Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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Wild returns home after killer 0-for-4 road trip

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: March 18, 2011 - 1:26 AM

Nine days ago, after the Wild beat Colorado in a one-sided home game, I think I wrote something to the effect of this thing looking like it would go down to the wire and at least the Wild will make the final month of the season an exciting one.

So much for that.

Four games later, the Wild returned home after four straight losses to all but dismantle its season. It's now six points out of a playoff spot with 11 games left and the final month looking bleak as can be despite a four-game homestand on the horizon and a bunch of winnable games coming up.

But the math is the math, the climb is the climb and the offseason is the offseason. It's coming up soon.

Even the organization knows the playoffs are becoming a longshot. According to several viewers and listeners who emailed and tweeted me tonight, one game after doing playoff promos on its telecast and radio broadcast, the Wild’s promos were edited to make no mention of the playoffs tonight. They probably didn't want another situation where like the other night, the Wild was trailing 3-0 when the promos were done.
 
The Wild worked its tails off tonight, yet still gave up 50 shots and needed a stellar goaltending performance by Niklas Backstrom to even keep itself in this game. Just not up to par with San Jose.

Twice the Wild rallied from a goal down, but finally early in the third, Clayton Stoner took a holding penalty and Patrick Marleau scored on the power play. It was the third time in two games that Stoner was in the box for a power-play goal.

The rebound of Marleau's shot deflected off Brent Burns and in. San Jose's second goal, by rookie goal-scoring leader Logan Couture, was shot from the corner. It deflected off John Madden's stick, grazed over defenseman Jared Spurgeon, fluttered over Backstrom, hit the crossbar and fell in.

The amount of bad bounces that had to happen for that goal to go in was pretty extraordinary. Like a team as good as the Sharks need bounces like that.

At least the Wild wasn't making excuses:

Todd Richards: "You create a lot of your bounces and a lot of your breaks. San Jose did that and were rewarded with a couple of nice bounces."

Nik Backstrom: "Hockey, you have to earn your bounces. They worked hard. Usually when you work hard and do the right things, you get the bounces."

The rest of the period belonged to San Jose. The Wild battled and competed all night, but as Richards said, most the battle and compete had occurred in the defensive zone.

The Sharks, even without Dany Heatley, are a far superior team, throwing out impact guys like Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Couture, Devin Setoguchi and Joe Thornton. Their D is great. They come at you in waves in the offensive zone. They're getting great goaltending from Antti Niemi.

They have third liners and grinders like Ben Eager and Jamal Mayers and Ryane Clowe.

The Wild throws out Brad Staubitz for five shifts a night. His penalty -- a two-handed chop on Jason Demers -- on a rare occasion he actually was able to get on the ice in the third period couldn't have come at a worse time. Then, he takes a 10-minute misconduct.

The Wild got one power play equaling 35 seconds.

"We didn’t do enough to warrant a power play for us," Richards said.
 
Hard work can often trump talent if you're working harder than the talent. The Wild got away with that for 2 1/2 months.

The Wild was beating more talented teams on paper because it found a recipe for victory and put in the blue collar effort. Great goaltending, too.

But with the games amped up lately, the talent's working just as hard and trumping the hard work.

This is why the Wild's got to find a way to get more talented, whether through acquisition or hoping they hit on some diamonds in the rough in the last year's draft and this upcoming one (which will take patience).

Exhibit A to Wild brass of this hopefully was the fact that the Wild lost 7 of 11 games without Mikko Koivu.

Yes, Cal Clutterbuck missed four during the stretch, but the reality is when one player means that much to a team that you can't survive without him, you're just not good enough. Richards experimented with so many centers between Brunette and Miettinen, he had to even use winger Eric Nystrom there, then minor-leaguer Warren Peters.

That's an indictment. No offense to Warren Peters. But when Warren Peters is the one in Koivu's spot, you're not as deep as you think you are.

The Wild's going up every single night against the Sedins or the Sharks' waves of stars or Brad Richards and Jamie Benn and Mike Ribeiro and Loui Eriksson in Dallas or the Red Wings plethora of stars or Chicago's or L.A's or soon to be Edmonton's ... and so on and so on.

Richards didn't agree with my sentiment when I asked him in an admittedly convoluted way in the postgame.

But what's he supposed to say anyway? Richards is well aware other coaches have more weapons in their arsenal.

The Wild's got to improve its skill level, get some actual goal scorers in here, which won't be easy for a team that's got very little salary-cap flexibility next season.

When people ask me about the Wild and I tell them it's capped out, they're shocked. At almost $60 mill, not exactly a bang for the buck in Minnesota. But that's no easy fix either in a world of guaranteed contracts and on a team with a lot of untradeable contracts.

It's a shame the way this thing has unfolded. The Wild looked like a heck of a "team" through late February.

But for the second March in a row, the wheels have come off and another long offseason is on the horizon.

It's a shame, indeed.

That's it for me. Another 4 a.m. wakeup call.

Practice is at 2 p.m. Friday. Kent's got it. Talk to you from the X on Saturday. I'll also be on Fox Sports North during the first intermission of the WCHA Final Saturday night.

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