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Struggling Wild aim to ignite playoff push vs. Avalanche

By Alan Ferguson

Stats Writer

Colorado (31-38-1) at Minnesota (32-29-8) 8:00 p.m. EST

ST. PAUL, Minnesota (AP) -- Usually their biggest strength, the

Minnesota Wild's defensive play has become unreliable at the

wrong time and it's threatening to keep them from a third

straight postseason berth.

Facing an offensively challenged Northwest Division rival might

help them get back on track as they host the Colorado Avalanche

on Tuesday night.

After allowing an average of 2.29 goals through its first 59

contests, Minnesota (32-29-8) has given up 3.40 per game in its

last 10, losing eight and dropping into a 10th-place tie with

St. Louis in the Western Conference.

The Blues handed the Wild their latest loss by scoring three

power-play goals in the first 28:08 en route to a 5-3 win

Sunday. Niklas Backstrom was pulled after two periods for Josh

Harding, and the Wild cut into a 4-1 deficit with two goals in

the third but couldn't get the equalizer.

"We need to be a bit more desperate out there," Backstrom told

the team's official Web site. "We need to be hungry for the

puck. It's like the playoffs out there. We have to make in now,

or, soon, it's going to be too late."

Backstrom posted a 2.20 goals-against average through his first

50 starts and got a four-year, $24 million extension March 3. In

his last nine appearances, however, he's 2-3-3 with a 3.46 GAA.

If Backstrom starts Tuesday, he would seem to have a good chance

to bounce back against the Avalanche, whom he's dominated in his

career. His best effort during his slump came Thursday night

when he made 40 saves in a 2-1 shootout loss at home to

Colorado, and he's 10-2-2 with a 2.08 GAA in 14 games against

the Avs.

He beat Colorado 2-0 with 33 saves on Jan. 4 at the Pepsi


Colorado has climbed out of the West cellar despite dropping

eight of its last 11, but has scored fewer than three goals

eight times during that span.

Peter Budaj's goaltending has been one of the lone bright spots

of late for the Avalanche (31-38-1), who appear headed for their

first last-place finish since moving from Quebec for the 1995-96

season. Colorado is nine points behind the Wild, the

next-closest team in the Northwest.

Budaj started the season 16-25-1 with a 3.03 GAA but has won

three of his last four starts, allowing six goals. He shut out

Minnesota over the final 49:45 of regulation in Thursday's win

and stopped two shootout attempts to improve to 8-7-2 with a

2.77 GAA against the Wild.

Budaj followed with a 3-2 win Saturday night in Edmonton but sat

the next night in Vancouver as Andrew Raycroft allowed three

goals in the first 15:18 of a 4-2 defeat.

"Right now, it's playing for pride," said defenseman

John-Michael Liles, who assisted on both Avalanche goals Sunday.

"We're playing for pride and playing for each other, and that's

all you can focus on right now. In the first period, we didn't

have that mentality."

Minnesota is 7-1-2 in its last 10 regular-season meetings with



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