by Thomas U. Tuttle
When I was a young guy, there was a youth hockey team called the Minor Hawks that played out of Chicago and traveled around playing the best teams that could be found. Unlike the famous NHL Blackhawks, indoor ice time was at a premium and outdoor rink hockey was at the whim of the weather spirits. Still, this early traveling all-star team was about as good a squad as any in the Midwest.
Or should I say “lower” Midwest. Because of a fair amount of local-area success, the coaches decided to play some more serious competition late in a 1970’s-era season, so up we went to Madison, Wisconsin, where the competition ramped up and the losses, while consecutive, were fairly competitive.
Then it was on to tournaments in the Twin Cities and Duluth, and soon a whole new understanding of the game of hockey was brought to our attention – along with fast skating, solid checking, tape-to-tape passing, wicked wrist-shots, solid slap-shots and serious goaltending. There was a group realization by the Chicago kids that not only were we overmatched and outscored – we really really didn’t belong in the same building with the guys from Minnesota. They might have been 13 and 14 years old, but the dudes from the State of Hockey schooled us big-time and the numbers on the scoreboard reflected that.
I’m not sure this reminiscence has much to do with the Minnesota Wild’s demise in the first round of the NHL playoffs, although the Wild ended up being schooled in five games by the St. Louis Blues and coach Mike Yeo. Yes, goalie Jake Allen was stellar in the nets – particularly in the first game when he stood on his head in making 51 saves on 52 shots – and the Blues were timely on offense, but it seemed like Mike Yeo knew what needed to be done for victory and executed his plan perfectly.
While Allen certainly deserves all the credit for the victory in game one, Yeo ramped up his defense for the rest of the series, using his knowledge of Minnesota and its players to turn up the heat on the Wild scorers. The Blues played a super-physical brand of hockey and made the Wild work hard to get any scoring opportunities, using guys with names like Bortuzzo and Bouwmeester, Pietrangelo and Parayko to clog up the middle and make sure the W’s offensive threats knew what they were up against.
And actually, this reminded me of our best guys on the Minor Hawks, Ray and Eddie and Big Al, being shut-down in the Twin Cities and Duluth on our trip up north. Every time our top players started to move up the ice, looking for some space to execute, here would come two or three big kids ready to bust things up. In our case, we had never seen pressure like that, and it didn’t let up. Just scoring a goal was a cause for major celebration (I think we scored six during our week in Minnesota).
The Wild have been in tight checking games, and they are not young kids. But take a look at the production of Minnesota’s top offensive threats in the playoffs versus the regular season. Leading scorer Mikael Granlund was almost invisible, with no goals in the playoffs. Nino Niederreiter and Zack Parise were largely neutralized, as was the power play – and the normally strong blue line contribution was minimal. Hey, Minnesota scored just five goals in the first four games of the series – a mere 1.25 goals a game. When they finally busted loose for three goals at home in game five, it fell short again in a 4-3 overtime loss.
Bruce Boudreau’s history of getting knocked off in the playoffs continues (this was his ninth playoff exit, four with the Washington, four with Anaheim, and now the Wild) and the pressure on the coming season will be intense. Part of his problem is the perception that he’s a great coach (leading the Mighty Ducks to first place each year of his tenure; the Wild to their best record ever) who simply can’t win in the playoffs – a leader who is unable to “win the Big One,” if you will.
You have to know this dilemma will carry over to next year and, unfortunately, lead to the regular season being a kind of tune-up for the “real” season: the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It really is a different deal in post-season hockey, with the top-seeded Blackhawks vanishing in four straight against the Nashville Predators and the number two Wild departing to the Blues – sayonara to Montreal as well.
Us old Minor Hawks kids know the feeling of getting beat, if not by close scores. Ray and Eddie, our leaders and most talented players, never quit (unlike accusations that Parise and Ryan Suter cost Mike Yeo the locker room prior to his exit from Minnesota) and I don’t believe the Wild gave anything less than their best. But it simply wasn’t enough against a tough defensive team that knew how to play the Wild and executed a solid game plan. And it is hard to argue that Yeo wasn’t the better coach in the series.
Mike Yeo was genuinely classy in victory, as many of us in the media knew he would be. Minor Hawks coach Atkinson was classy, too, when we succumbed to defeat by big numbers. We never won the big one (or any big game), but we learned a great deal and still had fun.
Unfortunately for coach Boudreau, he needs to win a big one badly, and that rough road is going through Chicago or St. Louis or somebody tough – that just how NHL hockey goes in the springtime. Fun only accompanies winning.