ST. PAUL, Minn. — The ascension of the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference standings hit some turbulence this week with an injury to leading scorer Kirill Kaprizov that will keep the superstar left wing out for at least three to four weeks.
The Wild might need to catch a few more rides on the “Gus Bus” in the meantime.
Goalie Filip Gustavsson has an active shutout streak of 170 minutes and 45 seconds, the third-longest in franchise history, that has further solidified him as a fan favorite in his first season in Minnesota and one of the NHL's most unexpected breakout players.
“I play the way I want to right now,” Gustavsson said on Friday before the Wild departed for their game at San Jose on Saturday. “It makes my game feel calmer and on time, all the time. It makes the saves much easier.”
Acquired in a trade with Ottawa for goalie Cam Talbot, Gustavsson arrived as a clear-cut backup to Marc-Andre Fleury after Wild general manager Bill Guerin opted to avoid the potential tension of having accomplished veterans Fleury and Talbot vie for the same net.
Gustavsson, however, has played his way into a time share with Fleury, if not overtaken the 19-year veteran on the depth chart. Gustavsson is second in the league in both goals against average (1.91) and save percentage (.935) among goalies with more than 20 games played. He has started nine of Minnesota's last 14 games, with Fleury taking the other five.
“Gus has been real calm in his approach, his professionalism, right from day one since he got here,” said coach Dean Evason, who has been quick to credit Fleury's performance and presence as much as Gustavsson's throughout the season.
Fleury has won four straight starts himself, allowing just five goals during his streak. Gustavsson has given up 11 goals over his last nine starts. The Wild are 9-0-2 in their last 11 games, thanks in no small part to their goaltending, to settle in second place in the Central Division. Gustavsson, who had only 23 starts in the NHL with the Senators prior to the trade, has quickly gained the confidence of his teammates.
“The trust is me making that first save, and then they help me if there’s a rebound,” the 24-year-old Swede said. “When I try and play my calm game, I think it helps for the players to feel more calm also. It feels more secure in a way, I guess.”
Ranking just 26th out of 32 teams in the league with an average of 2.75 goals per game, the Wild took quite a hit when Kaprizov was sidelined by a lower-body injury that will force the first extended absence of his career. With 74 points, Kaprizov — who has played in 214 of a possible 216 games including the playoffs with the Wild — has had a hand in 41% of their goals.
“It’s always a bad thing when someone’s hurt, but it might help the team to get a few more goal scorers and take more ice,” Gustavsson said.
Sam Steel slotted in the first line with Ryan Hartman and Mats Zuccarello at practice on Friday, when players were remarkably upbeat in the locker room afterward given the bad news about their leading scorer and popular teammate.
“We've just got to be a collective effort and all have the same goal in mind to try and win hockey games,” Zuccarello said. “We would like to do it with him as a friend and a teammate, but right now he can enjoy his three, four weeks off and get some energy and be hopefully full of energy and ready to go in the playoffs.”