Mike Yeo walked out of the visitors locker room after Wednesday’s practice at Jobing.com Arena and ran right into one of his mentors, Phoenix coach Dave Tippett.
The Wild coach not only played years for Tippett in the 1990s with the Houston Aeros, Yeo was Tippett’s captain.
Tippett said to Yeo, “Nice win yesterday,” referring to Minnesota’s 2-1 shootout victory in Los Angeles.
Yeo rolled his eyes and said, “Not as good as yours,” referring to Phoenix’s 6-0 win over Calgary.
“Wasn’t as good as it looked,” responded Tippett, before the veteran coach added, “You’re never as bad as you think you are, and you’re never as good as you think you are.”
It was a good reminder about how essential it is to stay even-keeled during the ups and downs of an 82-game season.
Sometimes, that’s easier said than done.
A week earlier, Yeo was very likely a whisker from being fired. The Wild had lost six in a row, including blowing a three-goal lead at home to the Islanders. After that sixth loss to St. Louis, defenseman Ryan Suter said, “We’re as close to bottom as you can get.”
A loss to Buffalo on Jan. 2 almost certainly would have resulted in Yeo’s pink slip. A loss to Washington last Saturday — a game in which the Wild rallied from a 2-0 deficit thanks to Suter’s hat trick — might have had the same outcome.
Yeo knew it. He even met with his players before the Wild’s New Year’s Day practice and told them he wouldn’t coach to “save my job” and reassured them how much he still believed in them.
Since that talk, the Wild has won four in a row, including consecutive road victories against the Kings and Coyotes without captain Mikko Koivu, go-to forward Zach Parise, top-four defenseman Jared Spurgeon and the first-half MVP, goalie Josh Harding.
A week ago, the strain inside the locker room was profound. You could sense it at every moment. Many folks, such as General Manager Chuck Fletcher, wore the anxiety on their faces.
But the tension that engulfed the franchise then feels like a century ago.
Different hero each night
“It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t fun,” Yeo said of the stress he was particularly under. “But honestly, you tell me, I think I handled it well. I just focused on the next day. I had total confidence in our guys. I didn’t have a shadow of a doubt that our guys were going to go out and compete hard. That’s all you can do is focus on what you can control.
“You know what you know, and I know our guys. I can’t control the other stuff.”
Ten days ago, Yeo was all but begging his players to “step up.”
Since, different players every night have come through, from Niklas Backstrom winning three consecutive games to Jason Zucker scoring twice, including a game-winner, to Darcy Kuemper redeeming himself for early-season struggles with a gutsy 39-save effort in L.A., to Nino Niederreiter scoring a tying goal and shootout goal in that same game, to Justin Fontaine becoming the first Wild rookie to record a hat trick.
“I feel like we have a lot of young guys following great leadership right now and playing the game we need to play,” Fontaine said. “We stayed tight in the locker room. Everyone stuck together.”
The games haven’t been perfect, but the battle level has been remarkable.
“No question our guys are playing with urgency and recognizing the guys we have out of the lineup,” Yeo said.
Things change quickly
The past few weeks were an emotional roller coaster.
“Mentally, we ask a lot of our players,” Fletcher said. “I don’t know if anybody’s capable of playing 82 must-wins games, yet that’s what we ask of them. There’s so much travel, the schedule’s compressed because of the Olympics, and that’s coming on the heels of a 48-game compressed season, the teams are all so close, there’s never an easy game … ever.
“You never have a chance to breathe, whether you’re a player or coach, you’re constantly going. It’s hard. Losses just compound that stress.”
So do injuries to high-end players such as Koivu and Parise.
But there is a bright side, Fletcher said.
“Developmentally, this is a great opportunity for some of these guys to get minutes and roles they typically wouldn’t have,” Fletcher said. “Night to night, there may be variances in performance, but long-term, I’ve got to think this will be excellent for some of these kids to experience — the good things and the bad things.”
The one thing Yeo learned the past week is how quickly things can change.
“Right now the wave is going the other direction and we have to keep that in mind,” Yeo said. “We can’t start thinking that we’re too good here. We’ve got to recognize that there’s a lot of work to be put in and we need a lot of great performances every night in order to win hockey games.”