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Goalie quartet has helped pave Wild's way to playoffs

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo has preached taking it one game at time to his team throughout the season.

The team's goaltenders have had no choice but to accept the message as gospel.

In a roller-coaster season where the Wild's fortune has turned several times, they've gotten important contributions from goaltenders throughout, something not totally unexpected when the season began back in October.

However, the sheer number of players to step between the pipes this season has been a stunning development.

Minnesota has a reputation of being one of the stingiest teams since joining the League in 2000. Until now, there has always been a clear pecking order in goal. Coach Jacques Lemaire relied upon Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez. Then it was Fernandez and Niklas Backstrom. Lately, it's been Backstrom and Josh Harding.

With Backstrom signing a new three-year contract in Minnesota last summer, the plan for Yeo for this season appeared to be more of the same.

But in the hockey world, things change quickly.

"Nobody else ever got much time with those guys up here," Wild goalie coach Bob Mason said. "We haven't had a ton of goalies here until this year."

It took all of three games for Backstrom, who won the No. 1 job in training camp, to sustain an injury in a game against the Nashville Predators. That opened the door for Harding, who despite having been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2012, stepped in admirably last spring in the Stanley Cup Playoffs when Backstrom was injured minutes before the start of the series.

Given a chance to be a true No. 1 for the first time in his career, Harding became the story of the NHL. In the first three months of the season, Harding went 18-7-3 with a 1.65 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage. His GAA and save-percentage numbers remains tops for goalies who have played 25 or more games.

Harding went 8-2-2 in November, was named Third Star of the month and the Wild looked like a legitimate threat to be an elite team in the Western Conference.

But the effects of MS soon surfaced again, necessitating a change in medication. Harding played on New Year's Eve, but has not played since. The Dec. 31 game came at perhaps the nadir of the season for the Wild. Mired in a five-game losing streak, rumors about Yeo's job security were rampant. Minnesota tumbled out of the Central Division race, then out of the wild-card race, and a season without a playoff appearance became a distinct possibility.

With Harding ruled out and Backstrom meandering through a very average season, the Wild turned to rookie Darcy Kuemper, who struggled in two games earlier in the season. Kuemper allowed six goals on 16 shots before being sent back to the American Hockey League.

Now, with limited options and his job on the line, Yeo put his faith in Kuemper. This time, he responded.

In one of the season's defining moments, Kuemper stopped 39 of 40 shots in his first start back against the Los Angeles Kings, a Jan. 7 game the Wild won in a shootout, 2-1. More importantly, it started a hot streak for the goalie, who lost twice in regulation between Jan. 14 and March 8, winning 12 of his 16 starts.

"He was spot-on," Mason said. "He was making the big saves at the big times and keeping our momentum."

Still, the Wild was weak at the position. Kuemper was an unproven rookie and Backstrom was ailing, so the Wild traded for veteran insurance the day before the NHL Trade Deadline, sending a fourth-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft to the Edmonton Oilers for Ilya Bryzgalov.

At the time, the move raised some eyebrows. Backstrom was available but ailing; his hernia injury causing him problems once again. But with Kuemper rolling and the schedule setting up for the red-hot rookie to carry the team into the playoffs, the Wild shut down Backstrom for the season.

Enter Bryzglaov.

"A pretty low-maintenance guy; a guy who has played 400-some games in this League," Mason, the goalie coach, said. "He knows what he is doing."

Bryzgalov's services came in handy when Kuemper hit another rough patch. After going 12-3-4 up to March 15, Kuemper lost four straight games, allowing 14 goals in that span to allow the chasing field to catch up in the race for the wild-card spots in the Western Conference.

Once again, the Wild faced a defining moment. This time, it was Bryzgalov — a man who was sitting at home in Russia as recently as September — who was counted on to win games.

Bryzgalov responded. First, he backstopped the Wild to a 3-1 win against the Coyotes, giving Minnesota a bit of breathing room in the wild-card standings. Two days later, Kuemper was hurt during the morning skate before a game against the Kings and Bryzgalov stopped 18 of 20 shots in a 3-2 win. Then, he made 24 saves against the Chicago Blackhawks in a shootout loss. A road trip which could have wrecked their season became a season-saving trip.

"I think it's great what [Wild general manager] Chuck [Fletcher] did at the trade deadline," Yeo said. "Recognizing the importance of it and finding a guy who would fit in with us. And it's great on Bryz the way he was able to get ready and stay ready and get used to our team."

Bryzgalov also posted back-to-back shutouts against the Penguins and Winnipeg Jets. He stopped 21 shots and three more in the shootout in a win again the Boston Bruins, a victory that clinched the top wild-card spot.

"They gave me an opportunity to go and play and try to play my best and give the team the best chance to win," Bryzgalov said. "[Goalies] have to go on the ice and do our job as best as possible."

Still, Minnesota had realistic expectations for Bryzgalov and a plan to play him on the odd back-to-back night to keep Kuemper fresh.

Bryzgalov surpassed those expectations quickly.

"When you're winning, it's a different attitude," Bryzgalov said.

The plans may have changed, but production didn't. Minnesota begins the playoffs with Bryzgalov leading the way.

But all four No. 1s have all played important roles in getting the Wild to the postseason.

"It's almost unheard of to have four goalies come in and have the role that they've had," Yeo said. "I don't remember a situation ever like this."

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