The Wild held a very optional practice Monday morning at Xcel, the day after completing a road sweep in western Canada that elevated its spirits and its hopes for a playoff spot. Only goalie Niklas Backstrom and five skaters--Erik Haula, Nino Niederreiter, Matt Dumba, Christian Folin and the indefatigable Zach Parise--participated. Afterward, coach Mike Yeo talked about the importance of forging ahead at home, where the Wild has not had much of an advantage lately.

A team that takes great pride in how it plays at Xcel has gone 2-4-4 there since Dec. 17. Since starting the season 7-1 on home ice, the Wild has won four of 15 games at home. If the Wild is to reach the playoffs, it must end that swoon pronto, starting with a string of three games against Western Conference foes Chicago, Colorado and Vancouver.

"We have to get better at home, that's for sure,'' Yeo said. "We've always prided ourselves on being a good home team and playing well in front of our fans, and recently, we haven’t been as good as we need to be. The road trip was great. But coming back home, we have an opportunity to continue to push forward here.

"What we have to make sure we do is take a similar approach to what we had on the road. As cliché as it is, it's one game at a time. (Tuesday's opponent) Chicago, we recognize what a great challenge that is, and we have to make sure we're ready to go.''

Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk was named the NHL's third star of the week Monday for his performance in the road sweep. Dubnyk allowed three goals on 91 shots in the three victories and recorded his second shutout with the Wild in a 1-0 victory over Calgary.

Yeo said Dubnyk's play has given the Wild's confidence "a huge boost'' and enabled the team to stop worrying about goaltending and focus on its individual roles. He was particularly pleased at Dubnyk's ability to shut down opponents early in games, giving the Wild a chance to score first and break out of the come-from-behind rut that contributed so heavily to its losing streak.

"I think we've done a decent job a lot of times this year battling back,'' Yeo said. "But it does get difficult when you do it over and over again. Him giving us the opportunity to get the first goal in those games, especially on the road, was very important for us.

"(Dubnyk) deserves an awful lot of credit for how he's played. But we have a much better focus in front of him right now. Guys are much more focused on their own task, their own jobs, their own roles. That’s all over the ice. When things aren’t going well and you try to start doing somebody else's job, your job isn’t done quite as well. That’s something I think we're seeing much more right now; guys are just concentrating on their own responsibilities, and with that, a lot of aspects of our game have gotten better.''

Parise stated it more simply. "When you can get bailed out of mistakes you make, it keeps you in the game,'' he said. "It makes a huge difference.''

Dubnyk--a very low-key, modest and friendly guy--has been quick to spread the love around. He credited the Wild defense for playing well in front of him, something he said he expected after watching it from the opposing side.

"The structure is so good,'' he said. "The guys work so hard in all three zones. I knew that was a staple of the Wild before I came here.

"These guys work so hard and have played so well every game. My job is to just go be solid and make the saves I'm supposed to make. If I do that and make a couple I'm not supposed to make, that’s great. They've played so well and so solid in front of me, for me to approach it and say, 'Go be solid, go be confident back there for them,' it makes it easier for me.''

Yeo noted that Dubnyk can handle a heavy workload now, because he played in only 19 games this season before the Wild acquired him. Combined with the All-Star break and a schedule that currently isn't too taxing, Yeo expects him to remain plenty fresh through the coming weeks.

After Monday's practice, Yeo said he had not received a medical update on winger Justin Fontaine (groin injury), but he called Fontaine "doubtful'' for Tuesday's game. The coach said defenseman Ryan Suter--a surprise starter in Sunday's victory at Vancouver--came out of that game in good order. The team had considered sitting Suter out because of a lower-body injury.

RACHEL BLOUNT

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