For a guy coaching a team coming off a 3-0 road trip, Mike Yeo actually was nervous before watching the Wild shut out the San Jose Sharks 2-0 during a Saturday matinee.
First games after a long road trip are often subpar. Afternoon games sometimes cause sleepy starts. And, most of all, he worried his players would get too high from reading their press clippings.
“I give our guys a lot of credit for … being able to stay in the moment,” Yeo said. “It’s crucial — win, lose, whatever — to be able to hit the reset button, get refocused and get prepared.”
A few years ago, a shutout victory over San Jose days after taking four points in Vancouver and Detroit would call for a party. But Saturday’s victory only offered further proof that the guard’s changing and the Wild is on the rise.
Five consecutive wins by two goals. Ten in its past 13 games. A 14-5-1 mark since Feb. 9 for the Northwest Division leaders.
“Coming back from that road trip, we have a lot of confidence,” winger Torrey Mitchell said. “We feel like we can beat anybody right now.”
Players are falling nicely into roles. The work ethic is tremendous. Both special teams have been outstanding. Every line is scoring. But almost overlooked has been the exceptional goaltending of Niklas Backstrom.
Backstrom is tied for the NHL lead with 16 victories and on Saturday, in his 14th start in 15 games, made 19 of his 33 saves in the third period for his 27th career shutout. He is 13-3-1 in his past 17 games with a 1.98 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.
“He made very difficult saves look easy,” Yeo said. “When you see him playing like that, boy, it’s a confident feeling on the bench.”
In front of 19,358 fans — the second-largest regular-season crowd in Xcel Energy Center history — Backstrom changed the game’s complexion by denying Andrew Desjardins’ penalty shot 3:06 into the first period. Clayton Stoner held Desjardins on a breakaway, but Jared Spurgeon’s blocked shot led to the turnover.
“I’m pretty thankful for that save. He bailed me out,” Spurgeon said.
Zach Parise’s team-leading 12th goal gave the Wild a 1-0 lead for the ninth time in 10 games as a power play expired in the second period. After a great play by Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu skated to the top of the left circle and sent a no-look pass across the slot to the bottom of the right circle for Parise, who roofed it.
“[Koivu and I] almost made a little eye contact before,” Parise said. “I felt like their D in front were puck watching. He knew what I was thinking.”
Rookie Charlie Coyle’s hard work as the period expired caused Dan Boyle to trip him. That gave the Wild a full two-minute power play on fresh ice to open the third. At the very least, the Wild wanted momentum. It got better — a Suter-to-Spurgeon one-time goal for a 2-0 lead.
The assist gave Suter multipoint games in four of his past seven. He has 24 assists and 26 points in 30 games — one assist and two points from tying Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang for the top-scoring blue-liner in the NHL.
“It’s all about the end result,” Suter said. “You get judged a lot more when your team wins. It’s a good thing we have going right now.”
Backstrom said the Wild got to this point because of hard work. Still, the Canucks are right on the Wild’s tail. The teams are tied with 38 points, although Vancouver has played one more game.
“We can’t stop. We can’t be satisfied,” Backstrom said.
Yeo concurred, saying, “We’re not anywhere yet. The only thing we’ve done is set ourselves up the right way. But there’s a lot to feel good about.”