“There is really not much to say,” he said, allowing a smile to creep across his typically emotionless face. “Our guys were ready for this one, for sure.”
This was not any old game: The Wild had just beaten the Nashville Predators in a 2-1 shootout and had to turn around and play the Canucks, a team that has had a stranglehold over the division and had previously lost to twice this season.
The Wild came out firing. Zach Parise scored his 10th goal of the season 24 seconds into the game on a pass from team captain Mikko Koivu. “Yeah, that’s ideal,” Parise said of the team’s start, taking a moment to laugh and revel in the moment. “That’s ideal in any game, but you never know with back-to-backs. It’s tough sometimes you come out flat. We got back pretty late last night.”
Parise and his team would go on to win 4-2, but that did not come without a scare in the third period when Henrik Sedin scored a goal to make it 3-2 one minute in. “They scored and we were able to respond,” says Yeo. “We were able to come back and get another big goal.”
Not only did the team respond offensively, but they also answered the bell physically. Eleven minutes into the game there was a giant scrum in front of the net that filled the penalty boxes on either side of the scorer’s table. Shortly after that Mike Rupp fought Vancouver’s Tom Sestito.
“I love the way we started that game,” said Yeo, referring to both the early scoring and the physical play. “A couple of guys were going at Mikko, going at our captain, and our guys responded. This is a group that cares about each other, they want to stick up for each other.”
Something clicked for this team on Sunday, March 11. After months of different line combinations, player call-ups and demotions and people calling for Yeo’s head, everything finally came together.
“It hasn’t been easy,” said Yeo with strained laughter. “I can’t count the line combinations that we have had, but that does take time and we know that.”
All of a sudden Ryan Suter and Mikko Koivu are dishing assists left and right, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker are offering a series of strong shifts and Zach Parise is lighting the lamp like the old prospector. In short, the team’s patience has paid off.
“We have everybody contributing now,” said Yeo, “This was a fun game because you had young kids going out and doing their thing and the older guys, veterans, going out and doing their thing and…to win games this time of year you need everybody contributing and everybody going out and playing their game, playing their role well and we’ve had that.”
“I think we’re getting there,” said Parise when asked if this team had reached their potential. “You can just tell with the consistency we have. Earlier we’re just having those periods where you wonder what we were doing and we’re minimizing those now.”
Zucker and Coyle were particularly impressive. The former scored a tip-in goal near the end of the first period while the latter had an impressive shift that led to Parise’s second goal, which came six minutes into the third period.
“I don’t think I ever had a tip goal like that,” said Zucker. “It’s nice having linemates like that that are going to get you the puck.”
“We had a good shift, I almost got my bell rung,” added Coyle, who used his large frame to get to the net and create enough space to set Parise up with a timely pass. “We made some good play sand got to the net and good things happened.”
“He’s come a long way, he really has,” said Parise in praise of his linemate, “and he’s learning, as are Mikko and I, how to play together and we’re finding where each other are and talking all the time and getting to the point where, for the most part, we know where the other guy is.”
Every team in the NHL endured a setback when the league locked out, but the Wild were particularly prone to early disappointment. The roster went through a complete overhaul with the signing of Parise and Suter and the team was relying on the production of young players that were expected to make an immediate impact, namely Zucker, Coyle and Jonas Brodin as well as Mikael Granlund—who was a healthy scratch against Vancouver.
“I haven’t had a chance to think about that, really,” said Yeo, who was caught up in the nirvana of the win and had yet to contemplate the potential demotion of the former first round pick. “We’re focused on what is important for us as an organization right now and for our group right now, but we’re also away are what is going on in the future and he’s a big part of our future. A huge part of our future.”
Whether Granlund remains with the team or gets sent down is a topic for another day. For right now, the team has proven that they can beat anybody in the division and would greatly benefit from getting an automatic spot in the playoffs, even if it were the 3-seed.
The Pacific Division is bound to send the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings, as well as the San Jose Sharks—assuming they play anything like they did in the beginning of the season. The Dallas Stars could go as well, but again they look like a bubble team. The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues are virtual locks from the Central Division and I would never count out the Detroit Red Wings.
That means that the Northwest is likely to only send two teams to the playoffs. Vancouver is likely to make it and while the Colorado Avalanche has a plethora of young talent and did just beat the previously (kind of) undefeated Blackhawks, I’m not sure they are playoff-ready yet. And we know that the Edmonton Oilers are a little too young and Calgary Flames a little too old to be competitive this year.
Even though the team is only halfway through the season, they now lead the Northwest Division and know that beating the Canucks, who have won the division five of the last six years, is a watershed moment. “I mean it’s hard to look at the standings all the time, just with the way it goes,” said Parise.
“Overnight you go from fourth to 12th, but we knew we could grab a share of the first place in our division tonight and we played well, played with authority, we did things the right way and were pretty tough on them.”
“It’s an opportunity,” said Rupp, who had a fight in the first period. “It’s an opportunity you look forward to and that’s a team, my two games that I’ve been here playing against them, we always give them our best. We want to do that, we want to start making an impression on teams and we did that tonight.”
As constructed, the Wild are one of the best teams in the Western Conference and they played liked it on Sunday. Time will tell how they fare against the Blackhawks, Ducks and even the Sharks and Blues, but one thing is for certain: Minnesota is capable of winning their division and the fans know it—the standing ovation this team got after the first period indicated that.
No wonder Mike Yeo couldn’t hold back that smile.