Darcy Kuemper began the Wild’s playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks as the Houston Aeros’ No. 1 goalie in the minor league playoffs.
Now, after four games, he’s the Wild’s only healthy goalie on the roster. That’s never a good sign for any team, especially one that’s suddenly clinging to its playoff life.
Kuemper, a rookie who turned 23 on Sunday, replaced an injured Josh Harding in the second period of Game 4 on Tuesday and promptly gave up a soft goal on the first shot he faced in a 3-0 loss to the Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center.
“As a backup, your job is to be ready if you’re needed,” Kuemper said. “No excuses. I’ve got to be focused and ready to go in there.”
The question now becomes whether Kuemper, Harding or Niklas Backstrom draws the starting assignment in an elimination Game 5 in Chicago on Thursday night.
Or someone else. The Wild is suddenly running out of goalies.
By the way, anyone have a number for Manny Fernandez?
Harding appeared to injure his left leg in a first period collision with Chicago’s Jonathan Toews on a breakaway. Toews missed the shot but ended up on top of Harding, who got up slowly flexing his left knee.
During a stoppage a few minutes later, athletic trainer Don Fuller came on the ice to check on Harding, who tested his knee before finishing the period. He clearly didn’t look comfortable, especially when he was forced to pop up after going down for a save, and he skated gingerly to the bench at the end of the period with the Wild trailing 1-0.
Harding’s status remained unknown until the videoboard showed Kuemper leading the team down the tunnel from the locker room before the second period.
“Obviously it’s not the easiest thing to do, but it’s your job as a backup,” he said. “I just tried to get ready and focused as quick as I could.”
The rookie appeared in only six games this season, posting a 1-2 record in three starts. The team made him an emergency call-up after Backstrom suffered a lower-body injury during warm-ups in Game 1. The team hasn’t divulged the extent of Backstrom’s injury, but he still was not healthy enough to assume the backup role for Game 4. His timetable for return presumably will get accelerated now by Harding’s injury.
Backstrom actually got dressed into his goalie gear and watched the third period from the bench. According to league rules, he was eligible to play even though he was initially scratched because of Harding’s injury. That was preferable to Game 1 when Harding played without a backup.
This was an unfortunate break for Harding. He had played well in relief of Backstrom the first three games of the series and continued to serve as an inspiration to many by the courage he’s displayed in battling multiple sclerosis.
Even if Backstrom is not 100 percent — and he’s likely not — the Wild needs him in Game 5 to have any chance against a talented Blackhawks team looking to close out a series in what figures to be a hostile United Center.
That’s too much to ask of Kuemper, who didn’t exactly script a banner start to his NHL playoff debut. Kuemper gave up a goal 1 minute, 2 seconds into the period on a routine wrist shot by Patrick Sharp.
Welcome to the playoffs, rook.
“It wasn’t a good goal,” Kuemper said. “It’s a tough situation to go into, but no excuses. Not a goal I’d like to let in.”
Kuemper entered the game in a tough spot, and Zach Parise didn’t help the cause by committing a turnover that led to Sharp’s goal. That misadventure gave Chicago a 2-0 lead and sucked the life out of Xcel Energy Center. Fans probably feared an onslaught approaching at that point.
Kuemper settled in after his shaky start, but it hardly mattered because the Hawks tightened the screws defensively and blocked a boatload of shots to help their goalie, Corey Crawford.
That highlighted a different problem: If the Wild can’t score, it doesn’t matter who’s in goal.