But the poor first 12 games still could cost the Wild a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, even though they are seven games over .500 since. And to rally for a spot in the postseason, it's almost imperative that the Wild improve their play away from home.
Following Monday's loss at Dallas, the Wild had an 8-17-2 road record, more than nullifying their fine 16-6-1 record on home ice. Richards was particularly disappointed with a 6-4 loss at Phoenix Saturday, which came on the heels of a 1-0 loss two nights earlier at St. Louis.
"I don't want to be known as just a homer team," Richards told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "We have to learn to play on the road with the same intensity and do the same things, which means going after teams. Be aggressive on the forecheck. We have to follow through. We have to get involved in the games emotionally and physically."
The Wild have outscored their opponents 75-67 in 23 home games this season, scoring 17 power-play goals and allowing 14. In 27 road games, the Wild have been outscored 80-59, scoring 17 goals on the power play and allowing 18. Richards and his players know the road figures must change if the Wild is to achieve their goal of reaching the playoffs.
"You have to win on the road, you have to," Richards told the Pioneer Press. "It's the same thing: If you were to put together a three-game winning streak on the road and you go home and lose two games, it takes away everything you've accomplished on the road. It works hand in hand. But if you're going to be a team that makes it to the playoffs, you have to win on the road."Beasts of the East --
It seems as if all the Canucks have to do to win their first Stanley Cup is to make it to the Final. Such is the suggestion made by their 8-1 record against teams from the Eastern Conference, a record that most recently included a 6-2 rout of the defending champion Penguins.
The Canucks have outscored the Eastern opposition by a 38-16 margin with five of the wins coming by three or more goals.
"I remember being in the East and coming out here, it was one of the toughest road trips of the year," Canucks defenseman Shane O'Brien, who used to play for Tampa Bay, told the Vancouver Sun. "At the same time, our game is a grind-'em-down Western Conference style and that's just the way the conferences are right now. For whatever reason, the West is getting the better edge on the East this year."
The Canucks' dominance matches the West's overall dominance of the East this year.
"Every year since I've been here, we've always had a great record against the East," Alex Burrows told the Sun. "I don't know why. It seems like the games are a little bit more wide open. There is not as much checking and there are more rush chances after rush chances."
The Canucks still have nine games left against Eastern Conference foes, including two against the Senators. When they start their staggering Olympics-motivated 14-game road trip Jan. 30 in Toronto, it will start a stretch of six straight against the East.
Leaking Oil --
What is stranger than the Oilers' hideous 1-14-2 collapse over the past month? How about the fact that it was preceded by a five-game winning streak on the road?
After that hot streak, the Oilers returned home with what seemed the reasonable hope that they would keep rolling and be in the hunt for a playoff spot. But it hasn't turned out that way, and the Oilers quickly sank into an abyss that appears as if it may take several years from which to climb out.
The expensive offseason signing of Nikolai Khabibulin has turned into a big pain in the back. Season-ending surgery ended his year after just 18 games, leaving the goaltending to prospects Jeff Deslauriers and Devan Dubnyk.
Another ill-fated signing was the addition of center Mike Comrie, who has appeared in two fewer games than Khabilbulin while battling mononucleosis. Additionally, Ales Hemsky was lost for the year to injury, and Fernando Pisani is dealing with a recurrence of ulcerative colitis. And the team has been plagued by the flu -- both the regular version and H1N1.
With the Oilers needing a miracle to revive their playoff hopes, attention is turning to how they might begin the rebuilding process. Reporting on the Oilers' predicament, TSN noted that the team has fallen to the depths despite a hefty payroll, which will make it difficult for the Oilers to begin the climb to respectability. Unloading any of their expensive players at the trade deadline to free up salary space won't be an easy task, either.
Khabibulin is due $3.75 million a year for three more seasons, and the following players -- Lubomir Visnovsky, Sheldon Souray, Tom Gilbert, Shawn Horcoff, Dustin Penner, Hemsky and Patrick O'Sullivan -- are under contract through at least next season at salaries ranging from $2.4 million to $6 million a year.
Up in Flames --
First of all, nice night for the province of Alberta on Monday. The Oilers lost to the Avalanche, 6-0. And the Flames lost to the Sharks, 9-1.
Pretty bad. Pretty, pretty, pretty bad.
"If ever there's a wakeup call ... when you get beat as bad as we got beat tonight ... if ever there's a wakeup call about a lot of different things ... certain things that obviously continue to be dealt with," coach Brent Sutter told the Calgary Herald. "I really ... to be quite honest, I'm stuck for words. Obviously very embarrassing ... we just did not ... we had a pretty good day off today, a pretty good night off tonight ... we're certainly not a tired team."
Defenseman Robyn Regehr added, "I think it's one of the worst games I've ever played ... I think it could be said for a lot of us out there ... for me it felt like every decision I made was a wrong one."
And forward Eric Nystrom said, "That's about rock bottom. The only place you can go is up from there ... there's a lot of things we have to do better. It's pride and we didn't have very much today."
Still, unlike the Oilers, the Flames aren't interested in unloading talent. As they battle for the Northwest Division title, they are looking to re-sign pending unrestricted free agents Olli Jokinen and Rene Bourque, the Calgary Herald reported.
Jokinen has not scored a ton of goals this year but is the team's third-leading scorer, and Bourque is the Flames' second-leading scorer and has been very effective the last two years in Calgary when he's managed to stay healthy.
General Manager Darryl Sutter told the Herald, "We'll do everything we can to make sure Olli is not an unrestricted free agent." He said Bourque "is a big part of our team and we'll do everything in our power to keep him."
Avalanche are young and winning
-- The Colorado Avalanche have been the surprise of the League this year, a big surprise because of Colorado's youth and because this was supposed to be a rebuilding year after the team finished last in the Western Conference last year.
But how is this for a bright future: Not only is Colorado leading the Northwest Division, but it is doing it with what now is the NHL's youngest team. The presence of Adam Foote (38) and Milan Hejduk (33) on the injured list means that with an average age of 26.0, the Avalanche have the NHL's youngest roster.
How well a youthful team will do in the playoffs remains to be seen, though Pittsburgh did pretty well the last couple years with baby-faced Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Monday, the Avalanche routed the woeful Oilers, 6-0. Eleven of the 20 Colorado players in uniform were younger than 26, and two -- Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly -- haven't yet hit 20. Six others who were older than 26 have yet to hit 30. The only players 30 or older in the lineup were Scott Hannan (30), Brett Clark (33) and Darcy Tucker (34).
The Avalanche's youth also means the team has the lowest payroll in the Northwest Division, at $52.3 million. No other team in the division is below $55.5, proving yet again that there isn't an automatic correlation between payroll and won-loss record.