No, I didn’t think the Blues would take down the Minnesota Wild in their first-round playoff series. But here we are, three games in, and Minnesota is desperate to win a game to keep hope alive. After a 106-point regular season that’s now encircled by flames, the Wild are trying to survive. Coach Bruce Boudreau’s neck tie seems awfully tight these days.
Leading 3-0 in this best of seven series, the Blues need one more victory to advance to the Western Conference semifinals. Blues coach Mike Yeo is on the brink of eliminating a nucleus of Wild players that turned on their leader, getting Yeo fired on Valentine’s day of 2016.
Hey, when you’re overpaying defenseman Ryan Suter and forward Zach Parise with $98 million contracts, you might as well have ’em serve as player-GMs … empowered to fire the coach instead of gazing in the mirror.
Once the boys proudly threw Yeo overboard, they celebrated by getting dumped out of the playoffs in the first round.
Here they go again …
Maybe Suter and Parise can have Adam Oates show up for practice before Wednesday’s Game 4 at Scottrade Center to undermine Boudreau’s authority.
Yeo is suppressing any hint of a last laugh, or vengeance-driven cackling. Yeo may be sporting the bald-eagle look, but you won’t hear him emitting any high-pitched whistles … it’s too soon. The Blues aren’t there yet, and the hockey gods have been diabolically cruel to the suffering hockey fans in The Lou.
This series isn’t close on the historical ledger; only four of 184 NHL teams have recovered to win a best of seven after trailing 3-0. But it’s been awfully snug on the ice, with the Blues and Wild essentially playing three 2-1 games. ( An empty-netter made it 3-1 in Game 3.) Back on March 7, the Blues won at Excel Energy Center 2-1 in their only regular-season meeting with the Wild since Yeo became coach on Feb. 1.
That’s four games, Yeo vs. Wild … 4-0 Blues … with only four goals ceded by the Blues’ guardians.
I was surprised to see the Blues take the first three games.
But here’s the question: Why should I be surprised?
Why should anyone be surprised?
The one constant under Yeo since the coaching change: draconian goal prevention.
By now, the trend is no fluke. This is who the Blues are.
As one Twin Cities scribe characterized it, the Blues are Yeobots.
I didn’t believe the Blues’ parsimony was sustainable, and the playoffs have a tendency to make things go boom. But we’re now 35 games deep (including this series) into the Yeo system, and the Blues are as stubbornly rigid as ever.
We’ve relayed these numbers plenty of times, but let’s update:
The Mike Yeo Blues…
25-8-2, .743 winning percentage, No. 1 in the NHL since Feb. 2.
Goals allowed per game, 1.80, No. 1 in league.
Even-strength goals allowed per game, 1.46, best in league
Overall goal differential, +37, No. 1 in league
Even-strength goal differential, +29, No. 1 in league
The Blues since trading Kevin Shattenkirk …
18-4-2, .792 winning percentage, No. 2 in the NHL
Goals-allowed per game, 1.79, No. 1
Even-strength goals allowed per game, 1.38, No. 2
Overall goal differential, +26, No. 1
Even-strength goal differential, +22, No. 2
Since losing Paul Stasny …
The Blues are 11-2-1 (.857) since losing their best center to injury, giving up 1.93 goals per game including 1.57 goals/game at even strength. Sans Stastny the Blues have outscored opponents by 17 and are a swell +16 at even strength despite struggling to win draws (46%) with their top faceoff man sidelined with a broken foot.
That’s why I’m surprised that I’m surprised to see the Blues emerge with three close, low-scoring victories over the Wild.
This has been going on since GM Doug Armstrong made a tough call to replace Ken Hitchcock in an attempt to reinforce the team’s destructive looseness on the defensive end.
The transformation under Yeo has been startling — but at this point we shouldn’t be startled.
Blues goaltender Jake Allen has been spectacular in this series, with a save percentage of .974 and yielding only one even-strength goal.
Really, Allen has done just about everything short of making Mexico pay for the wall.
In franchise history (small sample alert!) no starting Blues goaltender has riveted a postseason save percentage as strong as Allen’s current .974. But of course, the Blues seem intent on playing a lot more postseason hockey in 2017.
To take nothing away from Allen, let’s also acknowledge the tricky but effective rope-a-dope tactic being deployed by the Blues.
The bewildered Wild have outshot the Blues by a staggering disparity in this series.
Minnesota has a wide 117-79 edge on shots on goal.
On all shots directed at the net — including blocks and misses — the Wild has fired off 228 to the Blues’ 142.
If the ice seems tilted in the Wild’s favor, understand that at least part of that is by design. Yes, Allen has been phenomenal. This Son of Martin Brodeur is may not be an actual human being right now.
The Wild sees this insane discrepancy in shots and figure they’re dominating the play, are victims of unfortunate luck, and that the damn bounces will start to go their way.
But George Foreman probably felt pretty good about pummeling Muhammad Ali against the ropes in Zaire during their classic 1974 heavyweight championship bout. And Foreman was way ahead on the judges score card … well, at least until he felled the exhausted Foreman like a massive redwood in a Round 8 knockout. Foreman punched himself out … just as Ali planned it.
The parallel isn’t the same, but it illustrates a point.
Yeo’s zone defense is risky to an extent because the Wild are clicking off so many shots. And maybe the luck of the bouncing, skimming puck will change and go against Allen and his mates.
But the Blues’ tall and/or brawny defenseman have closed ranks in front of Allen, refusing to grant Minnesota entry onto Allen’s threshold. The Blues’ defensemen are using their muscle to keep the Wild at a distance and unable to pluck rebound chances. Moreover, the Blues’ D-men are using their length to get in the way of shots; they’ve combined to block 41 in three sessions of playoff hockey.
As a result, Allen (at even strength) has faced 53 low-danger shots on goal according to the data at Corsica Hockey. That’s the most low-danger shots handled by a goaltender in the NHL’s first round, and Allen has rejected all 53.
The Wild have 27 medium-danger shots on Allen, with no goals.
In the scary, close-range spaces — the high-danger shooting areas — the Wild have managed only 14 even-strength chances against Allen, and he’s stopped 13 of the 14.
Yeo’s decision to invite the Wild to use the driver to crank away from longer distances is working, but the plan wouldn’t be plausible unless the coach could bank on Allen making the spirit-busting saves when the Wild encroach.
This style of play was scorned in the Twin Cities — even though Yeo led the Wild to the playoffs three consecutive seasons. He got them to the second round twice (2014, 2015), and was escorted out of the first round in 2013. In each instance Yeo’s team was knocked out by Chicago … with the Blackhawks proceeding to win the Stanley Cup in ’13 and ’15. Yeo’s Wild weren’t embarrassed; they just weren’t as good as Chicago … which, come to think of it gave them something in common with about 27 or 28 other franchises.
The Blues have won nothing yet. But if they can use the rope-a-dope to topple Minnesota, the Blues and their coach will have reason to do some Yeodeling.
Thanks for reading …