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Dubnyk makes emotional return to the net Thursday in Arizona

Goaltender made 35 saves in victory over Coyotes

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There's no way to ease one's way back into an NHL lineup. All the practice reps in the world aren't going to simulate what it's like to skate in a real, live game. 

Which makes answering the constant questions about if he feels he's ready to re-join the lineup all the more frustrating for Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

Dubnyk missed more than month of action while he dealt with an off-ice issue related to the health of his wife, Jenn. He practiced a few days, worked out, and did what he could to stay connected to a team that spent a bulk of that time on the road. 

But flooded with questions in recent days about if he thought he'd be comfortable back in the lineup, Dubnyk typically came up with the same answer.

"You feel the same. I'm old enough now where I know what I need to work on whether I've played 10 in a row or whether I haven't played for a month," Dubnyk said. "There's little things with my skating and making sure I'm set on shots. I've played a lot of games in the last four or five years. You don't forget how to play in a month."

Video: MIN@ARI: Dubnyk makes sensational save on Hall

Dubnyk made 35 saves in his first start back on Thursday night as the Wild won 8-5 against his former team, the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena. It wasn't perfect, but it was progress, and important progress at that. 

"To be honest I thought there would be some [nerves] and there really wasn't. It's funny. When you think about it away from the rink you think it's going to be weird and you'll probably be a little bit nervous," Dubnyk said. "Then as soon as you're here, even just being on the bench for the Vegas game, and going through the regular routine, it feels back to normal. Just try to be sharp. The biggest thing when you have time off is a lot of times you can get screened or let yourself get screened so you have to make sure you're working to find the puck."

Tweet from @mnwild: Welcome back, Duby. #mnwild

He served as the team's backup earlier on the road trip in Las Vegas, where he was in uniform for the first time since he backed up Alex Stalock Nov. 19 in Buffalo. 

It was later that night, as the team returned home from Upstate New York, that Jenn's issues began to flare up. 

In the four weeks since, the Dubnyks have sought answers to those issues, both in the Twin Cities and elsewhere. 

Dubnyk has been around the team practicing with the club when it has been at home, but was not comfortable going on two recent road trips to Boston and New York and to Florida and North Carolina. 

Last week, the family was given news that allowed him to at least feel comfortable enough to join the team on its current trip to Chicago, Las Vegas and Glendale.

It's the final extended road trip in a while for the Wild, which will play 18 of its next 22 games in downtown St. Paul.  

"It's definitely a different feeling than normal. Usually when we go on a trip to Vegas and Arizona we can find some fun things to do to not worry too much about being away from home. But it's more difficult. Just think about them a lot and wonder how they're doing," Dubnyk said. "I've said it before: She's tough. She's got help there and she's just going about it like she usually does and that's the way it's going to be from now on. She's going to be good."

There are positives to such a layoff in the middle of a long season. 

The Wild played mostly outstanding hockey during his absence and put itself back in the wild card race in the Western Conference. 

But with the 2019-20 campaign reaching the dog days portion of the year -- nearly as close to the end as it is the beginning -- it's not the worst thing in the world to have a refreshed, healthy goaltender between the posts.

Video: Devan Dubnyk close to returning to the crease

"Everybody talks about how many games you should or shouldn't play and whatnot, but I love playing 65 games in a season," Dubnyk said. "Who knows, maybe this is the thing that keeps me a little fresher playing less games throughout the season and hopefully, if we are in the playoffs at the end, that can be a positive thing."

Dubnyk has been the Wild's workhorse for much of the past five years. But he did play the best hockey of his career in the months after his arrival in Minnesota, a stretch that began with Dubnyk coming to the team in January after a three-month stretch as a backup in Arizona. 

The circumstances are obviously much different, but with the limited number of games early that season, Dubnyk was able to play on an almost nightly basis down the stretch that season, going 27-9-2 and starting 39 of the team's final 40 games. 

Expecting a 1.78 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage this year probably isn't a fair ask, but there is some precedent to a fresh Dubnyk providing quality results. 

At the very least, it provides the veteran goaltender with an opportunity that he said he is taking to push the reset button on a season that he, and the team, wasn't happy with. 

"I think the biggest thing that I'm going to try and take is [treat this] almost as the start of the season," Dubnyk said. "It's been difficult and frustrating, just the constant narrative of how poorly things have gone for me at the start of the year. Season starts 0-5 for me with an .830 save percentage, it's gonna take awhile to get [all the numbers] looking proper, whereas I felt the last eight or nine starts were trending in the right direction. You try to look at that feel good about it but it's difficult because the constant narrative is just the season as a whole and the record and all that stuff. 

"I'm gonna try and take this as a start over and play well and play well with all these guys like they have been for the rest of the year."


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