EDMONTON, ALBERTA — The Wild kept its goaltending decision under wraps in the lead-up to its qualifying matchup, but the answer was always Alex Stalock.
Not only was he the unequivocal starter when the coronavirus pandemic interrupted the season in March, but he was one of the reasons why the Wild was even in contention at that point — a station in the standings that helped the team get invited to this unconventional and unprecedented 24-team tournament return by the NHL.
Stalock deserved to finish the job he started.
And the Wild was rewarded when it gave him that chance.
In only his second career playoff start, Stalock was superb — blanking the Canucks 3-0 Sunday night in Game 1 at Rogers Place with 28 saves to secure his first career playoff win and a 1-0 lead for the Wild in the best-of-five showdown.
Game 2 is Tuesday at 9:45 p.m. Central Time.
“[Stalock’s] compete is as high as anybody’s,” coach Dean Evason said. “That’s all we’ve seen from this whole tournament so far. So to have a guy in there that’s going to battle and compete like he does, we felt very comfortable. We really liked his game.”
But the Wild didn’t just turn back the clock with its goaltending.
The team’s timely offense also picked up where it left off, with winger Kevin Fiala opening the scoring before defenseman Jared Spurgeon provided the breathing room with a pair of goals. Spurgeon also had an assist, becoming the first Wild defenseman to record three points in a playoff career — a career high for the Edmonton native.
And the Wild’s depth fulfilled its role to a tee, setting an abrasive tone early that held up throughout the game and made life difficult on Vancouver — especially its elite talent, which was mostly invisible. It also snuffed out the Canucks’ lone look on the power play late in the third period.
“That was a big part of our win,” winger Marcus Foligno said. “We were the team that initiated the physicality and just the smart play. And we had a great legs on the backcheck, things like that, that we really annoyed their top players. I think that’s what you need.”
Soon after the national anthems, which defenseman Matt Dumba raised a fist for from the Wild’s bench like he said he would after Saturday becoming the first NHLer to kneel during the U.S. anthem, hooting and hollering erupted from both benches when the Foligno and the Canucks’ Micheal Ferland fought just 1 minute, 19 seconds into the first period.
The tussle wasn’t premeditated, but it might as well have been part of the pregame plan since it immediately brought a nastiness to the action — an urgency that compensated for the mellow vibe of the arena without fans.
“Just exchanged some words and then said, ‘Let’s go,’” said Foligno, whose nose was cut in the dust-up. “It’s just the intensity that I need to bring and we need to have on this team.”
Another round of cheers, this time exclusively from the Wild, came at 2:50 when Fiala’s one-timer on the power play trickled through Vancouver goalie Jacob Markstrom.
Fiala’s first career playoff goal with the Wild, which was set up by Spurgeon after he funneled a faceoff win by center Eric Staal to the slot where Fiala was waiting, was his eighth goal in his last nine games played overall.
“We’re definitely the team that had the better start, and it’s something that we stress coming into this first round,” Foligno said. “It’s first to three wins. That’s what makes it more pressured and stressful. Getting that first one’s big, but now it’s on to Game 2.”
Amid constant chatter, like “That a boy, Al,” the Wild carted a one-goal lead into the second period.
The Canucks, after being on their heels for the start of the first, started to generate more offensive-zone time. But the Wild withstood the pressure, specifically Stalock.
During one of Vancouver’s best sequences, Stalock kicked out a pad on Brandon Sutter and then threw up a glove save on Quinn Hughes through traffic.
“I’m excited obviously to get a chance to start in playoffs,” Stalock said. “We came out and played exactly how we wanted to play intensity-wise and stuck to the game plan.”
The execution by the Wild was impressive.
Players were relentless on pucks, they finished their checks and they hustled to clog up any bit of space Vancouver tried to exploit. Foligno had a team-high seven hits, but winger Ryan Hartman was also a wrecking ball with three.
“We played hard, but we played between the whistles,” Evason said.
The front of the Wild’s net was almost impenetrable at times and even when the team’s structure did start to loosen, Stalock was there with the save.
“It was everyone,” said Spurgeon, who also blocked a game-high four shots. “Forwards were coming back, so we were able to have good gaps. And when we did break down, Al was making really big saves. It’s all four lines, all six ‘D’ and goaltending that are going to make us get through this.”
What helped re-establish control for the Wild in the second was a strong cycling shift by the team’s third line of Alex Galchenyuk, Mats Zuccarello and Foligno. Seconds later, defenseman Carson Soucy was slashed to the ice and the Wild power play once again took advantage.
This time, Spurgeon pinched after accepting a Staal pass and slid a shot five-hole on Markstrom at 10:24. Markstrom ended up with 28 saves.
Overall, the power play finished 2-for-4 and, ultimately, that was more than enough of a cushion for Stalock; Spurgeon added an empty-net goal with 47 seconds remaining — this after he led NHL defensemen in the regular season in goals since Jan. 16 with nine.
As for Stalock, dating back to the regular season, he’s 10-3-1 over his last 14 games and has stopped 379 of 408 shots — a .929 save percentage.
“He made some key saves at key moments,” Evason said. “Honestly, he was calm. He competes. He battles. He’s explosive. But he’s a calming effect in there.”