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Updated: April 22nd, 2013 7:08pm
Zulgad: Failure to make playoffs could prove costly for Wild coach

Zulgad: Failure to make playoffs could prove costly for Wild coach

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The Minnesota Wild had gotten off to a slower than expected 4-5-1 start to this lockout-shortened season and dropped three games in a row when it was suggested that coach Mike Yeo could be in trouble if the team didn't turn things around in quick fashion.

The feeling was that owner Craig Leipold hadn't given Zach Parise and Ryan Suter matching 13-year, $98 million free-agent contracts to see his team struggle like this and potentially miss the playoffs.

Shortly after that initial column was written, following a 4-1 loss to Vancouver at Xcel Energy Center, the Wild began to win with more consistency and the situation seemed to stabilize.

That Feb. 7 defeat was followed by an overtime victory over Nashville and a shootout win at Calgary. The Wild won six of their final nine games in February and after a 3-3 start in March, they won seven in a row and eight of nine.

Yeo seemed to be on solid footing and the situation appeared to improve even more on April 3 when general manager Chuck Fletcher made the bold decision to send prospect Johan Larsson, goalie Matt Hackett, a first-round pick in 2013 and a second-round pick in 2014 to the Buffalo Sabres for six-time 20-goal scorer Jason Pominville and a fourth-round pick in 2014.

Pominville has proven to be a productive addition for the Wild - he has two points in four of his nine games with the team - but that has done little to help the Wild's quest to clinch their first playoff berth since the 2008 season.

The Wild have lost eight of their 11 games in April and are sitting in seventh place in the Western Conference with 51 points in 45 games. Columbus also has 51 points but has two fewer victories and played one more game than the Wild.

Detroit's 4-0 victory over Phoenix on Monday pulled the Red Wings within a point of the Wild and Blue Jackets. Detroit has three games left, as do the Dallas Stars, who are two points behind the Wings.

That consistency the Wild seemed to have found in March? It is now a distant memory.

The most recent example of the Wild's woes came Sunday night at Xcel Energy Center in a 4-1 loss to the lowly Calgary Flames. Yes, the Flames dressed several young players who are looking to make an impression and goalie Joey MacDonald made 34 saves, but that still doesn't explain why the Wild was unable to sustain the pressure that they had through the first two periods.

There was criticism that the crowd in the Xcel Energy Center lacked life, but when the team's tempo gets dialed down the way the Wild's did why would those in attendance remain engaged?

The Wild have three games remaining, playing host to Los Angeles on Tuesday and Edmonton on Friday before closing the regular season at Colorado on Saturday. The Kings have clinched a playoff spot and are fourth in the Western Conference. The Oilers and Avalanche are out of the playoffs.

The Wild should be able to win all three of these games and get into the playoffs, although finishing eighth and meeting Chicago in the first round sounds like a good way to get swept.

But what if the Wild continue to struggle?

Sunday's loss was their fifth in a row at home and any chance to get worn-down goalie Niklas Backstrom or minutes-eating defenseman Suter a rest before the postseason appears to be long gone.

The Wild's panic level became clear Monday when forwards Mikael Granlund and Jason Zucker were dispatched to Houston of the American Hockey League and replaced by Jake Dowell and Stephane Veilleux. Dowell and Veilleux aren't among the Wild's stash of top prospects, but rather veterans who are being recalled to grind it out and provide toughness and a spark.

That's something the Wild didn't get out of many of their forwards on Sunday other than first liners Charlie Coyle, Mikko Koivu and Parise.

If the Wild somehow continues to fall flat the guess here is the same that it was back in early February. Yeo is likely to take the fall and Fletcher will be told to hire a coach with previous NHL coaching experience.

That might not be fair but consider this: Wild playoff tickets went on sale Monday and, according to the Pioneer Press, the starting price for a strip of tickets to the first and second round was $512.

Leipold is a big enough fan of his team that he will be livid if they don't qualify for the playoffs. But it's Leipold the businessman who might decide somebody needs to be fired if the Wild's season ends after Saturday.

The contracts of players like Parise, Suter and Pominville are paid in part by revenue generated in the playoffs.

That's why the Wild likely needs to get there in order for Yeo to return next season.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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