Nick Schultz insists he wasn't attempting to send a message inside his locker room or to ignite his own game when he delivered an uncharacteristically terse and expletive-filled rant after the Wild's uninspired 4-1 loss in Toronto two weeks ago.

It just sort of spilled out.

"It's just something where you're frustrated after a game and still fired up," he said.

Coincidence or not, Schultz responded with two strong performances to help the Wild enter the NHL All-Star break in a positive frame of mind after a monthlong skid caused them to tumble precipitously in the standings. As the unofficial second half of the season begins Tuesday, the Wild needs more of that from Schultz and its group of veteran leaders and top players.

More solid play, that is, although a little salty language is fine too, if that's what it takes to get those guys going.

"I don't know if that was necessarily what I was trying to do," Schultz said. "But if it helped, that's good."

However it happens and whatever it takes, the Wild needs its core guys -- Schultz, Dany Heatley, Devin Setoguchi, Mikko Koivu, Niklas Backstrom and Cal Clutterbuck -- to play at a high level and do so consistently. They need to put this team on their collective backs and prove that the early-season success was not merely an aberration.

This is the time for them to rely on their experience, raise their game and see if they can give Wild fans a tangible sign of progress by pushing and pulling this team into the postseason.

"That's kind of what it's always like on any team," Setoguchi said. "If you're a top guy, if you play more minutes, you've got to play a better game, especially when injuries happen. Guys have to step up. Collectively going forward, we're going to need everyone, not just the Heatleys, the Koivus, Schultz. We need everyone to step up and play better hockey if we want to make the playoffs."

That's true, but it starts with the marquee players. They set the example for others to follow.

The return of Koivu and Guillaume Latendresse from injuries should provide a positive jolt, but that alone isn't enough.

They need Heatley and Setoguchi to get hot and jumpstart an anemic offense. Maybe Heatley is not a 50-goal threat anymore, but he still commands attention on the ice and can impact the game in other areas.

They need Schultz to be a steadying presence along the blue line and Clutterbuck to be disruptive everywhere. They need Backstrom to be stingy in goal and occasionally stand on his head, particularly if this team doesn't start scoring more.

"If you want to make the playoffs," Setoguchi said, "this is the time of season where it kicks into another gear."

Setoguchi must meet that challenge. He has 10 goals and 18 points, is a minus-9 and was benched one game for missing a team meeting. Setoguchi described his career at a "crossroads" when he arrived in a trade last summer. Determined to "pick up my game one more step," his impact instead has been underwhelming so far. He's better than that, and now is the time to show it.

Same for Schultz, the longest-tenured Wild player and blue-line staple. His first-half performance was inconsistent and not up to his standards (two assists, no goals, minus-7).

"This is the time now that matters," Schultz said. "It doesn't matter what we did in the past, how we started or the [bad] part we went through. This is the season now."

The Wild begins the unofficial second half in eighth place in the Western Conference and with more optimism on the health front. Injuries certainly took a toll before the break and disrupted the team's ability to establish cohesion and chemistry with so many bodies shuffling in and out of the lineup. The Wild has used a league-high 37 players and ranks 10th in the NHL in man-games lost.

The Wild praised its Houston call-ups for bringing much-needed energy and enthusiasm at a critical time. The youngsters' impact certainly was encouraging and helped the Wild enter its break on a positive note.

The fate of the season, however, now rests in the hands of the team's best players. As it should.

Chip Scoggins •