Crunch time for Wild

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2012 - 6:00 AM

The Wild hopes it rediscovered its winning formula just before the All-Star break, turning hard work and good defense into goal-scoring chances.

The NHL All-Star break featured sand and sun for some Wild players, wine country or casino visits for others ... and that was apparent for the first few minutes of the team's practice on Monday.

"It's weird getting on the ice after being five days completely off," forward Cal Clutterbuck said. "You feel like you're a first-timer again."

But the energy and the execution quickly returned during a crisp, up-tempo practice in anticipation of the soaring Nashville Predators coming to town Tuesday. The Wild hopes to build off the momentum it created with a modest two-game winning streak that put the team just barely inside the playoff bubble before the break.

"Reenergize the body and the mind, and I think the guys are pretty excited to get back," center Kyle Brodziak said. "This is crunch time starting now. You could feel it on the ice. We know that right now is the playoff push."

The Wild lost 15 of 17 prior to beating Dallas and Colorado. In the two victories, the Wild returned to being a good-defending, hard-working, hard-to-play-against team.

That's what coach Mike Yeo did his darnedest to reinforce Monday.

Back when the Wild reeled off 17 victories in 21 games (could that be dubbed the "good ol' days?"), it had a certain recipe for victory. It rarely abandoned its aggressive system, which meant players waited for the other team to crack.

And that's why the Wild won so many games (15) when surrendering the first goal. That's why the Wild controlled so many third periods. That's why the Wild won so many one-goal games (14-4-7).

Against the Stars, the Wild trailed 2-1 before Clutterbuck, Chad Rau and Brodziak scored 59 seconds apart in the second period of a 5-2 victory.

Since then, Clutterbuck said the Wild "became ourselves again."

In Colorado, the Avs struck first. The Wild took a 2-1 lead before the Avs tied it during a second period the Wild thoroughly controlled. Carson McMillan eventually scored the game-winner midway through the third.

"We were doing things so consistently, we had that feeling again that the other team doesn't really stand a chance to win the game," Clutterbuck said. "We weren't worried at all. It was a matter of 'when' for us. That's a feeling we haven't had in probably 15, 16 games."

Now it's a matter of bottling up that feeling, which won't be easy for a team that has proven it must play at the highest of levels to win even when healthy. Standout forwards Mikko Koivu (shoulder), Guillaume Latendresse (concussion) and Pierre-Marc Bouchard (concussion) still are sidelined, although Koivu and Latendresse could be back in the lineup soon.

Yeo says it is imperative for the Wild to work the good habits into its game every day.

"We played with that spark that was lacking for whatever reason," center Matt Cullen said. "That's the bottom line, just that extra effort, that grit, that not-going-to-lose-a-battle attitude along with systematically, we were a lot better.

"We were smarter with the puck and better with what we were doing with the puck. We just got back that attitude that got us to where we were."

The Wild is at a critical juncture. It plays three of its next four on the road before finishing with 18 of 29 at home, where it is 13-6-3. The Wild's success -- or lack of it -- the next few weeks, plus the health of Koivu, Latendresse and Bouchard, will determine what General Manager Chuck Fletcher does before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.

The Wild is used to being around the eighth and final playoff spot this time of year. The past two years, though, the wheels fell off in March. Perhaps this time, the wheels fell off in late December and January and the Wild stumbled upon some shiny new ones.

"The message this morning: This is a fun time to be a hockey player, when you come to the rink and you get to play a game and it matters. Every day it matters," Yeo said. "We're going to have to win a lot of hockey games down the stretch, but the encouraging thing is there were many signs that our game was coming back to us before this break, so let's continue to build that and see where it takes us."

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