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The Wild's Eric Nystrom reacted to a power-play goal by veteran Colorado forward Milan Hejduk, middle.

David Joles, Star Tribune

Victories, not bad puck luck, are what matter for Wild

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT
  • Star Tribune
  • January 15, 2011 - 9:32 AM

In summing up the Wild's loss to Colorado on Friday night, Todd Richards sounded more like a therapist than a coach. Another missed opportunity to move up in the standings -- and another disappointment at Xcel Energy Center in front of its increasingly frustrated fans -- kept him in full spin-control mode, lest his team dwell on the negative.

Richards lauded the Wild for its effort. He was pleased with the scoring chances it created and its success in limiting the Avalanche to 18 shots on goal, the fewest it has allowed this season. With a fortuitous bounce here or there, he reasoned, the outcome might have been different.

Except it wasn't. And even as Richards searched for every ray of sunshine he could find, he acknowledged that the Wild's failure to deliver the thing that matters most -- a victory, and the two points that go with it -- made the ice under its feet that much thinner.

The Wild entered Friday's game in a three-way tie for 10th place in the Western Conference. Its third consecutive loss, and its drop below .500 at home, maintained two maddening patterns that must be broken sooner rather than later. If it can't, the boos that punctuated Friday's 4-1 loss are only going to get louder.

"We needed a little bit of puck luck, a little bounce,'' Richards said. "As a coach, you're disappointed, because I really felt the guys worked hard and competed. They deserved a better fate.

"We're a team right now that's fighting for its life. Obviously, everyone's disappointed, but we're going to have to wake up [this morning] and change our attitude, because there's a great Vancouver team coming in Sunday.''

Richards spoke frequently of luck and fate Friday, as hockey coaches are wont to do. It can be a cruel and unpredictable game; Richards noted that earlier this season, the Wild mounted lesser efforts that earned it points.

Friday, with both of its experienced goaltenders sitting out, it needed to give adequate support to Anton Khudobin. The native of Kazhakstan -- who demonstrated his chops in two games last season, going 2-0 -- had a tough night. The Avs' third goal came when winger Tomas Fleischmann threw the puck in from the blue line, and it bounced through Khudobin's pads.

That set off the first round of boos. But as several players pointed out, the fault lay as much with the Wild's inability to score as it did with a nervous rookie making his second NHL start. During its three-game losing streak, the Wild has been outscored 13-2; going into Friday's game, its 108 goals were tied with Edmonton for the lowest total in the conference.

The frustration, and the strain, were evident in the locker room. "We can't score one goal a game and expect to win,'' center John Madden said. "We've got to find ways to win these games. Points are so crucial right now.''

Madden and his teammates understand they've left the fans with little to cheer for lately. The Wild's all-time attendance mark surpassed 8 million on Friday night, which says more about Minnesota's unquenchable love for hockey than it does for the product they've been paying to see.

The Wild is 10-11-2 at home. It remains a frustrating team to follow, teasing with winning streaks that are inevitably followed by backslides. With some consistency, the Wild still could make the playoffs, but its inability to sustain a high level of play doesn't inspire confidence.

The hip problems that have sidelined goaltenders Niklas Backstrom and Jose Theodore have complicated things in the short term. Khudobin has played only four NHL games; backup Matt Hackett, only 20 years old, is a first-year pro called up Friday for the first time in his career.

By working so hard to accentuate the positive, Richards and his players dealt with the slump the only way they can. But they also acknowledged that if the Wild is to reverse its fortunes, it will take more than that. Sunday, it returns to Xcel Energy Center to face the Canucks, the best -- and hottest -- team in the NHL.

Then it hits the road again for seven of its next nine games, a tough stretch for a team that needs to get on a roll. The Wild might deserve a better fate than it got Friday. But this much is certain: It is going to have to earn it, with or without puck luck -- and soon.

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com

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