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Rougher and tougher? With Avs on deck, Wild hope to best last year’s loss

The Wild are back in the playoffs after making an early exit with a loss to Anaheim last year.

>ST. PAUL (AP) – The Minnesota Wild have been trying over the past year to add some toughness, realizing postseason advancement in the rugged Western Conference will otherwise be nearly impossible.

The acquisitions of Todd Fedoruk and Chris Simon have been a big help, but an increase in physical play has been apparent up and down the lineup – even for the guys who have all of their front teeth.

The smallest skater on the team, center Pierre-Marc Bouchard, got into a fight last week. As the regular season was ending, All-Star Marian Gaborik dropped the gloves.

“We can’t do it all. They have to be ready for the challenge,” said Derek Boogaard, the 6-foot-7, 260-pound left wing who has handled most of the enforcement for Minnesota over the past three years.

The Wild start the playoffs at home on tonight, when they host Colorado in Game One of their first-round series. The Avalanche are not exactly a bunch of bruisers like the Anaheim Ducks, who handed Minnesota a quick and painful exit from the last postseason on their way to the hoist of the Stanley Cup.

But Colorado instigator Ian Laperriere served notice in Sunday’s shootout win that this promises to be a black, blue and perhaps blood-red matchup between the No. 3 and No. 6 seeds in the West. Laperriere mixed it up in the third period and again in overtime with Gaborik, the 42-goal scorer who had never been in an NHL fight until then.

“I didn’t really get it, but it’s hockey,” Boogaard said. “You know, if they want to play physical, we can play physical, too. It’s just part of the game.”

Both Gaborik and Laperriere downplayed their dustup.

“The playoff will be a notch higher,” Laperriere said. “Teams and players that haven’t been physical all season will be physical. They will bring their physical play in the playoffs, because if they want to win that’s the way they need to play. Our guys will be physical, and that the way playoffs are.”

Just a little scuffle “here and there,” was how Gaborik described it.

“It doesn’t really mean anything,” he said.

Going further than the first round means something to the Wild, though, which is why they claimed Fedoruk off waivers from the Dallas Stars in November and sent a sixth-round draft pick to the New York Islanders for the notorious Simon right before the trade deadline in February.

Simon has been suspended eight times in 15 years. He was out for a total of 55 games over the last two seasons for separate attacks – a skate stomp to the leg and a high stick to the head – on opposing players.

Sitting in the dressing room after Monday’s practice, Simon smiled and laughed when asked about the uptick in skill guys like Gaborik throwing punches.

He insisted, though, the key to success is “not necessarily about fighting” and more “about backing each other up” and exhibiting a team-wide toughness that can’t easily be deflated.

“You’ve got to be ready for seven games in every round, so the more you hit, the more you finish checks, the more that adds up,” Simon said. “It’s like putting money in the bank. It pays off in the end, wearing guys down.”

Fedoruk, of course, agreed.

“It’s a good thing to play team tough, rather than just have three tough guys,” he said. “Because if the team’s not tough then there’s really no point in having those three guys. It’s nice that they have a little more edge to them, a little bit more confidence in that area of the game for themselves.”

Both coaches, predictably, were wary of putting too much emphasis on the rough stuff.

“We want to hit as much as we can,” the Avalanche’s Joel Quenneville said. “I don’t think the hits are always there. You have to pick and choose and make sure you keep yourself in the play.”

Minnesota’s Jacques Lemaire will have a difficult time suiting up all three of his enforcers against an Avalanche team with so many offensive whizzes. One of them will probably be scratched.

“How much are you going to need the size against Colorado?” Lemaire said, rhetorically. “I just don’t want to talk about something that won’t be a factor.”

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