Dean Evason has a simple theory when it comes to choosing his starting goalie.
“If a guy plays well, he’s going to play,” the Wild’s interim coach said. “It’s no different from a centerman or a winger or a defenseman.”
Since Evason replaced Bruce Boudreau behind the bench on Feb. 14, the goalie he has selected to play most often is Alex Stalock, who began the season as the backup to Devan Dubnyk. Stalock has started seven of the Wild’s nine games since the coaching change, posting a 5-2 record and helping the team bolster its playoff chances.
Stalock’s latest contribution came Tuesday night at Xcel Energy Center in a game with playoff implications. Trailing the Nashville Predators by one point for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference, the Wild emerged with a 3-1 victory as Stalock made 37 saves.
He was especially sharp in the final two periods, stopping 30 of 31 shots and slamming the door when Nashville tried to get back in the game with its goalie pulled for an extra attacker in the final 2:18. During a two-second flurry at the 18-minute mark, Stalock denied point-blank shots by Craig Smith, Mikael Granlund and Ryan Ellis to preserve the two-goal lead.
“He’s playing awesome — seeing the puck really well,” veteran forward Zach Parise said. “A few of those tonight on the 6-on-4, his ability to fight through traffic and get over there and get square to the one-timers, he’s playing really well for us.”
The result enabled the Wild to temporarily leap a point ahead of both the Predators and Arizona in the wild-card race. After the Coyotes's win on Wednesday, Minnesota trails Winnipeg and Arizona by point for that second wild-card spot but has two games in hand on both teams. And it’s been Stalock helping to fuel the Wild’s recent surge. In his past 14 starts, the former South St. Paul and Minnesota Duluth standout is 10-3-1 with a 2.00 goals-against average and .926 save percentage.
“Obviously, the way we’re playing it feels great, but it starts with the group, it’s contagious,” said Stalock, deflecting attention away from himself as quickly as he roams away from the crease to clear the puck from the defensive zone. “The lightness we have in the room, we’re not tight, we’re not gripping our sticks, we’re going out and having fun, and I think it goes a long way.”
What also goes a long way toward making the playoffs is a resilient goalie, and Stalock has shown he can fill that role. His strong game Tuesday came two days after the Wild fell 4-3 to the Washington Capitals in a game that carried a playoff-like atmosphere at Xcel Energy Center.
“Last game wasn’t like it was a letdown,” he said. “I thought we played a good hockey game and just didn’t get the outcome. We played against a Stanley Cup champion, and they know how to win games. That’s something we’re learning right now. We played another solid game tonight, and we talk about consistency and playing the same way every night, win or loss, and we’ll see what happens.”
The Wild’s route to a playoff spot resumes Thursday at San Jose in the opener of a three-game California trip. Expect to see Stalock in net again against the team that drafted him in 2005 as Evason rides the hot hand.
“Alex is real committed, really sound, and isn’t trying to do too much,” Evason said. “He has a very calming effect for our group for a guy that can get very excitable. He’s obviously done a great job.”
For his part, Stalock isn’t demanding the cage, but he’s taking his opportunity and making the most of it.
“These are the games you want to play in as any competitor, and I love situations like this,” he said after Tuesday’s game. “To be able to come in and the playoff spot is on the line. Your number is called.
“Whoever it may be the rest of the year, I know when Duby gets his chance, he’s going to come in and give this team a great chance,” Stalock added. “It’s just the way it’s going right now, and we’re winning games.”