GLENDALE, Ariz. – Six straight losses sent the Minnesota Wild into a downward spiral, the weight of the previous game carrying over into the next.
Once the Wild learned how to put games behind them, good or bad, the wins started piling up.
Justin Fontaine scored three goals, Niklas Backstrom stopped 39 shots and the Wild won their fourth straight game by beating the Phoenix Coyotes 4-1 on Thursday night.
“When we were losing games, we were carrying that baggage into the next game with us,” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “Success can do some damage to you, too, like winning can. We’ve been able to put that behind us and go on to the next one and recognize what we have to do.”
The Wild had been in a rut, plagued by shaky goaltending, injuries to key players and a big hit to their confidence. Once one of the top teams in the Western Conference, Minnesota plummeted down the standings with four straight road losses that led to two more at home to close out 2013.
Once the calendar flipped, the Wild found their way again, starting with a 4-1 win over Buffalo.
Minnesota followed a home win over Washington with a shootout road victory over the Kings and backed that up with another superb game against the Coyotes.
Fontaine scored late in the first period, gave the Wild a two-goal lead on a power play after a strange bounce in the third and closed out his first career hat trick with an empty-net goal.
Kyle Brodziak had a goal and an assist, Matt Cook had two assists and Backstrom was superb, winning his third straight start after allowing 17 goals the previous four.
The win moved the Wild ahead of the Coyotes for the eighth spot in the Western Conference with 53 points.
“We have a lot of young guys following the leadership and we’re playing the kind of game we need to play,” Fontaine said.
The Coyotes had their chances.
They doubled Minnesota’s shot total in the first period and had numerous good scoring chances, including one shot by Lauri Korpikoski that hit the crossbar.
Mikkel Boedker was the only Phoenix player to score, doing it on a power play early in the second period, leaving the Coyotes a bit disheartened after their third loss in four games.
“We had opportunities to score and didn’t score,” Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. “Give them credit that they found ways to score when they got theirs and we didn’t. In a game like that, you have to put as much onus on the guys trying to score as the guys who are trying to stop them.”
Phoenix came out firing, outshooting Minnesota 15-7 in the first period.
The Wild scored first, though, thanks to a turnover by Phoenix defenceman Keith Yandle.
Trying to clear the puck under pressure in front of the crease, Yandle sent it right to the slot, where Fontaine gathered it and beat Mike Smith to the glove side late in the first period.
The Coyotes kept up the pressure early in the second period and tied it on a power play when Boedker spun around and slipped a backhander under Backstrom just before he fell to the ice.
Phoenix continued to generate nearly twice as many shots, but Minnesota scored the next goal early in the third period.
This one came on a defensive miscue as well: Yandle was caught pinching in Minnesota’s zone, Brodziak ended up with a partial breakaway and sent a wrister that went off Smith into the goal.
Fontaine put Minnesota up 3-1 a few minutes later when he fought off Antoine Vermette and flicked in a one-handed shot as he was going down. Smith had circled behind the goal to play Jason Pominville’s dump-in and had no chance of getting back when the puck caromed off the boards to the front of the goal.
Phoenix tried to pick up the pressure, but couldn’t get anything past Backstrom and Fontaine closed it out with his empty-netter.
“We had a couple little spurts here and there, but to score you’ve got to go hard to the net, especially when they’re playing real tight,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “Their goaltender gives them a (good) game, they play tight and we couldn’t do enough to get inside to get opportunities and score on our opportunities.”
Notes: Phoenix D Oliver Ekman-Larsson returned after missing two games with an upper-body injury. … Wild LW Zach Parise missed his eighth straight game with a lower-body injury and Mikko Koivu missed his second straight with a broken ankle. They have a combined 23 goals and 39 assists. … Thursday was the 10-year anniversary of Coyotes G Brian Boucher setting the modern-day NHL record with his fifth consecutive shutout—against Minnesota.