DETROIT - At this time of year, when you're playing out the string, giving a bunch of young guys looks because you're decimated by injury and walking into intimidating Joe Louis Arena to play the fearsome Detroit Red Wings, you take any positive you can from a 4-2 loss.
First and foremost, the Wild hardly was embarrassed Sunday, a modest achievement, yes, but one coach Todd Richards was understandably worried about before the game.
After all, against a healthy, superstar-laden team priming for a 20th consecutive postseason appearance, the undermanned Wild limped in with four rookie defensemen and two young forwards -- one being rookie Carson McMillan, who was making his NHL debut, the second being Colton Gillies, who was playing his fourth game this season after 45 as a rushed-up rookie in 2008-09.
"It helps us to see [the kids]. Hopefully it gives them some confidence in playing against these top-end players," Richards said.
McMillan, 22, became the fourth Wild player to score a goal in his NHL debut (Marian Gaborik, Pascal Dupuis and Rickard Wallin), a goal set up by Brad Staubitz. It was fitting because earlier, Staubitz was credited for setting up Justin Falk's first NHL goal before the goal ultimately was taken away from the defenseman and given to Staubitz.
The puck deflected in off Staubitz's skate.
"I'll remember my first goal forever, but the win would have been bigger," said McMillan, a Brandon, Manitoba, native taken 200th overall in the 2007 draft. "I got that little taste of what it's like. If I get sent down tonight, I'm happy I got my first game."
McMillan wasn't sent down, and like Gillies, Falk, Maxim Noreau and Jared Spurgeon, Aeros General Manager Jim Mill hopes this NHL "taste" provides confidence once the five young players are back in Houston soon for the AHL playoffs.
"What this has to do is motivate Carson for the next step," Mill said. "He's got to continue to do what he's been doing all year and help us win the Calder Cup. He's a third-, fourth-line checking center-ice man who goes to the net, and that's what he did to get rewarded tonight.
"But I was really proud of how all the younger guys battled."
For two periods, the scoring chances were about even. The Wild, in an arena in which it traditionally struggles, even had the shot advantage until Detroit ultimately got a 34-29 edge.
But the reality is the Red Wings, who spend the same $59 million on payroll as the Wild, are bigger, faster and better by a wide margin even when the Wild is healthy.
They've used a draft-and-develop mentality, and it has paid off with a flock of stars.
Draft picks Darren Helm, Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen each scored. Draft pick Henrik Zetterberg had two assists. Draft pick Pavel Datsyuk had a helper and was a threat all night.
This is what the Wild aspires to be. "It's tough to acquire those guys unless you do it through the draft," Richards said.
Pierre-Marc Bouchard has been selected as the Wild's nominee for the Bill Masterton Trophy by the Twin Cities chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. The honor is given annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey.
Jose Theodore, while playing for Washington, won the award last season.
After a debilitating concussion, Bouchard successfully achieved a comeback to the NHL on Dec. 1 after being limited to one game in 20-plus months. He has scored 11 goals and 34 points in 56 games. "It feels almost like a second chance," Bouchard said last month.
• Richards loved Gillies' game.
"He wanted to be the first forechecker in the zone and he worked hard," Richards said. "There was clearly a difference in speed when he got on the ice."
Gillies, 22, a 2007 first-round pick, was playing his fourth game in four nights. "I knew I had to be ready. [You] tell yourself you're not tired," he said.
• The Wild, which has lost 10 of 12, hasn't beaten a Western Conference team currently in a playoff position since Feb. 25 (at Anaheim).