Myers: Confidence growing for Wild but many questions and tests remain
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Like many others in the hockey world, Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo is a creature of habit. He preaches a system, and is a firm believer in that system. When his team is playing the system he's laid out, Yeo likes to say that his Wild can compete with anyone in the NHL.
It's a notion he repeated again on Wednesday, after his team survived a Chicago shooting gallery for 45 minutes and won in a shootout to claim all four points available in their short two-game home stand.
"It's early. We're not there yet by any means, but this team has shown that when we're playing our game, we can play with anybody," Yeo said.
Then, he stopped, and offered a small correction - one he might not have offered in his first season behind a NHL bench.
"Scratch that," Yeo added. "We can beat anybody."
Two weeks ago it was Yeo practicing what folks in the public relations world call "expectation management" by noting that local expectations for the Wild - with the much anticipated and long delayed debut of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter upcoming - were way, way beyond the national expectations for the Wild, and perhaps not in complete command of reality. He was preaching patience, and giving the team a chance to get into that system which, thanks to the lockout, he'd had many, many months to craft, with no players to implement it.
Today, that quest for patience is quickly fading as confidence grows. And a good part of it is spurred by what Yeo and a big crowd saw on Wednesday, when the Wild were playing the second game of a back-to-back versus a rested and undefeated opponent. When the Wild got a rough start from their first goalie and made a change in the crease before the first period was even half done. When the Wild were out-shot by a huge margin in the second, third and overtime by the dangerous likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, et al.
And still, let not only by their uber-dangerous top line but by a supporting cast that is finding more ways to contribute, the Wild found a way to win.
Chicago goalie Corey Crawford's night began, and ended, with Matt Cullen shooting the puck, and the netminder failing to stop it. The first one came in the opening minutes, giving the Wild a 1-0 lead that proved to be vital, as everyone in the building knew their energy level would be fading as the game wore on. The last one came in the shootout, where Cullen again beat Crawford, winning the game.
A year ago, goals by Cullen were less noteworthy. That was before Parise, Dany Heatley and Mikko Koivu teamed up to form a top line that is doing so much - some say too much - in getting the Wild off to a positive start. In a shortened season, finding opportunities for others carry the load will be increasingly vital. Yeo admitted seeing signs of wear among the big three already.
"I've thought that Mikko's line in particular, in the last couple games, they've played some hard minutes, some tough matchups and they've really started to look a little tired and a little fatigued late in the game," Yeo said after the Chicago game. "But early in the game they were unbelievable with the chances they were getting in the offensive zone."
Cullen's second line, which includes Devin Setoguchi and Mikael Granlund, is supposed to be a complimentary offensive force, but until lately had been a no-show. While Yeo continues to defend the talented Finnish rookie, Granlund continues to look not quite strong enough to play effectively at the NHL level just yet. He had an assist on Cullen's first goal Wednesday, but made perhaps his most important contribution by getting hammered from behind into the corner boards, drawing a penalty which gave the Wild a 5-on-3 power play.
Yeo sees potential in Granlund, and that may be the one place the coach is still preaching patience, as the European continues to adjust to the NHL-size ice sheet, which is 15 feet narrower than the Olympic-size playing surface where Granlund learned the game.
"I had a great conversation with him again, and I'm starting to see some of the things he's going to need to do to be successful at this level," Yeo said. "If you're playing on the big ice surface you're going to be able to play a little bit differently. You can slow down and delay and play to the net a little bit more. He played more of a North American game there."
Last season, during those early November and December salad days when the Wild were healthy and playing the Yeo system, everything was clicking, and for a time they were the top team in the NHL, led by players like Setoguchi and Kyle Brodziak. Seven games into this season, the Wild are 4-2-1 and leading their division, but Setoguchi and Brodziak are both still looking for their first goal. Maybe it was the come-down after an important win, after Cullen and Cal Clutterbuck had contributed goals, Yeo sounded like a man brimming with confidence on that topic as well.
"We knew it was a matter of time. We've got quality players," he said. "If you want to call our second line, our third line, our fourth line. We've got guys we know that can score. We've talked about it every day that as long as you're getting the chances, eventually they're going to go in for you."
If the playoffs began today - and even in this abbreviated season, they do not - the Wild would hoist the second division title banner in franchise history, and host Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs. Instead there are 41 games still to play, and the next two are on the road. After contests in Anaheim and Phoenix, the Wild return home to face that highly-regarded Canucks club that remains the team to beat in the division, and in the Western Conference.
We should know much more about the validity of Yeo's abundant confidence by then.