Devan Dubnyk never forgot the advice. A couple of years ago, before he found sustained success with the Wild, longtime Arizona forward Shane Doan gave him a tip on how to maintain his belief in himself during the rough patches of a season.
“He told me, ‘After a good game, always remember: You’re that guy,’ ’’ Dubnyk said. “ ‘You’re the good goalie, the one that won 10 games in a row, who’s 6-6 and athletic. Don’t ever start to think you’re the goalie that isn’t winning and is maybe struggling a little bit. Because if you think that’s you, and it was just a fluke before, then you’re in a world of trouble.’ ’’
That wisdom came in handy when Dubnyk’s brilliant season sputtered in March. As the Wild prepared for Wednesday’s playoff opener against St. Louis, he still viewed himself as that guy who was a Vezina Trophy favorite in February, and not the goalie whose statistics fell off sharply during a teamwide slump.
Monday, Dubnyk deflected questions about his effectiveness as deftly as he turned away pucks earlier in the season. He finished the regular season among the NHL’s best in save percentage (.923, seventh in the league) and goals-against average (2.25, eighth) and set a franchise record with 40 victories. Since Feb. 1, though, he has a GAA of 2.82 — the highest of any No. 1 goalie among the 16 playoff teams — and his save percentage of .904 is second worst among that group.
A short stretch of rest and practice has helped Dubnyk begin to reclaim his game. Coach Bruce Boudreau said he has played better recently, and he expects him — like everyone else on the team — to feel revitalized by the excitement of the playoffs. Asked if he is worried about Dubnyk’s play, Boudreau likened his level of concern to that of a parent fretting over a child facing a major test — but quickly affirmed his faith in a goalie whose victory total this season was fourth highest in the NHL.
“We always worry about the goalie,’’ Boudreau said. “But I’ve got all the confidence in the world in Duby, and that’s where the worry stops. I think he’s going to be great.’’
As for Dubnyk, he’s remembering Doan’s words. While others chatter about his play in March — as well as his lackluster playoff statistics — he has faith that his early-season form reflects his authentic self, a belief he will carry into the postseason.
“You have to take a step back sometimes,’’ Dubnyk said. “Before the Colorado game [a 5-2 victory on April 2], I said, ‘I’ve been in much worse situations in my career than 37 wins and a .925 save percentage.’
“March was a tough month. But you eliminate a few of those games, and things look a little different. You don’t need to reinvent what you’re doing by any means. You have to keep putting it in perspective, continuing to work and knowing you’re going to get out of it.’’
Riding the lows and highs
The experience of surviving greater hardships has given Dubnyk the patience to ride out a rough stretch. From 2013 to ’15, he played with five organizations and spent time in the minor leagues. He resurrected his career with the Wild and reached new heights this season, with a 10-game win streak and a second consecutive appearance in the All-Star Game.
When Dubnyk was named to the All-Star roster on Jan. 10, he was 21-7-3 and led the NHL with a 1.80 goals-against average and a .939 save percentage. His numbers crashed in March. Over the course of 14 games, Dubnyk went 3-8-2, with a save percentage of .889 and GAA of 2.94.
He analyzed each performance as he always does, looking for things he might have done differently. Dubnyk said there were only a couple of games he considered real clunkers, and only a couple of goals he wished he could have back. “As far as my overall game, I didn’t feel like anything was way off,’’ said Dubnyk, who is 13-11-2 since Feb. 1. “But you start to squeeze when the results aren’t there.’’
Wild goaltending coach Bob Mason believes a grueling schedule, frequent travel and other breakdowns in the Wild’s game contributed to Dubnyk’s struggles. While Boudreau thought Dubnyk looked “tired,’’ Mason saw fatigue that was mental rather than physical. And the added pressure to break the slump, Mason said, only increased the stress.
After Dubnyk made only 15 saves in a 5-4 overtime loss to Washington, the Wild recalled Alex Stalock from its AHL affiliate in Iowa to give Dubnyk two games off. The break helped restore Dubnyk’s sharpness, Mason said, while also giving them time to work on plays around the net and getting set early on shots.
In April, Dubnyk is 3-0 with a GAA of 2.67 and save percentage of .916. He showed his grit in the final two periods of a 5-3 victory over Carolina, when he stopped all 24 shots he faced.
“He’s a goalie who’s confident,’’ forward Charlie Coyle said. “He came back and made some big saves for us, and that’s huge. That’s what we need from him, that’s what we expect from him and that’s what we know we’re going to get from him. He’s a competitor.’’
‘We ran him hard this year’
Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher said last week that the break seemed to revive Dubnyk. “We ran him hard this year,’’ Fletcher said of the goalie, who played in 65 games. “I think he’s definitely in a better place now than where he was. I can just tell talking to him that he looks happier.’’
Dubnyk’s next big test is showing he can replicate his early-season form in the playoffs. He has limited experience in the NHL postseason, with a 6-10 record, 2.84 GAA and .896 save percentage over two seasons with the Wild.
Mason is confident Dubnyk can stay on the upswing. “He knows the importance of goaltending in the playoffs,’’ the coach said. “You can’t get totally absorbed with it and freeze. You’ve got to trust what you’ve done all year and prepare like you prepared all year. And the magnitude of the event will crank up the focus.’’
Dubnyk rejected the narrative that he has something to prove, saying those story lines are for others to discuss. His mission will be more personal: to remember he is that guy who was the NHL’s best goalie earlier in the year, knowing that will be the key to doing it again in the postseason.
“We’re still the same team,’’ he said. “And I’m still the same player. You just have to continue to work at it every day.’’
Staff writer Michael Russo contributed to this story.