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Former UMD player Fontaine scores hat trick to lift Wild

GLENDALE, Ariz. - Nino Niederreiter quickly grabbed the puck off the ice just after it skidded back out of the empty net. He scooped it up and met Justin Fontaine along the half-wall to celebrate. A few Wild fans threw their hats onto the ice, an...

Fontaine nets first hat trick
Justin Fontaine celebrates with Minnesota Wild teammates after scoring his third goal of the game against the Phoenix Coyotes on Thursday. (USA Today Sports)

GLENDALE, Ariz. - Nino Niederreiter quickly grabbed the puck off the ice just after it skidded back out of the empty net.

He scooped it up and met Justin Fontaine along the half-wall to celebrate. A few Wild fans threw their hats onto the ice, and any energy that remained inside a sparsely populated building was let out.

Fontaine recorded the Wild's second hat trick in three games Thursday night as Minnesota captured a 4-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes, the main team the Wild are battling in the standings.

For the first time in weeks, the Wild have the eighth-most points in the Western Conference, though the Coyotes, now two points behind the Wild, have played three fewer games.

It's been a long road for Fontaine, a 26-year-old rookie.

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He spent three seasons in the American Hockey League after four seasons of college hockey at Minnesota Duluth.

While earning his first shot at the NHL this season, things haven't always gone smoothly for Fontaine. He was a healthy scratch earlier this season and spent time on the fourth line.

But in his 39th game, Fontaine became the Wild's third-leading goal-scorer after his first hat trick since his junior year of college.

"It's impressive," coach Mike Yeo said. "He's paid his dues, and he's just done nothing but show up to the rink every day. He doesn't take anything for granted. He recognizes the opportunity that he has playing in the NHL.

"Like our team, how we don't want to get satisfied when things are going well, he hasn't at all. He's come to the rink, he wants more and because of that he's played with consistency."

Fontaine had to work just to make the team out of training camp. But he has found a role that fits him on the third line alongside Matt Cooke and Kyle Brodziak, a trio that accounted for all four Wild goals Thursday night.

The unit is a checking line, the line that Yeo relies on to shut down the opponents' best players. But because the Wild are missing a slew of injured players, including Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise, Yeo has asked for secondary scorers to step up.

Thursday night, the third line -- specifically Fontaine -- led the charge.

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"You've just got to pay your dues," Fontaine said. "Work every day, learn every day, especially with the guys that we have in the locker room. It's definitely a learning experience, and you just adapt and try to continue to grow your game."

After losing six straight games to close 2013, the Wild have won four straight, matching a season high. A team that once seemed well out of the playoff picture is now within sight of the eighth and final spot.

The Wild done it with secondary scoring and good goaltending. They have been outshot 110-56 in their past three games. They've won all three.

Thursday, Niklas Backstrom stopped 39 shots on a night in which it seemed Darcy Kuemper would be primed for the start.

"Outstanding," Yeo said of Backstrom. "You could tell that he wanted the net, he wanted the opportunity, and we're extremely pleased with his performance."

The Wild's wins haven't always been pretty. But they've come at an important time without Parise, Koivu, Josh Harding and Jared Spurgeon.

A banged-up team has managed four wins in a row to follow a losing skid that lifted pressure to a season high.

Thursday night, the latest victory came on the backs of Fontaine and Backstrom.

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"It was a tough stretch, but we stayed tight in the locker room and everyone stuck together," Fontaine said. "We got back to the way we need to play, and it's been a good four wins for us."

Related Topics: HOCKEY
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