Wild insist this series vs. Blackhawks ‘different’ than last year’s

The Blackhawks outscored Minnesota 8-3 in the first two games of a playoff series last year. This year, Chicago owns a 9-3 advantage against the Wild so far. Still, coach Mike Yeo and Minnesota remain relatively confident.

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota Wild head coach Mike Yeo kept notes after playing the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the playoffs last year, a learning experience for the coach and his young team.

For Yeo, keeping notes on each game is standard practice, allowing him to look back and remember parts of each game and series. A year later, those notes are showing Yeo things are different this time around.

Last year, Chicago was the top seed and eventually lifted the Stanley Cup after dispatching Minnesota in the first round in five games. The Blackhawks provided the standard for where Yeo and his team wanted to be, and the benchmark for what has to be overcome to reach the pinnacle.

The Wild are right back in a familiar spot, down 2-0 to Chicago heading back to Minnesota for Game 3. But Yeo believes the circumstances are different.

"I spent a lot of time looking at and going over my notes from last year and looking at stats, and I think that, statistically, it shows that it’s been different," Yeo said Monday. "I don’t feel like we’ve played our two best games by any means, but I look at puck possession this year compared to last year and I see a big difference; scoring chance-wise, same thing.

"Where I felt we were outplayed last year, I feel like these have been pretty even games. Like I said, a play or two here or there and we could easily be coming home with a split and feeling much better about ourselves. But that said, it’s still a great team."

Yeo’s reassurances are important as the Wild return home. Minnesota is playing the Blackhawks in the second round this year after beating the Colorado Avalanche in seven games last series. The Wild were also down 2-0 to a talented Colorado team before changing momentum in the series with a pair of home wins in Games 3 and 4.

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In many cases, this series does have eerie similarities to last year against Chicago. The Blackhawks outscored Minnesota 8-3 in the first two games last year. This year, Chicago owns a 9-3 advantage against the Wild so far.

Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford has been tough for the Wild to beat. Crawford has stopped 175 of the 185 (.946 percent) shots he’s faced against Minnesota in seven playoff games. The Wild’s goals this series have come from defenseman Clayton Stoner and forwards Kyle Brodziak and Cody McCormick, who each are usually relegated to third- and fourth-line roles.

Yeo agreed that snapping a scoring slump in the playoffs is difficult.

"I think the more pressure starts to build on a player, the more they start to think about that stuff, they start to get themselves in a bit of a deeper hole," Yeo said. "We’ve talked about it almost like quicksand a little bit, the more you struggle, the deeper you get. That’s why it’s really important to make sure that you’re focused on the game, make sure that you’re focused on your play."

Yeo said "maybe" when asked if some of the struggles against Chicago could be turning mental.

Losing six of seven games in the playoffs to the Blackhawks, Minnesota has to guard against a mental challenge.

"Yeah, that can wear on you, I think," Charlie Coyle said. "You know you’re going against a good team. You can go back to last year and say, ‘Oh, these guys beat us’ but it’s a new year. We’ve got put that behind us. I think everyone is comfortable with our group compared to last year. We like where we’re at. We like our team, we like our guys we have in this locker room. We should go out and prove our game and bring it to them. That’s all we’ve got to do."

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Stoner doesn’t believe the losses to the Blackhawks have taken a toll mentally.

"I don’t feel that there’s any mental block with this team," Stoner said. "The last two games, I felt we could win both games and we’re not that far off. It’s not like they’re killing us out there. They’re capitalizing on their chances and we’re not. I think the belief in the room is very strong. As much as we respect them, I don’t think that we think they’re a better team."

Yeo spoke about the difference in his team even before the playoffs started. Minnesota learned from its experiences last season and the changes have been significant. The Wild are deeper, as they’ve preached all season.

Jason Pominville only played 27 total minutes last year against Chicago. Stoner played just eight minutes before he was lost for the series with an injury. Mikael Granlund, Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Moulson, Dany Heatley, Justin Fontaine and Cody McCormick are new or didn’t play in the playoffs last season for Minnesota.

"First of all, I think this year and last year are completely different," Dany Heatley said. "I think we have a different group in here. You guys can run whatever numbers you want, but I think we believe we can beat this team and it starts tomorrow."

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