CHICAGO -- When the puck drops for Game 1 of the Western Conference second-round series between the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild on Friday night at 9:30 ET at United Center, the respective coaches will do their jobs, but, ultimately, the players on the ice will determine the final outcome.
The Blackhawks and coach Joel Quenneville have won a pair of Stanley Cup championships (2010 and 2013) together. And there’s no denying Chicago has the experience and talent to hoist the Cup again this June.
But Minnesota believes it does, too.
The Wild are a confident team right now. After dismissing regular-season powerhouse the St. Louis Blues in the first round, Minnesota is backed by solid goaltending in Devan Dubnyk, a solid defensive core and speedy, talented forwards. The other important aspect to the Wild’s success the past few seasons is the belief in coach Mike Yeo.
Yeo might not have the résumé of Quenneville, but the Wild’s bench boss has the respect of his players, and it shows in the team’s success.
Yeo was a career minor leaguer who never played in the NHL. His career ended due to a knee injury while playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins' AHL affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, during the 1999-2000 season.
The following season, there were coaching changes happening with the parent club, and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton head coach Glenn Patrick needed an assistant, so Yeo was named assistant coach since he couldn't play.
“He was a big detail guy,” Patrick told ESPN.com on the phone. “He paid attention to everything you’d tell, so we figured he would work out real well as a coach.”
Yeo quickly gained the respect of his former teammates and started to develop his coaching skills.
“The most important thing for a coach is you have to have the respect of the players, and he’s always had that through his work ethic, and that’s where success comes,” Patrick said. “If you don’t work really hard, you can have all the smarts in the world, but if you don’t have the respect of the players, you’re not going to have any success.”
Yeo spent six seasons in that role before he was promoted to be an assistant with the Penguins with then-coach Michel Therrien. Yeo was an assistant in Pittsburgh for four seasons (2006-10) and worked closely with then-Penguins assistant general manager Chuck Fletcher, who was hired by Minnesota to be its executive vice president and general manager in May 2009.
Knowing the type of work ethic Yeo had, and the respect he gained from his players, Fletcher hired him to be the head coach of the Wild’s AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, during the 2010-11 season. After missing the playoffs the season before, Yeo guided the Aeros to the Calder Cup finals.
The following season, he became the youngest head coach in the NHL (a title he still holds at 41) when the Wild promoted him.
During Yeo's tenure, Minnesota has posted a 150-110-34 record and reached the Stanley Cup playoffs three of four seasons.
Patrick has paid close attention to the Wild and, given his extensive hockey background, people are always asking him for his thoughts on this season’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I say, ‘Well, you better watch Minnesota because right now they are the hottest team in the league.’ They proved it in the first round," Patrick said. "They’ve got the hottest goaltender in the league right now, and they have some great talent, and the players believe in their goaltending. When you have good players that believe in their goaltending, they excel.”
Yeo’s not one to take the credit for the team’s success.
He appears humble and fortunate to coach this team. He’ll credit the leadership core of captain Mikko Koivu, along with assistant captains Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, for the helping guide this team to success. Yeo always says all the right things about his players and adds that he wouldn’t be standing behind the Minnesota bench without some help.
“I feel like I’m a lucky guy,” Yeo said. “But it’s not just me, it’s my entire staff. I’m lucky because I’m well-surrounded by my staff. Our leadership group is outstanding, but we’ve got a bunch of guys and I consider them winners. They’re willing to do the things, the little things, things that go unnoticed, but they’re willing to do those things to win hockey games. There’s a lot of pride in that room.”
Parise spent the first seven seasons of his NHL career with the New Jersey Devils. He played for seven coaches in that span: Larry Robinson, Lou Lamoriello, Claude Julien, Brent Sutter, Jacques Lemaire, John MacLean and Peter DeBoer.
Since Parise signed as a free agent with his hometown Wild on July 4, 2012, he’s played for only one coach, and Yeo’s been that guy.
“He’s had a lot of patience with us,” Parise said. “There’s been great times and there have been times where we’ve gone on losing streaks or things have looked pretty gloomy, and he’s done a good job of keeping us level-headed, whether we’re playing really well or we can’t win a game.”
The Wild system has not changed. The approach to winning hasn’t changed. Under Yeo’s guidance, the Wild have remained consistent the past few seasons.
“He gives you the blueprint, and we know it works when we do it well,” added Parise. “He’s had patience with us.”
Koivu has spent his entire 10-year NHL career with the Wild since Minnesota selected him in the first round (sixth overall) in the 2001 draft. The current captain has played for three coaches during that span, including Lemaire, Todd Richards and Yeo.
Koivu will admit it’s been a learning experience for Yeo during his tenure with the Wild, especially last season, when Minnesota lost to the Blackhawks in Game 7 of the second-round series.
“I’m sure he learned a lot last year,” Koivu said.
Last season's experience almost mirrors what the Wild are facing today. Minnesota now finds itself playing the Blackhawks for a chance to reach the Western Conference finals.
“You can see the way he handled this year. I’m not saying he didn’t handle it well last year, but he was even more calm and was just talking about the trust in the things we were supposed to do, just keep doing those things and it’ll turn around, and it did,” Koivu said. “That’s very important for a player to see that the coach, and the coaching staff, that they’re 100 percent behind it and they trust it. They trust us as players.”
Yeo and the Wild believe it’s only beginning. And for a former minor leaguer with zero NHL playing experience, Yeo has this team believing in itself.
“You don’t see very many superstars be successful coaches,” Patrick said. “It’s usually the guys that are the journeyman that work really hard. Even though they don’t make it to the NHL as a player, they’re respected through their hard work.”