The Minnesota Wild beat the Phoenix Coyotes Thursday night by a 4-1 final score. Minnesota finished off a 2 game sweep of their western road trip Thursday night in the desert. Three of the team’s four goals came from Justin Fontaine, who picked up his first NHL hat trick. That hat trick is just the 17th in Minnesota Wild history and Fontaine is just the 9th player to join that exclusive Wild club. Minnesota has now won 4 straight games, outscoring their foes 14 goals to 6 in that 4 game stretch. Niklas Backstrom was fantastic in goal Thursday night stopping 39 of the 40 shots he faced. This was Backstrom’s third straight win and raises his record to 5-9-2 with a goals against average of 3.02 and a save % of .902. The last time Backstrom won three straight games was back in March of 2013. After the game Minnesota Head Coach Mike Yeo said, “We were extremely pleased with his (Backstrom’s) performance.” In the course of this four game win streak Minnesota net minders have made 124 saves on 130 total shots. Three of the four wins were with Backstrom in net, one with Darcy Kuemper. The Minnesota Wild are hot right now and are undefeated in 2014! Minnesota is now just five points behind third place Colorado in the Central Division standings and rank 8th in the Western Conference, 2nd in the Wild Card race. When Coach Yeo was asked about his teams dramatic turn-around, going from a 6 game losing streak to a 4 game and counting win streak, He replied, “You’re never as bad as you think you are. You’re never as good as you think you are either.” “Every night is a new challenge and a new battle and you’ve got to make sure you have the right mind set going into your next game.” This Wild team is scoring goals and posting wins right now despite four of their best players sidelined due to injury. Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Jared Spurgeon and Josh Harding are all out of action with significant injury/health problems. That’s two of the team’s three top scorers, a top two defenseman and the #1 goalie. That’s enough to send most teams into a downward spiral but the Wild are thriving and winning. They are thriving and winning as a TEAM. When one player goes down another has stepped up to fill the void.
During this four game win streak different Wild players has stepped up and helped lead the team to victory. Tonight it was Justin Fontaine and Niklas Backstrom. It’s hard to say which of them was more important to the Wild’s victory tonight. Backstrom looked very comfortable in goal making 39 saves, kicking pucks to the side and playing so well positionally that difficult saves looked easy and routine. The lone goal he surrendered came on a Coyotes’ power play when Mikkel Boedker seemed to whiff on a backhander that instead of getting airborne just skittered along the ice and leaked under Backstrom’s right pad to tie the game at a goal apiece. The rest of the night belonged to Justin Fontaine. The Wild winger became the first rookie to score a hat trick for the Minnesota Wild and the second player to score one in the last three games. These are the first hat tricks scored by the Wild since Guillaume Latendresse did it back in January 2010.
Fontaine scored his first goal of the night and the only goal of the first period at the 18:41 mark burying a wrister on a feed from Matt Cooke. Nino Niederreiter picked up a pair of helpers on Fontaine’s second and third goals. Niederreiter now has totaled 15 assists in his first season with the Wild, far more than the single assist he accumulated with the New York Islanders in 64 games over the course of two seasons. Matt Cooke also had a 2 assist night picking up a helper on Fontaine’s first goal and the other on Kyle Brodziak‘s game winning score in the second period. Cooke now has 13 assists this season. Marco Scandella would pick up the second assist on Brodziak’s game winner, his 10th helper of the season . Brodziak and Jason Pominville would have the assists on Fontaine’s third goal. Those were the 9th and 13th assists respectively in the 2013-14 campaign. That brought some hats onto the Phoenix ice from the Wild faithful in attendance. The goals were Fontaine’s 9th, 10th and 11th of the season, ranking him 3rd on the team in goals and 8th in points.
When asked about Fontaine’s Thursday night Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo said, “He’s paid his dues and he’s done nothing but show up to the rink every day and he doesn’t take anything for granted. He recognizes the opportunity he has playing in the NHL. Like our team we don’t want to get satisfied with things going pretty well, he hasn’t at all. He wants more, every day he’s trying to improve himself and because of that he’s playing with an awful lot of consistency.” Just 6 Wild players made it into the scoring column generating a total of 11 points against the Coyotes. I’ve got to say that it would be nice to cheer on the Minnesota Wild in a location where the overnight low is around 50 degrees. That’s just a tad warmer than Thursday night in the State Of Hockey.
The Wild also had an excellent night on the defensive side of the game as well, allowing just a single goal came on a Phoenix power play. The Coyotes were able to generate just 3 power play chances in the course of the game, scoring their single goal on a shot from the stick of Mikkel Boedker just over 2 minutes into the second period. That would tie the game at 1-1 but not for long as Fontaine and his supporting cast would retake the lead for good a little more than 3 minutes later.
Fonzie, as his teammates call him, would score goals three different ways Thursday. The first came at 5 on 5 even strength, the second coming on the power play and the third was of the empty net variety. The first goal of the game came late in the first period with the Wild getting outshot by a better than 2 to 1 margin, 15-7 during the opening 20 minutes. The Wild’s second goal, the eventual game winner, came from Kyle Brodziak on a feed from Matt Cooke. “Brodzy” as the team calls him took the pass from Cooke and charged toward Phoenix’s Smith on a short break away, then fired off a wicked wrist shot that caromed off Smiths glove cuff and into the net. Minnesota’s third line accounted for all the goals and 5 assists that totaled 9 of the 11 points the Wild accumulated Thursday. That’s as dominating a performance as any by a Wild line so far this season. Fontaine’s second goal was a bit of a strange one as the Wild were the recipients of a lucky bounce when the puck hit a stanchion between the plexi-glass panels. Coyotes goalie Mike Smith had traveled behind the net to intercept the puck when it caromed off a stanchion and headed toward the net. Fontaine beat Smith to the puck and poked it into the net as the Phoenix crowd gasped in horror. The Wild now had a two goal lead and were fully in command at this point with the Coyotes desperately trying cut into the Minnesota lead. Phoenix pulled net minder Smith at the 18:20 mark of the final period. The Wild and Mr. Fontaine completely put the game out of reach with 1:12 left on the clock. The Wild right wing won a race to a loose puck and flipped it into the empty net to complete the first hat trick by a rookie in the history of the Minnesota Wild.
The Minnesota squad is flying high right now as they head back to St. Paul. The team has Friday off to rest and recharge before facing divisional foe the Colorado Avalanche. Minnesota and Colorado play five times this season with the Avalanche taking two of the first three meetings with one game left on each team’s home ice. Saturday evening a dinged up Wild team faces an Avalanche team playing their third game in four days and on the back end of of back to back games Friday and Saturday. The Avalanche have injury problems of their own with O’Reilly (14g, 14a) and Tanguay (9g, 15a), two of their top 6 in points out of action on IR. Looking ahead on the schedule your Minnesota Wild have 6 games against Central Division opponents out of 10 games left in the month of January. The Wild will definitely know where they stand in the Central by the end of the month. Out of the 6 divisional match-ups 3 are against teams currently ahead of the Wild in the divisional standings.
That’s enough for now. Enjoy the win over the Phoenix Coyotes, if you listen closely you can hear the sound of whimpering dogs in the desert, until Saturday when the Colorado Avalanche come calling at the Xcel Energy Center. I’ll be back with a preview of that Central Division match up Saturday morning. Until next time this is Scott Drain shouting out loud and proud, “LET’S GO WILD!!!”