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Updated: January 10th, 2012 10:43pm
Zulgad: Wild end rough day with win, but early success seems long ago

Zulgad: Wild end rough day with win, but early success seems long ago

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Minnesota Wild carried an NHL-leading 43 points into their Dec. 14 meeting with the Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center.

The NHL's national cable broadcast partner was in town to televise the game, and it was a safe assumption that curious hockey fans might tune in to see what had gotten into a franchise that hadn't made a playoff appearance in three seasons.

Mike Yeo's team lost, 4-3, to the Hawks in a shootout but continued to sit atop the league standings and the coach's analysis of the Wild's play served as a ringing endorsement that everything was just fine.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a win for our guys," Yeo said. "There were a lot of things I liked about tonight. It (stinks) we don't get two points, but this is a win for me."

On Tuesday, the NHL's cable partner returned to the X to air the Wild's game against the San Jose Sharks.

Again, it was safe to assume hockey fans might have wanted to check out what was going on with the Wild. But it would have been for entirely different reasons.

This time the motivation would have been purely moribund.

The Wild entered Tuesday having won only once in 10 games since they faced the Blackhawks. This included two shootout losses, so officially the Wild was 1-7-2 in that stretch.

That had dropped the Wild into the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference standings, a point ahead of the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche.

It was the type of abyss into which some hockey-loving, mid-morning sports talk hosts on 1500 ESPN thought a Yeo-coached team was incapable of falling.

How wrong they were.

The Wild's tailspin looked as if it might continue Tuesday as they blew a two-goal lead late in the third period, giving up goals to the Sharks 22 seconds apart.

San Jose, which entered with an 8-1-1 record in its past 10, had two excellent scoring opportunities early in overtime but Josh Harding managed to keep the puck out of his net.

That enabled the Wild to get the extra point when Matt Cullen and Mikko Koivu scored shootout goals to give their team a 5-4 victory.

"That was a nice win," said Cullen, who scored a third-period goal in his 1,000th career game. "It was by no means pretty but, boy, we needed that."

"That's how we do it," Yeo said, only half joking. "We don't do things the easy way. But I was really pleased with the game. Obviously, you can sit here in any game if you want to pick out negatives and if you want to find something to complain about you can.

"But I think you can see the fight that we had right from the start of the game. And to keep fighting and battle through what we did in the game, that to me was the team that we were three weeks ago."

So what happened to that team?

The Wild's collapse had been blamed for a time on injuries that sidelined Koivu and wingers Devin Setoguchi and Guillaume Latendresse.

Koivu and Setoguchi, however, were unable to snap the Wild out of their cold spell upon their return and only Latendresse (concussion) remains out.

The shootout victory Tuesday ended what had started as a tough day and only got worse.

Winger Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who missed all but one game of the 2009-10 season and then sat out the first part of last season because of a concussion, was placed on injured reserve because of concussion-like symptoms.

Bouchard had sat out Saturday's game at Calgary because of what the Wild termed a lower-body injury but clearly the concern was far different.

Bouchard was fourth on the Wild with 22 points (9 goals, 13 assists) and saw regular time on the power play. His absence will be indefinite until the problem clears up and the scary thing for the 27-year-old is that no doctor can tell him when that will happen.

As if that wasn't enough, the Wild played without Setoguchi.

The veteran was scratched for violating an unspecified team rule, costing him a chance to face the team that traded him to the Wild last summer in the Brent Burns deal.

The Wild's 92 goals entering Tuesday put them ahead of only the Los Angeles Kings (90) and New York Islanders (88) in the league. Making a statement by scratching Setoguchi from the lineup of this struggling, goal-starved team was no small thing.

"It's not an easy decision, especially how valuable he is to our team," Yeo said. "The thing is we all have to be held accountable, but with that this is still a guy that cares very much and still a good person and still a very big part of our team. So come tomorrow, it's a clean slate."

This all came a day after the Wild demoted once-promising defenseman Marco Scandella to their minor league affiliate in Houston. With Burns having been dispatched to the Sharks, the Wild's hope was that Scandella would be able to provide some offense from the blue line.

Scandella did that with a power-play goal on opening night against Columbus. But he had only three goals and three assists in 37 games and was a minus-10 when Yeo decided Scandella needed to regain his confidence in the minors.

Bouchard out indefinitely. Setoguchi first hurt and now a healthy scratch. Scandella headed for Texas.

It's hard to believe that less than a month ago it didn't seem beyond reason to wonder whether Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher might have a choice to make around the trading deadline.

Would he consider mortgaging some of the team's many up-and-coming prospects for some goal scoring or a veteran defenseman because he had a team capable of making a postseason run?

There had been no shortage of empty seats at the X early in the season, but that would change if the Wild remained hot. Owner Craig Leipold couldn't have been blamed for seeing dollar signs if a town starved for a winner saw its NHL team win a playoff series or two.

That thought now feels a bit Pollyanna-like and trading any real prospects would seem foolish.

Simply making the playoffs might be considered an accomplishment for this team.

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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