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Zulgad: The puck stops here: Alex Stalock finally gets his chance as Wild’s top goalie

Alex Stalock spent his first two full seasons a member of the Minnesota Wild patienty waiting for an opportunity to start in goal, knowing any work he got would be a short-term thing aimed at giving workhorse Devan Dubnyk a day of rest.

The feeling in the dressing room was that if the Wild had any chance for success, it would come with Dubnyk in goal and, hopefully, when Stalock did play he wouldn’t cost his team. Stalock appeared in 28 games and made 23 starts in 2017-18. Those figures decreased to 21 and 16 last season, as Dubnyk started 66 of the 67 games in which he played. Any mention that Stalock should be playing more often was scoffed at and dismissed.

It’s funny how quiet those folks are these days as Stalock has played a key role in getting the Wild within a point of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, while serving as the team’s clear-cut No. 1 goalie for the first time.

Kevin Fiala was named the No. 1 star of the Wild’s 3-1 win over Nashville on Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center. Facing his former team, Fiala scored a sensational goal in the first period to give the Wild a 2-0 lead and his assist in the third period extended his streak of multi-point games to a franchise record five.

Stalock, however, was the Wild’s real No. 1 star in the win. The Wild was outshooting the Predators, 20-8, at one point in the second period, but Nashville took over for long stretches of time and ended up outshooting Minnesota, 38-33. The native of St. Paul, Minn., made several nice saves and ended up only allowing a power-play goal from right in front to Craig Smith in the third period.

“These are the games you want to play in as any competitor, and I love situations like this,” said Stalock, who attended Minnesota-Duluth and was a fourth-round pick of San Jose in 2005. “To be able to come in and the playoff spot is on the line. Your number is called. Whoever it may be the rest of the year, I know when Dooby gets his chance he’s going to come in and give this team a great chance. It’s just the way it’s going right now and we’re winning games. That’s the way hockey works and any sport really. You’re winning games, the lineup doesn’t change, forward, defense, you see that. So, keep rolling as it is and the next guy up, when he’s due, he’s going to play well.”

Stalock has started five consecutive games and seven of the nine games since Dean Evason replaced Bruce Boudreau as the Wild’s coach last month. The Wild are 6-3 in those games and Stalock is 5-2 with a 2.02 goals-against average, a .927 save percentage and one shutout in that time. In his five consecutive starts, Stalock is 4-1 with a 2.01 goals against and a .932 save percentage.

Stalock, whose career highs in games played and starts entering this season came in 2017-18, has now played in 36 games and made 34 starts this season. He has a 2.59 goals against and .912 save percentage; Dubnyk has started 27 of the 29 games in which he has played and has a 3.34 goals against and .892 save percentage. Dubnyk missed time earlier this season while his wife dealt with a medical issue so that resulted in Stalock getting additional playing time under Boudreau.

Stalock hasn’t only been solid in goal but his style also lends itself to the up-tempo style Evason wants to see. Because Stalock is so much better at moving the puck than Dubnyk, he can get the Wild in transition faster and allow a team that doesn’t have great speed to get out of its zone quicker.

“He’s playing awesome. Seeing the puck really well,” Wild winger Zach Parise said. “A few of those (Tuesday) on the 6-on-4, his ability to fight through traffic and get over there and get square to the one-timers, he’s playing really well for us. It’s great. And our defensemen are doing a good job letting him see the puck, too. It’s a group effort out there. But he’s playing awesome

The Wild will begin a three-game trip West Coast trip on Thursday in San Jose and then play back-to-back games against the Kings and Ducks on Saturday and Sunday. In previous seasons, Stalock would have been fortunate to get one start in this scenario. Now, it’s likely Stalock will get at least two starts and Dubnyk will get one.

“I don’t know if it’s easy,” Evason said of the goaltending decision. “It’s just what we’re doing. It’s one game at a time and if a guy plays well he’s going to play. It’s no different than a centerman or a winger or a defenseman. If they play they’re going to play. Alex is real committed, really sound, and isn’t trying to do too much. He has a very calming effect for our group for a guy that can get very excitable. He’s obviously done a great job.”

Stalock, to his credit, doesn’t seem to be applying any extra pressure to himself, even if his role has changed.

“From the beginning of the year, we were picked to finish last in the NHL or second-to-last in the NHL,” Stalock said. “Two weeks ago, we were on the outside of the playoffs, trade deadline, we’re moving guys. I mean, what is there to lose at that point? We’re going to have fun these last 20 games, we said. Let’s keep it light. We’ve got guys who are playing with confidence. Yeah, pressure, you want to win games, but at the same time, it’s a group in here that’s been pegged to lose games since the beginning of the year so it’s kind of us against whoever’s counting us out, really, right now.”

And Stalock is a primary reason why the Wild’s season is alive and well with 16 games remaining.


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