Before the Minnesota Wild
can make a run at the postseason, second-year coach Todd Richards
says they have to find their identity as a team.
The process starts for real here Thursday in the 2010 Compuware NHL Premiere when the Wild open the regular season against the Carolina Hurricanes
(Noon ET, TSN, VERSUS), but Richards also believes his players already know what that identity is, or what it should be.
When they use an aggressive forecheck, move the puck well out of their own zone and manage it in the offensive zone -- nothing crazy, too fancy or artful -- the Wild usually are successful. That's how they played in the third period against Finnish club Ilves Tampere on Monday and they scored four goals en route to a 5-1 victory.
The problem is they don't always play the system, and that's when they get into trouble.
"What was the contrast from our second period (Monday) to our third period?" Richards asked rhetorically. "We didn't change anything system-wise. It's not like we went in there and said we're going to do this, this and this. It came down to a mentality and a commitment by the players to play a certain way, and that's what they have to understand. Each team has their own identity. What is going to be our identity this year? We have to find out what our identity is going to be."
Richards said they had that identity last season for "a good stretch," but mental lapses crushed the Wild. He recalled earlier in training camp that the team gave up three goals or more in 16 periods during the 2009-10 season, and it's no coincidence they finished 13th in the Western Conference with 84 points.
This preseason the Wild's problems have been similar as they've been giving up goals on back-to-back shifts. It happened twice in their final North American preseason game against Columbus and it cost them in a 4-2 loss. They gave up three goals in a 99-second span at Montreal and lost 4-3.
Also, St. Louis scored five goals over a stretch of 20:25 bridging the second and third periods to cruise to a 5-0 win Sept. 24.
"You can't have those lapses. That's when you lose games and we found that out too many times last year," Richards said. "If you look at our last game vs. Columbus, we give up one goal and then another goal on the next shift. Then we give up a goal in the second and the next shift we give up another goal. Now it's a 4-1 game when it was just a 2-1 game. Even at 3-1, if you get one back before the period ends, you're 3-2 going into the third, but that's been recurring throughout this training camp -- giving up a goal and then giving up another goal.
"It's something that we've talked about, but the players have to recognize that these are big shifts after you score a goal and after the other team scores a goal. It's too difficult to overcome two goals in this League if you give up one and then another one, bang, right away."
Inferior competition or not, the Wild did not get burned by any of those lapses in Monday's game at Tampere, so captain Mikko Koivu
is encouraged despite the fact that the team clearly was much better in the third period than it was when it went scoreless in the second.
"We learned (Monday)," Koivu said. "We didn't give up any other goals than the one, so we're on the right track on that one."
Richards believes the leadership the Wild acquired in the offseason -- Matt Cullen
and John Madden
, who between them have four Stanley Cup rings -- will help players like Koivu, Andrew Brunette
, Nick Schultz
and Greg Zanon
convince the rest of the team that they have to buy into the system for the team to have success.
"The reason why I say that is because of the guys in the locker room and I truly believe that," Richards said. "I think we have a great leader in Mikko Koivu
. He's a good captain now and he's going to be a great captain in the future. I think he's got a great support staff of Brunette, Schultz, Zanon, and you bring in Madden and Cullen now, and I think that's huge. That's why I say that. I think guys know and they do understand that there are little things that can be fixed."
Koivu confidently said Tuesday the Wild are better and much deeper this season than they were in 2009-10.
"There is a lot more depth on our team, a lot more experience with winning, and I think in a long season that's what we need," he said. "You need some leadership and character to win the games, especially when things aren't going the way you want. You need guys who have been there to lead the way. It looks good right now."
The goal is to make it look even better after two games at Hartwall Arena.
"It's understanding it and believing in it, that this is the way we need to play," Richards said.