The Minnesota Wild is headed to the second round of the playoffs, drifting in after a thrilling Game 7 overtime victory over the favored Colorado Avalanche. The man orchestrating this run from behind the bench is Mike Yeo, a sprightly 40-year-old with an unfortunate look of uncertainty seemingly stuck on his face. (I suspect it’s the glasses.) He’s had his ups and downs, and there were cries for his head during some of the team’s in-season slumps. Still, it’s hard to fight the sense that he’s on to something. After the second half collapse in his first season, the Wild have twice improved their playoff result, and this is already the second-best finish in the Wild’s short and not-so-illustrious history. Three years in, he has them looking like a real contender.
I know, I know: all that improvement also traces back to July 4, 2012, the day the Wild opened the checkbook and brought in two legitimate stars, Ryan Suter and Zach Parisé. The front office has made a pair of trades to bring in two more top-six forwards, and for the first time in a while, the young talent really is flowing in. 21-year-old Charlie Coyle has established himself as a top-six forward, and two of the other young guns, Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, were the overtime heroes of the series with the Avs. This team has a solid veteran core and a good group of rising young talent, and they have a window for serious contention over the next few years. Any coach should be able to show some improvement now that the Wild actually have good players.
Still, the shortcomings aren’t hard to find. Only one of their top four defensemen (Suter) is over 23, and while they all have their flashes—Jared Spurgeon in particular—they are not yet a real strength. Sure, the forward corps is deep; Granlund and Niederreiter look like stars in the making, and of course Parisé’s work rate is second to none. But it’s hard to pretend the Wild belong in a category with Chicago or Pittsburgh and their ilk when it comes to skill, and the lower lines never were—and still really aren’t—settled. The Wild’s goaltending odyssey, meanwhile, has been the stuff of nightmares. Can someone actually keep the job for more than two weeks?
And yet here they are, in the second round for the first time in eleven years. The credit goes to the gameplan, which was ideal for this series with the Avs, and for the Wild’s skill set: possess the puck. The Wild held it for long stretches, putting up lopsided shot counts in a number of games, giving that decent collection of forwards as many cracks at Semyon Varlamov as it could, while keeping the action away from the question marks on the back end. When a team plays like that, they don’t need their goalie to be, well, Patrick Roy; they just need him to make the saves they need to make. While there were a few breakdowns and maddening stretches of failed clearances, the Wild tenders didn’t break, and the team managed to control the flow of play more often than not. If you don’t let the other team dictate the pace and go to work in the offensive zone, the results will usually follow.
The Wild were once again Patrick Roy’s bête noire, as they repeated the 7th-game overtime knockout that ended his storied playing career in 2003. The rookie Avs coach deserves much of the praise he’s had this season for turning a floundering franchise into a division winner, but there is a learning curve here, especially in the playoffs. In Game 7 he played into the Wild’s hands by switching to a passive forecheck after grabbing the early lead, and while good defensive hockey is obviously a must in the playoffs, it should never come at the expense of a team’s real strengths. The Avs are at their best when flying up and down the rink, and when they made their concession to the trap, they let the Wild set the pace. Minnesota’s growing confidence was evident from there, and they came from behind four times before pulling off the win. The heroes were on the re-worked third line, which was on the ice for the last three goals, plus chipped in another just after a power play by the oft-maligned Dany Heatley. Unable to use that line to match with Colorado’s best as he had in the home games, Yeo instead went with three guys who could generate some offensive pressure, and they did just that.
It was a real triumph for Minnesota, both in the final results and in the style column, with Yeo’s patient cycles eclipsing the Avs’ trap. Moreover, one gets the sense that this franchise, now in its 14th season, is finally coming into its own. While Jacques Lemaire will always have a well-deserved place in Wild history for his early efforts, his imported, dull style and (mostly) ragtag collection of players never had the verve of this group. This Wild team has a couple of stars as its faces, a rising group of homegrown youngsters, and some hard-working depth players whose efforts keep the team on the attack and able to recover from short-term setbacks. It’s a fitting formula for a Minnesota team, and one its fans should have no trouble embracing: it’s not flashy, but it can still be very pretty, and with enough work thrown in, it produces results. After decades of wandering in the wilderness in the pros while the amateurs carry the load, the self-proclaimed State of Hockey may finally have an NHL team worthy of the title.
Of course, it could easily come to a crashing halt in the next round. Some have contended that the Chicago Blackhawks aren’t as good as they were a year ago, when they disposed of the Wild in five tidy games. I’m not buying it. It’s the exact same group, most of them are still in their primes, and they’re all playoff-tested; when they turned it on after going down 2-0 to St. Louis, they looked just like their old selves. The Hawks are the Avalanche on steroids, with depth, experience, and some overwhelming elite talent.
This Wild is certainly better than last year’s Wild, though, and they’ll have a fighting chance if they can continue to limit the burden on their goalies and defensemen not named Suter. Yeo will need to find a comfort zone with his line-juggling act, and perhaps add a few wrinkles in his chess match with Joel Quenneville. He’s not the second coming of Scotty Bowman; he has his flaws, and though he had some experience on Roy, he’s still a kid in the game. But he does have his team moving in the right direction, and when his back’s been up to the wall, he’s found a way. By Minnesota Wild standards, that’s a real achievement, and he’s done enough to earn some time to prove what he can do.