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After frustrating finish, Minnesota Wild stay optimistic about future

Summer plans?

"I haven't gotten that far yet. I was still planning on playing for the next couple of days," Parrish said, sitting in front of his dressing room stall on a sleepy Saturday at Xcel Energy Center where the team gathered for a meeting - instead of Game 6.

Two days earlier, the Wild were eliminated from their first-round series by the bruising, smothering Anaheim Ducks in five games. The end came too soon, a stinging contrast to a regular season in which Minnesota set a franchise record with 104 points and a 48-26-8 record.

That's what general manager Doug Risebrough was after when he signed Parrish and defenceman Keith Carney and Kim Johnsson to multimillion-dollar deals through free agency, retained Marian Gaborik with the richest contract in the club's six-year history, and traded for veteran Pavol Demitra during the draft.

In coach Jacques Lemaire's defence-first system the Wild were stingy, leading the league in goals against with 184. They became a better offensive team, too, especially when Gaborik came back in January from the groin injury that cost him 34 games and formed a dangerous duo with Demitra.

Anaheim exposed weaknesses, though.

The top six scorers - Brian Rolston, Gaborik, Demitra, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Mikko Koivu and Parrish - had trouble controlling the puck and finding room in the offensive zone against Ducks defencemen. Worn out from all the forechecking by a bigger, stronger and more-experienced opponent, Minnesota ran out of energy.

An abysmal power play was the most glaring problem in the series. The Wild got only two goals in 27 opportunities, a struggle epitomized by a failure to score over a two-minute span in Game 5 when they had a 5-on-3 advantage.

Though a difficult matchup had plenty to do with the result, the players skated like they weren't quite ready for the post-season. Many of them had never been there, and it had been a long time since several others appeared in a playoff game. To Lemaire, the importance of detail and intensity was learned.

"They'll be excited to come back and try," he said.

With little salary-cap space, Risebrough's roster will probably not change much. Center Wes Walz, who turns 37 next month and is one of five unrestricted free agents, has been with Minnesota since the inaugural season but faces an uncertain future.

The biggest question regards the net. Niklas Backstrom started 41 games and led the NHL in goals-against average (1.97) and save percentage (.929), and the 29-year-old product of the Finnish Elite League is an unrestricted free agent after only one season here.

"It's been a fun year here, and I enjoyed every moment," Backstrom said.

But Manny Fernandez, who sprained his left knee just before the all-star break, was given a US$13-million, three-year contract last year to be the top goalie.

If the Wild are committed to Fernandez, Backstrom might be too expensive to keep. If the Wild are committed to Backstrom, Fernandez might have to be traded.

"Either way, there are a lot of big contracts here on this hockey club, and there's definitely going to have to be choices made," said Fernandez, who was set back when he stepped on a puck and aggravated the injury that kept him from playing after Jan. 30. He said Saturday he didn't need surgery, however.

Oh, there's one more major summer issue, too.

Gaborik, who will play with Demitra for their native Slovakia in the World Championships next week, must change his off-season training habits to avoid another long absence.

"It's going to be something new for me, but hopefully I can stay healthy," said Gaborik, who still managed 30 goals and 27 assists in 48 games.

He and Risebrough will talk about a plan when the tournament is over.

"If he's not feeling that comfortable ... he has to recognize that before it becomes a problem," Risebrough said, adding: "He's been pained by what's gone on, not being able to play, not being able to help the team."

When Gaborik skated, the Wild went 33-8-6. His return helped them end an 11-game streak without a win on the road, a 5-2 victory at Vancouver on Jan. 11 that provided momentum for the playoff push.

"We learned a lot, and I think it's going to be a big thing for us in the future," Koivu said.



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