Jim Souhan analyzes the local sports scene and advises you to never take his betting advice. He likes old guitars and old music, never eats press box hot dogs, and can be heard on 1500ESPN at 2:05 p.m. weekdays, and Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon.
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Greetings from Chicago, where we met with Wild coach Mike Yeo and the players at the team hotel before they met to game-plan for the Blackhawks series.
Wrote my column for the Friday paper on the unlikelihood of a line of Kyle Brodziak, Nino Niederreiter and Dany Heatley dominating Game 7 of the playoffs, and while speaking with Heatley, he went out of his way to spread some of the credit around.
Heatley was scratched in Games 1 and 2. Instead of griping, he, according to Yeo and his teammates, kept his chin up and encouraged his teammates. He said he actually benefitted from the rest, and from working on skating and skills with two Wild coaches who also played for the team, Darby Hendrickson and Andrew Brunette.
Hendrickson is an assistant coach. Brunette is an advisor to hockey operations and a power-play consultant. So, a coach.
``It was tough,’’ Heatley said of being scratched. ``You kind of knew that if you get scratched and the team goes on a good run it’s going to be tough to get back in. I kind of took it as a positive, to get some rest. You’ve got to give Darby and Bruno a lot of credit. They really helped me, skating, working on different stuff that you don’t get to do if you’re in the lineup.
``I did feel like when I was in the lineup I was able to help this team.’’
I've been impressed with this group's maturity. So often when a team pulls an upset, you hear coaches and athletes taunting anyone who could have possibly doubted them, overlooking the fact that their own performances in the past made them underdogs.
This team hasn't whined about bad calls, hasn't made excuses. Kyle Brodziak and Heatley were benched and they didn't complain, and they were big factors in the series win. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter are cool heads, and the combination of their leadership and that of the coaching staff has helped the young players develop and handle the pressure of the playoffs.
Even when I spoke with a prominent player in private at the team hotel, and noted that he must be exhausted, that the Wild has been put in a terrible position by having to play two days after an overtime night game in Game 7, the player said, ``This is great. This is what you live for.''
To me, Yeo has proved himself as a leader down the playoff stretch and through one round of the playoffs.
What Wild fans might want to remember is that this team wasn't supposed to make it to the second round of the playoffs. So if the expected happens, and the Blackhawks win this series, that shouldn't discredit what the Wild has done the last two months. For me, this season is already a success.
I'll be on WJON in St. Cloud at 7:15 and 1500ESPN in the Twin Cities at around 12:15 on Friday. I'll be in Chicago for Sunday Morning Sports Talk, 10-noon on Sunday.
Because of brutal deadlines (I hope none of you had to ready the first version of my deadline column), I wrote an early column about the Wild's budding rivalry with Colorado. Even more relevant now, after a great Game 7 in Denver...
We celebrate the arrival of a Game 7 in hockey because it promises a momentous ending to an escalation of drama and cultivated hatred.
The Wild’s first Game 7 in 11 years offers more: A glimpse into a future of renewed hostilities.
In the summer of 2012, Wild owner Craig Leipold signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to create these kinds of moments. With Parise and Suter locked into 10-year contracts with eight years remaining, and young players like Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle maturing before our eyes, Wednesday’s Game 7 against Colorado promises to be the first of many against the young lions of the new NHL Central division.
``I think it’s two teams that are definitely going in the right direction, with a lot of really good young players,’’ Parise said. ``There are going to be a lot of good games between the teams in the next little while.’’
The Wild is set up to win, with a host of young players filling in around its stars. The Avalanche features some of the best young players in hockey, including the irrepressible Nathan MacKinnon.
The Chicago Blackhawks, who are awaiting the winner of the Wild-Avalanche Game 7, are remarkably young for such an accomplished group. And the St. Louis Blues looked like the worst possible playoff matchup for the Wild before the Blues suffered injuries and fell to the Blackhawks in the first round after winning the first two games.
The arrival of Parise and Suter alone might have made the Wild dangerous in the Eastern Conference. In the Western Conference, and particularly in the Central division, they will need lots of help to survive these budding rivalries.
``I think we’ve done well from where this team was three years ago, to last year making the playoffs, to this year,’’ Suter said. ``We’ve gone through a lot of adversity, and to have the resilience to continue to battle…We were out of the playoffs and we battled back into it.
``This series, when you lose two games on the road to start, and you come back and win two at home, then lose a tough one and push it to a Game 7, those are the growing things for an organization. It’s trending in the right direction.’’
After a slump-ridden season, Coyle has scored three playoff goals _ two more than he scored between Jan. 12 and March 22.
After a slow start to the season, Granlund has impressed in the Olympics, down the stretch of the regular season, and in the playoffs, where he has produced four points, a spectacular game-winning goal and a surprising tough streak on defense and around the boards.
MacKinnon, the 18-year-old wunderkind, has matched Parise with 10 playoff points,and 21-year-old Gabriel Landeskog has produced four points and developed a feud with Minnesota captain Mikko Koivu.
``When you’re playing in games that mean this much and you’re playing the roles that they have, once you get a taste of it, you want to make sure that you’re always giving yourself a chance to get back there,’’ Wild coach Mike Yeo said of his young players. ``Most importantly, to learn how to go out and perform and enjoy these moments, that’s real important for our group.’’
The teams have played 10 times this season. Seven have been decided by one goal, and five have gone to overtime.
``I believe that we’re not going away and I know that they’re not going away, too,’’ Wild coach Mike Yeo said. ``This is a very skilled team that we’re playing against, and they’ve got a lot of youth over there. You can see that the two teams have a lot of similarilies, in a lot of ways - in the way they count on their young players, and the steps that they’ve taken.
``I would expect that, the way our division is lined up and with how important every division game is, how close every game was that we played against these guys ever year, it’s a budding rivalry, that’s for sure.’’
Mike Russo and I are traveling from Denver to Chicago to cover Games 1 and 2 against the Blackhawks.
I'll be on WJON in St. Cloud at 7:15, and on 1500ESPN in the Twin Cities at 12:15 or so.
On a night like tonight, with difficult deadlines, you wind up writing a lot of stuff, and throwing a lot of it away.
I wrote an early column on Charlie Coyle (see earlier posts). Wrote about Parise's goal, and the Avs' comeback, but finally wound up writing about Wild coach Mike Yeo walking into the press room after the game and smiling.
I'm impressed. It takes real discipline to handle that kind of a loss with so much grace, and to immediately set the right tone for your team.
If Yeo had whined, or ranted about officiating, he would have been cueing his players to do the same. That wouldn't do this team any good.
Yeo immediately placed the emphasis where it should be - on winning Game 6.
I think the NHL should issue a waiver allowing this series to go, say, 11 games. This series keeps getting better.
One thought about Mitch McGary leaving Michigan because he smoked pot: Does this mean Mark Emmert will have to leave the NCAA because of thinking so obviously crack-related?
Korzo and Hunter will be in the 1500ESPN studio Sunday morning, 10-noon. I'll be calling in on my way to the Denver airport. Lots of talk about the Wild. Mostly I'll tell Korzo to stop whining.
If you're looking for something other than a loss to read about, here's my early-edition column on Charlie Coyle making strides in this series...
By Jim Souhan
Charlie Coyle is turning himself into a promising part of the Wild’s future, whether you frame the future as Monday or 2016.
In a series that began as a showcase for Colorado’s speed-skater, Nathan MacKinnon, Coyle has powered his way to the net and into a starring role as the Wild has tied the first-round Stanley Cup playoff series, two games apiece.
As the Wild prepared to play Game 5 on Saturday night at the Pepsi Center, Avalanche defenseman and Minnesota native Erik Johnson offered an opponents’ view of the only Wild player who has scored more than one goal in the series.
``I think he’s been their horse in this series,’’ Johnson said. ``You’ve really got to watch when he’s on the ice. When you look at some of those big power forwards, he’s so strong coming to the net that if you’re not conscious on your blockouts, he’ll hurt you.
``He’s got such a good stick around the net and he’s big and he goes to those dirty areas. You’ve got to really watch. He’s been their X-factor in the series in terms of scoring those timely goals for them. He’s definitely a lot to handle.’’
After scoring 12 games in 70 games this season, Coyle has scored a team-high three goals in four playoffs games. He scored the game-winner on Game 4, merely by cutting to the net when an unpredictable bounce put the puck almost directly on his stick.
``Going to the net, going hard, getting into traffic and getting the dirty goal, that’s what I’m trying to do,’ Coyle said. ``A goal’s a goal.’’
Coyle emerged as a threat just in time to help the Wild secure a playoff spot, and just in time to tie a thrilling series.
Coyle said he found ``my game’’ late in the season. His coach, Mike Yeo, remembers Coyle breaking out of a slump a bit earlier.
After Coyle scored two goals against Colorado on Jan. 11, he went 15 games without a goal, scored one on …, then went seven more games without a goal. Starting on March 22, he scored goals in three straight games, becoming a late-season threat for a team typically starved for scoring.
``Coach Yeo brought me into the office and had a little talk with me, as he does over the year with whoever,’’ Coyle said. ``He talked to me then about my style of play. I knew it too, but you have to get yourself in that mindset, just playing your game. He definitely said some stuff that stuck with me.’’
``There were a lot of ups and downs,’’ Yeo said. ``There were times where it looked like he was really on top of his game, and like a lot of young kids, there were times when things started to drift away from him.
`` I would say coming out of the Olympic break, maybe two weeks after the Olympic break, that to me was really the point of the season and in his career where he really established himself and his identity as a player. He brought it night after night. That doesn’t mean he scored a goal every night, but his game looked the same every night.
``He was a physical presence, he was strong on the puck. He was an effective player whether he was on the scoresheet or not.’’
Coyle and Mikael Granlund have emerged this series as dangerous young forwards for the Wild. That could resonate the rest of the series, and even this summer. If general manager Chuck Fletcher sees them improving his team’s scoring dramatically enough as early as next season, he may be able to spend money on a goalie or defenseman in free agency, instead of pursuing Thomas Vanek or someone like him.
Coyle is a long way from scaring defensemen, the way MacKinnon does, but his stealthy play around the net seems ideal for playoff hockey.
``He’s really impressed me this year,’’ Johnson said. ``You can kind of see his evolution during the season, how he’s grown as a player. I think if he hasn’t taken that next step already, I think he’s halfway upt the stairs. He’s doing a great job.’’
I’ve probably never had so many mixed emotions about a local coach as I have had about Mike Yeo.
He’s a bundle of admirable characteristics. He’s likeable. He’s about as honest as anyone in his profession. And he probably became an NHL head coach before any team other than the Wild would have even considered him.
To avoid irrational exuberance after the two best Wild games/game experiences I’ve ever witnessed, I’ll keep this simple:
Yeo, faced with a messy goalie situation and lacking any pure goal scorers, has had his team in position to win three of the four games in the series. In the other – the Game 2 loss – his team dominated the first period before crumbling.
I’ve been debating some of my 1500ESPN friends about Yeo. I can’t say I would have hired him. But I think he’s doing the job admirably.
The Wild’s energy level, defensive system and puck support have been outstanding. Young players like Mikael Granlund and Jonas Brodin have developed, and role players seem to shine when he calls upon them.
I think that has something to do with coaching.
Wrote about the Wild’s sheer dominance for my column.
Postgame, when I asked Zach Parise about Granlund’s three blocks in the final two minutes – one when he didn’t even have his stick – Parise gushed, ``That was awesome!’’
That sums it up.
Wild fans can be rather passive during the regular season. The last two games, and especially on Thursday, they created one the best game-day experiences in recent Twin Cities history. (At least the past four years.)
I had friends in the stands who said this is as good as its gotten at Wild games since their one playoff run.
Now we see if they can shut down Nate MacKinnon on his home ice, when Yeo doesn’t have the advantage of matching lines.
I love playoff hockey almost as much as I hate regular-season hockey.
Best moment of the night: When time expired, half the bench rushed to Darcy Kuemper for the traditional post-win goalie hug...and the rest of the bench rushed to envelop Granlund.
I'll b on 1500ESPN at 12:15 or so tomorrow with Mackey & Judd. I'll be in Colorado for Game 5, and will call in to Sunday Sports Talk, 10-noon on 1500ESPN, before heading back for Game 6.
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