Myers: Wild season wrap, with Yeo still a bit bitter how things ended
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - In a career spent inside one rink or another all across North America, Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo has repeatedly heard all of hockey's great sounds - the scrape of sharp skates on ice, the slap of a hard shot, the groan of the home crowd after a questionable call and the wail of the goal horn.
On Tuesday night in overtime, when he heard the metallic clank of Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook's dump-in, as the puck struck a stanchion behind the Wild net, Yeo knew there was trouble right away.
"You heard that and you knew that the puck was going to be changing directions," Yeo said on Thursday, meeting with the media for the first time since the sudden death of the Wild playoff run. "Especially where it hit, there's a good chance that it's coming out toward the front of the net."
It did, ending up behind Wild goalie Illya Bryzgalov, as Patrick Kane sent Chicago onto the next round, and left Yeo and his team thinking about what might have been, in a game and a series they had every intention of winning. And after that, there was an eerie silence, which is the worst thing a coach can hear at home.
"To be perfectly honest, I'm still a little bit bitter," Yeo said, dressed in a warm-up suit and Wild hat, looking like a coach about to head out and run a pre-game practice. Had the Wild been able to score on any of the 23 missed scoring chances Yeo and his assistant counted in Game 6, they'd have been in Chicago on Thursday, prepping for another Game 7. "There's still a little bit of disbelief. You wake up in the morning and you think 'OK, I'm on my way to work.' It's obviously a season, it's long, it's hard, but it was a lot of incredibly great emotions that go along with some of the tough parts. And then it just comes to a grinding halt. So still a little bit of disbelief, I guess."
Chicago will face the winner of Game 7 between Los Angeles and Anaheim in the Western Conference finals, and is the odds-on favorite to win another Stanley Cup. For the Wild, the offseason begins now, as players begin to heal, some ponder their next career move, and Yeo expects to have his future in Minnesota secured. While rumors abound of a contract extension for the coach, he said he expects to iron out those details with general manager Chuck Fletcher next week.
While the psychological wounds may take some time, the physical healing begins now. Yeo wouldn't talk about individual players, but it was widely reported that forward Charlie Coyle played much of the Chicago series with both shoulders separated. And defenseman Ryan Suter was clearly playing with some pain after going down hard on his right arm and shoulder early in the series.
Kane, wearing a microphone for Game 6, was shown on TV going through the post-series handshake line and telling several members of the Wild that they were impressive, individually and as a team. For Yeo, it was a sign that three years into his run as a NHL head coach, folks around the league are taking notice of what he and his staff are building in St. Paul.
"I never took it as a compliment to me, I took it as a compliment to our team," Yeo said. "And that's what we're looking for, is to keep gaining the respect of people, not only that you're playing against, but around the league, and people start to see and appreciate what we've got going here. I agree with him. I think we do have a hell of a team, and we've got to keep working. We've got to keep getting better but there's definitely some good days ahead."
Yeo will conduct post-season interviews with players soon, although Erik Haula has already headed overseas to join Team Finland for what's left of the World Championships. Mikael Granlund, who led the Finns offensively in the Olympics and played his best NHL hockey after returning from Sochi, stayed back.
"First off with (Granlund), it was a long, hard year for him. You look at what he did for his country in the Olympics and the grind that he went through. I think it's important for him right now to make sure that he takes some time and rests, and gets back to 100 percent physically," Yeo said. "I think that with Erik, I'm really pleased that he's going. For me, it's a continuation of his development. This year has been a great year for him in that regard, the steps that he's taken. Now to have the opportunity to go over and play for his country, to play against some of the greatest competition in the world, to do it at that stage, I think we all saw what that did for Granny this year and hopefully it will have a similar effect on him."
The Wild finished fourth in the seven-team Central Division - the NHL's only division that sent five teams (Colorado, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota and Dallas) to the playoffs - and Yeo said Thursday he feels it's the NHL's toughest division. With Nashville finishing the season strong and Winnipeg building, it could be even tougher next season, but the coach has set earning home ice as a team goal. After going 5-1 at home in the playoffs, and seeing the Minnesota audience so hungry for a winner turn Xcel Energy Center into a real home ice advantage. On Thursday Yeo concluded with a thank you to those crowds of 19,000-plus who had made the playoff run so noisy in St. Paul, and pledged that there would be more to cheer about at this time next season.
"The building was electric. From the time the puck dropped, just the emotion, the noise, our players just fed off it. It's incredibly motivating. It does so much for the momentum swings of your hockey team in a positive way," Yeo said. "And outside of the building, just the city was abuzz. The support that we had, the way things grew and the way things kind of evolved with the fan base was phenomenal. Certainly it is, for myself personally and the group, it's incredibly motivating knowing that that's there and wanting to keep moving on with that. That's my message is, 'Thank you, and let's keep going.'"
With that, Yeo shook a few hands, grabbed a sandwich and headed back to the locker room, looking very much like a still-hungry coach, searching high and low for another playoff game to win.