DENVER – Devan Dubnyk was long gone. The Wild’s workhorse goaltender departed Bridgestone Arena for the short stroll across the street to the team hotel in Nashville so he could have some lunch and get in a pregame nap.
Back at the arena and still on the ice were three hard-working men, two of whom were dripping with sweat as they shared one crease in an attempt to be ready in case they’re ever called on again.
Some days, it can’t be easy for Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom.
As much as Bob Mason has been working overtime trying to keep each goalie’s never-used game from dusting up too much, most of the Wild goalie coach’s job these days is as a shoulder to lean on.
“They’re doing the best they can. These are their games,” Mason said of the long morning skate in which Kuemper and Backstrom rotated in and out of one net as Dubnyk manned the other.
This has been the same daily routine ever since Dubnyk joined the team Jan. 14 because Kuemper and Backstrom were floundering. Saturday night against the Colorado Avalanche, Dubnyk is expected to start his 20th consecutive game, which will tie Backstrom’s 2009 team record.
Since coming from Arizona, Dubnyk is 14-3-1 with a 1.68 goals-against average, .934 save percentage and five shutouts. He has allowed 31 goals in those 19 games. Before Dubnyk, the Wild had given up 58 goals in the previous 14.
Toss in Dubnyk’s Arizona appearances, and he ranks fourth in the NHL with a 2.18 goals-against average, fifth with a .924 save percentage and tied for second with six shutouts.
Kuemper, 13-12-2 with a 2.62 goals-against average and .904 save percentage, hasn’t started an NHL game since Jan. 6 or appeared in one since Jan. 20. Backstrom, 5-7-3 with a 3.04 goals-against average and .887 save percentage, hasn’t played since allowing seven goals in Pittsburgh on Jan. 13, the game that hastened the burning need for General Manager Chuck Fletcher to acquire a goaltender.
Backstrom is considered the No. 3. But with four sets of back-to-backs in a 14-game March, Kuemper knows his time is likely coming.
“I’ll just try to treat it like another game,” Kuemper said. “I’m just making sure that I’m taking advantage of my reps, going for quality over quantity while I’m working on my game. I feel ready right now, so whenever it does happen, I’ve just got to go in there and play hard and give the team a chance to win.”
Kuemper and Backstrom have been alternating as Dubnyk’s backup since Kuemper returned from a subpar Iowa conditioning assignment Feb. 9. When one’s backing up, the other’s sitting in the press box.
Coach Mike Yeo told Kuemper last weekend that it’s imperative he treats game-day skates with extra importance.
“With the schedule, there’s a lot of off days and optionals, so there’s no real full practices, and when there are, Backy and me are sharing a net,” said Kuemper, 24. “So you’ve just got to practice hard and take advantage of every shot you get.”
Mason works with their footwork and quick plays around the net to keep them technically sharp. But these areas are tough to replicate in practice.
“Mentally, they just have to grind it out and stay as ready as they can and don’t think you’re out of the picture because you never know when things change,” Mason said. “But they’re in wait-and-see mode. The longer you wait, sometimes the harder it gets.”
There’s a lot of empathy among the players and coaches for Backstrom, 37. In his ninth season, Backstrom is the Wild’s all-time leader with 194 wins and 409 games. The Wild could buy out of the final year of his contract in June.
“He’s being a pro,” Mason said. “He’s not saying anything negative even though we know he’s going through a tough time internally knowing what may be around the corner or what the future holds for him.”
Backstrom said there’s no use worrying about the offseason.
“Maybe when I was younger you worried a lot about next year,” he said. “For me, I try to live for today. You don’t want to get too far ahead and think about what the future brings. You just want to work hard, stay ready and what happens then, that’s something you think about then.
“All I care about is finding a way to be there for the guys.”
Yeo knows this is extremely difficult for Backstrom.
“But he’s handled it the way that you would expect him knowing him,” Yeo said. “He’s nothing but a great pro. He’s not trying to take anything away from the team. He understands we’re playing well, that Duby’s playing well. But at the same time, it’s been very difficult for him.”