At season’s midpoint, Wild is justifying those lofty hopes

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 12, 2013 - 10:48 AM

As the season enters the second half, coach Mike Yeo’s division-leading squad has rounded into form.

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The Wild signed free agent Zach Parise (11) for nights like Sunday, when he had two goals and an assist in a 4-2 victory over Vancouver.

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The one thing we learned about Mike Yeo before Sunday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks is the Wild coach has a dreadful poker face.

As Yeo declared that the Wild was “ready for this one,” he nearly grinned — as if he was slow-playing pocket aces

If Canucks coach Alain Vigneault spotted Yeo, he would have folded his cards in a second.

Yeo knows the personality of his team and admitted after the Wild’s 4-2 victory that he had a “real good feeling” going in.

Slowly but surely, the Wild is starting to play like the team Yeo envisions. Every line is establishing an identity. Team defense has again become the staple (seventh best in the NHL). Rookies Jonas Brodin, Charlie Coyle and Jason Zucker are growing up. And Zach Parise and Ryan Suter have both made significant impacts, with Parise leading the team with 11 goals, and Suter playing nearly half the game in an almost calming manner.

The Wild has reeled off points in 10 of 14 games (9-4-1),
and Sunday’s hard-fought
victory put a convincing stamp on the first half. Minnesota sits atop the Northwest Division — tied with Vancouver with 28 points.

What changed and how?

“It hasn’t been easy,” Yeo said, laughing. “I can’t count the line combinations that we’ve had. But it does take time. We have everybody contributing right now. We have roles that are defined and guys that are going out and doing their job.”

• • •

With expectations so high at the start of the season, especially after a four-month lockout doused the enthusiasm created with last summer’s $196 million Parise/Suter spending spree, it took time for the Wild to gel.

Without the benefit of a long training camp and lots of in-season practice time, the Wild, which had more players who didn’t play elsewhere during the lockout than any other, had to mold a largely turned-over roster.

So when the Wild got off to a 4-5-1 start in a shortened season in which every loss is magnified, it felt as if the roof was caving in for a team that has missed the playoffs for four consecutive years.

Pressure mounted, especially on Yeo.

“We were not just going to arrive and all of a sudden be a great team,” Yeo said.

But Yeo and the players kept focusing on improvement. Yeo says, “We’re not there yet,” but it’s coming.

“We’re learning how to win. We’re learning how we have to play against those top-tier teams to win,” Parise said. “I think we’re getting there. You can tell with just the consistency we have. I mean, earlier we had those periods where you just wonder what we were doing.

“We’re minimizing those now. We’ve still got a lot of work to do and a lot of improvement, but we’re getting there.”

• • •

This second half has the makings for more emotional roller coasters. In an ultra-tight Western Conference where one loss can knock you outside the top eight, the Wild must continue to stick with Yeo’s system. It’s proven effective when everybody’s on the same page and exuding the same work ethic.

“You see the way guys are competing,” Yeo said.

The second half begins Tuesday night when the Wild, 9-2-1 at home, is host to the mighty Anaheim Ducks, who have lost once in regulation in the past 14 games and are 15-2-2 since Feb. 1 (including two victories over Minnesota in Orange County).

There have been several reasons for the Wild’s 14-game turnaround, too, since Feb. 9.

Yeo says it starts with the character throughout the lineup and leadership, especially captain Mikko Koivu, Parise and Suter.

Veteran Matt Cullen has been outstanding for a month, and right winger Devin Setoguchi has scored, been physical and put forth solid efforts after a slow start. Along with the speedy Zucker, who has four clutch goals in four wins, the second line hounds the puck and routinely creates chances.

Mike Rupp also has made a big impact since being traded to the Wild on Feb. 4. He plays his role to perfection — keeping it simple, getting pucks deep and forechecking. He has helped create some big momentum shifts with linemates Zenon Konopka (when he plays) and Torrey Mitchell.

Brodin has been nothing short of tremendous when one considers he’s 19. The poise has in the defensive zone is something most veterans don’t have.

But the biggest factor may be Brodin’s defense partner, Suter, who has recovered from a slow start with a string of big games. He constantly gets the puck out of trouble, out of the defensive zone and up the ice. His vision and innate passing ability has helped a Wild offense (26th in the NHL) that is gradually getting better.

Since Feb. 9, Suter has 14 points. He is riding a seven-game point streak, a franchise-record for a defenseman. Logging an NHL-high 27 minutes, 29 seconds a game, Suter has 17 assists (tied for second among NHL defensemen) and 18 points (tied for fourth). To put that in perspective, Jared Spurgeon led the Wild’s defensemen in those categories last season with 20 and 23, respectively — and that was in 46 more games.

Yeo says the Wild’s a team “on the up.”

Parise agrees.

“There’s a better attitude in here,” Parise said. “We’re playing with a little more swagger. It’s about maintaining it now.”
 

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