Found December 31, 2011 on Fox Sports North:
ST. PAUL, Minn. A 4-2 loss Saturday to Phoenix marked the end of 2011 for the Minnesota Wild and brought a tough month of December to a close.The Wild entered December with a 15-7-3 record, tops in the NHL. They were in the midst of a seven-game winning streak when the month began. Minnesota now exits December fourth in the Western Conference at 21-13-6, thanks to a recent eight-game skid that was finally snapped Thursday."Ready to close out December and bring on January," Wild coach Mike Yeo said after Saturday's loss. " This month will allow us to really see where we're at. We're in a good spot. I think we could be in a better spot, but having said that, we have an opportunity coming up here in the next month."Minnesota found itself on the road plenty in December. Of the 15 games the Wild played, just six came at home at Xcel Energy Center. In November, Minnesota played eight of its 15 games that month at home, including a string of six straight.Saturday's game against the Coyotes was Minnesota's 40th game of the season, making the Wild the first team to play 40 games this year. By comparison, the San Jose Sharks have played just 34 while the Boston Bruins played their 35th game on Saturday."It's been a tough stretch with all the travel," said forward Matt Cullen, who scored his 10th goal of the season Saturday on a penalty shot. Playing on the road so much has also meant Minnesota hasn't had a regular practice schedules. That should change with only 10 games on the docket in January."We're a team that really does improve a lot in practice. I think that from Day 1, we've had a pretty good approach as far as improving as a team," Cullen said. "So it'll be important for us to get back to work these next couple days and shore up a few things and continue to improve. We can't sit still. We're not good enough to sit still. We have to continue to get better."The Wild now have three days off before resuming play Wednesday at Vancouver. They won't have a single instance of back-to-back games in January, something that happened three times in December. Minnesota isn't using the schedule as an excuse, but it welcomes a lighter load in January."Start the New Year and go one game at a time," said Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom, who stopped 26 of 29 shots he faced Saturday. "A lot of hockey left. We have played some really good games. For us, it's very important to be at our best every night. We can't take a shift off or a period off. You have to be there for 60 minutes and play our game."The Wild also won't blame injuries, although they easily could. Minnesota struggled to stay healthy in December and was constantly forced to call up players from the Houston Aeros, their AHL affiliate.Minnesota is starting to get healthy again defenseman Jared Spurgeon returned to the ice Saturday after he was hit into the boards on Monday but still isn't at full strength."The injuries aren't why," Yeo said of the December struggles.The Wild were hoping to build off Thursday's emotional 4-3 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, a game that saw two fights and plenty of chippiness. That win snapped an eight-game losing streak that dated back to Dec. 13.Instead, Minnesota came out flat Saturday and fell behind Phoenix 3-1 before eventually losing 4-2 on an empty-net goal by Ray Whitney."I was a little bit nervous about this game because of the emotional game last game," Yeo said. "The fact that we played four games in six days, there's fights, there's hits and there was a lot of emotion in that game last game. Then you finally get the win and you're going to come back the next day and have a bit of a letdown. We weren't good tonight. I'm not sure why. If that's why, you don't get any points for that."So now the Wild turn the calendar to 2012 and put their tough December in the past. Minnesota is still very much alive, as its 48 points is fourth in the Western Conference and second in the Northwest Division behind Vancouver. Coincidentally, Minnesota will face the Canucks on Jan. 4 with the chance to start 2012 off on the right foot."Obviously, this month we played a lot of hockey. We traveled a lot. Maybe it's just come down to the end of the month and we're looking ahead," said defenseman Greg Zanon. "We're right in the middle of the pack. If we can keep our heads and stay composed, we have a good chance right now."
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