Loss puts Wild on playoff precipice

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2012 - 12:55 AM

Tops in the NHL a month ago, coach Mike Yeo's team lost for the 14th time in 16 games and is close to being out of the top eight in the West.

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Minnesota's Matt Cullen reaches for the puck after knocking down Philadelphia's Claude Giroux.

Photo: Matt Slocum, Associated Press

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PHILADELPHIA - One calendar month.

In a colossal and completely unexpected collapse, it's taken that long for the Wild to free fall from the No. 1 spot in the NHL to so-so close to being outside the top eight of the Western Conference.

It was Dec. 17 when the Wild last resided at the tippy top of the standings. It's Jan. 18, and the Wild clings by a fingernail in eighth with four playoff outsiders within two points after Tuesday's 5-1 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center.

"We had such a great start. We were in a perfect spot," defenseman Nick Schultz said. "We were playing hard, we were playing consistent. We've gotten away from that and for whatever reason, we haven't been able to get it back. It's got to come from all the guys in here."

The Wild's second-longest road winless streak in history hit 10 (0-8-2) and it lost for the 14th time in 16 games (2-10-4).

What's more, there has been no evidence that would give any suffering Wild fan reason to believe "the guys in here" can turn this nosedive around.

Captain Mikko Koivu is out for at least a month. Scorers Guillaume Latendresse and Pierre-Marc Bouchard are out indefinitely.

Minor-leaguers litter the ice. Goal-scorers Dany Heatley (no shots Tuesday) and Devin Setoguchi aren't scoring, Matt Cullen and Kyle Brodziak have dried up, Cal Clutterbuck has become undisciplined (four minor penalties Tuesday), the blue line is erratic and the goaltending is cracking.

From a battle standpoint, you never know what you're going to get. Fragility has become the Wild's most consistent feature.

One bad thing happens -- Tuesday being a Sean Couturier short-handed goal to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead -- and disaster ensues.

"It felt like our game was there early, and ... all it takes is one, two bad things to happen, and we get completely away from what we're supposed to be doing," Brodziak said. "I don't know if it's a mind thing, a confidence thing. ... But we have to emotionally control ourselves better."

Coach Mike Yeo agreed with Brodziak but called it "ridiculous."

"I'm sorry, but is that what we got right now?" Yeo, more and more exasperated after each loss, said. "We have to fix that and fix that in a hurry. Bad things happened when we were in first place, but we overcame them. Right now, we let those affect us in a very negative way."

The Wild and Flyers played an even first period, but Kimmo Timonen scored a power-play goal on Philly's first shot.

In the second, the Wild drew a power play, and the game turned. Alleged offensive defenseman Marek Zidlicky (zero goals, minus-3 Tuesday) sailed a shot wide. Nick Johnson was beat on the wall, Cullen got caught flat-footed, made a wrong move and suddenly Couturier finished off Matt Read's 2-on-1 feed.

"Backbreaker," Yeo called it.

Yeo was more displeased how the Wild responded after Darroll Powe cut a 2-0 deficit in half. Breakdowns quickly turned the game to 4-1.

"It seems like we get scored on now, we get so down," Schultz said.

Yeo is sounding like a broken record lately, saying the Wild has to play "the right way," a "certain way," has to play "our game."

The Wild's game has been missing for a month, and the season is unraveling before our very eyes with critical pieces not close to returning.

"It's not fun. It stinks having those guys out," Schultz said. "But that's what we have to deal with."

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