This was supposed to be the winter the Gophers basketball team took over the twin towns, the winter the Wolves improved, maybe even the winter Don Lucia's underachievers started filling Mariucci again.

Instead, the Wild has reasserted itself as the most likeable winter sports team in town, one that has brought X factors familiar to all sports fans -- grit and teamwork, depth and defense -- back to the X.

There is a sense of desperation in our basketball teams, the way Tubby Smith patches teams together with questionable recruits and chases many of them off, the way David Kahn chases big names and volatile talents, hoping someone such as Kurt Rambis or Darko Milicic will make him look like a genius.

By sticking with a plan that would be described as staid and boring if it hadn't started winning, the Wild again has made the Xcel Energy Center the best place to visit when black ice lines the roads.

Tuesday night, the best story in town faced the best team in hockey, when Vancouver visited St. Paul. Another sellout crowd watched the Canucks survive a frenzied Wild attack with typically opportunistic goals, giving Vancouver a 4-1 victory that kept the Wild lurking outside the playoff bracket like a kid looking for a knothole.

"I thought we deserved better tonight," Wild coach Todd Richards said.

These things balance out. The Wild has won plenty of games when it was outshot and outplayed; Tuesday, the Wild outshot Vancouver 29-14 and dominated the third period.

Then, after losing to the best team in hockey, the Wild boarded a charter to Chicago to face the defending NHL champs on the Blackhawks' home ice.

"It's definitely a letdown,'' forward Eric Nystrom said. "After you don't win a game, you think, 'Man, somebody's going to catch us.'"

After Richards described Tuesday's as a "big game," I asked when he last faced a game he didn't consider vital.

"Hah! I can't remember, honestly," he said.

Even in the first period, after the Wild fell behind 1-0 to a team that is 31-1-6 when scoring first, there were examples of the kind of play that made Minnesota 17-7-1 in its previous 25 games.

After Canucks forward Ryan Kesler took a whack at Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom, Wild rookie Clayton Stoner, its steadiest defenseman of late, tried to take off Kesler's helmet, while his head was still inside.

On a Vancouver breakaway, defenseman Brent Burns, trailing forward Marty Havlat, shoved him forward, as if they were short-track skaters skimming the oval.

On a power play late in the period, after his teammates missed on several point-blank shots, Cal Clutterbuck took a pass to the side of the Vancouver net and flipped a shot that bounced off the shoulder of Canucks goalie Cory Schneider -- and into the net.

The Wild became a stealthily effective team for the same reasons it became a stealthily popular team: What it lacks in star power, it makes up for in depth.

Team insiders will tell you Mikko Koivu remains their best all-around player. Burns is their most talented. Havlat is their best points producer. Andrew Brunette is their locker room leader. From the outside, though, this looks an awful lot like Clutterbuck's team.

He's the one who leads the NHL in hits, the one who can turn a game by turning an opponent upside down.

He's the one who leads the team in goals, and seems to score when his team needs it the most.

He's the one who draws penalties without committing them, displaying a form of toughness that so many so-called tough-guy hockey players would do well to emulate.

In the second period, Clutterbuck slammed into Sami Salo, stole the puck, and flipped it to the front of the net.

The play didn't result in a goal, but it demonstrated the effectiveness of Clutterbuck's relentless play.

"I thought we played well enough to win, for sure," Clutterbuck said.

He did, for sure.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com