Coming into this season, the hockey world might not have believed in Devan Dubnyk’s ability as a starting goaltender in the National Hockey League. However, the netminder’s self confidence never waivered.
The story is well known now: traded twice last year and ended the season in the American Hockey League; signed a free-agent deal to backup with the Arizona Coyotes to start the year; acquired by Minnesota and catapulted the Wild into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Before Dubnyk came to Minnesota, the club was amidst a six-game slide. When the team acquired the netminder from Arizona on Jan. 14, he believed the Wild could make the playoffs, despite being eight points out of the Western Conference’s final wild card spot.
“I don’t think you realize when you’re eight points back, it doesn’t seem like that much and then obviously you see what you need to do to come back from that,” Dubnyk said. “For me, when I was coming here, I was real excited about the chance to play, but also I was fully aware of how good of a team this was. I think we all believed we could get there.”
His faith quickly transferred on the ice. In his first game with the Wild against the Buffalo Sabres on Jan. 15, he pitched an 18-save shutout. It was during the first few minutes of the contest that Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo saw the impact the netminder could have on a club devoid of confidence.
“It was immediate,” Yeo said. “I remember how that game started out. I remember Buffalo had the first, two or three scoring chances.”
Dubnyk’s confidence trickled down to the rest of the lineup. With the 6-foot-6 netminder patrolling the crease, the rest of the team was able to concentrate on their individual tasks.
“We needed a change, things weren’t going well for us,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. He came in and was that change that we needed.
“He was able to carry us to where we are now.”
Even with the audacious beginning, it would’ve been hard to fathom that Dubnyk and Minnesota would go on such an impressive run to secure the first wild card sport in the West. The netminder piled up wins like a Mason stacking bricks. He had a six-game winning streak and two five-game win streaks, and the Wild did not lose consecutive games in regulation after the trade. Starting 38 straight games with the Wild, he went 27-8-2 with a 1.73 goals-against average, .938 save percentage and five shutouts.
“I don’t know if any of us were expecting him to continue the way that he did,” Yeo said. “It’s remarkable the season that he’s had and the level of play that he’s been at game after game after game.”
The individual accolades came with team success. Dubnyk was honored with the First Star of the Month (February), Third Star of the Month (March), First Star of the Week (Feb. 9 and March 30) and Third Star of the Week (Feb. 2).
Now Dubnyk faces a new test: the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This is the first time the netminder has made a trip to the postseason. With the Wild making its third consecutive trip to the playoffs, Dubnyk is primed to join a squad with some experience.
“Five years and don’t get there and you just want to be a part of it real bad. You see how hard you have to work to get there,” Dubnyk said. “You realize how good of a group we have in here and we got a real opportunity to do something good here, that makes it more exciting.
“I think everybody in here is really looking forward to it.”
Just because the games are getting bigger doesn’t mean the goaltender is changing his focus. The Wild has a monumental challenge in front of it, the Central Division winning, St. Louis Blues. The goaltender will stick with the approach that has him playing meaningful games in April for the first time in his career.
“It’s exciting to get here, but the reason I’ve been able to feel good and do some good things on the ice, is by keeping the picture small and really just concentrating on that single game at a time,” Dubnyk said. “That’s going to be extremely important now, just to really concentrate and work on what I’ve been doing, and not think about anything else, just that next push, the next stop.”
Yeo believes in the netminder and thinks he has the all tools to continue his strong play. The bench boss said he balances being well prepared mentally with staying loose, a ying-and-yang that keeps him even keeled between the pipes.
This mentality should benefit the 28-year-old in a seven game series. With Dubnyk in net, the Wild believes it again can knock off the Central’s top team, like it did a year ago against the Colorado Avalanche.
“You can have all the confidence you want, but players have to earn confidence,” Yeo said. “And they have to earn the confidence of their teammates.”
With a remarkable regular season now in the rearview mirror, Dubnyk and the Wild are poised to march forward in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.