Wild goalie Alex Stalock had stepped in before to take over the crease while No. 1 Devan Dubnyk was unavailable.
Eventually, though, he’d return to his post at the end of the bench as the backup.
But not this season.
After once again helping out while Dubnyk missed significant time due to a family matter, Stalock continued to play once Dubnyk returned for good — helping spur a second-half turnaround with the best hockey of his Wild career as the team’s de facto starter.
“We played great when I was in there, and it made it that much better to go in, have success [and] play behind that group,” Stalock said.
This emergence, after Stalock re-established himself in the NHL following a serious injury early in his career, is why he was nominated by the Twin Cities chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which recognizes the player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
“Pretty special,” Stalock said of the recognition. “Anytime you’re nominated for an award, it’s a nice feeling. You look at this award, it’s almost like a team award. … You look at where we started the year and what we went through to where we were when the brakes got put on us, it’s kind of like a team that came from a sluggish start, a start that a lot of people questioned how far down can this go? We clawed our way back.
“As an individual, it’s an honor to take it. But this is a team award that for sure with this group, the way we competed throughout the ups and a lot of the downs we had to get our way back to contention was I think a big reason I have a chance to be up for this award.”
While idle for much of the team’s start to the season, which ranked as the worst in franchise history, Stalock was certainly a catalyst for the Wild’s rebound.
“I try to be a calming presence that gives [the Wild] a chance to win games”
He moved up the depth chart in mid-November when Dubnyk was away from the team while his wife dealt with a medical situation, and Stalock helped the Wild begin to claw out of its early hole by going 5-0-2 during the team’s season-high, 11-game point streak.
Dubnyk returned to action in December and began to play regularly before another brief absence in January, but his struggles opened the door for Stalock to get another look.
And the 32-year-old South St. Paul native capitalized on the opportunity.
“Anytime you’re playing with a lot on the table is a ton of fun as an athlete,” Stalock said.
Of the Wild’s final 23 games before the season paused March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic, Stalock started 16 including seven in a row (which tied his career high) from Feb. 25 to March 7 — a 5-2 showing that lifted the Wild closer to a wild-card berth in the Western Conference.
That finish helped the team get included in the 24-team plan the NHL will implement if the season restarts later this summer, a unique format that would have the Wild taking on the Vancouver Canucks in a best-of-five qualifying round to advance to the playoffs.
Overall, Stalock went 20-11-4 with a .910 save percentage and 2.67 goals-against average while setting career highs in games played (38), starts (36), wins (20) and shutouts (4) after spending last offseason improving his footwork to be prepared to make second and third saves.
“I just wanted to work as hard as I can and try to get that bench, that locker room feeling, ‘We’re OK back there,’” said Stalock, who became the fifth goalie in team history to record 20-plus wins in a season. “ ... I try to be a calming presence that gives them a chance to win games, and that was my goal going in. And fortunately more nights than not, we scored more goals than the other team and got to put two points away.
“It was a ton of fun to play that amount of hockey. The fun had to come to an end. We loved where we were at the end of the year. Hopefully this thing can get back started and pick up here we left off.”
Not only was Stalock 9-3-1 going into the stoppage, but he was also tied for second in the NHL in wins (11) and tied for first in shutouts (3) since Jan. 16. And yet Stalock may not pick up where he left off if the season resumes.
He expects to compete for the No. 1 role in a potential training camp, and interim coach Dean Evason said last week he didn’t have a Game 1 starter picked out.
“I think whoever probably is looking the sharpest you gotta go with the first night,” said Stalock, who’s in the first season of a three-year, $2.355 million contract.
In Minnesota since the shutdown began, Stalock could get on the ice at the Wild’s practice facility next week.
Although teams were allowed to open their facilities Monday to players for small, voluntary workouts, the ice isn’t scheduled to go into TRIA Rink until next week and Stalock said he planned to train there.
As tricky as it might be to recapture a rhythm after a monthslong hiatus, it wouldn’t be the first challenge Stalock’s faced.
Early in his pro career after three seasons at Minnesota Duluth, Stalock’s future looked uncertain after he was stepped on by an opponent’s skate in the minors just days after he made his NHL debut with San Jose. Still, the Sharks stuck with Stalock and after he recovered, he went on to play parts of four seasons with them and was the team’s Masterton nominee in 2014.
Despite that service time, Stalock was eventually returned to the minors and took a two-way contract with the Wild in 2016 to recalibrate his career, a decision that paid off.
Steady playing time with Iowa in the American Hockey League during 2016-17 enabled Stalock to rediscover his game and by the following season, he was a full-timer again in the NHL.
Fast forward to this year, and Stalock went from stand-in to standout.
“Lucky to still be here today,” he said, “and hopefully, for the future.”