As the Wild nears the end of the best regular season in franchise history, the boys of winter found themselves playing to a quiet audience Tuesday night. The St. Louis Blues were in town with a coach named Yeo, and it doesn’t take much to make Minnesota sports fans worry about curses and hexes, franchise history and old acquaintances.
Nothing that has transpired since Mike Yeo’s firing would suggest that he is missed for anything more than his friendly demeanor. Interim coach John Torchetti ignited the Wild immediately after he left, and Bruce Boudreau has raised the team’s play to an astonishing level in Yeo’s first full year away.
This being Minnesota, paranoia always is lurking in the corner, even when the corner is rounded. The Blues have done little to distinguish themselves this season. They got a good coach in Ken Hitchcock fired, and they have hardly surged under Yeo, but their tepid play positions them to face the Wild early in the playoffs, and despite records and résumés, Minnesota probably would prefer a less personal matchup.
Minnesotans always worry about coaches. There was a time when Gophers fans worried that Tim Brewster might leave for a big-time job.
Tuesday night’s 2-1 Blues victory at Xcel Energy Center offered a reminder that St. Louis possesses high-end talent and a coach with a grudge, however politely he handled his first game as a visiting head coach in St. Paul. Yeo may have heard the mild jeers from the crowd before the anthem but he was smiling after the game.
“Yeah, I’d be lying if it didn’t feel pretty good,’’ he said, perhaps leaving out a few words. “We had a lot of respect for that group but felt like we could get a good boost by beating them here.’’
The Blues still have the scariest player on the ice when these teams play, in the form of Vladimir Tarasenko, and can play a physical style that can bother the Wild’s Smurf-like forwards.
Tuesday also might have provided a reminder that the Wild has earned the right to receive every opponent’s best effort. The Blues did not look like a lagging team, and goalie Jake Allen did not look like a coach-killer.
The Wild was slow and sloppy in the first period and the Blues scored the first goal on David Perron’s beautiful deflection of a shot from Colton Parayko. Tarasenko scored midway through the third period, giving St. Louis a 2-0 lead, and it looked as if the locals would be shut out until Mikko Koivu scored with 10.5 seconds remaining on a bouncing, desperation shot on net. “Koivu owes me a beer,’’ Allen said.
The Wild’s sluggishness led to Boudreau juggling lines, even breaking up the Mikael Granlund-Koivu-Jason Zucker troika that has been dominant since November.
He reunited that line in the third period, after trying Eric Staal, Zach Parise and Zucker together.
One reason the Wild has not suffered a swoon is Boudreau’s unwillingness to stand pat when his team plays poorly. He is the Neosporin of regular-season coaches, preventing infections so he doesn’t have to treat them.
Yeo is trying to become Mr. WebMD for an underachieving Blues team. A St. Louis reporter asked him what fans should take from the Blues’ unpredictable ways this season.
“Don’t give up on us,’’ Yeo said, then laughed. “We’re still building. We’re still trying to find our way. I said this yesterday, that it’s a new group, a new group of leadership, a new group of players and although as an organization we’ve done great things the last several years, it’s this group that’s trying to carve out our own identity and our own culture and tonight was a good step.’’
For the first time in Wild history, the home team at the X is trying to hold onto a top seed. It’s a good problem to have. Tuesday, Yeo’s new team provided a reminder that winning is complicated. Even if the Wild survives uncommon pressure and expectations, the boys of winter might wind up with an uncomfortably familiar matchup in the playoffs.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at MalePatternPodcasts.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org