“It’s been good, it’s been really good,” says the 32-year-old. It really became official last March when longtime goalie partner Dwayne Roloson was shipped to Edmonton before the trade deadline and Fernandez ended up playing a career-high 58 games.
But this is the first full season for Fernandez as The Man.
“For a lot of years I’ve been patient and Dwayne was too,” Fernandez said from Los Angeles, where the Wild play Saturday night. “Around the hockey world I don’t think people looked at us and thought we were good goalies unless we played a certain number of games. We just sat back and took our pill. I thought Dwayne and I made a tremendous team. It wasn’t easy by any means.
“I think playing only every other night is really hard. I think it made me stronger to play as many games as I do now.”
Fernandez has answered the call in his first season as the full-fledged starter. He’s 8-4-0 with a 2.17 goals-against average (sixth in the NHL) and sparkling .928 save percentage (third in the league).
“I’ve just been tearing it up in practice, I really mean that,” he said in explaining his success, while also crediting his teammates. “Sometimes I feel myself feeling tired before starting a game because of my work in practice. I’ve always been told that you always play the way you practice and that’s been my philosophy this year.
“I kind of challenged my teammates in practice this year, I’ll tell them to give me their best and that’ll make me a better goalie. I want guys to shoot in practice as they would in a game.”
Fernandez said there was an adjustment after Roloson left. They were both No. 1 goalies and really pushed each other and he had to learn to live without that.
“When he got traded last year Edmonton came back to Minny for a back-to-back series,” said Fernandez. “We talked a bit as we went on the ice. He felt the same as me, where we always had each other so we knew there was a guy on the bench who could play. When he was traded, it was hard on both of us in some ways. We were missing that kick, we used to push each other. There was a void there at the beginning but you get used to it. . . .
“Once he got going in the playoffs there I was really happy for him.”
While Roloson grabbed the spotlight last spring in a surprising Oilers run, it’s the Wild this season that have been a big story. A 10-4-0 start has Minnesota leading the Northwest Division and sitting third in the Western Conference.
“We knew we were going to have a better team and have more depth but we had a tough time in pre-season putting it all together so I can’t say we expected this kind of start,” said Fernandez. “I don’t know what happened but the second we dropped the puck for the first game everybody just kind of bared down and we saw a total different game.”