When he left Xcel Energy Center on Thursday after a morning practice, Wild backup goaltender Alex Stalock expected to be in his usual perch on the bench for a matchup against the Jets the next afternoon.
But once he returned to the arena Friday, Stalock — not No. 1 Devan Dubnyk, who was out sick — ended up backstopping the Wild to arguably its most meaningful win of the season thus far.
And that impressive 4-2 comeback over the team’s Central Division rival came after Stalock swooped in during the third period of the previous game Wednesday in relief, buoying the Wild so it could hold off the Ottawa Senators 6-4 to end a two-game slide.
“He was just ready for the challenge,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He always is.”
Such is the unpredictability of being an understudy in the nets in the NHL, a unique role that requires the player to toil without much fanfare until he’s thrust under the brightest spotlight on the ice.
Stalock, however, hasn’t disappointed in his second season in that spot, and that reliability has given the Wild a steady tandem in net — which is undoubtedly a catalyst for the team ranking among the best in the NHL.
“You don’t win in this league without great goaltending,” center Eric Staal said. “We have that here. We have two guys that compete very hard every night and give us a chance.”
After that stirring rally against Winnipeg, the Wild slotted fifth in the league standings with 14 wins and 30 points, and the team’s performance in the crease also has been better than most.
The team’s .912 save percentage sat in the top 10, while its 2.70 goals-against average was tied for fourth. Only five teams had been tagged for fewer goals than the 62 the Wild had surrendered.
At 9-5-2 with a .921 save percentage and 2.48 goals-against average, Dubnyk has been responsible for the bulk of that productivity. But the team’s competitiveness hasn’t waned when Stalock has stepped in; he’s 3-1 in the second half of back-to-backs and improved to 5-2 overall with a .913 save percentage and 2.45 goals-against average after his two unscheduled appearances this past week.
“Consistency in this position, I think, is so key,” said Stalock, who is 9-2-2 with a .929 save percentage and 1.92 goals-against average in 13 Wild home games. “That’s what makes you, obviously, successful in this position. Getting spot starts here and there, I think the guys want to see that calmness in the net as far as controlling rebounds, making that first save at least and helping them out with the puck.”
Having a front-row seat during most games helps him prepare, since he’s able to watch plays develop, but practice also is key. That’s where the 31-year-old native of South St. Paul puts in work to stay sharp, but he also sets a tone for the players in front of him — just like he did Saturday when the Wild worked outside at the Recreation Outdoor Center at the St. Louis Park Rec Center.
Dubnyk was still absent, but he’s expected to be back on the ice for the team’s next practice Monday.
“[Stalock’s] never disappointed me as far as his effort in practice every day, his willingness to make the players better, to challenge them,” Boudreau said. “To see him have some success in games is really a good reward for him.”
Those opportunities to deliver don’t always come in succession like they did in recent days for Stalock, but his ability to capitalize on them doesn’t just flatter him.
It suits the entire team.
“His demeanor is great,” Boudreau said. “He knows exactly what his job is. He knows exactly what he has to do to build the guys up and compete in practice. I think he gets it, and when you get it, it’s half the battle.”