Devan Dubnyk made his debut as the Wild goaltender on Jan. 15 with a 7-0 victory in Buffalo. You couldn’t be certain that night if the Wild’s effort was inspired by the idea of finding competence in net, or merely the opportunity to play the somnolent Sabres.
Turns out, it was the former.
On the morning of the 15th, the Wild had an official record of 18-19-5. That meant 18 wins in 42 games. In the NHL, you get the happy point for losses in overtime or shootouts, so that meant the Wild was credited with 41 points in 42 games.
At a minus-1 in the NHL’s view of “.500,’’ the Wild was 12th among the 14 teams in the Western Conference. I think it was ESPN that did one of those charts on chance to make the playoffs, and the Wild was at 4 percent in mid-January.
Dubnyk played that game in Buffalo, and the next, and on it went, until the discovery of solid goaltending transformed the Wild from the third worst team in the West (superior only to Arizona and Edmonton) to the best.
Yeah, the best.
It’s not an upset that the A.D. (anno Dubnyk) version of the Wild beat the St. Louis Blues in six games. It won’t be an upset if and when the same happens to the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round.
What follows are a look at Western Conference performance (in points gained or lost to .500) in the A.D. portion of the NHL schedule. In the Wild’s case, that was the last 40 games.
Wild: +19 points. St. Louis: +13. Vancouver and Calgary: +11. Anaheim and Winnipeg: +9. Los Angeles, Dallas and Colorado: +7. Chicago: +5. Nashville: +2. San Jose: 0. Edmonton: -5. Arizona: -20.
Part of the 14-point difference between the post-Dubnyk Wild and the Blackhawks could be attributed to Patrick Kane's injury, although certainly not all of it.
St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock made this point several times during the playoff series:
There were two Wild teams this season, the one without reliable goaltending and the one with outstanding goaltending, and the Blues had drawn the second of those in the playoffs.
Hitchcock will lose his job after the Blues’ third straight first-round exodus, undoubtedly, but this wasn’t a failure in preparation or strategy by St. Louis. This was the Blues losing to the best team in the West, once that team got itself a big-time goaltender to go with a lineup that has become extra-deep.
As a rookie, Erik Haula was one of the best forwards in a second round elimination by the Blackhawks last spring. As Chicago beckons again, it will be a surprise if Haula gets a turn on the fourth line.
Better yet, that Wild depth now includes its defensive pairs. In the past two springs, you would see Duncan Keith leading a collection of five outstanding veteran defensemen for the Blackhawks, and Ryan Suter trying to hold together the Wild blue line with 30 minutes on the ice.
Now, Jonas Brodin is playing so well in his third season that Suter might be the Wild’s No. 2 blue-liner, and big Marco Scandella and elusive Jared Spurgeon are very good, and rookie Matt Dumba is a dynamic shooter, and Jordan Leopold is having a nice hurrah here in his late-career homecoming.
The Blackhawks should plan on being much better in this second round than they were a year ago, because they are in with the team that was the best in the West (A.D.).