VAIL, Colo. – The postgame routine started off like all the others, with the Wild packing up and clearing out of Pepsi Center in Denver on Sunday night after a preseason clash with the Avalanche.
But instead of busing to the airport to return to the Twin Cities like it normally would when the next road game is four days away, the team traveled west through the Rocky Mountains to temporarily relocate training camp to Vail.
This getaway is a preview of what’s to come for the Wild, since the team will be away from home for 13 of the first 18 tests on the calendar, wiping out more than a third of its road schedule in the opening six weeks of the season.
A stretch as rigorous as this — especially when it is spiked with division battles — has the potential to define the trajectory of the Wild’s season, but it will also magnify goalie Devan Dubnyk’s workload as he returns to the crease after being one of the busiest netminders in the NHL last season.
“I certainly don’t mind it,” Dubnyk said. “I want to be a guy that’s going to go out there and win a game that needs to be won.”
At 67 games and 66 starts, Dubnyk made the most appearances around the league in 2018-19.
His 3,855 minutes, 16 seconds of action were second to only Montreal’s Carey Price, who logged about 25 minutes more of ice time.
It was the most Dubnyk had played since his first full-length season with the Wild in 2015-16, but the 33-year-old embarked on the summer without any red flags.
“Nothing was nagging,” said Dubnyk, who went 31-28-6 with a .913 save percentage and 2.54 goals-against average. “Didn’t feel tired. I’ve been pretty grateful for all these opportunities over the last few years. I’m not about to start suggesting I play less.”
Ideally, though, the Wild want to add more downtime to Dubnyk’s docket this season, with 57 starts the target number. Plans can change, but this is the team’s intention — an aim that could become clear as soon as road-heavy October begins since coach Bruce Boudreau said backup Alex Stalock could debut in the first week.
“Alex is going to have to come in and play games not always on a back-to-back,” Boudreau said. “We are going to need two goalies if we want to succeed.”
Still, Dubnyk likely will be a fixture between the pipes, and it could be tempting to keep relying on him if he rediscovers his road prowess from last season.
His 19 wins tied for first in the NHL, and he set the franchise record for road victories (78) on March 29 with a 3-2 decision over the Golden Knights in Vegas.
“We just played really simple on the road, which was good,” Dubnyk said. “We didn’t just wait to see what was going to happen. We just stuck to our plan. We were really simple and structured. We jumped on opportunities when we got them. We weren’t going out trying to force things or do things that weren’t there.”
What will up the difficulty of this road swing is the competition.
Chicago is the only Central Division team the Wild won’t face in its first 18 games, a segment that includes two trips to Nashville and stops in Dallas and St. Louis on consecutive nights.
With many of these teams already being labeled contenders, it seems as if the Wild will have to succeed against its rivals — and in their buildings — to stay relevant.
Challenges like these always shift the spotlight to a position as vital as goaltending, and Dubnyk is aware how important it is to get in a rhythm early.
“We can’t dip our toe in to start the season and see how it’s going to go,” he said. “We need to get off quick and at the same time if we lose a couple, we just need to understand that we need that next one.
“… Win or lose we need to make sure that we’re forgetting about it and getting ready for the next game because October is important. You can’t make the playoffs in October, but you can certainly put yourself in a tough spot to be out of them.”