All season long the Wild had been splitting back-to-back games between goaltenders Cam Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen, a trend that seemed likely to continue last week when the team played on consecutive nights before having three days off.
But after Talbot backstopped the Wild to a victory over Anaheim on Wednesday, he didn't take a seat at the end of the bench on Thursday. He returned to the crease to face St. Louis, an audible by the Wild that even Talbot didn't see coming.
"I was actually pretty surprised," he said.
The decision worked out, with Talbot delivering his best effort of the season in a 37-save shutout that helped stymie the Blues 2-0, but the outcome also revealed another boon for the Wild: Talbot has re-established himself as the No. 1 goalie the Wild signed him to be.
"That's what I wanted to do," Talbot said. "I think I was able to showcase that last year in Calgary down the stretch when I was given the opportunity and obviously caught the eye of the Wild here and [General Manager Bill Guerin]. So, just trying to reward their confidence in me over the summer."
Despite how well he's played, this season hasn't exactly been smooth sailing for Talbot.
After signing a three-year, $11 million contract to replace Devan Dubnyk as the team's starter following his breakout season with the Flames, Talbot struggled to gain traction between the pipes. He was hurt in the home opener, leaving the action early before missing four games because of a lower-body injury. Once he healed up, he played just two games before the season was suspended by a COVID-19 outbreak that affected Talbot — sidelining him for an additional five games after the Wild restarted.
Although his effectiveness didn't waver when he was on the ice, Talbot just wasn't available all the time — a reality that opened the door for Kahkonen to receive more games. And since he proved he can handle the responsibility, navigating the majority of the team's season-high six-game winning streak in February and winning a franchise record nine straight starts as a rookie, Kahkonen continued to earn starts after Talbot returned from the COVID protocols.
Still, sharing the crease with Kahkonen hasn't minimized Talbot's impact.
And when given the chance to do what a No. 1 netminder does and finish off a back-to-back against a division rival chasing the team in the standings, Talbot showed he can get the job done.
"We're competitors," Talbot said. "We want the net, and we want to play as many games as possible. So when they asked me, it seemed like a no-brainer."
Over his past six starts, the 33-year-old is 5-1 with a 1.50 goals-against average, .954 save percentage and two shutouts. The lone loss in that bunch was when he was bombarded by 55 shots, turning aside 50 (a career high in the regular season) during a 5-1 loss at Colorado on March 18.
Where he has been particularly strong, though, is in St. Paul.
Since exiting the Wild's first game at Xcel Energy Center because of an injury, Talbot has won all seven of his starts at home — a stretch in which he has carried a 1.23 goals-against average and .956 save percentage.
"I don't know what it is about this building," said Talbot, who is 9-5 overall with a 2.34 goals-against average and .925 save percentage. "I always enjoyed coming into this building and playing as the road team. It's not the same atmosphere without the fans here. But for some reason, the building feels familiar. I've had some good games here as an opposing goalie."
Talbot has won seven in a row before on home ice, a career-long run he initially set March 14-April 1, 2017, with Edmonton.
That was the body of work the Wild studied when sizing up Talbot as a potential addition to the team, noticing the level he was at when he was a bona fide starter making 70-plus starts.
He eventually lost that distinction, bouncing from the Oilers to Philadelphia before recalibrating in Calgary, but with the Wild, Talbot once again is fulfilling that stature.
"He's fought his way back," Guerin said. "He's the character guy that we thought he was, and he's been a perfect fit."