Wild's chemistry has little reaction without catalysts

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 14, 2011 - 3:53 PM

Injuries to Mikko Koivu, Cal Clutterbuck and Clayton Stoner depleted the team's grit, and a slump has followed.

Minnesota Wild Cal Clutterbuck, right, slams Calgary Flames defenceman Cory Sarich into the boards during first-period NHL hockey game action in Calgary, Alberta, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011.

Photo: Jeff McIntosh, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - There were multiple reasons, but one big reason the Wild didn't add at the trade deadline Feb. 28 was management's trepidation to fiddle with the chemistry of a close-knit, (at the time) solid-playing team.

The thing about chemistry, though, is if you remove a couple of chemicals, the entire concoction changes and now you've got a mixture of who knows what.

That's what has happened with the Wild. Take Mikko Koivu, Cal Clutterbuck and Clayton Stoner out of the lineup because of injuries, and you have a completely different team and, especially, identity.

"You think about how hard we played in Anaheim and L.A. a few weeks ago," coach Todd Richards said. "I know Mikko didn't play, but Clutter and Stoner did. Look at that battle and how hard we competed.

"You take those two from your lineup with Mikko already out, these are hard-working battlers. That affects the energy and character of your team and how it competes. So Mikko, to me, is the main ingredient, but you take out two important ingredients like Clutter and Stoner, too, it affects the way your team plays in a big way."

The reality is when it comes to pure talent, the Wild doesn't evenly match up with many teams in the NHL. But what made the Wild successful during a two-plus-month stretch of mostly solid hockey was its work ethic.

It finally figured out how to be successful through defending well, getting good goaltending and sending pucks deep in the opponent's zone, but it all started with a willingness to compete.

That identity is fractured, at least during consecutive 4-0 losses at Nashville and Dallas to begin this four-game road trip that continues Monday against league-leading Vancouver.

"We've lacked that edge and battle level and emotion," right winger Antti Miettinen said. "That's what we have to get back."

The good news is "there's a chance" Koivu returns Monday from a broken finger against the Canucks. While it sounds as if Clutterbuck (head) will miss his fifth consecutive game, Stoner hopes to return after missing three games because of abdominal pain.

Koivu and Richards had a long talk on the ice late in Sunday's practice, but neither was tipping his hand. A decision whether Koivu can play will be made Monday.

Since Koivu's injury, the Wild is 4-5-1. You can get by with that type of record early in the season, but not any longer. The Wild is 11th in the Western Conference -- four points from a playoff spot -- with 13 games remaining.

"Mikko drives our team, without question," Richards said. "Mikko does so many other things, and it's unfortunate that when people lump together the top centers, they're always basing it on points. Mikko does so much more than that for us.

"You do wonder at times when you lose your captain, 'How is the team going to go?' We've got guys that push it, but nobody pushes it like Mikko does."

In Koivu's first four games out, the Wild went 2-1-1 to put itself as high as fifth in the conference. While players were able to elevate their game initially, "the longer it keeps going, the importance of him is more," Miettinen said. "But with or without him, there's certain things we have to do well in order to win. A lot of that is battle and work ethic.

"And that is also where you miss him. It's not just his skill, but his example. The work ethic and relentless style of play he has is contagious. Guys see that and do it themselves."

Still, the Wild won't pressure its players to play hurt even with the season evaporating.

"Guys have to feel that they can perform," Richards said. "You want them feeling confident. Without a question, if we have those guys in the lineup, 'Are we a better team?' Absolutely.

"But they have to be ready to go physically, and they have to be right in their minds, too. Because if there's doubt, that's going to be holding them back."

Etc.

• Injured goalie Josh Harding has joined the Wild on the road but didn't practice Sunday.

• Forward Guillaume Latendresse (lower body) will be examined on Monday by doctors. He is back in Minnesota because of soreness.

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