The Wild had been here before but so often failed to get the desired result. A playoff game in which it was clear the opposing goalie was going to stand on his head, making save after save, and the only answer would be for Minnesota’s netminder to do the same thing.
Only that rarely happened.
Devan Dubnyk wasn’t terrible, but he also wasn’t good enough to help his team steal a game, much less a postseason series. There was always the fear that a seemingly harmless shot would find its way past Dubnyk at the worst possible moment. It was that realization that caused Wild general manager Bill Guerin to jettison Dubnyk after last season and sign veteran Cam Talbot to a three-year, $11 million contract.
On Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas, Wild fans found out what great goaltending can do as Minnesota escaped with a 1-0 victory when Joel Eriksson Ek beat Golden Knights veteran Marc-Andre Fleury from in front at 3 minutes, 20 seconds of overtime. While the Wild won in the extra session, they easily could have lost this one in the first period.
The difference was that Talbot made great save after great save. The Golden Knights came out flying and the Wild looked flat for the first 20 minutes. Vegas got 19 shots on goal; Minnesota had only five. The Wild could have been down by three or four goals after one. If that had happened, Game 1 would have been over.
“(It’s) not a surprise,” Wild coach Dean Evason said of Talbot’s performance. “His compete, his professionalism, it’s unbelievable. We talked right at the start of the year about how calm of influence he had on our group and the leadership that he provides on the ice visually, emotionally. He’s just a real solid pro and it filters down to the group.”
That group got their act together after the first period and played a much better game. But Fleury was up to the challenge, making several acrobatic saves. The NBC telecast had Wild center Ryan Hartman with six quality scoring chances and yet he did not have a point. Kirill Kaprizov was robbed on a backhanded scoring chance from in front as the 36-year-old Fleury somehow contorted his body in order to stop the rookie superstar early in the third period.
While it looked as if Fleury might steal the game for the Knights, Talbot had other thoughts.
“I just have to focus on my game,” Talbot said of seeing Fleury’s brilliance. “I can’t control what he’s doing at the other end. I’m not surprised by it at all, he’s a first ballot Hall of Famer and he always comes to play in the big moments, so you expect that from him. Just trying to match him at the other end, play my game and not worry about what he’s doing.”
Talbot did that by making 11 saves in the second period, 10 in the third and two more in overtime. He finished with a 42-save shutout. Fleury stopped 13 pucks in the second, nine in the third and three more in OT before Eriksson Ek’s goal.
“(He was) huge,” Hartman said of Talbot. “Especially being on the road. A team can get some momentum by getting opportunities, especially Vegas, they feed off scoring goals. … Cam has been there all year for us and he was there again tonight.”
Talbot, 33, is no stranger to the postseason, something that Guerin valued. Talbot made 13 starts for Edmonton in the 2017 playoffs, going 7-6 with a 2.48 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. The Oilers beat the San Jose Sharks in six games in the first round before losing in seven to Anaheim in the second.
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Last season, Talbot made 10 starts in the Western Conference bubble for Calgary and went 5-4 with a 2.42 goals-against average and .924 saves percentage. The Flames beat the Winnipeg Jets in four games in the qualifying round before being eliminated in six games by Dallas in the first round. Talbot, who also appeared in two playoff games for the New York Rangers in 2014, recorded his fifth career playoff shutout on Sunday as the Wild improved their Game 1 record in the playoffs to 4-11.
Talbot’s standout performance was good sign given he gave up 24 goals in his final six regular-season starts (3.93 goals against) and recorded an .857 saves percentage. That was a big difference from his 2.63 goals-against average and .915 saves percentage in 33 regular-season games.
Any issues Talbot might have having disappeared Sunday. He had stolen a game for the Wild and given them a 1-0 series lead against one of the best teams in the NHL. Talbot, not surprisingly, wasn’t looking for credit and pointed to stats like the Wild’s 23 blocked shot (Vegas had 13) and how much help he got from his teammates.
“That’s what playoff hockey is all about,” he said. “We exemplified that in the first period and carried it all the way through. Anytime you’re out there sacrificing the body that’s what it takes to win at this time of the year and we had that in spades tonight. Give the guys in front of me a ton of credit for putting their bodies on the line there.”
Maybe so, but the most credit has to go to Talbot.