New lines mates, a mid-season coaching change and playing outdoors are just some of the challenges Justin Fontaine has experienced during his third season in the National Hockey League.
Fontaine, who was born and raised in Bonnyville and spent three seasons as a member of the Jr. A Pontiacs, is in the midst of his third professional season with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild.
On Sunday the 28-year-old right-winger took the ice at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, MN for an outdoor game against the rival Chicago Blackhawks.
The Bonnyville native sent line mate Ryan Carter in on a break away with a nice pass from the right wing, which lead to Matt Dumba’s goal at 3:25 of the first period. The goal kicked off an impressive performance from the Wild in a 6-1 win over the Blackhawks. The assist was Fontaine’s lone point in his first professional outdoor game, to go along with two shots on goal and two shot blocks over the course of 13:31 worth of ice time.
While it was the first time the Bonnyville product had played a meaningful game outdoors, he wasn’t unfamiliar to the idea of outdoor hockey.
“We always would get buddies together to go outside and play,” said Fontaine, referring to the times as a teenager he carved up outdoor rinks in and around Bonnyville. “You are out there hour after hour. It is where you worked on all of your skills growing up.”
The victory was the fourth in a row for a Wild squad that has turned a corner after firing head coach Mike Yeo on Feb. 13 following a 4-2 home loss to the Boston Bruins.
“Everyone is working hard right now, applying ourselves to the system, checking hard and we are finding the back of the net, which is huge for us,” said Fontaine.
John Torchetti, former head coach of the American Hockey League’s Iowa Wild, took the coaching reigns over from Yeo and guided Minnesota to four consecutive wins. The hot start for the new bench boss was fueled by a recent sweep of western Canada, which saw the Wild pick up wins over Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.
On Feb. 18, Fontaine and the Wild strolled into Edmonton for one final battle with the Oilers at historic Rexall Place. The game, Fontaine’s 176th in the NHL, marked his fourth and final appearance at Rexall Place.
“It is always fun to play at Rexall,” said Fontaine. “To get the win in front of my family and friends is special, it means a lot to me.”
With the rink just 237 kilometers from Bonnyville, many locals made the trek down Highway 28 to watch their hometown hero take on the struggling Oilers.
“I was a little nervous. You always want to put on your best game. Sometimes it is there and sometimes it is not,” said Fontaine.
Fontaine was held pointless in the 5-2 victory logging 13:33 worth of ice time over 19 shifts. While it wasn’t his best performance in Edmonton – he recorded two goals in a 4-0 win at Rexall on Feb. 20, 2015 – he was happy to see his team come out victorious.
“It feels good. It took a little to get our legs going but once we did that we were fine. We checked pretty well. It was a good road trip for us,” said Fontaine.
Centre Jarret Stoll and left-winger Carter are the two latest forwards Fontaine has bee playing with on the Wild’s third line. The trio has been placed into a checking role, going head-to-head against opponent’s top lines.
“We know we are a shutdown line. We are not trying to make pretty plays out there,” said Fontaine. “You just have to adjust your game to who you are playing with and that is something you do throughout the season. I think we have been doing a good job.”
With 23 games left in the NHL’s regular season Fontaine and the Wild find themselves battling for a playoff spot. Minnesota (27-22-10) sits one-point back of the Nashville Predators for the second and final wild card spot as of Feb. 21.