The NHL standings had four important categories from its inception in 1917 through the 1998-99 season: W L T Pts.

The league took its first foray into feel-good standings in 1999-2000, when it started awarding a consolation point to a team that lost in overtime. The NHL added another layer to its distorted point totals for the 2005-06 season, when an overtime tie was followed by a shootout -- with the winning team getting a bonus point.

We need this information to realize that the 2003 Wild, the team that thrilled Minnesota with its run to the Western Conference finals, and the 2008 Wild, a team that most Minnesotans feel has the potential to provide greater thrills, basically had identical regular seasons.

The Wild of '03 finished with 95 points. This came with a record of 42-29-10-1 (W-L-T-OL), meaning that team had only one new-age bonus point for an overtime loss. The Wild of '08 finished with 98 points. This came with a record 44-28-2-8 (W-L-OL-SL), getting two points for overtime losses as well as three extra points for winning shootouts.

So, if we were to judge these teams by the same standards (W-L-T) that were good enough for the NHL before 1999, the '03 Wild was 42-30-10 for 94 points, and the '08 Wild was 41-30-11 for 93 points.

There's also this: The '03 Wild had a 20-goal advantage (198-178) over opponents, and the '08 Wild's was five (223-218).

Since the playoffs started eight nights ago, we've been proceeding in the belief that coach Jacques Lemaire was taking a much stronger club into the Stanley Cup tournament this time. Taking another look at the legitimate numbers for the '03 and '08 teams gives some pause in propagating that theory.

Five years ago, Lemaire had a mix of happy-to-be-here veterans, wide-eyed youngsters and a nucleus of solid players in their prime. Not once did you have the impression that those athletes were ignoring the coach.

For sure, during that 18-game playoff excursion, we never saw Lemaire standing behind the bench, chomping his gum frantically, with no way to stop his players from making fools of themselves -- as was the case in Tuesday night's Game 4 in Denver.

Lemaire went to an interview room 15 minutes after the 5-1 loss and said: "I couldn't wait until the game was over. I couldn't wait. I knew there was nothing we could do. It was getting ugly. The guys were frustrated. The more we got frustrated, the more we got penalties. ... It never stopped.''

Lemaire has coached the Wild from Day 1 and through seven seasons. How often have you heard him admit that his players, en masse, were completely out of his control?

Certainly, we never heard that with the '03 group, a team with fewer stars but with hearts that could be seen pounding under their sweaters.

Everyone on that team brought some value. Jason Marshall had 50 percent of the physical assets of the last few guys on the current roster, yet he forced his way into the lineup for 15 of the 18 playoff games with his willingness to do precisely what Lemaire told him to do.

There were a half-dozen players like that, and then a young, dynamic Marian Gaborik, and Willie Mitchell playing through excruciating pain, and Wes Walz going faster than the superstars he was matched against, and on and on.

Did you ever feel cheated watching the Wild players in the spring of '03? Not once, not even when they couldn't get a puck past Anaheim goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere to save their lives.

On Tuesday, the Wild players cheated their coach, and cheated the masses in Minnesota who stayed up in anticipation of another taut, terrific hockey game.

The Avalanche came out flying and the Wild retreated. Mikko Koivu was one exception to that, but he didn't have much company.

When it got to be 4-0 at 7:42 of the second period, Derek Boogaard immediately went looking for someone to elbow (Colorado's David Jones was convenient). This was the signal for the Wild to turn into a pack of yahoos.

Lemaire's lads can still win this series -- still should, because they are better than the Avalanche -- but Tuesday's display put them well in arrears of their '03 brethren in the areas of class and heart.

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM- 1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. •