You only need to glance at their faces to know that Playoff season is over a week old.
Some players are sporting magnificent beards. Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine look like they’ve soaked in all the vitamin manliness possible with full, thriving chin-whiskers. Others are trying their best. With wisps of faint hairs or scraggly patches here or there — it’s playoff beard season.
Today, most of that hard-working stubble got a break after last night’s 2-1 win as only a few players were around the rink this morning. But even amongst those present, it was clear that the focus is on the next challenge: going back to Denver.
“Obviously the next game is going to be a big one,” Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said. “The team that wins that is going to be a little bit more in the driver’s seat here. They have two games at home (left in the series) and we’re going to have to win a game in their building. I would certainly like to make that be the next game. That’s got to be our focus.”
Beyond the series as a whole, this time of year is providing a constant reminder as to how strong Colorado is. Each day NHL award nominees are released and it seems a Colorado player is constantly in the mix.
Netminder Semyon Varlamov is a Vezina finalist. Forward Nathan MacKinnon is vying for the Calder Trophy. Ryan O’Reilly is up for the Lady Byng. And this is only the beginning, as finalists for seven more awards have yet to be announced. Yeo hopes the news will help sharpen the Wild’s focus for the task ahead.
Knowing what they’re still up against, the key is to keep a balanced view of the task ahead and leave any expectations at the door.
“The big thing is, similar to what we said going into Game 4, is asking our players for no assumptions,” Yeo said. “Don’t assume that the next game is going to start the same way. Don’t go in there with the expectation that we’re just going to be able to pick up where we left off. Make it happen with the little things, with the way that we play, with the way that we execute.”
Once again, Yeo knows Colorado will be looking to make adjustments — and they’ll be sure to use home ice to their benefit, “we used home ice advantage to our advantage. And that’s what they’ll be looking to do.”
Of course, the advantages lie in a hostile arena at your back and a little thing we’ve been talking about all series called last change.
As we saw at Xcel Energy Center, Yeo gave Erik Haula’s line the task of shutting down Colorado’s top group of MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Paul Stastny. But both of the Wild’s top lines drew against the formidable Avs trio at times and Yeo knows that each line has gone up against the top centermen in the league throughout the season. Once again, the Bench Boss is confident that whoever draws the assignment against the trio will get the job done.
“Regardless of who we’re playing, we can have anybody go out there in that situation if our team is playing a certain way because we don’t defend as a one-man unit; we defend as a five-man unit, we play the game as a five-man unit,” Yeo said.
In Games 3 and 4 at home, Minnesota has shown just how strong that five-man unit focus is. As a result their confidence is on the rise.
“The last couple games was a big confidence builder for our group,” Kyle Brodziak said. “When we play the right way, the way that we’re capable of, we’re a very good team. We just have to find a way to get back to that level as quick as we can.”
“I think we’re playing real good as a team,” Dany Heatley added. “Obviously, we’re playing great defensively and [Darcy Kuemper] is playing great. That has to be our bread and butter, we have to keep that going.”
Heatley started off the series as a healthy scratch in Colorado. After those first two games, which each ended in a loss for the Wild, Yeo tinkered with his lineup and inserted Heatley and Justin Fontaine into the mix. While neither has any points on the series as of yet, between them they’ve added depth, a veteran presence, and strong puck sense.
Though, Heatley readily admitted sitting out those first to games was not the definition of fun.
“It’s a different game from up top or on TV when you’re watching it,” Heatley said. “It sucks but I think you can learn some things. You’re just kind of helpless, which is the toughest part. But it’s fun to be back and I’m looking forward to Game 5.”
Heatley speaks for the State of Hockey in that final sentiment; Saturday night can’t come soon enough.
As the Wild looks to sustain its play on the road, an important part of that process is its depth. So far this series seven different Wild players have accounted for the team’s nine goals. None of those goals have been scored off the stick of Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise or Jason Pominville — the Wild’s regular season leading scorers. They have accounted for ten assists between them, helping create those ever-important tallies.
“It’s nice to see other guys chipping in and that’s what you need. It can’t just be two or three guys just scoring all the time; that’s not a team,” Charlie Coyle, who has scored three times this postseason, said. “I think for the most part, everyone is playing their role so we really don’t care who scores. Whatever happens, happens. Everyone plays their game and we play as a team — it’s cliché, but we play as a team.”
“If you want to win games you can’t be the same story night after night,” Yeo said. “There has to be different storylines and different guys finding a way to make it happen.”