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In thick of playoff race, Pouliot gets second chance with Wild @NHLdotcom

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -Jacques Lemaire hasn't seen the beating that Benoit Pouliot took during a minor league game against the Hartford Wolf Pack last week.

The "fight" happened while Pouliot was playing for the Houston Aeros, and it was ugly. Hartford's Dane Byers pummeled Pouliot with an uppercut that knocked two of his bottom teeth loose, then slammed his face into the ice several times.

"I didn't really look at it. He looks fine," Lemaire said after the Wild recalled Pouliot on Friday. "I think he's happy to be here. Teeth or no teeth."

No truer words have been said. Pouliot, the fourth overall draft pick in 2005, is finally getting another chance with the big club after an arduous season spent in Houston, and that's not even including the fight.

Pouliot had a chance to make the team out of training camp, but with veteran centers Wes Walz and Eric Belanger among those on the roster, he was one of the final cuts.

He spent three games up here in November, but was quickly sent back down for more seasoning.

"It was tough, obviously. It was real rough," Pouliot said of being sent back down. "I went back, and as soon as I went back, I got injured for a month-and-a-half and I didn't play hockey for a while. I came back strong after that."

He had 10 goals and 14 assists with the Aeros this season, numbers that are by no means eye-popping. But Lemaire thinks a lack of talent around him could mean that he will be better with the Wild.

"He didn't have such a great year," Lemaire said. "But all the reports that I got were that he could be a better NHLer than a minor. ... If he's got the right people to play with him, guys that will help him at different times, I think he can make it."

The Aeros moved him from left wing to center in mid-January and gave him plenty of ice time. Now he finds himself thrust into the middle of a playoff-contending team in desperate need of a healthy center.

"We need centers," Lemaire said plainly.

Walz abruptly retired just a few weeks into the season and the Wild have struggled to replace his grit and unselfishness all year long. Problems worsened when Belanger broke the big toe on his right foot last week and his replacement, Steve Kelly, hurt his left ankle on Thursday against New Jersey.

That leaves the door wide open for Pouliot.

"Now I get another chance," Pouliot said after practice Friday, less than two hours after getting off a plane from Houston. "I didn't really stay long last time. Hopefully I get to stay longer this time and maybe stay for the playoffs, too."

How long Pouliot stays this time, Lemaire said, depends strictly on Pouliot.

"You get a chance to do something, you play well, then another guy will slip and you'll jump at his spot," Lemaire said.

The Wild certainly need a boost. They've lost five in a row heading into Saturday night's game against Los Angeles and have a tenuous hold on the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference playoff race.

They started the day just four points up on No. 9 Nashville and only two points behind Colorado for the Northwest Division lead.

Pouliot knows there will be a lot riding on each shift - for the Wild and their playoff fate this season, and for him and his standing with the team heading into next year.

That said, he is trying not to put too much pressure on himself, saying he wants to "just play games. Be in the lineup. Be part of the team and hopefully make good things happen with the guys and just stay as long as I can."

Lemaire knows Pouliot has the tools.

"At his best, he's good with the puck, he can skate, he's strong. Put it together," Lemaire said. "He knows the game. He can make plays. He can score. So, put it together and you'll be playing in the NHL."

As for his mangled mouth, courtesy of Byers, Pouliot has taken that in stride, too.

"I punched him first, so it wasn't his fault," Pouliot said before alluding to Byers driving his face into the ice. "At the end there, what happened, it's part of the game. If it didn't happen, it wouldn't be hockey, so that's what it is."

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