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Zulgad: Net gain: Alex Stalock rewards coach by blanking Canucks in qualifying round opener

NHL: Minnesota Wild at San Jose Sharks
Mar 5, 2020; San Jose, California, USA; Minnesota Wild goaltender Alex Stalock (32) makes a save against San Jose Sharks during the second period at SAP Center at San Jose. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Dean Evason might have had only 12 games of head coaching experience in the NHL entering the opener of the Wild’s qualifying-round matchup with the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night in the NHL’s return to play, but even a newbie knows you never reveal who is going to start in goal. Especially, when there’s an opportunity to create added suspense.

So that is exactly what Evason did from the moment the Wild began preparing for this series against the Canucks after a four-month hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Would it be Alex Stalock or Devan Dubnyk in net?

While Stalock had become Evason’s top choice during the dozen games he coached after Bruce Boudreau was fired on Feb. 14, a months-long, in-season hiatus has a way of creating doubt about what a coach will do. Dubnyk had been the Wild’s main goalie for so many seasons, and 2019-20 had been a tough year for him both on and off the ice. So could Evason decide that a refreshed Dubnyk would be the safe play?

It was Dubnyk who stopped all 12 shots he faced against Colorado last Wednesday in the Wild’s only tune-up for this tournament. Dubnyk played the second half of the game after Stalock gave up three goals on 17 shots in a 3-2 loss. Dubnyk had started 26 career playoff games, all with the Wild; Stalock’s lone postseason start came in 2014 with the San Jose Sharks.

Evason must have decided that Stalock’s limited playoff experience — he had played in four postseason games total — wouldn’t be a detriment. That turned out to be a wise decision.

Stalock, 33, stopped all 28 shots he faced in the Wild’s 3-0 victory over the Canucks that was played in the Western Conference bubble in Edmonton. Game 2 of the series will be Tuesday night and, if the Wild are victorious in that one, they will need only one more victory to win the best-of-five series and advance to the first round of the playoffs.

As far as Stalock’s limited postseason experience, that didn’t seem to matter much. The Canucks came out flying but the Wild and Stalock didn’t flinch. The same held true with the Wild up 1-0 after Kevin Fiala’s power-play goal in the first period, when the Canucks took the play to Minnesota early in the second period.

Evason told reporters that Stalock’s “compete is as high as anybody’s,” adding, “That’s all we’ve seen from this whole tournament so far, so to have a guy in there that’s going to battle and compete like he does, we felt very comfortable. We really liked his game.”

Stalock looked as if he had been here before and, when the Canucks were unable to tie the score, the Wild added a second power-play goal in the middle period as defenseman Jared Spurgeon beat Canucks goalie Jacob Markstrom. The goalie spot is one area where the Canucks are supposed to have the advantage in this series.

Markstrom made his Stanley Cup playoff debut on Sunday at the age of 30 after posting a 2.75 goals-against average and .918 saves percentage in 43 starts this season. There was no guessing about who would start in goal for Vancouver coach Travis Green because Markstrom is his guy.

And Evason was Stalock’s guy, even if he wasn’t saying it. Stalock started nine of the 12 games that Evanson coached before the NHL shut down and went 6-3 with one shutout, a 2.46 goals-against average and a .918 save percentage. Stalock had started getting significant playing time in place of Dubnyk when Dubnyk left the team because his wife was dealing with a medical issue.

But Stalock’s performance earned him continued playing time and the nine-year veteran finished the shortened 2019-20 regular season having established career highs in games played (38), starts (36) and wins (20). He had a 2.67 goals-against average and .910 save percentage; Dubnyk had a 3.35 GAA and .890 save percentage. Stalock’s play during Evason’s time as interim coach is one reason why Wild general manager Bill Guerin removed the interim tag in July and gave Evason a two-year contract.

“I’m excited obviously to get a chance to start in the playoffs,” Stalock told reporters Sunday. “Anytime you can play in an important game, obviously the most important game of the season so far. We came out and played exactly how we wanted to play intensity-wise and stuck to the game plan.”

The formula was so successful one would expect the Wild will try to repeat it almost exactly on Tuesday. Only this time, there will be no drama about who will be between the pipes when the puck drops.