There was a sense of relief Saturday night inside Xcel Energy Center, and not because the Wild ushered in the New Year on its first winning streak in three weeks.
Nope. It was quite the contrary.
The Wild gave up three third-period goals and lost 4-2 to the Phoenix Coyotes during a game in which players were a step behind from the opening faceoff.
The relief was for the fact that a destructive month for the Wild, both in the standings and to its players' bodies, is finally over.
"I'm ready to close out December and move on to January," coach Mike Yeo said after his team closed the calendar year on a 1-6-3 slide.
For a month that started so promising -- the final five victories of a seven-game win streak and 17-wins-in-21-games stretch -- the Wild came crashing down to earth. The Wild appeared to repair much of its game Wednesday and Thursday against Nashville and Edmonton.
But judging from the way the Wild played the Coyotes, it turns out that was done with Scotch tape.
"Systemwise, we were doing things we shouldn't be doing. Executionwise, we were doing things we shouldn't be doing," Yeo said.
With the score tied 1-1 after two periods, the Wild only needed to win one period to mask a poor effort. But Radim Vrbata scored twice 121 seconds apart early in the third.
Matt Cullen, with one goal in his previous 20 games, cut the deficit to 3-2 on a penalty shot, giving the Wild 11 minutes, 48 seconds to tie the score. But in the last five minutes, third-string goalie Curtis McElhinney stoned Marek Zidlicky, Cal Clutterbuck, Dany Heatley and Jared Spurgeon from point-blank range.
"Any time you paint yourself in a corner like that, you put yourself at the mercy of the bounces or the goalie," Cullen said.
The only area in which the Wild did well was the faceoff circle, where it won 72 percent of its draws led by Mikko Koivu's 23-for-31 performance. But possession means squat when you cough up pucks like Phoenix's sticks are magnetized.
"They didn't have to do anything to get the puck back," Yeo said. "We gave it to them."
That was the case on Vrbata's first goal. Minor-leaguer Jed Ortmeyer turned the puck over, and 15 seconds later Greg Zanon lost a puck battle with Ray Whitney, Niklas Backstrom lost his post and Vrbata scored from a bad angle.
Just 2:01 later, a weird line change by the Wild resulted in the Coyotes coming with speed. Vrbata was on his strong side, so Backstrom dropped into his butterfly. When Vrbata didn't shoot and circled the net, Backstrom scrambled to recover and nearly did before Vrbata scored what turned out to be the game-winner.
"The game slipped away in the first period. You could see it," Yeo said. "Second period we couldn't find a new level. And coming out in the third period, it caught up to us. We're not going to just drop our sticks and win hockey games. We have to go in with an unbelievable purpose."
The Wild happily ended a busy, injury-laden month with a ton of travel, which caused little quality practice time. The Wild has only 10 games in January, meaning it will get ample opportunity to practice and rediscover its vanished game.
"It's easier when you're winning games. You're doing the right things," Backstrom said. "Now we've been losing, we've been sliding off our game and it's tough to recover.
"We have to get back our structure and the way we play hockey. We haven't been able to practice with our squad for a long time. Get the guys out there and be healthy and practice. That's the only way to get our game back."