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ST. PAUL, Minn. – The St. Louis Blues were reveling in their Game 5 win at Minnesota to clinch the first-round series when coach Mike Yeo was greeted by a familiar face in the office inside the visiting team locker room.
Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher, who fired him just down the hall a little more than a year ago, stepped in to congratulate him on the 4-3 overtime victory .
"It's a first-class group," Yeo said on Saturday, "and I'm sure that we'll be seeing more of each other down the road."
Not for a while, though. Now the Blues will face Nashville.
The first postseason matchup against his former team and Central Division rival couldn't have been better for Yeo, who maintained a home in Minnesota so his son could finish his high school career and was hired by the Blues four months after the Wild dismissed him in his fifth year on the job.
Yeo was supposed to spend the season working under Ken Hitchcock before taking over the bench, but with the Blues sputtering at 24-21-5, the switch was made by general manager Doug Armstrong earlier than expected. The Blues have gone 26-9-2 since Yeo took over Feb. 1.
"This was big for him, although he made it clear that it wasn't about him," Blues left wing Scottie Upshall said. "I'm sure right now he's enjoying a cold one thinking that was a hell of a series."
Hired at age 37 by Fletcher with the Wild after one year coaching their AHL affiliate, Yeo oversaw first-round series victories in 2014 and 2015 when Minnesota was the lower-seeded team. The Wild were mired in a severe slump last winter, though, and his message, voice and style didn't seem to be resonating with the players anymore. Fletcher felt he had no choice but to fire him.
That's the way Armstrong saw the situation with Hitchcock, and the move has worked wonders.
"We found a way to just simplify our game, just mentally," center Kyle Brodziak said. "We're more aware of what our game feels like when we're playing well, and I think that's helped us, especially on the road. We've carried that into the playoffs, and hopefully we can keep doing it."
The Blues will have home-ice advantage against the Predators, who finished eighth in the Western Conference but swept the first-place Chicago Blackhawks. St. Louis goalie Jake Allen, with 174 saves on 182 shots, more than made up for some long stretches of dominance during the series by the Wild.
"Listen, what they do is part of why you're not at your best," Yeo said, again bristling a bit about the notion that the Blues were fortunate to win. "So it was a really good team that we played against, and they put you under a lot of pressure."
Yeo acknowledged he'd like to prod the Blues to be more aggressive with the lead against the Predators, rather than retreating into a conservative, zone-clogging style they used to win Game 1 while being outshot 52-26.
"But when you win a series, you do an awful lot of good things, and we had a lot of real strong performances from players," Yeo said. "Obviously Jake deserves a huge amount of credit, but it's a great team win."
With insider knowledge of Wild players, Yeo had an obvious benefit he used to his advantage in directing the Blues to play a physical style against smaller Minnesota and force as many of their shots to the outside as possible.
Yeo has made some smooth moves beyond that this month, though, working Vladimir Sobotka into the lineup right before the playoffs upon his return from a three-year hiatus in Russia and returning Paul Stastny to the first line on Saturday following a 14-game injury absence.
Then there's a player like Magnus Paajarvi, who scored the winning goal in overtime in Game 5 and has been back and forth to the AHL over the last three seasons. He's indicative of the character, grit and coming together the Blues have shown since bottoming out in January.
"It's stuff like that coming together that pays things off in the long run," Stastny said. "We don't even care if we score, we're so happy for each other. I think we're rooting for the next guy up every time."
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