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Richards sees Wild starting to come together

by Dan Rosen /
Minnesota coach Todd Richards has his All-Star break plans squared away, and it'll be a great change from the norm.

Richards told that he has two boys playing hockey in the Twin Cities region, so he plans on being at the rink this weekend, "but I'll be in the stands critiquing the coaches."

For all the shots he's taken over the last year and a half, the Wild bench boss deserves this chance to be on the other side. You can even say he's earned it by how his team played heading into the All-Star break.

January was by far the Wild's best month of the season. Their 8-4 record, including 6-2 on the road, lifted them to within one point of seventh in the Western Conference, meaning there is reason to believe that with a good start to February the team that missed the playoffs the past two seasons has a legitimate shot at getting back in the spring dance this year.

"We've kind of figured out our identity as a group as a team and how we need to play," Richards said. "We've started playing a certain way, a way that will allow us to have success instead of being a .500 team, and that's given everyone confidence. It's amazing watching and going through this when guys have confidence versus when you're a group without confidence, because that's what we were early on.

"There's a totally different feel going to the rink. There's a totally different feel when you're preparing for a game. There were times when you were hoping to win; now we've reached the point where we're expecting to win."

Minnesota wasn't going to survive in the Western Conference as a sub-.500 team, which it essentially was through the end of December (17-15-5). Richards said the Wild needed to find a consistency in their game in order to give itself some distance from that .500 mark.

The players had to embrace their roles, "accept how they're being used," he said. They had to know exactly what was expected of them from not only the coaches, but from each other.

"Accountability in our room is a big thing," Richards said. "It's a pretty powerful thing."

Richards said that happened this month and it allowed the Wild to not only establish their identity as a "station to station type of team," but also consistently play that way.

He cited their 4-2 win Tuesday against Chicago as the perfect example of the guys understanding it and making it happen.

"Playing the Blackhawks, we can't get into a track meet down the ice," Richards said. "I'm not saying we can't stay with them, but that's their game, a flowing game and a skill game. The strength of our game is getting into the corners, banging around and forcing them to dump the puck in."

It's all good, but the Wild have to give more. They can't slide even in the slightest if they want to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Any kind of extended losing streak could spell disaster in the ultra-tight Western Conference playoff race.

The seventh-place Blackhawks have only a five-point cushion over the 14th-place Blues.

"I believe we can be better and coming down the stretch we're going to have to be better," Richards said. "Other teams are in the same spot and they're going to be talking about he same things. The desperation and urgency is revved up for everyone. All these games are big for everyone. There isn't that much breathing room. There are no gimme games."

Let's take a look around the West to see how it all stacks up at the All-Star break:

Vancouver (31-10-9, 71 points)

The Canucks got some potentially terrible news Thursday. Alexander Edler, arguably the team's top defenseman, will be sidelined indefinitely after undergoing back surgery. Edler leads the Canucks' defensemen in scoring with 32 points. He is a plus-10 and plays nearly 25 minutes a game, and in all situations. How the team absorbs this crushing loss will determine if it's a true Stanley Cup contender this season or not. The Canucks could get Sami Salo back soon to soften the blow.

 Detroit Red Wings (30-13-6, 66 points)

The break should help the injury-ravaged Red Wings heal. Pavel Datsyuk, Tomas Holmstrom and Dan Cleary could be in the lineup next Wednesday when the Wings' resume their regular-season schedule in Ottawa. Brad Stuart (broken jaw), Mike Modano (hand) and Chris Osgood (sports hernia) are still a ways away, but getting Datsyuk, Holmstrom and Cleary back will definitely help a team that until has given up 54 goals over its past 17 games.

 Dallas Stars (30-15-5, 65 points)

Its barometer game against Vancouver earlier this week did not go well. Dallas suffered an embarrassing 7-1 defeat. However, the Stars took care of business Wednesday night with a 3-1 win over the last-place Oilers to go into the break with a five-point lead in the Pacific Division thanks to an 8-2-1 record in January. Brenden Morrow scored twice against Edmonton and now has a team-best 21 goals. Dallas can get revenge on the Canucks on Tuesday at American Airlines Arena.

 Nashville Predators (27-17-6, 60 points)

Here is a pretty stunning stat: The Predators have only earned 27 of their 60 points at Bridgestone Arena. Well, that would be about right considering they've played 60 percent of their games away from their home rink. Nashville is the most road-weary team in the NHL with 30 away games already in the books. That means they have 21 home games and only 11 road games remaining this season. As long as they hold serve at home they'll make the playoffs easily.

 Anaheim Ducks (28-20-4, 60 points)

The Ducks won 10 of their final 13 games going into the break -- amazingly all without captain Ryan Getzlaf, who is recovering from facial injuries and could return when they go to Vancouver on Feb. 9. Getzlaf has been cleared to practice. The last thing the Ducks can allow themselves to do is defer to Getzlaf when he does come back. He's one of the most dominant forwards in the game, but the Ducks are winning without him thanks to a strong defense and an offense that has proven it can score in bunches.

 Phoenix Coyotes (25-17-9, 59 points)

The Coyotes snapped a two-game skid with a 5-2 win against Colorado on Wednesday. All-Star defenseman Keith Yandle extended his point-scoring streak to nine games and he leads all NHL defensemen with 36 assists and 44 points. Yandle was a late replacement for injured Atlanta defenseman Tobias Enstrom, but clearly he's having an All-Star worthy season. Phoenix is also deserving of having someone in the game considering its record despite not having anybody with more than 15 goals.

 Chicago Blackhawks (26-20-4, 56 points)

Instead of rolling into All-Star Weekend, the Blackhawks are limping in thanks to regulation losses to Philadelphia and Minnesota. Chicago had gone 6-0-1 in its previous seven games, but let its guard down against the Flyers and Wild and paid dearly. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith will enjoy their time in Raleigh, but the Hawks, who thought they might have solved their consistency issues, obviously will have to deal with them when the schedule resumes Tuesday in Columbus with the first of six straight away from United Center.

 San Jose Sharks (25-19-6, 56 points)

The Sharks picked up their game just in time to go into the All-Star break feeling good. Sure, they lost to L.A. in a shootout on Wednesday, but they're 4-0-1 in their last five games and have finally jumped back into a playoff spot. Still, this isn't exactly where they were expecting to be at the 50-game mark of the season. They could have won Wednesday, but couldn't protect a third-period lead. A win would have put them alone in seventh place in the conference. Sure, it's a precarious position seeing how tight it is, but a five-game winning streak and a spot alone in seventh place would have felt pretty good to the Sharks.

 Colorado Avalanche (25-19-6, 56 points)

They're ninth because the Sharks have taken three points in four games from them. The Avalanche are still wondering if Peter Forsberg is going to join them for the stretch run or not. He's been working out with the club, but there are no answers as of yet. Maybe we'll get some after the All-Star break. Until then the Avs will have to pick up their game without Foppa. They lost three of four heading into the break and just finished the month of January with a 5-6-1 record. That's not good enough in the West.

 Minnesota Wild (25-19-5, 55 points)

The Wild have the exact opposite story from the Blackhawks. They won eight of 12 games in January, including four of their final five games, to jump into the playoff picture. The Wild went 6-2 on the road in January and are 14-8-3 away from Xcel Energy Center this season. Their 14 road wins are already one more than they had all of last season, when the only thing consistent about the Wild was their inconsistency. They do need to get better at home, where they're only 11-11-2.

 Los Angeles Kings (27-22-1, 55 points)

The Kings salvaged a brutal month by winning three straight to go into the break with some confidence. They beat the Coyotes, Bruins and Sharks -- three teams that currently occupy a playoff spot in their respective conferences. They had to kill off Brad Richardson's double-minor for high sticking late in regulation Wednesday against the Sharks, and they did. They went on to win in a shootout. The Kings have shown their gritty side lately.

 Calgary Flames (24-21-6, 54 points)

Who said the Flames were put out? Last week we railed on their atrocious defense, but we can't do that anymore. Calgary has won four in a row because it's been executing with some exciting offense and solid defense. The Flames have allowed only two goals in each of the last two games and just nine in the last four. Meanwhile, they've scored 17 goals to beat Dallas, Vancouver, Nashville and St. Louis. Jarome Iginla has 5 points over the last four games. David Moss has two three-point games.

 Columbus Blue Jackets (23-21-5, 51 points)

All the Blue Jackets needed was a win, maybe even a point, against the Ducks on Tuesday and they would have entered the break on a high. They got neither in a 3-2 regulation loss that pretty much defines their season to date. Columbus got down 2-0 within the game's first six minutes, scored late in the first period to get some hope and played a scoreless second only to give up the all important third goal early in the final period. But the Jackets fought again, scoring with just over 10 minutes remaining. They couldn't get the equalizer. Columbus has fallen behind by two goals in three straight games. That doesn't spell success.

 St. Louis Blues (22-20-7, 51 points)

Jaroslav Halak might be tired, and that could be the worst thing for the Blues right now. Halak is coming off a horrific month as he went 2-8-1 with a 3.39 goals-against average and .883 save percentage in January. As Jeremy Rutherford from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out, Halak has already started 39 games this season and is on pace for 67. He started just 43 games for Montreal last season. Yes, he could be gassed and the Blues are suffering.

 Edmonton Oilers (15-26-8, 38 points)

To steal a famous line from former NFL coach Dennis Green, the Oilers are who we thought they were. Edmonton has only three wins in its last 18 games and is battling New Jersey and the Islanders for another No. 1 pick. Hey, there are worse things when you're a rebuilding team. Edmonton still has to be happy with the production it has been getting from No. 1 pick Taylor Hall (16 goals, 15 assists), and even Jordan Eberle (23 points) and Magnus Paajarvi (19 points) have shown promise.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl

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