ST. PAUL, Minn. — This was not quite the plan the St. Louis Blues had for Mike Yeo.
He was supposed to take over as head coach next season, after Ken Hitchcock’s retirement, not in the middle of this one. The plan certainly didn’t include a first-round matchup for Yeo and the Blues against the Minnesota Wild, who fired him just last year.
Well, here they are, Yeo and his new team pitted against his previous charges in one of the most intriguing pairings of the NHL postseason that opens on Wednesday night.
“My goal is not to beat the Minnesota Wild for me,” Yeo said. “My goal is for us as a group to keep getting better and keep seeing what we’re capable of.”
Hardly a plan in this league is fail proof, as those teams who’ve changed coaches before playoff runs and even Stanley Cup wins can attest. Perhaps the Blues, who dismissed Hitchcock on Feb. 1 to trigger Yeo’s early promotion, will be the latest group to ride the momentum spurred by a winter shakeup deep into the spring.
The Blues, who were two wins away from reaching the Stanley Cup finals last year with Hitchcock on the bench, went 22-8-2 after the coaching change. Over that 32-game stretch, they were the best team in the NHL in several statistical categories after enduring the sluggish start.
The same went for the Wild over a three-month stretch from December through February. They led the Western Conference from mid-January through mid-March, until their skid got the best of their perch and the Chicago Blackhawks surged ahead. The Wild recovered in time to reach a franchise-record 106 points in Bruce Boudreau’s first season behind their bench.
So after Yeo guided the Wild to a six-game victory over the Blues in the first round two years ago, he’ll be on the opposite side when the series starts in Minnesota. Instead of scheming to slow Vladimir Tarasenko, Yeo will be sending his 25-year-old star out on the right wing to try wear down stalwart defensemen Ryan Suter and Jared Spurgeon, guys he used to call “Suts” and “Spurge” when he coached the Wild.
“We know their identity, the way they play. They know us,” Wild captain Mikko Koivu said. “We’re familiar with each other, so it’s not about who’s behind the bench and all that. It’s about the team right now, and we’ve got to make sure that we worry about ourselves.”
How, then, can this matchup not become a little bit personal for Yeo, who described the experience of being fired “gut-wrenching” when he was replaced on Feb. 13, 2016, following a 1-11-2 stretch by the Wild?
“There’s something much more at stake, something that’s way bigger in my eyes than a little revenge here,” Yeo said.
Tied for fourth in the league with 39 goals, Tarasenko has the greatest ability to take over a game in this matchup He had six goals in the 2015 series against the Wild and 15 points in 20 games during the 2016 postseason run by the Blues.
Tarasenko went without a goal or an assist in the first five games of the Western Conference finals against San Jose. With forward lines as well-balanced as the Blues, the Wild have the type of team with the ability to shut Tarasenko out like the Sharks did.
“This is going to be a real tough challenge for Vladi. Let’s be honest,” Yeo said. “They’re going to really key on him. He’s going to have tough matchups, and it’s going to be hard to get away from them because they’re such a deep team.”
Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk was a making a strong case to be the Vezina Trophy winner until he began to struggle in the net during the March nosedive. With a 6-10 career playoffs record and 20 goals allowed in a six-game loss to the Dallas Stars in the first round last year, Dubnyk has yet to prove his postseason credentials. But the 6-foot-6 Dubnyk has the confidence to match his exceptional height.
“Just like every parent worries about his kid when he plays in any important situation, yeah, we always worry about the goalie,” Boudreau said, “but I’ve got all the confidence in the world in Dubie, and that’s where the worry stops. I think he’s going to be great.”
AT THE OTHER END
Blues goalie Jake Allen, with the job to himself now after largely sharing it with Brian Elliott the previous three years, was a completely different player after the coaching change. He went 11-2-2 in his last 15 starts with just 26 goals allowed.
“Through all that I think we maintained our confidence in him knowing what he’s done in the past and the way he’s capable of playing,” defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. “It just kind of all came together. I’m sure after you get a couple of wins and a couple big saves, that sort of thing, everything becomes a little easier.”