Michael Russo has covered the National Hockey League since 1995. He has covered the Minnesota Wild for the Star Tribune since 2005, after 10 years of covering the Florida Panthers for the Sun-Sentinel. He uses “Russo’s Rants” to feed a wide-ranging hockey-centric discussion with readers, and can be heard weekly on KFAN (100.3 FM) radio and seen weekly on Fox Sports North.

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Fontaine, Backstrom shine in win at Phoenix; Wild considering Theo?

Posted by: Michael Russo under Wild game coverage Updated: January 10, 2014 - 12:17 AM

Funny thing happened Thursday morning inside the visitor’s dressing room here at Glendale Arena.

As the room opened, a swarm of media headed to the back wall of the room. Justin Fontaine was all alone back there, so he stood up to address to the horde of buzzards, I mean reporters, before we all made an abrupt beeline to his right where Jon Blum’s stall was.

Psyche! After all, it would be Blum’s Wild debut later that night. Fontaine started laughing as all his teammates began making fun of him.

“False alarm,” Fontaine said, embarrassingly.

Turns out we should have probably chatted with “Fonzie” because hours later Fontaine would connect on his first career hat trick in a 4-1 win over Phoenix, the Wild’s fourth consecutive win to thrust it back into the top-8 in the West for the first time since Dec. 22 (just an fyi, everybody around them, including the Coyotes, have games in hand on Minnesota, so don’t get too excited yet).

After the Wild went 1,449 days without a hat trick, it picked up its second in five days. Saturday against Washington, Ryan Suter became the first defenseman. Tonight, Fontaine became the first rookie, and this is a guy that was a healthy scratch six times in a 12-game stretch from Nov. 29-Dec. 22. He became the ninth Wild player to get a hat trick and 17th overall.

The first came off Keith Yandle’s rebound when he blew one by Matt Cooke’s screen. The second was a lucky bounce when Jason Pominville’s dump-in hit a stanchion and went to the front of the net with Mike Smith out. The third was an empty-netter.

Kyle Brodziak scored the winning goal, had an assist and was plus-3, Cooke and Nino Niederreiter had two assists each and Niklas Backstrom made 39 saves for his third win in a row as the Wild won in regulation on the road for the first time since Nov. 20 to complete a 2-0 road sweep.

The Wild has the day off Friday and hosts Colorado on Saturday before playing in Nashville on Saturday. Kent Youngblood will cover the Avs game.

The big story in my eyes tonight was Backstrom. A lot of us were surprised tonight at Mike Yeo’s decision to come back with Backstrom because of the magnitude of the game over Darcy Kuemper. Kuemper made 39 saves in L.A for his second career win.

But Backstrom didn’t disappoint. Personally, I think it was an organizational decision because the team needs to see 1) if Backstrom is healthy; 2) if he can continue to play well with this team so needing him right now.

Why do I say that? The Wild’s concerned about its goaltending with Josh Harding’s uncertain health situation and Backstrom’s struggles in the first half and his four afflictions this season (knee, concussion, virus and now abdominal soreness).

As I wrote in Friday’s game story, GM Chuck Fletcher may be looking to add a goaltender to provide some insurance. This is a league where it’s awfully difficult to make a trade and Fletcher also isn’t looking to throw away assets. So according to sources, the Wild is interested in maybe signing free agent Jose Theodore, who is working out daily and skating weekly in South Florida.

Again, we’ll see if Backstrom’s three-game winning streak and outstanding performance tonight (27 of his 39 saves in the first 40 minutes) slows the GM down, but after talking to a bunch of people, it wouldn’t shock me at all if Fletcher eventually looks at signing Theodore. A lot really depends on what’s the word on Harding once we get back to Minnesota.

The Wild is spending the night in Phoenix and heading back in the morning for an off-day. Next access is Saturday morning. Mikko Koivu is also expected to talk for the first time since ankle surgery Saturday morning, so Kent will have that.

Amazing that it was just last week when the Wild was at the trail end of a six-game losing streak and Yeo was potentially on the chopping block if he had lost to Buffalo or Washington. It feels like centuries ago. I’ll have a lot more on that in Saturday’s paper.

I emailed back and forth with Zach Parise today. He became a dad to twins yesterday, and I talked to him about shot blockers and fatherhood. Those quotes are in the Blum/Ballard game notebook on www.startribune.com/wild.

Jason Zucker took a puck from Shane Doan’s shot above the left kneecap in the third period tonight. Scary scene as he couldn’t put any weight on it going down the runway. But afterward, he was walking, had four stitches and said he’ll be fine.

That’s it for now. Barring news, no blog Friday.

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