It has been 19 years since the Wild used the goaltending tandem of Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez to ride to the 2003 Western Conference final in only their third season of existence, but the experience remains unique, memorable and relevant.
“The night before each game, we’d go for a dinner, and Jacques (Lemaire) would say, ‘Well, Mase, who we going to start tomorrow?’” former longtime Wild goalie coach Bob Mason recalled recently. “And then we’d roll it through. I think we all probably knew who was going to start, but we always had a good debate.”
You can imagine the same type of deliberation has been happening behind the scenes between current coach Dean Evason, general manager Bill Guerin, goalie coach Frederic Chabot and the rest of the staff as the Wild head into the first round of the 2022 playoffs against the Blues.
Do you go with 34-year-old Cam Talbot, who frankly outplayed Marc-Andre Fleury down the stretch, with a 13-0-3 run to end his regular season?
Or, do you go with the legend that is the 37-year-old Fleury, winner of three Stanley Cups and holder of the fourth-most playoff wins in NHL history — two short of tying Grant Fuhr for third?
“We’ve thrown around a lot of different scenarios, and we’re going to hopefully make the right decision,” Evason said. “You’re hoping that the end result when you get into the playoffs is the Stanley Cup. That’s our goal. Do we know where it’s going to go as far as which goalie plays and how many games they play or do they both play or one plays? We’ll wait and see how that plays out. We’ll make the decision for Game 1 and go from there.”
When you’re looking to go on a lengthy playoff run and have two goalies in their mid-to-late 30s, chances are you’ll need both at some point.
“It’s a grind,” Guerin said. “The process of winning a Stanley Cup is grueling. It takes a physical and mental toll.”
The Wild rotated between goalies for 15 consecutive games down the stretch before going with Talbot two in a row, then Fleury three of the final four games. No one is expecting a return to a straight rotation in the playoffs.
“Imagine Talbot or Fleury gets a shutout and you go with the other guy the next game?” Mason said, laughing. “That’s not happening. Even if one of them doesn’t get the win but plays great, it might be hard to take him out. Now, if he’s a little shaky and you lose, then you may take him out. There’s lots of variables that go into these decisions, but a hard rotation every game is unlikely.”
But if Wild history means anything, a team can have success using both goalies.
“I believe Dean when he says that nothing is written in stone about who gets next game,” said Wes Walz, the Wild’s second-leading goal scorer (seven) and point-getter (13) in the 2003 playoffs. “I also believe that Cam and Marc-Andre are having a healthy fight for net in Game 1.
“In ’03, if you look at the way it shook out, if you won, you almost always got the next game. We beat Colorado because Manny outplayed (Patrick) Roy. We beat Vancouver because Roli and Manny outplayed (Dan) Cloutier. We lost to Anaheim because Giggy (Jean-Sebastien Giguere) was amazing.”
There’s a lesson there, too. With the red-hot Blues and then potentially the West-best Avalanche in their path, even perfect decisions in net can take the Wild only so far.
A look back at 2003
During the regular season in 2002-03, Roloson went 23-16-8 with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage. Fernandez went 19-13-2 with a 2.24 GAA and a .924 save percentage.
The Wild began their series against the Avalanche with Roloson between the pipes. The Wild won Game 1 4-2, so they came back with Roloson. They lost Games 2 and 3, but Roloson played well, so he kept the net. Then in Game 4, Roloson hurt his groin and Fernandez entered in an eventual 3-1 loss.
“Manny was very nervous going into that game,” Mason said. “He was like, ‘I haven’t played four games in a row. Now I got to come in and stay in the series?’ But that was Manny. He had anxiety before every start, even in the regular season. I remember talking to him and saying, ‘Manny, you don’t have to save this series. You had a great season. Just go out and do what you do. Keep playing how you play.’ I said, ‘You got nothing to lose. You’ve got everything to gain.’”
Fernandez backstopped the Wild to three consecutive victories with 26, 22 and 43 saves. He was spectacular in Game 7, which to this day is one of the most memorable in team history, with Andrew Brunette scoring in overtime to end Roy’s Hall of Fame career.
“All of a sudden it’s win, win, win, and we win the series,” Mason said. “God, I still remember Manny’s glove save he made on Rob Blake in overtime. It was like one of the old Ken Dryden stretchers.”
For the 28th time, a Stanley Cup Playoff Game 7 would be decided in overtime. Less than 3 minutes in, Rob Blake fired a slap shot off a grade-A scoring chance. But Manny Fernandez was there. pic.twitter.com/m8iciqwVrJ
— General Soreness (@_2244) May 28, 2021
Three days later, the Wild were in Vancouver to start the second round, and Fernandez got the initial start. The Canucks outshot Minnesota 39-21, the Wild lost 4-3 on Trent Klatt’s overtime winner and Roloson started Game 2.
That was a tough decision for the coaching staff.
“Manny wasn’t playing up to Jacques’ standards, so I went in,” Roloson recalled. “Really during the playoffs, it was more of a gut decision on the coaching staff’s part. But the regular season, it was more or less which team you played well against.”
Roloson made 29 saves for a 3-2 win and was back in for Game 3. The Wild lost 3-2, and Fernandez got the nod in Game 4 — a 3-2 loss on Brent Sopel’s overtime winner. Roloson started Games 5, 6 and 7, and the Wild won all three, 7-2, 5-1, and 4-2.
“Roli was focused, mentally focused, big time,” Mason said. “He never showed he was nervous, and Manny was the exact opposite. He was fidgety and anxiety-ridden and always thinking the worst was going to happen.”
To give Roloson a rest with the conference final beginning two days later in Minnesota, Fernandez started.
Giguere was magnificent, with a 39-save, 1-0 double-overtime shutout. Roloson started Game 2, and the Wild lost, 2-zip. Roloson started Game 3 and was pulled for Fernandez in a 4-0 loss. Fernandez started Game 4 and the Wild finally scored their first goal of the series, but ultimately Anaheim won 2-1 for the sweep.
“We didn’t lose that series because of goaltending, that’s for sure,” Mason said.
And the goalie rotation never affected the players.
“We knew we had two No. 1 goalies and honestly didn’t give a rat’s ass who was starting because we just hoped they could stop the 19 or 20 shots they were going to see that night,” Walz cracked.
Looking back on the quasi-rotation, Roloson said it wasn’t difficult from his perspective.
“It kept you sharp,” Roloson said. “It wasn’t like you get into a situation like I was in Buffalo, when you’re playing behind (Dominik) Hasek and you’re just a door opener or comic relief. When you’re rotating in, in any split second, you could be starting the next game because the coach doesn’t think the other guy is playing well. It keeps you invested in what’s going on. You’re watching the game differently. You’re watching it like you’re playing.”
Roloson was asked if it’s hard, though, to always think one bad goal or one loss means you’ll be on the bench the next game.
“Yeah, that does come into play,” Roloson said. “I’d be lying if I said that doesn’t creep into your head. But when you’re in the playoffs, all you’re doing is focusing on winning games, so that doubt leaves during the actual play. Maybe if you lose and you’re in the locker room, that’s when you think, ‘Well, I just may have lost the next start.’
“I’ve got to think that’ll be the case in Minny now. Whether it’s Talbot or Fleury, the other guy will always know the other guy may start the next game with any loss. That can be motivating, too.”
“Two great goalies is twice as good as one great goalie,” he said.
The case for and against Talbot
2021-22 stats: 32-12-4 with a 2.76 GAA, .911 save percentage and three shutouts. He allowed an alarming 17.23 more goals than expected (GSAx), per Evolving-Hockey — third worst in the NHL, with only Chicago’s Kevin Lankinen and Seattle’s Phillip Grubauer worse.
Since March 3: 13-0-3 with a 2.35 GAA, .917 save percentage and two shutouts but still more goals allowed (4.35) than expected.
Since the March 21 trade deadline: 8-0-3 with a 2.25 GAA, .925 save percentage and two shutouts. Showing his improvement, Talbot allowed only 0.87 more goals than expected (.077 per 60 minutes).
Against Blues this season: 0-1-2 this season with a ghastly 5.93 GAA, .814 save percentage and a minus-9.12 GSAx.
Against Blues previously: 0-3-4 in his past seven meetings, and 7-7-6 lifetime with a 3.27 GAA, .892 save percentage and one shutout.
The Wild acquired Fleury at the deadline from the Blackhawks for a second-round pick that can become a first if the Wild reach the Western Conference final and Fleury wins four games in the first two rounds. But Guerin insists he was just trying to solidify the Wild’s goaltending and was never worried about Talbot, even though every metric showed Talbot and Kaapo Kahkonen were struggling mightily.
“He’s a special human being,” Guerin said of Talbot. “It’s not about him. It’s about the team. Dean and myself, we just try to be as honest as we can, and I was pretty honest with Cam. I hope that that helped him, but he’s such a high-character guy. He takes it as we’re getting better, but, ‘I also have to compete.’ That’s the exact way he should have handled it. He’s doing it.”
Talbot says he looked at Fleury coming in as healthy competition.
“That’s good for everybody,” Talbot said. “It pushes you all in the right direction and that’s all it is. There’s no better guy to push you to be better than the reigning Vezina Trophy holder and three-time Cup champ. So you have to have that mindset that whenever the team needed me to be in there to go out there and give them a chance. I can’t change what decisions the coaches make and the GM makes and stuff like that. I can really control what I can control and that’s all I’ve been trying to do.”
The Wild ranked fifth this season with 3.72 goals per game. For much of the season, they have been able to outscore teams even if their goalie was giving up three or four goals. But after Talbot returned from the All-Star Game and posted a 37-save game against Carolina, he suddenly went into a tank, and so did the Wild’s team defense, and their offense couldn’t cover up for the bleeding goals.
He gave up 17 goals in four losses. The Wild went to Philadelphia, and he had a poor first two periods, when he was deep in his crease and gave up four goals in a game in which the Wild were creating lots of chances.
But in the third period, Talbot was tremendous, Matt Boldy and Jonas Brodin scored goals 25 seconds apart and it’s been largely smooth sailing ever since.
“Just sick of getting scored on,” Talbot said, laughing. “Pucks seemed to be going through me and around me. I just told myself after that second period there in Philly, ‘You know what? If I’m gonna get beat, I’m gonna be as aggressive as possible.’ Try to get back to playing my game, make them make a good shot, make them push me back. Get back to being a little bit more assertive.
“When things aren’t going your way, you tend to back off, be a little bit more passive. That’s not how I play when I’m at my best, and it was just kind of a mental click here in that second period. If I’m gonna get beat, I’m gonna get beat playing the right way. I had a good third period, we came back and won it, and just trying to build every game after that.”
Talbot could have cratered with the Fleury pickup. Instead, he continued to get his game together while also making Fleury feel welcome. Fleury may be a future Hall of Famer, but he’s never been traded during a season before, was leaving his family behind, and Talbot felt for him, saying, “I was traded midseason before. It’s not an easy situation. I reached out to him right away, as soon as Billy had the conversation with me that the trade was done. He’s my partner, and we both want the same thing. We both want to win. And we both want to go deep. He wants another shot at the Cup and I want a shot at it, too.”
Said captain Jared Spurgeon, “It shows how great of a teammate he is. He welcomed Flower in with open arms. Just the professionalism that he has, obviously he’s gone through a lot, as well, to get to where he is. But he’s such a steady even-keeled guy back there that we knew he was going to get his game back. It wasn’t even that his game was off. We weren’t really playing well in front of him. Just giving up a lot of chances. Obviously heading into the playoffs, to have two goaltenders, that’s always awesome. But the way Talbs has been playing has been great.”
Listening to Talbot talk after his regular-season finale, a game in which he made 31 saves in an overtime win over the Flames, he almost sounded like somebody who expected to start the series on the bench. But asked last week, Talbot said he didn’t yet have a sense which way the coaching staff was leaning.
“That’s above my pay grade. That’s up to them,” he said. “I mean, whoever they go with, obviously, I think the other guy will be supportive and that’s how it’s been throughout, since he’s got here. I mean, they were rotating for so long. So you just never know what they’re going to do, but doesn’t matter who’s in there. And it’s not just from a goaltending standpoint. That’s the entire team. That’s our mindset, our mentality, and we’re like a family in there. And if you’re not the guy that’s in, you’re supporting the rest of the family. So that’s how it has to be.”
The case for and against Fleury
2021-22 stats: 28-23-5 with a 2.90 GAA, .908 save percentage and four shutouts between the Blackhawks and Wild.
Since being traded to Minnesota on March 21: 9-2-0 with a 2.74 GAA and a .910 save percentage. He allowed 1.28 more goals than expected.
Last eight starts: 6-2-0 with a 3.26 GAA and an .891 save percentage.
Against the Blues this season: 0-3 (all with Chicago) with a 3.37 GAA, a .903 save percentage and a minus-.02 GSAx
Against the Blues career: 9-12-2 with a 2.76 GAA and a .912 save percentage. In his only playoff game against the Blues, in 2020, he allowed four goals on 17 shots but got the win.
Fleury has fit in like a glove.
At the beginning five weeks ago, Wild teammates were almost in awe of him.
Marcus Foligno and Boldy said they still couldn’t believe he was in their locker room. Kevin Fiala, whom Fleury robbed umpteen times in last summer’s Vegas-Minnesota series, said Fleury was his favorite goalie growing up.
“He’s a legend in the world of hockey, especially even more back home in Quebec,” fellow French Canadian Freddy Gaudreau said. “Hockey’s big back home and when you get guys like that, that are just the best in the world, of course they become a legend back home even more. So to me, I’ve grown up knowing him, of course, being impressed by the player he was. But from getting to know him, it’s most importantly the person he is, so to be able to live that, to be able to notice that legend and to be around that legend every single day, it’s really fun.”
Fleury has had an interesting playoff career.
He’s won three Stanley Cups, but two were as Matt Murray’s backup. In the inaugural Golden Knights season, he was spectacular in driving Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final, with 13 wins and a .927 save percentage. But he lost his gig to Robin Lehner in the 2020 bubble, then last season won the Vezina Trophy, shared the Jennings Trophy and was 9-7 in the playoffs with a stellar 2.08 GAA and .918 save percentage.
He brings 162 games of playoff experience to the Wild, the most on the roster. His 16 consecutive years in the playoffs are the most among goaltenders in NHL history, and he’s the 13th player at any position to make at least 16 straight appearances (first since Kris Draper 12 years ago). He is the fifth goalie to make at least 16 postseason appearances at any point in his career.
He feels blessed to get this opportunity of being part of a true contender after the season he was part of in Chicago.
“I felt a little bit like cheating, like cutting the line, like I didn’t get my team there,” Fleury said. “In Chicago, I enjoyed my time there and wish I would have done better. I’m very lucky to be here in the mix of things now.”
Fleury hasn’t been overjoyed by his game of late and admitted that he was mad at himself for the goals he gave up down the stretch. Some of that blame could be because the Wild barely ever practice.
Since the March 21 deadline, the Wild practiced March 23 in St. Paul and April 15 in St. Louis. Fleury missed the March 23 practice because he was back in Chicago packing up his life.
He joked that Wild players keep telling him how great the practice facility is and “I think it’s a lie,” although on one recent off day, he was so bored he entered the practice facility alone just to check it out.
Fleury loves playing and hopes to get the Game 1 nod.
But he said, “Coming here, Cam has been welcoming and so nice and that makes it easier. There’s no friction. He’s playing awesome since I got here. Only one guy can play, unfortunately. Whoever it is will try their best to help the team the best that we can. I love playing. I’m sure he does, too. It’s a lot more fun to be in the net and trying to save pucks and winning games. Whoever it is, I’m happy to be part of this team and go on a run with them.”
Talbot is a lot quieter in net. Fleury has always been loud and unorthodox. He’s as quick as a cat and is as aggressive as they come.
That makes him exciting and scary at the same time.
“He’s still quick and athletic, has good hands, a great mind,” one NHL goalie coach said. “I know Cam’s been great, but I don’t know how Flower doesn’t play a significant role at some point. I’m sure that’s why Billy got him.”
Guerin has seen the best of Fleury.
His Cup-clinching, diving, lunging save on Nicklas Lidstrom with two seconds left in Game 7 in 2009 is embedded in Guerin’s memory. And Guerin still remembers how “lights out” Fleury was in 2017 in the Washington series to get the Penguins into the conference final after he backstopped Pittsburgh to a win in the previous Columbus series (Murray got hurt in warmups in Game 1).
Fleury played the first three games against Ottawa in the third round before he was pulled in Game 3. He never played again for the Penguins as they won their second straight Cup with Murray in net.
“I knew it was my last year in Pittsburgh, and I wish I had a chance to get back in net and play more games,” Fleury said. “But looking back, we won the Cup and you have to be a good teammate about it and help the other guys, and nothing beats winning in the end.”
Guerin was an executive with the Penguins at the time. In his mind, Fleury had as much to do with that Stanley Cup as Murray.
“We used them both,” Guerin said. “I think just the way that our game is going now, I don’t know if we’ll start seeing more tandems in the playoffs, but we sure do in the regular season because it’s just so hard on those guys. But, yeah, in ’17 we needed them both.”
Plain and simple, Fleury is a great teammate — a beloved teammate. Whether he starts Game 1 or Talbot does, Fleury will be supportive.
“It’s a team game. I love playing,” he said. “But at the end of the day, what matters is team success. Everybody has to stay upbeat and encourage and do whatever we can to be there for each other. Everybody wants to win together.”
What do their teammates think?
Like 2003, they don’t seem to care.
“That’s not my job,” Spurgeon said, laughing, when asked if he’s even curious how the Wild brass will handle this. “They’re such good goaltenders that we don’t really think about it at all. Whoever is back there, we have the most trust in them, and we just want to make it as easy as possible on them and let them see the shot. I think the only thing at the start, with Flower coming in, was the goalie calls. Every team has different words for different things. I think that was the only thing, but after that, I think we’re just trying to make it as easy as possible on them.”
Added Brodin, “We have confidence in both of them.”
Talbot gets the initial nod. Why?
1. He deserves it. The guy hasn’t lost in regulation since March 1 and has points in 16 consecutive starts when he easily could have crumbled after the Fleury trade.
2. He’s under contract next season, so it would be a real kick to the teeth for the goalie who right now will be here next year if he feels the Wild don’t have faith in him to open the series.
3. Fleury is such a good teammate and has been in this position many, many times before in the playoffs, so he’ll be a pro and maturely wait his turn.
4. It sets up perfectly that if the Wild need a boost — if they lose a big game or get down in the series — they have a decorated goalie like Fleury coming off the bench.
The reasons I waver?
1. Fleury’s playoff pedigree.
2. Fleury’s relationship with his former Penguins teammate, Guerin.
3. Do you trade for Fleury not to start him?
4. He played great in the season finale Friday night against Colorado.
5. Talbot’s sub-par run against the Blues.
The last is the most concerning when it comes to Talbot, although Evason said of Talbot’s past performances against the Blues, “What’s it matter what’s happened?”
— Michael Russo (@RussoHockey) April 30, 2022
Whatever they decide, for Game 1 at least, mercifully we’ll find out soon — maybe as early as Sunday if Evason continues his regular-season pattern of being forthcoming with the media about his starting goaltender.
“We have that luxury to have two unreal goalies, strong goalies, and there’s no distraction with them switching games here and there because they’re such good people,” Gaudreau said. “They just care about the team. They’re not selfish. They’re the best teammates. It’s really special to be part of a good group that has great goalies that are also leaders and true pros.”
Shayna Goldman contributed to this report.
(Top photo of Marc-Andre Fleury and Cam Talbot: Gregg Forwerck / NHLI via Getty Images)
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