TORONTO — Devan Dubnyk was a forgotten man when crunch time arrived last season. As a Black Ace during the Montreal Canadiens playoff run, the NHL seemed a long way off.
“I was skating with five guys,” Dubnyk recalled Monday. “Five guys that made me feel old.”
The goaltender was so far buried down the depth chart that he asked to go home after the second round to spend time with his wife Jennifer and infant son Nathaniel. Even when Habs starter Carey Price was injured in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, he didn’t second-guess the decision.
“I felt like I needed to go be a dad,” said Dubnyk.
He also needed a break after a season that saw him go from Oilers starter to Predators backup to Habs minor-leaguer in the span of a couple months. It was a precipitous fall. Dubnyk was beaten down and embarrassed.
“It was a big slip for me,” he said.
When you speak with the 28-year-old today it’s hard to believe he’s the same guy.
Not only has he struck Minnesota like a lightning bolt — sporting a 23-6-1 record and .930 save percentage while starting 31 straight games — Dubnyk has both saved the Wild’s season and resuscitated his career over the last 67 days.
The Wild were coming off a 7-2 loss in Pittsburgh, their sixth defeat in a row, when Dubnyk was acquired from the Coyotes and instantly reversed course. It was actually in Arizona where the goaltender first began his turnaround by regaining confidence through his work with coach Sean Burke.
“I knew what it felt like to have the game be slow in front of you and feel in control of everything and feel like I could be a top goalie in the league,” Dubnyk said before Monday’s 2-1 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It is yet another reminder that goaltending is hockey’s most unpredictable position. Great one year, down the next. We see it time and time again.
However, this is also a story of a man who landed in the right place at the right time — with a stingy Minnesota team that has allowed the second-fewest shots in the NHL. Life with last year’s Oilers was quite a bit different.
“Our guys take pride in playing defensive hockey,” said Wild coach Mike Yeo. “It’s been a good partnership. I think that his solid play has given us a lot of confidence and allowed us to concentrate on our own jobs. With that, the guys are playing a better game in front of him.”
Another thing that has made the relationship thrive is Minnesota’s willingness to buck industry trends. This is an organization tuned in with the analytics community and well-aware of how bad the numbers are for a goalie playing on consecutive nights. Yet, they are about to do it for a fifth straight time with Dubnyk.
Amid what could be considered a pressure-packed environment, he is having fun. Even more important than stylistic changes, such as getting lower in his crouch, Dubnyk has started looking for joy in every area of pro life.
Rather than fret about the playoff race when he arrived in Minnesota he simplified things. And it worked.
“It’s like anything with sport — if you make it too big of a picture (it’s difficult),” said Dubnyk. “That’s kind of how I’ve approached my game as well: That next pushing stop, that next save, that next time that I need to get down and find the puck through legs and just work that extra little bit.
“The smaller you can make the picture the better off you are.”
Heading into the homestretch, it is all small details now. Game Tuesday in Long Island. A couple days to recover. Then another back-to-back with Calgary and Los Angeles at Xcel Energy Center on Friday and Saturday.
Big games, one and all, and no question about which goaltender Yeo will tab for the start.
Dubnyk is Minnesota’s most important player heading into the most important time of year, which is an awfully telling sign about just how far he’s come.
“It’s fun to think about,” said Dubnyk. “It’s crazy to think about. It’s something that I can always kind of draw back on: If I can go through that then I can do anything.”
The sky’s the limit.