Pierre-Marc Bouchard had not played an NHL game in 424 days. And there he was, with 3 1/2 minutes remaining, standing at the side of the crease and trying to come up with a move to beat Phoenix goalie Jason LaBarbera and tie the score for the Wild.

"He didn't give me much room,'' Bouchard said. "I tried to go 5-hole, but it wasn't there.''

Phoenix got out of that mess, and 50 seconds later the Coyotes restored the lead to two goals and held on for a 4-2 victory. The Wild has lost three in a row and five of six, but the St. Paul lads did regain Bouchard and had more legitimate chances than their norm on Wednesday night.

Bouchard suffered a concussion on Oct. 3, 2009, in the season opener at Columbus. He missed the remaining 81 games of that putrid season and the first 23 on the 2010-11 schedule. He finally was given clearance to return "a few days ago.''

When a baseball player misses a long stretch, he will be sent to the minors for several games to tune up his skills. Even the Timberwolves announced Wednesday that they will send point guard Jonny Flynn to the D-League for at least a game before he makes his NBA comeback from hip surgery.

Bouchard? The Wild elected not to send him to the farm club in Houston or even to loan him to the other local pro team, the Hill-Murray Pioneers.

"We had a good talk about it,'' Bouchard said. "I had been skating hard for a while. We were confident that I should be playing here.''

Bouchard has been around so long that you often fail to remember that he's only 26. He was brought to the Wild as a No. 1 draft choice and an 18-year-old rookie in 2002, playing 441 games (regular season and playoffs) for the team in six seasons. And then he played 10 minutes, 44 seconds of one game in 2009-10.

"There is always going to be a real difference between the speed of an NHL game and a practice,'' Bouchard said. "It had been a long time since I played a game, so a big thing was to get out there and get my legs going.''

The Wild had a chance to get this game going in the right direction immediately and didn't do so. Phoenix was given three minor penalties in the game's first three minutes, putting the Wild on the power play for six of the opening seven minutes.

Bouchard made his debut 2:58 into the first period, at the start of what was a 4-minute power play. He played 3 1/2 minutes in the first period, and by the second one coach Todd Richards was using him with center Kyle Brodziak and wing Martin Havlat.

The only downer was Bouchard's presence on the ice for a pair of even-handed goals that gave Phoenix a 2-0 lead after two periods.

Richards wasn't worked up over that. The coach saw what he wanted: the skills of a veteran playmaker that this team desperately needs.

"I asked him in the second period how he was doing [physically] and he said, 'Fine,'" Richards said. "I probably played him a little more than I set out to, but he was generating ... quickness, and he was able to separate himself from defenders.''

Richards also liked what he saw from a line of Brodziak, Havlat and Bouchard. Power plays included, they had eight shots among them in the last two periods. That included five for Havlat, the guy who's supposed to be getting shots.

"I like the idea of Pierre playing with Marty, and I think they like that idea, too,'' Richards said. "I think they both see ice; they're good at making these little passes, these give-and-gos that you need to make in today's game.''

The assessment of Richards, Brodziak and others was that Bouchard was in the flow of the game early on. Bouchard said it was "a lot better in the third period,'' as far as moving at the pace of the NHL game.

He came back with a few days' growth of hair on his chin. Start of the playoff beard?

"I wish,'' he said.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon to 4 p.m. weekdays on 1500ESPN. preusse@startribune.com