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Judd Zulgad

No Easy Decision

Goalie-rich Wild gives Dean Evason a good problem to have with postseason looming

Filip Gustavsson (L) and Marc-Andre Fleury (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

The NHL playoffs don’t start for another two weeks, but that hasn’t slowed the discussion about who will start in goal when they do arrive. Marc-Andre Fleury, a three-time Stanley Cup winner in Pittsburgh, has 167 games of playoff experience and will go into the Hockey Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Filip Gustavsson is nearly 14 years younger than the 38-year-old Fleury, but has had an outstanding season after arriving in a trade that sent Cam Talbot to Ottawa last offseason.

Filip Gustavsson follows the action in an Oct. 17, 2022 game at Xcel Energy Center vs. the Colorado Avalanche. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

The decision is made more interesting by how coach Dean Evason approached the Wild’s first-round playoff series last year against St. Louis. Coming off a franchise-record 113-point season, Evason started Fleury in Game 1 of the opening round against the St. Louis Blues and stuck with him until the Wild trailed 3-2 in the series. Facing elimination, Evason went to Talbot but it was too late. The Wild lost 5-1 in Game 6 and a once-promising season was finished. Talbot, who had gone 13-0-3 in his last 16 regular-season starts, didn’t hide his displeasure.

Fleury had been acquired at the trade deadline from Chicago, so it wasn’t a massive surprise that he got the start in the opener. What was surprising was that Evason didn’t turn to Talbot after back-to-back 5-2 losses in Games 4 and 5. Blues coach Craig Berube hadn’t hesitated to replace Ville Husso with Jordan Binnington after the Wild took a 2-1 lead in the series.

It would have been unfair to pin all blame on Fleury — Minnesota scored five goals in the final three games and was shutout in the opener — but, as Berube showed, a willingness to make timely changes in the playoffs can be the difference.

That thought should be in Evason’s mind as these playoffs approach.

Gustavsson has been outstanding this season — he is second in the NHL in goals-against average (2.03) and save percentage (.932) to Boston’s Linus Ullmark — and has been in a rotation with Fleury for the past 12 games. Fleury has a 2.82 goals-against and .910 save percentage in 44 games, while Gustavsson has played in 36 games.

During a 16-2-5 stretch that began in mid-February and vaulted the Wild to the top of the Central Division, Gustavsson has gone 8-1-4 with a 1.78 goals against and .942 save percentage. Fleury is 8-1-1 with a 2.28 goals against and .933 save percentage.

The answer to how Evason approaches this postseason might be available by going back 20 years in Wild history. This spring marks the anniversary of the franchise’s improbable playoff run in 2003, only the third season in the Wild’s history. Wild coach Jacques Lemaire helped guide that team past Colorado and Vancouver in the opening two series’ by not committing to either goalie.

Dwayne Roloson started the first four games against the Avs, but was sat after giving up two goals on four shots in Game 4. Manny Fernandez replaced Roloson and played the remainder of the series as the Wild rallied from a 3-1 deficit to shock the heavily favored Avalanche in overtime of Game 7.

Fernandez’s success got him the Game 1 start in the second round against Vancouver, but after a 4-3 overtime loss, Lemaire went back to Roloson for two games, used Fernandez in another overtime defeat, and then started Roloson for the final three games as the Wild again came back from a 3-1 deficit.  Fernandez then started three of four games in Anaheim’s sweep of Minnesota in the Western Conference Finals.

Lemaire wasn’t using a rotation, but he was open to riding the hot hand. So why couldn’t Evason do the same? Fleury and Gustavsson both want to be the starter, but the two seem to have a relationship where there will be no friction caused if Evason goes with one or the other. 

Marc-Andre Fleury focuses on the puck in a March 19, 2023 game vs. the Washington Capitals at Xcel Energy Center. (MHM Photo / Rick Olson)

In many ways, this Wild team reminds me of a more talented version of that 2003 group. Last season, the Wild was built for the regular season but not the playoffs. The team’s ability to stage late rallies and score timely goals made them entertaining, but that formula wasn’t going to work in the springtime. Guerin has built a team this season that has talent, but also is a bigger, more physical collection that can win close games by sticking to the structure Evason wants to see on a nightly basis.

The Wild will need Fleury or Gustavsson to make a few huge saves each game, but if they don’t try to match their opponent’s talent and instead play a physical brand of hockey that takes away time and space, there is potential for playoff success.

Using both Fleury and Gustavsson in a playoff series also makes sense in part because the two have such different styles. Gustavsson is cool, calm and collected and uses excellent technique that can frustrate foes. Fleury is more of a throwback, sprawling and rolling all over the place to make saves that are much more likely to make the highlight-reel than Gustavsson’s stops. A switch from Fleury to Gustavsson or vice versa, is going to force opponents to make changes in approach.

The most important thing is not to get too hung up on who gets the Game 1 start but rather how the situation is handled after that. Evason has two quality goalies at his disposal and it’s on him to pull the right strings. That likely will mean using Fleury and Gustavsson in each series and not waiting until it’s too late before he does so.

Judd Zulgad is co-host of the Mackey and Judd podcast and also Judd’s Hockey Show for SKOR North. Judd covered the Vikings from 2005 to 2010 for the Star Tribune before joining SKOR North.

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