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Wild having December to forget

by Roger Phillips /
The Minnesota Wild will be more than happy when December gives way to January.

December has been miserable, even though forward Marian Gaborik has returned to the lineup after missing all but two games in the first two-plus months with a groin injury.

The Wild began December with a 14-7-1 record. But they are only 3-7-1 in December, the offense has struggled, and now they have lost key defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron for multiple weeks with a lower-body injury.

Making matters worse, the Wild are facing a grueling upcoming schedule. Their next three home games are against Chicago, San Jose and Detroit -- among the best teams in the NHL. They also have a tough road game against Calgary on Monday.

And after the New Year’s Eve visit by the Sharks and a Jan. 3 visit by the defending-champion Wings, the Wild embark on a four-game trip to Colorado, Boston, Philadelphia and Columbus.

When that trip is over, the Wild will have played 41 games -- exactly half the schedule -- and may be looking at having to make up a lot of ground in the second half to squeak into the playoffs.

"We've got to get on a winning streak and try to be consistent," Gaborik told the Pioneer Press. "If we think we can pull it off later in the year, it's not going to happen. March is very difficult, so we just have to get as many points as possible right now."

Coach Jacques Lemaire continues to preach the standard one-game-at-a-time sermon, but he admitted to the paper that the upcoming schedule "is tough for everyone. It's tough for us; it's tough for other teams. You want to be as ready as possible, feel as good as possible, so you can play as well as possible."

Lemaire sounded positively Grinch-like as the holidays approached. But with the Wild struggling, the last thing his team needs right now is added distractions.

"The holidays are killers for certain teams," he told the Pioneer Press. "You know, a team like us, we've got to play like it's a playoff game. And it's hard to be there during these days."

New dog in town -- Not long ago, forward Dustin Penner was securely lodged in Oilers coach Craig MacTavish's doghouse.

Now there’s a new resident -- 23-year-old left wing Robert Nilsson, a former first-round selection by the Islanders who came to Edmonton in the February 2007 deal that sent Ryan Smyth to New York.

Friday night, MacTavish yanked Nilsson off his team's top line and the power play, benched him in the third period and labeled him a "non-competer," according to the Edmonton Journal.

Sunday, Nilsson -- the son of former NHL player Kent Nilsson -- skated with the defensemen in practice. Monday, Nilsson was a healthy scratch in a victory over the Coyotes.

And MacTavish pulled no punches in discussing his disappointment in Nilsson, who has 4 goals and 6 assists in 27 games this season after collecting 41 points for the Oilers last season.

"I was expecting a lot more out of him," MacTavish told the Journal. "He had a great opportunity playing with our best player, certainly our best forward (Ales Hemsky). He just didn't show enough urgency in his game for me. That's plagued him throughout his career; the laissez-faire attitude. We need some fire. He's got a lot more skill than what we're seeing. He needs a different perspective. He's taking the game for granted.
"I was expecting a lot more out of him. He had a great opportunity playing with our best player, certainly our best forward (Ales Hemsky). He just didn't show enough urgency in his game for me" -- Craig MacTavish on Robert Nilsson
"He's a poor checker right now and not doing much offensively."

If the first step in Nilsson improving is to listen to what his coach is saying about him, however, MacTavish's message may have gone to waste. Nilsson didn’t sound as if he totally concurred with the coach's assessment.

"I don't know what to say," Nilsson told the Journal of falling into disfavor with his coach. "I still feel like I've been creating a lot of chances. We haven't really scored. I'm on the fifth line right now. I just have to get back to work and show him that I'm a competitor instead of a non-competitor."

Home sweet home? -- It hasn't been an easy season for the Avalanche, what with their erratic goaltending, lingering back woes for captain Joe Sakic, and then the snow-blower accident that will keep Sakic on the sideline for a few months. And on Tuesday, they lost center Paul Stastny indefinitely with a broken right forearm.

The Avalanche entered the holiday break fourth in the Northwest Division, which is not where they hoped or expected to be at this point when the season began three months ago.

But not all the news is bad. For one thing, they remain within striking distance of the division leaders, and a playoff berth hardly is a distant fantasy even with the problems the Avalanche has endured.

If they ever are going to make a run, however, now would seem to be the time. The Avalanche were only 8-6 at home before notching a 5-4 overtime win against the Coyotes on Tuesday night.

That game marked the beginning of a stretch in which Colorado will play 15 of 19 games at the Pepsi Center. Only four of those 19 games will be against division opponents, and all of the division games are home games.

Here’s the rub -- if the Avalanche don’t capitalize on their upcoming stretch, which carries into early February, they will be in huge trouble. Starting with a game at St. Louis on Feb. 7, the Avalanche will play 10 of 12 games away from home.

Back at home -- Canucks fans were treated to a strange sight Monday night -- Brendan Morrison in an opposing uniform. But there he was at GM Place, skating for the Ducks in their loss to the Canucks.

The 33-year-old center spent eight seasons in Vancouver, his best season coming in 2002-03 when he had 25 goals and 71 points. He also was known for his durability, appearing in all 82 games during six of his Vancouver seasons.

Morrison is off to a quiet start this season, with only 4 goals and 4 assists through 33 games. He is coming off major knee surgery last spring, so perhaps the slow start was to be expected.

The Pitt Meadows, BC, native did play in a preseason game this year in Vancouver, but that wasn’t quite the same as Monday night, when he played 13 minutes and had two shots on goal in a 4-3 setback.

"Even though I did play in that preseason game, this one has much more meaning to it," Morrison told the Vancouver Sun.

Morrison is best known for centering a line a few years back with Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund, a combo that was one of the NHL's most dangerous at the time.

Right now, though, he's just trying to get back in stride following the surgery.

"I've felt much better here in the last couple of weeks and that’s a good sign," he told the Sun.

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