LOS ANGELES – It was like cloak and dagger Tuesday morning when it became oh-so-apparent that something mysterious was going on with the Wild’s scheduled starter in goal, veteran Niklas Backstrom.
Darcy Kuemper took shots late in the pregame skate by the defensemen — a telltale signal he was starting — and Backstrom spent an extra half-hour working with goalie coach Bob Mason and hockey operations adviser Andrew Brunette.
Cunning coach Mike Yeo wouldn’t divulge what was up, nor would General Manager Chuck Fletcher.
As it turned out, Backstrom has experienced abdominal pain lately and Kuemper indeed got the surprise start against the Los Angeles Kings in the Wild’s first game without captain Mikko Koivu, seventh without Zach Parise, seventh in the past nine games without Josh Harding and second without Jared Spurgeon.
And, the 23-year-old netminder from Saskatoon was sensational in making a career-high 39 saves in a 2-1 shootout victory at the Staples Center.
Nino Niederreiter, who scored the tying goal in the third period, scored his first career shootout goal in Round 4 to lift the Wild to its second road victory in the past 11 games. Kuemper wasn’t beaten by any of Los Angeles’ four shooters.
“We bent a few times, got hemmed in our end, but we didn’t break,’’ Kuemper said.
Added Niederreiter: “It wasn’t the prettiest win, but we held it together. [Kuemper] made some big, huge saves.’’
With virtually the entire first two periods spent in the Wild zone, Kuemper did everything possible to keep the shorthanded squad in a game it had no right to be in.
Through one period, the Wild was being outshot 17-5. Yet, the score was 0-0. Through two periods, the Wild was being outshot 30-9. Yet, the score still was 0-0 entering the second.
Those 30 saves through two periods already set a career high for Kuemper, who made 29 in his first career win last March against Detroit.
On one second-period power play, Kuemper made seven saves, including a robbery at the goalmouth on Justin Williams. A few minutes later, Kuemper stoned Dustin Brown as the Wild played a game of turning the puck over or chipping it out and changing. Keith Ballard, one of the assailants, was benched every second of the third period.
Fifty seconds into third, Torrey Mitchell and Kyle Brodziak couldn’t connect on a rare offensive chance in the Kings zone and it cost Minnesota. Dwight King flew up the ice and handed off to Jeff Carter, who circled the net and centered a cross-slot pass for Jarret Stoll, who buried it.
But 2:35 later, the Wild tied the score when Niederreiter, who was by far the Wild’s most dangerous player all game, scored his ninth goal and third in five games. Mikael Granlund took Ryan Suter’s stretch pass, fed Jason Pominville at the blue line, and Pominville set up Niederreiter in front of Jonathan Quick.
The Wild, one game after beating Washington despite being outshot 30-11, was outshot 40-17.
Backstrom, who missed last year’s playoffs because of a sports hernia, received a cortisone shot Monday to try to settle down what is being called abdominal stiffness. This is obviously a concern with Harding, who has multiple sclerosis, on injured reserve because he’s “not feeling well.”
But on this night, Kuemper looked completely comfortable. Maybe there was good reason.
The youngster was playing behind many of his teammates on the Iowa Wild and some of his teammates on last year’s Houston Aeros.
Ravaged by injury, the Wild dressed eight players 23 or younger, including five 21 or younger.
It was an impressive performance by Kuemper, especially considering he was pulled in his only previous Wild start this season in Toronto and had given up six goals on 16 shots in two appearances. Those efforts had given many fans reason to question his future the past two months.
“This was a chance to redeem myself,’’ Kuemper said. “My game is where I want it to be right now.”
Kuemper, the 2010-11 Canadian Hockey League Goalie of the Year and Western Hockey League Player of the Year and Goalie of the Year, has gotten his game together in Iowa.
Before getting hurt Dec. 20, Kuemper had been one of the three stars in seven of his past eight Iowa starts and saw his save percentage rise to .929, which is second in the American Hockey League.
Tuesday was Kuemper’s first game action in 2 ½ weeks and he showed no signs of rust.
“Kuemps stood on his head,’’ winger Matt Cooke said. “He was the difference.’’