose Sharks but is skipping their game against Dallas, Savard, Mario Tremblay and many other former teammates will be at the ceremony with Lapointe, his wife, three kids and brother. If you’ve ever seen a Canadiens ceremony, they’re usually second to none. Tonight, Lapointe and his wife made sure they will be free so they can spend the evening with Wild GM Chuck Fletcher, coach Mike Yeo and Wild colleagues.
As you can tell if you read the above story on Lapointe, he is the ultimate prankster.
So Yeo expects to be shoe-checked tonight (kind of like Mikko Koivu’s shootout move, all folks in Lapointe’s vicinity know he’s doing to smear ketchup or some other substance on their shoe, yet he always gets em anyway).
“I’ve been shoe checked once in pro hockey and it was from Guy when I first got the job in Minnesota,” Yeo said. “For me, the experience that I’ve had getting to know him, I mean, I’ve always heard about him and you know what a great player he was and what a great career he had, and then to be around, like he’s such a joy. That’s the best way that I can put it. He’s such a joy to be around, keeps things loose, but at the same time he’s very insightful for me to listen to the way that they used to do things, the way that their team used to operate, I love that. Real pleased that we can be here and be part of that special night for him.”
OK, here we go, and I actually need to be somewhat quick here because I have two articles to write, a preview box and my Sunday package still to get done this afternoon.
Wild’s not in a crisis situation, but it sure feels it could get to that point with Zach Parise and Jared Spurgeon out and teams like St. Louis, Nashville, Vancouver, even Winnipeg on fire right now.
Yeo had some conversations with guys on the ice today, which he said were different for each guy.
“Bottom line,” Yeo said, “is I think everybody is aware of where they stand right now. I don’t think that we’re that far off. But we have to find a way to push over the edge. For our organization, we’ve been kind of teetering on the edge of being a really good team and getting to that next level, so we can’t be satisfied with playing well and outshooting a team and thinking that’s enough. We have to find ways to win those games, we have to find ways to win games differently, we have to find ways to win games when people are out of the lineup, and that’s what the great teams do.
“I know that our group is capable. It’s always like this in the early part of every season. We’re very early in the building process of your group, of your team, so I could feel things starting to slip a little bit when we had won a couple games toward the end of that stretch at home and we paid the price for that against Pittsburgh and it doesn’t come easily back to us. We were almost there last night, but almost isn’t going to cut it. I know we’re going to play a desperate team tomorrow, a very good hockey team, and we’ve got to make sure that our team game is real strong and each individual within that team game is ready to go out and perform the way we need them to.”
Darcy Kuemper in the cage Saturday.
No real big changes in today’s practice. One minor change had Kyle Brodziak in between Nino Niederreiter and Justin Fontaine and Erik Haula between Stephane Veilleux and Ryan Carter. Very clear Yeo isn’t all too thrilled with Haula’s game lately and Haula admitted as such after practice. Yeo and Haula had a brief chat on the ice today, and my guess is Haula is one of those players Yeo was referring to as doing the “minimum” after last night’s game.
It also sounds like Keith Ballard may return from a long bout with illness, which could have been the mumps. He had some positive tests as I reported over the weekend here. He missed eight games with the illness and actually nine in a row if you include the healthy scratch as LA, which means if Ballard plays only his second game of the season, it’ll be his first game since logging 7:08 of ice time and having an assist and penalty at Anaheim on Oct. 17.
“We’ll have to talk more about that [Saturday morning],” Yeo said. “Obviously Bally’s a guy that I would like to get in given the fact that he’s a veteran, given the fact that he can skate against a real good skating team. We have to make sure his conditioning level’s going to be up to par, but talking to him today, he felt really good and so we’ll have to make those decisions tomorrow.”
If Ballard plays, I think Nate Prosser sits. Looks like the two rookie D may stay in.
I talked to Ballard and he said he’s heading in the right direction and this road trip has been big for him because he has handled everything the coaches have thrown at him after practice and even staying up late. He was going to bed every night at 6 or 8 p.m., so he said even watching the home games last week, he’d be exhausted by the second period.
Today’s post-practice stuff had a lot to do with the young guys and the need for them to step up bigtime with Zach Parise, Jared Spurgeon and Matt Cooke out. It’s the vets, too, though and Ryan Suter said it’s on everyone.
Some pointed quotes from Suter in his typical casual-talking style: “For us, the biggest thing is just getting back to the basics. If you’re a checker, be a checker and be good at it. If you’re a goal scorer, start scoring goals. Goaltenders got to be good goaltenders. Everyone just has to focus on themselves and we’ll get this thing turned around.”
He also said certain players may need to leave their comfort zones: “No one likes to block shots, but if things aren’t going well, you might have to get in front of one and do things that you maybe aren’t used to doing. Zach’s a tough player to replace. Spurge is tough on the back end. He was coming into his own this year, so it’s tough. Lot of pressure on other guys. They just need to bear down and we all need to pick up a little extra.”
Of the young forwards, Jason Zucker was undoubtedly the best of the bunch yesterday. Charlie Coyle played pretty well, too, but he lacked that final oomph to get to the net and get a goal. How many times the past three or four games does Coyle do a good job down low with the puck or drive a guy wide but is unable to make that one final play with the puck? Last night, it seemed like every time he skated in with power, he’d end up in the corner or on the ice or losing the puck.
Not shockingly, he was honest today about his line with Zucker and Koivu yesterday, saying, “We’ve got to perform. Our line was buzzing, but we’ve got to produce goals. Chances are chances, they’re not the end result. But it’s going to come, we’ve just got to stick to it. Once it does, we’re going to get more confidence and it’s going to get rolling.”
Mikael Granlund hasn’t been playing well. Nino Niederreiter has some goals lately, but he hasn’t been as good defensively. And the Wild wants more from Haula offensively.
I’m going to start stringing some quotes together now, partially out of laziness, partially out of the fact I really need to get some writing done for the actual printed product.
Coyle: “You try not to think about pressure – but, yeah, the pressure is on because one of our best players is out. Guys need to step up. I think this is when you find out about your team with how guys respond. There’s definitely a lot of younger guys on this team that have to take on more responsibility, so I think there’s definitely pressure on us. But I think we’re able to do it. I don’t think they’d put us here if we weren’t able to do it.”
Coyle on the fact the kids did it last year: “If I remember correctly, that was during a tough period when we were on a losing streak, too. The season could’ve just gone like this (pointed downward), but instead everyone kind of stepped up and picked each other up and we found out a lot about guys from that stretch with top guys out. This will be a good challenge for us, but I think we’re ready for it. We just need to step up.”
More Coyle: “The tough times are when you find about guys. In an easy situation, it’s easy to survive. It’s when things get tough that your backs are against the wall and you have to perform at your best. It brings out the best in some people and you can tell who lives up to the pressure and the hype and who can’t. But I think as a team we can do that, we’ve done it before.”
Erik Haula: “I think individually and as a team, we’ve got to be better. We have guys who are hurt so guys have to step up. It’s got to be better starting with myself. I’ve got to be better and right through the lineup. We have a bunch of young guys and we know that we need to be better. It’s a good opportunity so we’ve just got to produce.”
On what did Yeo say to him on the ice: “I don’t think we’re that far off, but individually I’ve got to be better offensively and be stronger on pucks and win battles in the offensive zone. I’ve got to keep working on that. I feel like defensively I try to do a good job every game, but there’s still little things that I really need to work on and get better at. You could say all you want, but in the end it’s just the game and what you do on the ice.”
El Nino: “Obviously there’s a few key players out but at the end of the day we have to pull together as a team. We have to make sure we focus on the guys that are here and dig deep and make sure we have a last push on the ice.
Yeo talked to you? “I feel like each guy just has to step up. Zach is out and Spurgeon is out and Cooke is out. It’s tough to replace those guys but we have to make sure each guy brings what we need to bring and we have to focus on ourselves. If everybody does his strengths, that’s how we’ll get better as a team. … Zach is out so we have to make sure another guys steps up. That’s how it works. That’s how we did it last year. Each of the young guys got better and we had to fill their shoes. We have to make sure we play our best hockey at the time they’re out.”
Thomas Vanek returns to Montreal for the first time since the playoffs. He was peppered by the press today and said pretty much a lot of the same stuff you have heard from him the past few days – he needs to step up, get more shots (got seven last night), begin to score.
He talked about how lucky he was last year in Montreal getting to play with two consistent linemates (until he was demoted to the fourth line in the conference finals) and how in Minnesota “I’ve pretty much played with every forward here.”
He’ll skate again with Granlund and Jason Pominville on Saturday. Yeo said, “As the game went on, it seemed to be coming along for them. They were involved in four good scoring chances in the second period for us. And I think that’s what we should expect. One game is probably a little bit too early to judge. There were some signs, and I know that they have had chemistry together in the past, so giving that line another opportunity to play together and show what they can do is going to be important.”
Yeo talked a lot about Habs coach Michel Therrien. Yeo was his assistant in Pittsburgh before Therrien was fired and Dan Bylsma took over. Yeo said he wouldn’t be here without Therrien, calling him the most underrated coach in the NHL, but “with that said, I’d love to beat him, too (laughing).”
OK, my fingers hurt and I haven’t even written for the paper yet. Talk to you Saturday.