Mike Yeo said after tonight’s 2-1 shootout win by the Wild over the Los Angeles Kings that Darcy Kuemper “looked like a different goalie tonight.”
Looking back now, you could almost sense it this morning. He was just cool, calm and collected before his surprise start for a sore Niklas Backstrom. Kuemper, 23, had no external signs of being nervous. He was yucking it up with teammates, on the floor of the locker room stretching, shooting the breeze with me.
There were no jitters, no anxiety about going out against the Kings and proving to the organization, the fans, his teammates, himself that he can play at this level.
Kuemper had two rocky appearances earlier this season, including in his lone start at Toronto, a game the Wild dominated. But Kuemper gave up three goals on only seven shots through 32 ½ minutes before being pulled. After another tough outing in relief of Josh Harding in Montreal, people started questioning whether this kid can play in the NHL, if the Wild traded the wrong goalie in the Jason Pominville swap.
But Kuemper went down to Iowa, got his game in order, had been on fire before getting hurt Dec. 20 and came back to Minnesota with the AHL’s second-best save percentage.
Tonight, Kuemper was scintillating right from the drop of the puck. In a game the Wild was outshot 40-17, in a game where the majority of the first two periods were spent in Minnesota’s end, Kuemper made a career-high 39 saves for his second career win. He stopped all 30 shots he saw in the first 40 minutes, denied studs Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Justin Williams in the shootout and helped lift the depleted Wild to its third consecutive win and second in the past 11 road games.
“He was unbelievable,” said Nino Niederreiter (more on him below). “He’s a great goalie. He had a chance to showcase himself tonight. He made some big, huge saves and kept us in the game. He was over his mind sometimes. He made some big saves for us, even in the shootout.”
Said the Kings' Jarret Stoll: "Got to give him credit for sure. He made some big saves. He doesn't have a lot of experience in this league but he's a big guy, moves well, is very athletic and worked hard to see pucks."
This was the same Kuemper that gave up six goals on 16 shots in two appearances earlier this season.
“It was a chance to redeem myself,” Kuemper said. “My game’s at a place where I want it to be right now. I tried not to change anything up here.”
Kuemper said after he got his first few shots on net, he settled down, which was a far cry from the Toronto game, where he barely saw a shot. That put a ton of pressure on him in a game the Wild dominated but couldn’t score.
Most impressive about tonight is the fact that Kuemper was making his first start since being hurt with Iowa 2 ½ weeks ago. Remember, he was supposed to come to New York and back up Backstrom and start in Philadelphia the next night. But in a 44-save shutout against Hamilton, Kuemper was hurt when he bowled over in the final seconds.
“As much as he didn’t feel like he performed as well as he could have, he didn’t pout about it,” veteran Matt Cooke said. “He went down and played his butt off in the minors. Through injury, he’s back here and has to play. I give him tons of kudos.”
Nino Niederreiter, who scored the tying goal in the third period 2:35 after Jarret Stoll gave the Kings a 1-0 lead, scored his first career shootout goal in Round 4 after Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville and Charlie Coyle couldn’t beat Jonathan Quick. Remember, the Wild’s go-to shootout guys are back in Minnesota hurt – Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise.
Niederreiter said Cooke gave him a scouting report before his attempt, saying he saw a lot of room on Quick’s blocker side. So Niederreiter deked, went blocker and buried it.
His goal in the third was his third in five games and ninth of the season. It came two shifts after Yeo reunited the Niederreiter-Granlund-Pominville line. Ryan Suter sent a stretch pass to Granlund, who hit Pominville at the blue line. Pominville set up Niederreiter as he drove the net.
Niederreiter was by far the Wild’s most dangerous player. He had four shots and five hits in addition to his tying goal and shootout goal.
Yeo called it a “statement.”
The Wild was outshot 30-11 against Washington and won 5-3. Tonight, it was outshot 40-17 and got hemmed in its zone for many extended shifts in the second in particular.
Yeo tried to call time but couldn’t get a whistle when the Wild was “turning pucks over left and right.” I mentioned on Twitter at the time and Yeo brought it up afterward, but there was a TV timeout and you could just see Yeo trying to get his squad to chill.
He said from that moment, the team was better.
One of the guys turning pucks over left and right was Keith Ballard. He didn’t play a shift after the 11:18 mark of the second period. So with overtime, he was benched for the final 33 minutes, 42 seconds.
“I don’t even know if that’s what we want to call it,” Yeo said when asked about benching Ballard.
OK, Yeo chose not to play him.
“We were running with the guys that were going at that point,” Yeo said. “We had to do different things to try to get to our game.”
Still, Wild need road wins. It got one tonight minus Koivu, Parise, Harding and Jared Spurgeon.
“It was ugly, but sometimes on the road, you’ve got to find a way,” Cooke said. “Kuemps stood on his head. He was the difference. We hung in there. It’s not going to be perfect every night. We’re missing some key components to our hockey club, so we’ve got to find ways to win.”
Onto Phoenix. Talk to you Wednesday after the team’s late afternoon practice.