The puck hit the stanchion resonating a dull, echoed clang. For Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo it was the sound of trouble ringing out like a warning siren.
“You heard that and knew the puck was going to be changing directions,” Yeo said. “Especially where it hit, there’s a good chance that when it does, it’s coming out towards the front of the net.”
What looked like a harmless dump-in off the stick of Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook during overtime of Game 6 took a vicious bounce off the glass and partition onto the tape of Patrick Kane, who ended the Wild’s season by tucking a backhand game winner past netminder Ilya Bryzgalov.
In another cruel twist of fate, on the day the Wild would’ve been preparing for Game 7 in Chicago, Yeo instead addressed the media at Xcel Energy Center with the burn of Game 6 still festering like a fresh blister.
“To be perfectly honest, I’m still a little bit bitter,” Yeo said. “There’s still a little bit of disbelief. You wake up in the morning and think ‘Okay, I’m on my way to work.’ Obviously it’s a season — it’s long, it’s hard. There’s a lot of incredibly great emotions that go along with some of the tough parts and it just comes to a grinding halt.”
For many, upending the Central Division champion, Colorado Avalanche, in Round 1 and pushing the defending Stanley Cup champions within a bad bounce of Game 7 would be a big step forward. However, Yeo said it is too soon to dissect the season.
One thing is certain, the players, coaching staff and Yeo are not satisfied with anything less than being the last team standing at the end of the playoffs.
“We just have to keep improving,” Yeo said. “That’s individually, that’s our players continuing to grow and continuing to get better. And that’s as our group. One thing that we’ve done here year after year is we’ve taken a hard look at our game and we’ll continue to do that.
“We’re not sitting around saying we’ve arrived.”
The Wild’s core of veteran players like Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and Ryan Suter will continue to be looked upon to lead the way. They have helped the third-year coach create an identity in the State of Hockey.
“I believe when teams play against the Minnesota Wild, they know what to expect— they expect a hard game,” Yeo said. “That’s one thing that our players should be proud of.”
Along with creating an identity, Yeo wants to instill a culture of winning. Last season, the bench boss led the Wild to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in five years. This year, the club advanced past the First Round for the first time since 2003. Despite the disappointing end to the year, there are lessons to take from its Second Round exit.
“The other very important goal for me was to create a culture, a culture of winners,” Yeo said. “The two main parts to that are, number one: understanding how difficult it is to win, and number two: taking pride in doing those little things that it takes to win. I believe that our guys have done that too.”
Although it is too soon, especially emotionally, to evaluate the Wild’s season, Yeo did express the key to next season. The team had a handful of younger players step up during the stretch run and in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Moving forward, the continued development of youngsters like Charlie Coyle, 22, Jonas Brodin, 20, Justin Fontaine, 26, Mikael Granlund, 22, Erik Haula, 23, Nino Niederreiter, 21, Marco Scandella, 24, and Jared Spurgeon, 24, will be crucial to the team’s success.
“The real potential for growth in our team is with our young players,” Yeo said. “As our young players continue to get better, our team will continue to get better. That has to be a focus for us.”
As bright as the Wild’s future appears to be, there remains a lingering sense of what might’ve been.
“There’s a lot of ‘what ifs’ and a bit of an empty feeling that there was more hanging there for us,” Yeo said. “But what I do want them to take out of it is the belief that we can beat anybody. We have an end result in mind here and that’s to win the Stanley Cup. We’ve been building towards that and we should feel that that’s an attainable goal for ourselves.”