The gesture was unspoken and subtle, almost like a stare down with a head nod, but it was enough of a warning from Wild defenseman Ryan Suter that goaltender Alex Stalock realized the puck he just dished off to Suter was coming right back to him.
“There’s that look,” Stalock said, “and I got it from [Suter].”
After settling the puck, Stalock flung it up ice. The ensuing rush didn’t result in a goal, although the Wild did put a close call on net, but a bounce-pass off the boards by Stalock later in overtime did culminate in a 5-4 win for the Wild against the Lightning last Saturday.
“He can really make some plays,” forward Charlie Coyle said.
Stalock’s assist was the sixth registered by an NHL netminder this season, production that is becoming commonplace as teams seem more open to utilizing their goalies as a playmaking option in 3-on-3 overtime.
This trend, however, could carry over into even-strength action since puck handling is a skill that continues to be on goaltenders’ radars amid a parade of parity in the league that magnifies any edge possible.
“It’s always been a benefit to a team if a guy can handle the puck,” goalie Devan Dubnyk said.
When Bob Mason began patrolling NHL creases in the 1980s, goaltenders didn’t play the puck that often.
They stopped dump-ins behind the net but left the pucks to be scooped up by defensemen. And when they did shoot the puck, it was usually an unscripted throw off the boards.
“It wasn’t really any purpose, just to get it away from the net,” said Mason, the Wild’s goaltending coach.
By the time Marty Turco debuted in 2000, he already had turned his left hand over on the stick to get a stronger hold that allowed him more accuracy and options when deploying the puck.
Turco, who spent the bulk of his 11-season career with the Stars before finishing in Chicago and Boston, went on to become one of the position’s most prolific puck handlers and believes a goalie proficient at funneling out pucks stokes a team’s success.
“You just give your team more of an advantage by moving the puck,” said Turco, who racked up 22 career assists.
It’s normal now for goalies to leave their creases to retrieve and handle pucks, since this combats an opponent’s forecheck, flipping possession the other way before a team can apply pressure, and the basics are practiced — with goalies settling pucks and then shuffling them to defensemen as part of breakout drills.
“I want to go out and play every puck that I can,” Dubnyk said. “I just try to get pucks to defensemen as quick as I can, and that’s how we work off each other.”
But as Stalock’s latest setup attests, there’s obviously room to do more and it’s a skill set that appears to still be evolving.
Dubnyk didn’t start working on his stickhandling until he turned pro; a righthanded shooter, he had to learn to maneuver as a lefty, since that’s how he catches.
“I’m comfortable with it now,” he said. “But it took me a long time in my career to get it.”
As a left shot who grew up roving between goalie and forward through Pee Wee, Stalock has always fiddled with pucks and his perspective most nights as a backup also helps him understand situations when he can be useful as another stick in the play.
“I watch a lot of games sitting on the bench, and you take so much in from that position,” he said. “You sit in the front seat and see a lot that happens in the game.”
While he didn’t receive a heads-up until just before Suter passed to him in that overtime game, Stalock did tell the team previously that players could pass to him if they needed the outlet.
The execution might look odd, since goaltenders haven’t historically been used like the other skaters on the ice, but it could end up being the deciding factor in a win or a loss.
It already has for the Wild.
“There’s guys all around the league that are so skilled with the puck,” Stalock said. “I think it’s going to make a difference.”
• Batman and Robin. Peanut butter and jelly. Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen? The Avs forwards could be the next great duo. Consider their starts: entering play Wednesday, MacKinnon is tied for second in the NHL in goals (eight) and points (15). Rantanen tied for the league lead in points (16) and had the most assists with 12. The Avalanche had lost just once in regulation.
• Smart call by NBC Sports Network to feature the Maple Leafs-Jets tilt as part of its “Wednesday Night Hockey” broadcast. Neither team is based in the U.S., but Auston Matthews vs. Patrik Laine was arguably the most intriguing matchup of the night. What better way to grow the game than showcasing its best talent?
• Halloween isn’t until next week, but Predators coach Peter Laviolette appeared to get into the spirit early when he answered postgame questions Saturday night in Edmonton wearing a bull’s head mask. The bench boss was fulfilling a promise to his team that if it swept a back-to-back in Calgary and Edmonton he’d agree to its demand. Players held up their end of the bargain, and so did Laviolette — a laughable moment that no doubt helps break up the grind of the season.
Sarah McLellan covers the Wild and NHL hockey for the Star Tribune.