What a difference a week makes, eh?
Just seven days ago, the Minnesota Wild’s season-long goaltending woes had reached a breaking point. Whispers began to trickle throughout the State of Hockey, questioning whether the Wild needed to upgrade their goaltending or risk wasting a year of contention. Perhaps Cam Talbot, too, began to feel the outside pressure. If he did, it certainly didn’t faze him. He’s turning his game around at the right time, thriving as external scrutiny reached its peak.
Talbot is 3-0 with a robust 0.951 SV% in his last three starts. He’s not benefitting from a weak schedule or a consistently elite team in front of him. No, for the first time this year, he’s winning — perhaps even stealing — games for his team.
As we highlighted last week, Talbot and his fellow goaltending teammate Kaapo Kahkonen were performing poorly leading into Thanksgiving. The Wild were top-5 in the NHL in expected goals, both offensively and defensively. However, the goaltending was struggling, sporting a collective -9.85 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx). Talbot’s numbers were even more troubling, considering he is the unquestioned starter of the two and a proven veteran. But at -6.29 GSAx, he literally wasn’t playing up to his expectations.
However, Talbot has been on an absolute tear over the past week. He’s stopped 98 of the 103 shots he has faced and lowered his GSAx to -3.65. That’s 2.64 goals above expected, nearly a full goal per game. Essentially, that’s giving the Wild almost a 1-0 advantage on the scoreboard before even hitting the ice.
No one stops 95% of pucks forever. For that reason alone, this level of play from Talbot won’t sustain for the rest of the year. However, the timing of it is crucial, and his play has allowed the Wild to stay atop the Western Conference standings.
Talbot’s streak started amidst the panic of last Wednesday against the New Jersey Devils when the Wild’s team bus found itself stuck in New York City’s Thanksgiving traffic. The 30-minute delay meant players had to strap on their gear frantically and hit the ice at the end of their road trip. Hockey players are famously creatures of habit, so nobody could have blamed the Wild for laying a goose egg without their typical pre-game warm-up. They could’ve also fallen into the trap of daydreaming about the smell of turkey in their homes back in Minnesota the next day.
And lay a giant egg they did — everyone except Talbot that is. The Wild fell behind 2-0 through the game’s first 20 minutes and were thoroughly outplayed for most of the game. New Jersey outshot the Wild by a whopping 42-27 margin. Yet, Minnesota prevailed 3-2 in a shootout thanks to the stellar play of their goaltender. Talbot’s 40 saves allowed them to hang in long enough to pick up the two points. Later in the season, with the Wild jockeying for playoff seeding, it’s games like that that the team will look back on as instrumental wins.
Talbot’s improved play continued on Black Friday when the Winnipeg Jets crossed the border into Minnesota. The Wild dominated their divisional rival, 7-1, and Talbot turned away 30 shots in another impressive performance. Not only was it great to see Talbot string together a couple of great starts and prove the game in New Jersey was no fluke, but it also allowed the Wild not to force their star players into hard minutes late in games. That’s a trend that’s all too familiar to Wild fans this season because poor goaltending forced them to mount comeback after comeback.
It’s even more critical now than ever, with captain Jared Spurgeon sidelined with injury since Nov. 20th. Talbot stealing games as he did two nights before is massive in its own right. But maintaining large leads for his team in third periods is just as key to the Wild’s success at the moment. Head coach Dean Evason doesn’t feel the need to lean on a thinner blue line to eat up more minutes with Spurgeon out. Again, that’s an impact that goes beyond two points in the standings.
Talbot’s most recent start of his incredible run featured taking down the defending back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-2. Talbot outdueled perennial Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy, providing the Wild a must-needed win against one of the league’s top teams. Even with their fantastic start to their season, the Wild had struggled against a few of the Cup contenders whose rank they wish to join at some point this season. They were 0-2-1 against the Florida Panthers, Colorado Avalanche, and Lightning going into the Tampa game. Minnesota finally earned themselves the statement win missing from their resume. Once again, Talbot’s strong play contributed to more than just a win in the standings.
It’s a small sample size, but Talbot’s resurgence has been noticeable on a Wild squad that still dominates at 5-on-5. Again, it’s probably impossible to ask Talbot to continue this level of play through the rest of the season. But even if he settles in at around his current .914 save percentage, the Wild would be thrilled.
As the calendar flips to December, it’s clear Minnesota looks to be a contender this year. Who knows, maybe general manager Bill Guerin still makes a move for another NHL quality netminder at the trade deadline. However, if Cam Talbot can continue to prove this recent surge in play isn’t a fluke, goaltending won’t be an area of particular need come February, and Guerin can focus on landing their missing piece rather than fixing a problem in net.