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Mistakes have to stop for Wild as playoffs near

Wild coach Bruce Boudreau and his bench. USA Today file photo

ST. PAUL—When last we saw the Wild in St. Paul, the locals were burying the St. Louis Blues and all was right with the world. Riding a five-game winning streak, they boarded a charter flight for Arizona to play the worst team in the NHL.

Will the real Minnesota Wild please stand up?

Are they the team that overwhelmed the Blues 8-3 to end a 9-2-2 February and solidify their hold on third place in the Central Division? Or are they the team that got outscored 12-4 in losses in Glendale, Ariz., and Denver?

The easy answer is yes, and what's maddening for fans is that it's apparent in every game, win, lose or draw. Even as the Wild rolled St. Louis on Feb. 27, they made enough bonehead plays to let the Blues get within a missed shot on a breakaway from tying it. They also at times looked slow in their own zone.

If the Wild want to make their first serious playoff run since 2003, they can't still be both of those teams when the postseason starts in mid-April. They aren't going to get any faster before the playoffs arrive in mid-April, but they can control mistakes, especially in their own end — and, yes, we're looking at you Matt Dumba.

The problem with the NHL — or is it the league's strength? — is that nearly every mistake is huge. Nearly every goal starts with someone's mistake, and it's virtually impossible to play mistake-free hockey.

Players are too big, too fast, too good; lazy passes and untimely pinches are forgiven only by goaltenders, which is what happened early in Tuesday's game against the Hurricanes. With the Wild leading 1-0, Devan Dubnyk bailed out the defense long enough to let his teammates get their skates under them.

Minnesota went on for their second straight victory, and NHL-best 25th at home. There's so much to like. The Wild are good. They're always good, and sometimes better, as they were last season while winning a franchise-high 12 straight games and amassing a franchise-high 106 points in coach Bruce Boudreau's first season in St. Paul.

All was right with the world before an inexplicable, if familiar, March flop and first-round playoff loss to the Blues, a five-game series that likely turned on a 1-0 loss in Game 1. But that's hockey. Mike Yeo's Blues made fewer mistakes, and Jake Allen was better than Dubnyk.

It happens.

The Wild didn't get better in the offseason, either, a salary-dump trade with Buffalo netting Marcus Foligno, a serviceable fourth-liner, and Tyler Ennis, a small forward past his expiration date, so that general manager Chuck Fletcher could sign young core players Nino Nierderreiter and Mickael Grandlund.

They also miss former Gophers center Erik Haula, an unfortunate loss in the expansion draft who has 23 goals and 45 points for Las Vegas. It's not so much the offense — Haula never scored more than 15 goals in four seasons with the Wild — but his speed. That might be a substantial loss in the playoffs, where some hot shot will likely need someone on him 24/7.

One thing the Wild have going for them, however, is Eric Staal, who was the Wild's best forward in his first season in Minnesota last year and has been even better in his second. With a team-high 35 goals, he has a legitimate chance to catch Marian Gaborik's franchise record of 42 goals. It looks easy for the 33-year-old veteran right now, and he'll be a headache for some team in the playoffs.

They also have a healthy and fresh Zach Parise, who on Tuesday scored only his sixth goal since returning from back injury and still has time to take a page out of Staal's book and make a big difference when it counts the most.

It's hockey. It happens.