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Updated: April 2nd, 2011 4:45pm
The end is near for Todd Richards as loss ends Wild's playoff hopes

The end is near for Todd Richards as loss ends Wild's playoff hopes

by Jess Myers
1500ESPN.com
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - The ballad "My Way" by Frank Sinatra has never been part of the Minnesota Wild's pre-game music, but on this sunny spring afternoon the opening line would've been an appropriate theme for the current state of the team.

When the Chairman of the Board crooned, "And now, the end is near..." he could've been referring not only to the Wild season, but to Todd Richards' run as head coach.

Saturday's 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning officially eliminated the team from the Western Conference playoff race - and many signs indicate that Richards will pay the ultimate price, employment-wise, for the team's final-month tumble from playoff contender to playoff spectator. Not least of these signs is a noticeable sense of resignation on Richards' part when he speaks with the media.

A week ago, Mike Russo of the Star Tribune opined that Richards was on thin ice with team owner Craig Leipold and would be fired as a consequence of the team's March collapse. Russo is as well-connected as they come in NHL circles and is clearly in the know here. Still, after the ninth loss in the past 11 games, and with the playoffs now officially out of reach, Richards chose to look forward to the coming road trip, and not back on the failures of the past month.

"I'm not giving up," Richards said. "Obviously you have the hopes of still making the playoffs, but we aren't giving up. We're preparing now and getting ready to play Detroit, which is a great hockey team. They're getting ready for the playoffs themselves, so it's a big game for them. I'm preparing and want to win that game."

If only wanting it were enough, we wouldn't be speculating about what Leipold will look for the next time he hires a coach. After a rough first season, Richards can be credited for taking the team from a slow start this season, which had many thinking that he wouldn't last through Thanksgiving, and making them a playoff contender from December through February. But in March, the Wild came in like a lamb, and that eight-game losing streak was too much to overcome.

In many ways, Saturday's game typified the problems, as the Wild took an early lead on a Pierre-Marc Bouchard goal, but made just enough mistakes in the second and third periods to lift the playoff-bound Lightning to the win. Afterward, the reality of having to wait at least another year for a shot at playoff games was tough for some players to take.

"I think if we won there was a chance, but after our last road trip, a long road trip, we didn't play that good and after that it was pretty much downhill," said goalie Niklas Backstrom, who had 20 saves in the loss. "It's always tough. It's going to be a long time until the next time you have a chance to fight for the Cup."

On the ice, the news just keeps getting worse as well. John Madden left the game early with a lower body injury and will not join the team on the road trip. Instead, he joined defenseman Nick Schultz, who will miss the rest of the season with lingering effects from a concussion. With defensemen Cam Barker and Marek Zidlicky also out of the lineup, that meant emergency call-ups of Justin Falk and Maxim Noreau from the AHL, and Madden's injury means that one more Houston Aero will be in a Wild uniform on Sunday in Detroit.

There was a bit of irony in the fact that Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was a special guest in the Wild pressbox on Saturday, delivering the "Let's Play Hockey" announcement before the opening faceoff. Frazier, you'll recall, was an in-season replacement for Brad Childress, who was fired with a few games to go in a disappointing Vikings season.

The Wild is going to miss the playoffs for the third straight season. It remains unlikely that Leipold will let Richards go before the season finale a week from Sunday. But the coach's time in his home state, and the time of a few underperforming but high-priced players, is looking limited as the sand runs out on the 2010-11 season.

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com. He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
Email Jess | @JessRMyers
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