ST. PAUL, Minn. — In the end of the Minnesota Wild dressing room, two wider-than-normal stalls sit next to each other along one wall, the arrangement and space is dedicated to the team’s two goaltenders.
The occupants of the two spots have changed often this season.
Minnesota faces the Boston Bruins, who lead the NHL with 113 points, on Tuesday night with the chance to clinch a playoff berth for the second straight season; and two players who weren’t even remote possibilities for the Wild when the season began will be dressing in the location that has been Niklas Backstrom’s and Josh Harding’s domain for years.
Ilya Bryzgalov will start for the sixth straight game — and take both ends of the back-to-back games — on Tuesday with John Curry as his backup.
Yet, Minnesota is one point away from the playoffs and can either clinch with a win or losses by Dallas or Phoenix thanks in part to allowing the fifth-fewest goals in the NHL (2.35 goals allowed per game). Whenever the Wild has needed a goaltender to step forward to carry the team, a player has risen to the challenge.
"This is not the way you draw it up," head coach Mike Yeo said. "But I think that for any team, you’re going to face adversity at certain parts of the year and you can either use that as an excuse at the end of the year or you can point to it as something you were able to overcome, and I think that’s a real credit to our guys."
Minnesota has more than overcome an unexpected goaltending rotation. The Wild have thrived in seemingly dire situations.
Four goaltenders have tallied wins for Minnesota this season. Three have played at least 21 games. Minnesota started the year with Backstrom as option A. But injury led to Josh Harding seizing control of the job. Harding’s bout with multiple sclerosis had him give way to rookie Darcy Kuemper. Bryzgalov, a trade deadline acquisition, has taken over with Kuemper, who is out because of an upper-body injury.
When Backstrom started in the season opener Oct. 3, Bryzgalov was a free agent after being released by the Philadelphia Flyers. Curry was with the Orlando Solar Bears of the East Coast Hockey League. Kuemper was with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League, generally considered as the team’s netminder of the future, not the present.
But because of injuries and illness, the Wild have needed someone to step up. Each time, someone has carried the team for stretches.
Harding still owns the league’s top goals-against average (1.65 GAA) and is second with a .933 save percentage to go with an 18-7-3 record. Kuemper helped backstop Minnesota’s 2014 run to the playoff wild-card lead with 16 straight starts in which he won 12 games and he’s gone 12-8-4, with a 2.28 goals-against average and .921 save percentage since being recalled Jan. 2.
Bryzgalov is the latest goaltender to take charge. He faces Boston on Tuesday on the strength of two straight shutouts and he hasn’t been scored on in 142 minutes, 15 seconds.
"Our group has been pretty resilient all year long," Yeo said. "There’s been different things, whether it was the goaltending, whether it was Mikko (Koivu) and Zach (Parise) being out, whatever the case has been. I think that we’ve been doing a pretty good job of battling through that. That’s obviously a real compliment to the character we have on our hockey team. Obviously (losing starting goaltenders) was a test every single time. It was a huge test for our hockey club, but you give the guys an awful lot of credit to go out there, to play a game in front of those guys to be successful and you give those guys a pat on the back for their ability to come in and win hockey games for us."
When the Wild picked up Bryzgalov at the trade deadline for a draft pick, he was expected to give Kuemper occasional rest with Minnesota relying on its rookie. Kuemper’s injury put Bryzgalov in the spotlight.
Bryzgalov has a 6-0-3 record in nine starts with the Wild, with a 1.52 goals-against average and .935 save percentage. He hasn’t lost in regulation since Jan. 24 going back to his time with the Edmonton Oilers.
"He’s been phenomenal," Yeo said. "Last game in a lot of ways is very similar to what we’ve seen from him night in and night out, a lot of difficult saves, a lot of things that could have turned very ugly for us, he’s making them look easy. He’s just swallowing pucks and controlling his rebounds, and settling things down. But yet, every game he’s making at least two, three big saves and that’s what when you’re winning hockey games, I don’t care who you are, how good your team is, you need that. Those are the saves that are often forgotten when you win hockey games. But like I said, that’s what he’s been bringing night after night."