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Wild continue to accentuate the positive

Tuesday, 03.24.2009 / 11:25 PM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

"You want them to stay positive, at least try to stay positive as much as possible so they can play well. If they are negative they won't play well and we have no chance."
-- Jacques Lemaire

Jacques Lemaire laughed, because, really what else can the Minnesota Wild coach do?

He was asked Tuesday morning if his team is slightly snakebitten?

Well, considering they got Marian Gaborik back for the stretch run this past Sunday only to lose leading scorer Mikko Koivu two periods later, you'd have to say yes.

So, forgive Lemaire if he chuckled a little at the notion. Allow the man an outlet.

But even as the coach tries to bring some levity to the situation, he won't let any of his players think along those snakebitten lines. Negative vibes can't seep into the dressing room now, not when the Wild are in a fight for the playoff lives.

Tuesday's 2-1 loss at Madison Square Garden coupled with Anaheim's shootout win over Nashville and St. Louis' shutout of Los Angeles dropped the Wild to 11th in the West with 76 points heading into Wednesday's game on Long Island. They're only two points behind the eighth-place Ducks, but the Predators and Blues also stand in the way.

All six teams fighting for the last two spots in the Western Conference playoffs - Edmonton, Anaheim, Nashville, St. Louis, Minnesota and Dallas - have nine games left this season. The Wild have five on the road, including their next three.

"I understand that some of them might think about how tough it will be to make it (to the playoffs without Koivu), but this is what you want to avoid," Lemaire said. "You want them to stay positive, at least try to stay positive as much as possible so they can play well. If they are negative they won't play well and we have no chance."

The good news came prior to the opening faceoff of Sunday's matinee 3-0 win over Edmonton when Gaborik returned to the lineup for the first time since Dec. 23 and only the seventh time this season.

Gaborik, who had left hip surgery on Jan. 5, isn't being afforded the normal feeling-it-out period. The goal-starved Wild need him to be a factor right now, which is why Lemaire said he'll play Gaborik 30 minutes a night if he has to.

"I'm pretty pumped," said Gaborik, who scored the Wild's lone goal Tuesday night. "I look forward to every shift, every period out there and try to make things happen. Obviously I don't think I'll be able to play to my potential this year, but hopefully I can get close to that and help the team win."

His task took a sharp left turn two periods into his return when the bad news entered the Wild's world.

Between the second and third periods against Edmonton Koivu was ruled out with a knee injury. The initial diagnosis calls for the team captain, who has 62 points, to sit a week, but there's a chance he's gone for the season.

Losing Koivu could very well doom the Wild for good. He leads all forwards in ice time with 21:34 per game. He's won 52.4 percent of his 1,480 faceoffs, which is the third most anyone in the League has taken. He also leads the Wild with 57 takeaways and is a key special teams' threat.

"It's bad timing with that," Minnesota forward Antti Miettinen told NHL.com of Koivu's injury.

But as Andrew Brunette said, it's not like the Wild aren't used to it.

Gaborik, of course, missed 62 games. Plus, defenseman Brent Burns missed his 10th straight game Tuesday with concussion-like symptoms. And leading goal scorer Owen Nolan has had five different injuries through the course of the season that have kept him out for a total of 23 games. He's even playing with a busted toe right now.

"I guess that is one thing, it has been a pretty resilient group throughout," Brunette, who is playing despite a partially torn knee ligament, told NHL.com. "I guess we're accustomed to it. It would be a bigger deal if we hadn't gone through it all year."

Battling injuries in December and January is one thing, but at this time of the year?

Completely different, yet somehow the Wild are acting immune to it. It's not as if they are overlooking Koivu's injury or the one that has kept Burns out since March 5, saying they won't make a difference, but the Wild do seem to have the right frame of mind.

It's possible that their confidence - or at least what we perceive to be confidence - is buoyed by the fact that their best overall player, Gaborik, is finally back playing.

Tuesday night Gaborik scored his first goal since Dec. 23. He still needed another one to get the Wild at least one essential point.

"He's probably one of the most dangerous players in the League and night in and night out he's going to get some chances," Brunette said. "He can break a game open and that's something we haven't really had all year. It's nice to have."

Gaborik doesn't need to be reminded of his value, which is probably why he basically shrugged his shoulders when asked if he had enough time to get comfortable again to be a key factor in this stretch run.

"Hey, whatever it is, it is," Gaborik said. "I'm not taking a look into what can happen in five or six games, I look forward to that next shift and go from there. That's how everybody should be looking at things; just go out there and work hard and if we do that we'll see what the outcome is going to be.

Prior to Tuesday's game, Gaborik was encouraged by the Wild's play in the last two periods against Edmonton this past Sunday.

After being outshot, 15-2, in the first, they ripped 34 shots on Oilers' goalie Dwayne Roloson in the last 40 minutes and gave up only 16. Niklas Backstrom stopped them all, Nolan scored twice and Stephane Veilleux added an insurance goal for the 3-0 win.

 
"If we play like we did in the last 40 minutes against Edmonton I think we have a big chance to win games," Gaborik said. "We had like 20 shots on net in the second period there and that's what we need to do."

They didn't play that way Tuesday night, when they managed only 19 shots on Rangers' goalie Henrik Lundqivst while giving up 30.

Consistency has been at the heart of Minnesota's problems lately. The Wild were 5-2 coming out of the All-Star break, but are just 6-9-5 over their last 20 games as their goals per game has slid while their goals against has shot up.

"You've got a few top teams that have really been consistent throughout the whole year and the other teams have been like a rollercoaster," Gaborik said. "I mean, we've been like a rollercoaster this year, but now we have to try to make sure we're more consistent in the last 10 games and play like we did in those two periods against Edmonton. If we play that style, hey, we have a chance to win every game.

"We're in the hunt," he added. "We have to make us be a playoff team."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com.
Quote of the Day

Obviously a lot happened in a short period of time. At the end of the day, considering everything I went through, I really felt close to my teammates and I really feel like what we accomplished, I know we didn't win it all. ... I'm really proud of how we got there and what we did once we got there.

— Rangers forward Martin St. Louis to Jim Cerny of BlueshirtsUnited.com