Wild midseason report: Players are looking for their game

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 7, 2012 - 8:08 AM

Why has the Wild gone from unbelievably good to achingly bad?

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Minnesota coach Mike Yeo, top, has preached the same message of consistency, and captain Mikko Koivu, left, and Cal Clutterbuck have largely been bright spots. Still, the team is in a spiral from early, unprecedented heights that shows no sign of ebbing at season’s midpoint.

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CALGARY, ALBERTA - What happened ... and how does the Wild get it back?

For six weeks, the Wild was the NHL's best one-goal team, best comeback team, best third-period team and best road team. After 17 victories in a 21-game stretch, it catapulted to the summit of the league standings.

The Wild wasn't the league's best team in terms of talent but was arguably the best "team" in the league. It had a certain style, a special work ethic, and it never wavered in either. It stuck to its system almost robotically. Every line, every defense pair worked symbiotically, and the goaltenders were there to make a clutch save. As players were injured, others were ushered in and became interchangeable.

Now?

Whether it started to buy into its glowing press clippings or lost its game when injuries became too plentiful and significant, the Wild is arguably one of the worst "teams" in the league. Its battle level has waned. Players can't rely on each other for support. Its power play is in shambles. It is now the second-lowest scoring team in the league despite the offseason additions of Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi. The goalies are leaking. Its defensive-zone coverage is a mess.

All this has amounted to a team that has lost 10 of 11 games (with three overtime points) and is oh-so close to stepping off the precipice as the second half begins Saturday night in Calgary.

The top team in the NHL for part of November and 13 days in December is three points away from being out of a playoff position.

The rise and steady decline

A month ago, the Wild looked indestructible.

On Dec. 4 in Anaheim, the Wild became the first team since the 2005-06 Buffalo Sabres to win three consecutive road games after trailing by at least two goals. On Dec. 6 in San Jose, the Wild won for a league-leading 12th time when allowing the first goal. On Dec. 8 in Los Angeles, the Wild became the first NHL team to reach 20 victories. On Dec. 10 at Phoenix, the Wild became the first team to top 40 points by winning its franchise-record seventh in a row on the road.

The Wild had a four-point lead in the NHL and five-point lead in the Western Conference, but the wheels began to fall off as a winless stretch of eight games in 15 nights began.

On Dec. 13 in Winnipeg, Matt Cullen returned home because of illness and Guillaume Latendresse, with only one practice under his belt, made an expedited return from a concussion. The game was fast and physical. Pierre-Marc Bouchard was driven face-first into the boards. A rivalry was born, but the unsatisfying one-goal loss took its toll on the Wild.

For the first time in a long time, coach Mike Yeo claimed the Wild abandoned the type of game that had made it so successful. Players began to freelance. They turned pucks over. The Jets routinely attacked with speed and created frantic scrambles in the Wild end.

The next night, the Wild returned home to play Chicago. Marek Zidlicky returned from a concussion and, suddenly, a blue line that had played consistently well with the same defensemen during the win streak -- Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Nick Schultz, Clayton Stoner, Greg Zanon and Mike Lundin -- was altered.

The Wild lost in a shootout. It also, again, lost Latendresse, potentially one of the team's highest scorers, to a concussion.

They've fallen and can't get up

That's where the train derailed.

Mikko Koivu also was lost because of a knee injury. He joined four others on the shelf -- Setoguchi, Latendresse, Bouchard and Casey Wellman -- who had been playing on the top two lines.

It proved too much.

The Wild lacked life in a shootout loss to the Islanders, was a special teams disaster in Vancouver, was a second-period disaster in Calgary and was such an overall failure two nights later, Yeo called his team's play "garbage."

The team has lost four of five since then and, as Yeo said after the Edmonton game, "All those little things that we were doing earlier to win games that end up making the difference, we're not doing it -- plain and simple. The details in our game -- completely nonexistent."

With injuries, fourth-liners became third-liners and minor-leaguers became second-liners. The shutdown line centered by Kyle Brodziak, with wingers Nick Johnson and either Darroll Powe or Cal Clutterbuck, a line so effective at playing the game the way Yeo wanted it to be played, was torn apart.

Slowly but surely, the Wild's game vanished, and there have been few sightings since.

"A month ago, we were excited about the opportunity to come to the rink and build something here and establish an identity and prove to the world we were for real," Yeo said. "Along the way, whether it was the success we had or where we looked at ourselves in the standings or the injuries or whatever it was, we lost our way. We have to get back to that purpose of coming to the rink and being a team that's tough to play against."

Clutterbuck said there's no doubt the Wild can find its game -- and right mental attitue -- again.

"The second half is just a whole new chance to reset and prove ourselves," he said. "I find we play a lot better and a lot more desperate when we're trying to prove people wrong.

"Even when we were winning, it seemed people were down on us. People are down on us again. We like proving people wrong. Now we can do it again."

Michael Russo • mrusso@startribune.com

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