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Wild goalie Dubnyk feeling comfortable, confident

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- The designs on the front of Devan Dubnyk's mask have changed a lot over the past two seasons, but as he remodeled his look again after a trade to the Minnesota Wild last month, the portrait of his 17-month-old son on the back remained a constant.

Devan Dubnyk
Goalie - MIN
RECORD: 14-6-2
GAA: 2.45 | SVP: .920
Whether Dubnyk needed perspective amid a nightmare season in 2013-14 that included time in the American Hockey League, inspiration to get back to the NHL, or a break from the mental grind of goaltending now that he is back, he could find it in his son, Nathaniel.

"To see him is the best part of your day so it doesn't matter what else is going on, you can forget about it," Dubnyk said. "In order to come to the rink focused every game you have to be able to let it go on the days between, otherwise you tire out mentally. So to have him there and see him helps, no matter how much other stuff is going on."

In that case, the Wild should be happy to hear Dubnyk's wife, Jennifer, moved the family from Arizona to Minnesota while the Wild were away sweeping a three-game road trip through Western Canada. Dubnyk was in goal for all three wins, earning the NHL's "Third Star" honors for posting a .967 save percentage and a shutout in wins against the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks to pull Minnesota within five points of a Stanley Cup Playoff spot.

Since he was acquired from the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 15 for a third-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, Dubnyk is 5-1-0 with a .935 save percentage and 1.71 goals-against average. More importantly, he's given the Wild, who averaged 4.14 goals against while losing 12 of 14 before Dubnyk arrived, a renewed faith in their goaltending.

"Confidence is one thing and a lot of credit has to go to (Dubnyk)," coach Mike Yeo said when asked about the biggest difference in the Wild after a 4-2 victory against the Canucks on Sunday.

Dubnyk didn't have much confidence left after a disastrous 2013-14 season that started as the Oilers' No.1 and, after stops with the Nashville Predators and Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL, ended as the fourth stringer and "Black Ace" for the Montreal Canadiens during the playoffs. The 28-year-old rediscovered his confidence after signing a one-year, $800,000 contract with the Coyotes, less than one quarter of what he was making in the final year of last season's expiring contract.

Contrary to the expectations of most, Dubnyk did not totally overhaul his game under Arizona goalie coach Sean Burke.

Many assumed Burke, who redefined himself with a "play deep" style late in his career under current New York Rangers goaltending guru Benoit Allaire, would ask Dubnyk to make similar adjustments. It worked once for Coyotes goalie Mike Smith, after all, and the simplified approach seemed natural for the 6-foot-6 Dubnyk as well. But Burke never gave Dubnyk a "goal line out" mandate.

"The reason Burkie is such a great coach is he never told me where to play," Dubnyk said. "It was never 'I want you here.' All we talked about from the start of the year was he wanted me to beat the pass on my feet and be set. All the time: Beat it and be set."

That sounds a lot like Allaire's "beat the pass and solve the equation" mantra. You don't need a geometry lesson to figure out the deeper a goalie plays, the shorter his path to beat that pass. But Burke let Dubnyk figure that out on his own, knowing that if he wasn't getting across his crease ahead of lateral plays, he was probably out too far.

"Right from the get-go, he just put so much confidence in me," Dubnyk said. "There's no words, it's not like he pumps your tires every day, it's just the unspoken, you know he's got your back, you know he believes in you and you know he'll go to bat for you.

"It lets you go out there and relax and play."

Dubnyk lost that comfort early last season in Edmonton, which made it tougher to incorporate any adjustments to his game after the trade to Nashville and a chance to work with then-Predators goalie coach Mitch Korn, now with the Washington Capitals.

"It was a difficult time for me mentally and where I was with my game," Dubnyk said. "From a goalie standpoint, if a guy crosses the blue line with the puck and you are thinking about what you are doing, you are going to get torched, and that's kind of where I was."

It sounds a lot like where the Wild were with their goalies.

To blame all of Minnesota's struggles through mid-January on goalies Niklas Backstrom (.887 save percentage) and Darcy Kuemper (.904) wouldn't be fair. But whether it started with a questionable goal or breakdown before it, the cycle of trust between the players and goaltenders had broken down, with each side sometimes trying to do the other's job as well as their own.

"Maybe the trust factor wasn't really there as much," center Charlie Coyle said. "It spirals downward because everyone is trying to pick each other's slack up and you can't have that. With Devan coming in as a new face and fresh start, we knew he was a good goalie so we just kind of wiped the slate clean and it clicked. He has definitely given us confidence, but it goes both ways."

Now Dubnyk is benefitting from the type of tight defensive structure the Wild was known for before their mid-season meltdown. In a lot of ways, it's similar to Arizona, which has made it easier for Dubnyk to embrace a playoff chase without feeling he has to change for it.

"I wanted to make sure I didn't change my approach coming here," Dubnyk said. "I didn't want to feel like I was coming in to save the day. I wanted to continue to do what I was doing in Arizona, keep working on the same parts of my game, not changing because I was in a playoff race now. All it does is make things that much more fun."

Hockey wasn't much fun for Dubnyk last season, and being away from his family for most of it was a big part of that. Now he has both: something to look forward to at the rink and when he gets home.

"The first thing that crossed my mind when I got traded was my family and how we are going to make sure we are together," he said.

In Minnesota, it's on more than the back of his mask.

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