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Wild's wins expanding its hopes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It isn't unheard of for a third-year NHL franchise to turn itself into a Stanley Cup contender. The Florida Panthers did it in 1995-96, making it all the way to the finals before losing to the Colorado Avalanche.

But the performances of expansion teams such as the Atlanta Thrashers and Nashville Predators are more true to form. In their respective three- and four-year histories, they've yet to have a winning record, let alone make the playoffs.

This NHL season isn't quite a quarter gone - so it's difficult to get too excited about current records - but the Minnesota Wild has shown possibilities. The club brings its gaudy, Northwest Division-leading 11-5-4 record to MCI Center tonight for a game against the Washington Capitals.

"It starts with their organization off the ice," said San Jose general manager Dean Lombardi, who built the Sharks from one of the worst teams in the NHL into a playoff team over the past seven years. "Their general manager, Doug Risebrough, and their coach, Jacques Lemaire, it starts with them. And you can see their influence on the ice."

Lombardi points to the disciplined play and teamwork that is setting the Wild apart from a lot of other teams.

"It's very obvious," Lombardi said. "We can see every player has a role and a set of specific expectations that are realistic. Both Risebrough and Lemaire come from the Montreal organization, and if any organization knows about playing for the team, it was always Montreal. Those guys know what team play is all about."

Risebrough said the Wild is taking the "collective team approach." But when asked what has happened since last season - when Minnesota finished 18 games under. 500 - to turn the Wild around, he points to last season's injuries.

"We had a lot of injuries last year, and that means there was opportunity for more guys to play," he said. "That means we have a lot more depth this season. With the addition of depth and experience, you don't have to rely on everyone being on. If someone is having an off night, someone else is able to step in."

Minnesota's roster doesn't contain any household names, but there are a couple that are familiar. Left wing Andrew Brunette, who began his career in Washington, then became a force in Atlanta before being written off, is getting another chance with the Wild. Center Cliff Ronning, in his 17th season, came into the fold this season and is providing a young team with leadership.

Leading the youth movement is right wing Marian Gaborik, 20, who was the Wild's first-ever draft pick in 2000. He is turning into the team's biggest offensive weapon. He scored 18 goals his first year and upped that to 30 last season. In 20 games this season, he has 12 goals and nine assists, ranking among the league's top 20 scorers.

And with a rotating goalie pair of Manny Fernandez and Dwayne Roloson, the Wild has the third-best goaltending numbers in the league behind the Philadelphia Flyers and New Jersey Devils. Fernandez is 6-3-1 with a 1.89 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. Roloson, who has started the past two games, is 5-2-3 with a 2.09 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.

"They've got chemistry, great goaltending and a competitive defense," said Capitals goaltender Olie Kolzig. "And they've got Gaborik and a ton of guys who work hard as a team. They're a little like us in that they aren't scoring a lot, but they're finding a way to get pucks to the net."

The Caps and Wild played the first of their two-game season series Saturday. The Wild scraped out a 1-0 victory, handing Washington its first shutout loss of the season.

"I don't think the Wild is a surprise," said Capitals coach Bruce Cassidy. "They have a strong coach with a lot of players who have been given a second chance and young draft picks playing a team game.

"Jacques asks his players to play his system and play their individual defined role first. ... They're void of the so-called superstars ... and the entire team has bought into the system and they believe in what they're doing."

Whether the Wild will continue to play well throughout the long, wearing season is anyone's guess.

Risebrough initially tried to brush off speculation, saying, "I'm not sure if we'll continue like this," but eventually acknowledged he doesn't expect a letdown.

"We've had a lot of close games, and we turned a corner by winning some of them," he said. "The team isn't worried about the long run; it's focused on how we're playing each game."

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