The Wild ran out of healthy goalies this week so former playoff hero Andrew Brunette had to put on size XXL pads and serve as a proxy during one practice.
Brunette’s stumble-bumble routine provided some good laughs, but it also underscored the Wild’s precarious goaltending situation as a playoff berth inches closer to reality.
Injuries have forced the Wild to give the crease to its fourth No. 1 goalie of the season, Ilya Bryzgalov, who was supposed to be nothing more than an insurance rental when he was acquired via trade one month ago. Suddenly, Bryzgalov might be the most important player on the roster.
If Bryzgalov can maintain his hot hand and recapture whatever it was that made him effective in previous stops, the Wild can enter the playoffs reasonably confident in its ability to compete. If Bryzgalov implodes, the Wild might have exhausted its options.
Where have you gone, Roli the Goalie?
Seriously, what a weird season it’s been for the Wild at the most critical position in hockey. The team should have attached a turnstile to the goal and charged admission.
Niklas Backstrom began the season as the No. 1 option until he got injured.
Then, Josh Harding saved the season until he experienced complications related to his multiple sclerosis.
Then, young Darcy Kuemper saved the season until he started to falter and suffered an injury.
Now, it’s Bryzgalov’s turn to save the season and buoy the Wild’s playoff hopes.
“This year has been a goaltender-by-committee scenario, and that’s probably not the way you want to do it every year,” Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “It’s been a strange season, but we’ve had four goaltenders play for us that have played extremely well.”
This revolving-door routine is far from ideal, but it’s not necessarily outside the norm, not even for playoff teams. The Wild used four goalies and made the playoffs last season. That was different though, because Backstrom started 41 of the 48 regular-season games.
Chicago and Colorado also have used four goalies this season and already have secured playoff berths. Three teams — Boston, Florida and Ottawa — made the playoffs despite using four goalies in 2011-12, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
The Wild dressed its seventh different goalie — John Curry — for Thursday’s game at Chicago, a number that seems unfathomably high, except it’s not even the most in the NHL this season. Edmonton has dressed eight goalies, according to Elias.
The Wild’s situation appears particularly unusual because each goalie was asked to fill a significant void. It’s not as if the Wild only needed a spot start here or there to give the main guy a breather.
Harding leads the pack with 29 games played. By comparison, the Wild has had a goaltender play in at least 42 games in every season of its existence.
Here’s another way to look at it: The Wild started four different goalies in five games against the Blackhawks this season.
“At the time, none of the goalies that we started were our backup,” Fletcher noted. “We played what we felt to be our best goaltender at that time. It’s been unusual to say the least.”
Now it’s Bryzgalov’s turn. A month ago, the veteran looked like a temporary novelty, a guy who espouses some goofy theories on the universe but only figured to see action in back-to-backs and worst-case scenarios.
Hello, worst-case scenario. Bryzgalov has been terrific so far though, going 4-0-3 with a 2.11 goals-against average. He’s given his team a spark. Who cares if the guy is a little eccentric if he can see puck, stop puck?
“He can be quirky,” Fletcher said. “At times he’s prone to some very colorful comments and quotes that seem to either endear him to people or create the opposite effect. But he’s been a quality goaltender in this league for many years.”
The Wild can only hope he finds that level in the playoffs. Kuemper looked shaky before he got injured so the Wild probably has no choice but to ride Bryzgalov at this point.
Fletcher has a quandary on his hands going forward. Backstrom’s age (36) and health make him unattractive. Harding’s medical condition continues to be a delicate issue. Kuemper probably wants a shot at the No. 1 role. And Bryzgalov’s contract expires.
“You have an eye on the big picture all the time,” Fletcher said. “But we’ll let things play out.”
Good idea. This goalie carousel has been dizzying. It has to stop spinning at some point, right?