ST. LOUIS – It would have been easy for Mike Yeo to give goaltender Darcy Kuemper a couple of mental days off and save him for Saturday’s pivotal tilt at Phoenix.
But one night after pulling Kuemper in a loss to Vancouver, the Wild coach threw the rookie into the lion’s den Thursday night against the St. Louis Blues. Kuemper gave up five goals on 24 shots in a 5-1 loss and has now given up at least three goals in six of his last eight starts.
“He battled through a very tough game,” Yeo said. “He put a lot on himself in this game, and that’s a good thing. I’ll be honest, I feel bad for him. I do. This is a guy, we wouldn’t even be sitting here in the position that we’re in if he didn’t give us the stretch of hockey that he’s given us.”
But the team decided sticking with Kuemper would be a huge development moment for the 23-year-old.
“Good goalies have games when they’re not at their best, they have stretches when they’re not at their best, but good goalies find a way to bounce back, find a way to get on top of their game,” Yeo said before the game. “That’s his challenge. This is as important to his development as a player as it is to our team.”
That’s because not only does the Wild have to figure out if Kuemper has the ability to be its No. 1 goalie next season, the team must decide whether he has what it takes if the Wild makes the playoffs.
“Coming in against a team like St. Louis, in their building, coming off the heels of a tough game, these are the kind of emotions and things that can get in your head that you have to deal with [in the postseason],” Yeo said. “For a goalie to be successful in the playoffs, they have to be able to deal with that stuff.
“He’s shown that he has the mental makeup. … If it was lightning in a bottle the way he was playing earlier, then we’d be scared. But we know that he’s going to get back to that level.”
Dany Heatley, once a feared goal scorer, has four shots in the past 11 games. He hasn’t scored since Feb. 27 and has only 12 goals in 74 games. He is minus-7 the past five games and a team-worst minus-18, playing starring roles in St. Louis’ two first-period goals Thursday.
Heatley has more power-play goals than any NHLer since 2001, but Thursday, Heatley committed two boo-boos that led to T.J. Oshie’s backbreaking shorthanded goal. First, Heatley couldn’t catch Ryan Suter’s pass on the entry, then turned the puck over on the second regroup. That led to a Jared Spurgeon turnover.
“Right now is not the time for me to talk about individuals,” Yeo said when asked about Heatley. “This was a team loss tonight.”
Yeo hasn’t yet scratched the proud veteran, but it could be coming.
“What I’ll say is he’s in the lineup tonight,” Yeo said before the game, adding: “We’ll treat everybody the same. The team always comes first.”
Justin Fontaine, who has 13 goals in 59 games and is plus-6, was scratched for the seventh time in 12 games.
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety didn’t discipline Wild winger Nino Niederreiter for his open-ice hit on Vancouver’s Alex Burrows on Wednesday.
From its Twitter account, the department explained that Niederreiter made “full body contact. In spite of some head contact, Nino Niederreiter hits squarely through the body. He does not pick the head.”
The NHL considers some head contact unavoidable on certain bodychecks. Burrows was uninjured on the play.