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Wild hoping for home improvement

Pierre-Marc Bouchard, center, of the Wild celebrates with teammates Cam Barker, upper left, Chuck Kobasew, lower left, and Matt Cullen after his goal against the Chicago Blackhawks Jan. 25 in Chicago. <b>Associated Press</b>

ST. PAUL (AP) -- The Minnesota Wild reconvened after the All-Star break, ready to rediscover the rhythm they found right before it.

Coach Todd Richards had a simple message for his team at Monday's practice, as players returned from weekends away. Get serious, and don't waste time doing it.

"When you're out in the sun and spending time with family you lose a little bit of that edge," Richards said, adding: "If you have that edge it gives you a pretty good advantage. You might be able to win the game in the first 10 minutes. On other side of that, you can lose the game in the first 10 minutes if you aren't ready to play."

The first test is Tuesday against Los Angeles. The Kings and Wild are tied for 10th place in the Western Conference with 55 points, just one behind a three-way tie for seventh. In recent years, there has been no stiffer competition for playoff spots than in the NHL's Western Conference, and the Wild know what it needs to do over the final 33 games to extend its season.

The objectives are simple.

"Not losing games and not losing your spot in the standings because you unravel," Richards said.

Also firmly on the radar in Minnesota is the importance of picking up some more points at home. The Wild are only 11-11-2 this season at Xcel Energy Center, which has been a boon for them in the past, compared to 14-8-3 on the road.

"I don't think the first half of the season we played at the level that this organization's been used to on home ice," left wing Andrew Brunette said. He added: "This year it's a little bit strange that we haven't played very well. If you'd have looked at our record I never would've guessed this is what it would've been. Just like any other team, we've got to get back to being a very good team at home."

Richards has harped on this need for home improvement, part of his push to get the Wild to maintain that aforementioned edge.

"You know what? Wins are wins," center John Madden said. "There's nothing you can really do. We don't try to do anything different at home. We don't try to disappoint anybody. There's not a guy on this team that doesn't wish our record at home was different. It's not a conscious thing. It's just something that's happening, and we're well aware of it and we hope to change it."

The Wild won four of their last five games before the break, and their performance since Christmas has been perhaps the most promising under Richards since he took over before last season.

All-Stars Brent Burns and Martin Havlat have been important cogs in the lineup, and Matt Cullen has been catching up after a slow start to his first season in Minnesota. Pierre-Marc Bouchard, fully recovered from the concussion that erased last season for him, has begun to contribute. Andrew Brunette is his usual reliable self.

This still is a relatively no-name team without the kind of game-takeover star power some of its opponents possess.

"We don't have the luxury some other teams might have to not come ready to play," Madden said, adding: "Consistency goes along with urgency, and we can't have any passengers. We're not a team that relies on one or two guys to contribute for us. We need everybody to contribute every night, and as long as we get no passengers we're a tough team to play against."

General manager Chuck Fletcher politely declined to comment, pointing to the ice during practice at the players and coaches and remarking the next month is in their hands. The trade deadline is Feb. 28, and the need to add players could diminish if defenseman Marek Zidlicky (shoulder) and left wing Guillaume Latendresse (hip) are able to return before the end of the season. Richards said he expects them to start skating soon.

But Brunette and Madden are among the players whose contracts are expiring, and there's always the possibility that Fletcher and the front office will decide to trade an unrestricted free agent-to-be to avoid losing him for nothing.

"The urgency is in everybody's minds," Madden said. "You want to make the playoffs, and we're right on the cusp of doing it. We've got to string some games together here and try to climb up the standings."