In his post-game presser, Mike Yeo opened things by noting how easy it would be to just use some of the quotes that reporters had used from around the same time last year. The assembled media took that as a bit of dark humor, which it was, and continued the battery of questions. Yeo's intention was clear; it was a laughable game for the Minnesota Wild, one which leaves little beyond a faint nausea and a sinking feeling heading into the end of the year.
Unintentionally, though, Yeo's comments reveal another aspect of what has plagued the Wild over the course of past seasons and over the course of last night's game. You could have used what Yeo said last year and it would have been essentially the same as what he said last night. That's not just a problem because it indicates the Wild's playing pattern hasn't changed. It's a much bigger problem because it reveals just how much Yeo hasn't learned from his past failures and how little his thinking has evolved over time.
His coaching strategy over the past three seasons, like the Wild's play over the last two periods of last night, was to ride out the rough patches and hope their early season and early game leads would hold. In either case, there are some storms you can't ride out. In the same presser, Yeo noted that the best teams, at the end of the year, aren't those who are the most talented, they're the most persistent.
To some extent, this is true, but Yeo's brand of persistence has looked a lot more like stubbornness than follow-through as of late. The best teams are those which play an evolving game, not just those who best weather the storm. The problem with the Wild midway through every season, midway through every game, is they stop evolving and adapting to the game flow. No game ends before 60 minutes, and the Wild simply stopped evolving 25 minutes into the game last night.
The exact moment when the Wild stopped playing and started collapsing came when Jason Pominville sank his first goal of the season. With Justin After a career-long buildup of 21 games, Pominville found himself on the receiving end of one of Mikael Granlund's increasingly-rare accurate cross-ice passes. He entered the zone, and seeing two too many defensemen to complete a return pass to Granlund drove the puck home. It's a good looking goal at a time when the Wild still looked good last night.
The immediate issue with Pominville's goal is that it gave the Wild a dreaded 3-goal lead. Yes, I'm aware that's not really the saying in hockey, but in historical context, the Wild are a team that has had trouble with slews of goals coming all at once, so in this case, my version is more to the point. With a healthy lead early in the second period, the Wild considered the game won and started playing their fourth line more heavily, trading zone time with the Dallas Stars and allowing them to continue being the Stars. More succinctly, they took their foot off the gas.
On the surface, that's all the moment was about. Some have talked about his first of the season as a period on the end of a really, really bad sentence within Pominville's season. It capped 21 games of scorelessness for Pominville and quieted (you probably can never silence those kind of voices) his detractors for a short while, but in the end, nothing ever puts a full stop to the NHL game.
The real underlying behind Pominville's goal is what it says about how the Wild read the ice over the course of a game. When you start looking for full stops in hockey, you start thinking about the game as repeatable. You start here, you end here, these are the motions you go through until you find that period that tells you you're done. And for so much of the game last night, and so much of the Wild's recent Decembers, that's why they've floundered so mightily. They look for repeatability in a game that is fundamentally dynamic and fluid.
The instant the Wild lost last night's game was the instant they decided Pominville's goal has put them out of reach of a team that is constantly-evolving. The one point they lost last night may sting for now, but the most troubling part about the turn last night's game took isn't in the standings. At least, not yet.