Wild must rediscover its game

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 21, 2011 - 9:46 PM

A six-game skid has dashed any playoff hopes, but the team still needs to show a professional effort.

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Since Feb. 22, Wild coach Todd Richards (right, with assistant Dave Barr) has seen his team fall from fifth to 11th in the Western Conference.

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Twenty minutes after the Wild suffered its worst loss in franchise history, Todd Richards ended his postgame news conference by telling the assembled media that the team had Monday off.

Maybe the Wild coach figured that after the humiliating 8-1 home-ice loss to the Montreal Canadiens, he might as well give his players the first day of spring to dust off their golf clubs and put away their hockey gear.

After all, even Richards, a big golfer himself, knows the Wild's not about to make a charge up the back nine.

This season ended, not during Sunday's display or Saturday's deflating overtime loss to Columbus, but during consecutive 4-0 losses in Nashville and Dallas that started an 0-4 road trip.

Because of that, Richards, who is the same coach who bag-skated the Wild after the fourth game of the season, probably felt a mental health day away from hockey would pay bigger dividends than running the players up and down the ice and teaching them the breakout again.

Judging from what many fans thought of Richards' decision, the clearing-the-heads before Tuesday's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs is up for debate.

The reality is what would have been the point?

Three weeks ago, the Wild was rolling along, on pace for 98 points. The team played solid hockey for two-plus months and convinced a large portion of its fan base that it would not only make the playoffs, but might be a team to be reckoned with once it got there.

Four painful weeks later, all that good will has been destroyed. The Wild has lost six in a row and is 3-8-2 since moving into fifth in the Western Conference on Feb. 22.

Horrific timing, too. As the Wild seeks season-ticket dollars for next season, the team is under the microscope again. How does a team less talented than many of its opponents infuse talent onto its roster when there aren't a lot of tradeable assets or salary-cap space, at least for next season?

We will have plenty of time this offseason to examine that question.

For now, the big question is how do Richards and the players rediscover their game, which disappeared the past month.

"Confidence is an amazing thing," General Manager Chuck Fletcher said Monday. "For two months, we had a lot of confidence. Now we're going through a very tough stretch."

On Monday, a disappointed Fletcher didn't feel it was the right time to reflect on this season, look ahead to the summer or discuss the anguish felt during Sunday's seven-goal loss.

"I know what last night feels like because I've lived it for 24 hours," Fletcher said.

He knows the fans have, too, and understands the frustration.

As the Wild has proven, it is so easy to lose one's game and plummet. The Wild has lost its confidence, and when that happens, you lose trust in oneself, each other and the system.

All season, this has been a completely different team when leading. The Wild is the third-best team in the NHL when scoring first (27-2-4) and fourth-worst when getting scored upon first (8-28-4).

Sunday, and throughout the recent slide, the Wild has shown why. Instead of playing hockey what Fletcher calls "the right way," the Wild presses, starts doing things individually and departs the system.

Look how many players began freelancing Sunday and lost complete control of their game.

The Wild must use these final nine games to find its game again. The eyes above are watching everybody from Richards to the five unrestricted free agents (Andrew Brunette, John Madden, Antti Miettinen, Chuck Kobasew and Jose Theodore) to potential trade baits such as Brent Burns, Nick Schultz and Pierre-Marc Bouchard to the players vying for spots next season.

Fletcher is looking for the players he has believed in all season to simply calm down, forget the recent dejection and focus.

"There's a lot of pride in that room," Fletcher said. "I respect the players and how hard they played this year, and I know the character is that room.

"The important thing right now is for us to come back and reestablish our game and reestablish our trust in each other and play the right way, starting [Tuesday night]."

The golf clubs are no doubt out of storage.

But before they can hit the links, it is incumbent on the Wild's paid professionals to show some pride and play the game the right way these final nine games.

Or, it will get really ugly around these parts.

Michael Russo • mrusso@startribune.com

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