Desperate NHL teams have no choice but to ride overworked goalies like the Wild's Devan Dubnyk down the stretch to the playoffs.
Desperation can make a coach do crazy things.
Take Minnesota’s Mike Yeo, for instance. After six consecutive losses, his team was languishing among the also-rans and he was on the verge of packing up his office. And then his GM, Chuck Fletcher, tossed him an unlikely lifeline: Coyotes backup Devan Dubnyk.
His goaltending situation in shambles, Yeo had no choice but to give Dubnyk the start on Jan. 15 against Buffalo.
Yeo hasn’t taken him out since.
Not that you can blame him. Since Dubnyk’s arrival, the Wild have gone 19-4-2 to turn a lost season into one to remember. His 19 wins are the most by any keeper since Jan. 15. He has six shutouts, including that 7–0 blazer against the Sabres. His shimmering .928 save percentage trails only Canadiens star Carey Price, who is a bona fide Hart Trophy candidate.
This guy is playing so well that he’s even had a song written about him.
But at some point the man needs a break.
Dubnyk made his 26th consecutive start in Tuesday’s 6-2 win over the Devils. Barring injury or, apparently, an act of Congress, he’ll make it 27 in a row on Friday night when the Wild host the Ducks. That’s the most by any NHL goalie since Anaheim’s Jonas Hiller skated in 32 straight in 2011-12.
It’s a ridiculous workload, especially given Dubnyk's three back-to-back appearances (with a fourth likely coming this weekend). And it’s starting to add up. Despite being the understudy in Arizona for half the season, he’s already played a total of 2,505 minutes. He’ll likely eclipse his previous career high of 2,653 set in 2011-12 early next week.
Not that any of this has escaped the attention of Yeo, but he’s in a tough spot. Dubnyk’s play has driven the Wild into a wild-card berth, but they’re only four points ahead of the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings. They don’t have the luxury of one off-game, especially with top opponents like the Ducks, Blues and Predators on the horizon.
Still, there’s only so much they can ask of Dubnyk. Even as things are going better for him than at any point in his career, there’s a mental and physical toll to all this action in the thick of a playoff race. If Dubnyk redlines it too long, Yeo might have to deal with a problem much more serious than a loss or two.
And there’s also something to be said for having a backup who is ready to step in when needed, especially once a team gets to the playoffs. Darcy Kuemper hasn’t started a game since Jan. 6 or seen action of any kind since relieving Dubnyk on Jan. 20. Extra work after practice isn’t the same as facing live NHL shooters.
So Yeo has a tough call to make. With few soft spots on the schedule, he may have to sit Dubnyk on March 23 when the Wild travel to Toronto. After that it’s a steady diet of playoff-bound opponents and he can’t afford to use anyone other than his best.
Yeo is not the only coach who is dealing with this kind of situation. There’s still a flicker of life left in the Avalanche, which explains why Semyon Varlamov might have played straight through the summer if not for the groin injury he suffered on Sunday in Minnesota. The 2014 Vezina Trophy finalist had started 22 consecutive games before being sidelined, one shy of Craig Anderson’s franchise mark set in 2010.
The Avs haven’t revealed whether the injury was fresh or an aggravation of a problem in the same area that caused Varlamov to miss 15 games earlier this season, but that workload could easily have been the trigger. His long run was marked by three back-to-back appearances, including a game against the Wild.
Too much? Maybe, but coach Patrick Roy is in an even tighter spot than Yeo. He has no faith in backup Reto Berra. Even when Varlamov went down, Roy called on minor leaguer Calvin Pickard for a must-win game against the Kings rather than rely on Berra. That pretty much says it all.
The Avs are still mathematically alive, but they need 12 wins in their final 15 games and some help along the way. In other words, a miracle. The smart thing to do then would be to shut Varlamov down for the season, or at least give him sufficient time to heal. Instead, he’s slated to return tonight against the Devils. The reward, at least in Roy's mind, appears to outweigh the risk.
And then there’s Vancouver, where Eddie Lack has been forced into the role of savior after a leg injury to starter Ryan Miller. Lack’s workload hasn't approached Dubnyk-Varlamov levels yet, but with the Canucks in a battle for their playoff lives it easily could before the season is over.
Lack, who’s playing the best hockey of his career lately, will make his 10th consecutive start in tonight's must-win game against the Kings, who trail the Canucks by just three points in the Pacific. And he won’t be getting a break any time soon. With Miller out, it’s Lack or bust for Vancouver’s playoff hopes. And the schedule isn’t doing him any favors. The Canucks play their final 16 games in a stretch of just 30 days. It seems unlikely that he'll play them all, but with Miller’s health up in the air and Jacob Markstrom no real option in relief, Lack will be ridden hard down the home stretch.
It’s a lot for Canucks coach Willie Desjardins to ask of his backup, but these are desperate times after all.