Josh Harding was forced to give up his role as the Wild’s No. 1 goalie for the game of Dec. 31, presumably due to complications with his multiple sclerosis. Niklas Backstrom played four of the first five games of 2014, winning three.
Darcy Kuemper started the middle game of that stretch. He made 39 saves in 40 shots and beat the Kings in Los Angeles. That was a major improvement on his previous start of this season — a loss in Toronto on Oct. 15 in which Kuemper gave up three goals on seven shots and was hooked.
The Wild went back to Kuemper for a game in Nashville on Jan. 12. He shut out the Predators with 23 saves.
The consecutive outstanding performances for Kuemper were beyond good timing; for the Wild they were season-saving.
Harding was out. Backstrom was having problems with a midsection injury that eventually would cause him to be lost for the season.
At that point, Kuemper was going to have to get it done, or the Wild might be tracking down Manny Fernandez to see what he was up to.
Kuemper started 16 games in a row. The only time off in a game from Jan. 12 to March 8 was when he was hooked in favor of Backstrom after giving up four goals in Colorado on Jan. 30.
That would turn out to be Backstrom’s last action of the season.
Kuemper gave up four goals again in an overtime loss at Calgary on Feb. 1. Was it panic time? Not for Kuemper.
The rookie came back to allow a total of six goals in five victories in a row before and after the Olympic break. It was a streak that put the Wild in a position that seemed to make a second consecutive playoff appearance a foregone conclusion.
That streak took the Wild to the trade deadline. The need for veteran goalie — just in case — was filled with the acquisition of Ilya Bryzgalov from Edmonton.
Kuemper gave up four goals in Dallas on March 8, the first night that Bryzgalov was available. On Saturday, Detroit’s Jimmy Howard made several outstanding saves, Kuemper was only OK, and the Wild lost 3-2 to the injury-ravaged Red Wings.
The Wild has lost five of Kuemper’s past six starts, and he’s allowed three goals or more in four of those. Add in two losses in Bryzgalov’s three starts and the Wild’s hold on a wild-card spot in the West is now six points over Dallas.
Coach Mike Yeo took a long time to arrive for his postgame media session. He came armed with a defense for anyone wanting to suggest the Wild was engaged in a third annual end-of-season fade with him as a coach.
As a reporter not fully experienced in Yeo’s postgame ways, I have to say that the coach came off as more paranoid over this March snag than was the media in attendance.
After reeling off the good stuff, Yeo added: “I’m not saying everything is peachy and glory …’’
I’m not sure, Mike, the guess is that’s not going to replace “peaches and cream’’ as a popular bromide.
What did seem interesting was Yeo’s reaction when asked to assess Kuemper’s play on Saturday, and as of late.
“I don’t know if it’s fair to evaluate him,’’ Yeo said. “That last goal, he could have that one, maybe, but the other two … what is he supposed to do?
“I’m not saying he’s on top of things like earlier, but I’m not concerned. He showed me in the past he can come back, and he will again.’’
So, that means there has been a perceptible decline in the young man’s play? Kuemper was asked how he’s dealing with life as a No. 1 goalie in the stretch of an NHL season.
“Great; it’s a lot of fun,’’ he said. “That’s why you’re here, to play. That’s the only way to help your team win.’’
Bryzgalov figures to start Sunday night in the rematch with Detroit.
“I haven’t heard,’’ Kuemper said. “If I get a chance to go back-to-back, I’m all for it. Either way, Bryz or me, we got to go into Detroit and win a game.’’
Please do so … for the coach, if no one else.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.