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Wild crests peaks, valleys for Northwest crown

by Brian Compton

Marian Gaborik supplied the most memorable night of the Minnesota Wild's season with a five goal performance against the New York Rangers on December 20.
Early on, it appeared the Western Conference was going to be the Minnesota Wild’s to lose. The Wild, however, had to “settle” for the Northwest Division championship and home-ice advantage in at least the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Coming off a disappointing 2007 first-round playoff exit to the Anaheim Ducks – the series lasted just five games – coach Jacques Lemaire’s club was primed to get off to a hot start in 2007-08 and prove to the hockey world that it was amongst the League’s best.

Minnesota did just that. Eight games into the new season, the Wild were 7-0-1, allowing just 11 goals along the way behind some splendid goaltending from Niklas Backstrom. Three of Minnesota’s first seven victories came via shutouts.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence, but we have to be careful and not get overly confident,” Minnesota forward Mark Parrish said following a 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 21.

Things went South for a while after that night for the Wild, as they would lose their next five games, recording only one of a possible 10 points. Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra both missed some action during that span, but both were in the lineup when the skid reached five on Nov. 1, a 3-2 defeat to the St. Louis Blues at Xcel Energy Center.

“We’ve got to work harder to get out of this,” Lemaire said. “It’s that simple. There’s no other way.”

Minnesota would exchange wins and losses for most of November, much to the dismay of General Manager Doug Risebrough, who felt his team was lacking toughness. On Nov. 22, the Wild announced they had claimed enforcer Todd Fedoruk off re-entry waivers from the Dallas Stars.

The Wild closed the month with three straight victories. The streak reached four with a 2-1 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Dec. 2. Three of the four wins during the run came by just one goal.

“These are ones that we can build on,” Wild forward Brian Rolston said. “Obviously, our goaltending has been tremendous when it needs to be, and it’s nice to get that.”

But again, Minnesota hit a bump in the road, losing three of its next four contests. It prompted Lemaire to call out forwards Gaborik and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, as well as Demitra and Rolston.

"You can't hide this," Lemaire said after his team dropped a 4-1 decision at San Jose on Dec. 11. "If you're playing good teams well and not winning, it shows you you're not strong enough."

Once again, though, Minnesota responded, this time by reeling off four consecutive wins. The streak reached four when Gaborik reached five – as in five goals against the New York Rangers in a 6-3 win on Dec. 20.

“It was just an unbelievable night,” Gaborik said. “The fans were spectacular, and it was a wonderful, wonderful experience.”

It would be almost another month before Minnesota would win three games in a row. The Wild were able to win the final two games of a four-game road and won their third straight with a 4-1 victory against the Phoenix Coyotes on Jan. 13. Ten players recorded points in the win.

“We are playing OK,” Lemaire said. “We’re playing better than we were two-to-three weeks ago. Teamwork is starting to jell. Now we are back to (a defensively) solid game and getting our scoring chances.”

But the win-one, lose-one scenario came back into the fold for the Wild, who stayed afloat until the third week of February, when a three-game losing streak crept in. Once again, Risebrough addressed the toughness issue, as he sent a sixth-round draft pick to the New York Islanders on draft day in exchange for veteran forward Chris Simon. Later that night, the Wild dropped a 4-1 decision at Washington.

"They're tense because they really got themselves prepared for the game," Lemaire said after the team’s fourth straight loss. "Sometimes when you think too much about it, you want to play too well, you get tight. My comment to the coaching staff was: 'It's the first time I've seen the guys tight like this.’ The effort is there -- not at its maximum."

Looking to provide a spark, Lemaire named Gaborik his team captain for the month of March. Whether or not that was specifically the catalyst, Minnesota got back in the Northwest Division hunt by collecting points in 11 of its 15 games for the month. The Wild also closed March by winning three straight, allowing just three goals along the way, and extended their division lead to four points with a 3-2 overtime win over the Colorado Avalanche on March 30. Gaborik notched the game-winner, his 40th of the season, and set a new franchise record with his 80th point.

Consistency goes a long way.

"We just want to play good hockey," Rolston said.

Fortunately, Minnesota did that more often that not in 2007-08 and have a Northwest Division championship banner to show for it.


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