Through five anger-inciting, angst-inspiring, grudge-forming, HD-quality playoff games, the Wild has proved that its skaters can go toe-drag to toe-drag with a highly skilled team.
What may decide Game 6, and perhaps the series, and perhaps the fate of the Wild over the next few seasons, will be whether the most important player on the ice can perform like — and deserves to be treated like — something other than a temp.
For the most important game in its past 10 years, the Wild will again rely on a 23-year-old rookie goaltender who was benched only a month ago.
In a game that could determine the near future of his career, Darcy Kuemper will match up with Gumby impersonator Semyon Varlamov, who’s so flexible that you wonder if the Avalanche had him deboned in the offseason like he was a big piece of corn-fed chicken.
There have been three pivotal factors in the series, which Colorado leads three games to two: Home ice (nobody has won on the road), Nathan McKinnon (the Avs’ phenom has 10 points), and goaltending.
Goaltending is the one that Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher controlled but didn’t fix last summer, and that he’s been trying to fix ever since, and may be trying to fix again as soon as Tuesday.
He started the season with broken-down Niklas Backstrom as his starter and Josh Harding, who has multiple sclerosis, as his backup.
Six months later, Backstrom is, predictably, hurt; Harding is out because of his MS; trade-deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov has been benched; and Kuemper had just given up four goals in an overtime loss.
Kuemper has a knack for giving up the occasional soft goal, as he did in Game 4. In Game 5, none of the goals allowed was necessarily his fault, but he didn’t make the kind of opponent-deflating save that can win a series.
The Wild’s season may be determined by the skills and nerves of an affable kid who was benched a month ago after losing four consecutive games in which he allowed 14 goals, and who is playing only because Bryzgalov spit the bit in the first two games.
“He’s been great,” Wild captain Mikko Koivu said of Kuemper.
The Avalanche might not agree.
“I don’t think we tested him much in Minny,” P.A. Parenteau said of Games 3 and 4. “He had it pretty easy. We made life a little harder on him [in Game 5]. We have to keep doing that.”
If Kuemper is worried, he doesn’t need a mask to hide it. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “ You get to get out there and obviously, being a goalie, you can always be a bit of a difference. It’s a lot of fun and it’s something you grow up dreaming about.”
Except that no one grows up dreaming about losing playoff games. “I felt like I made a lot of saves in there,” he said. “I felt pretty good. You’re a minute away from wining 3-2, and then all of a sudden it’s 4-3.”
Avs coach Patrick Roy, whose accent is the linguistic equivalent of Bearnaise sauce, has subtly probed psyches all series. Everything he says has a purpose. So it’s fair to read a critique of Kuemper into what he said Sunday:
“We scored four on their goalie yesterday. He came in midway in the second period in Game 2, he played really well and then we could not score in Game 3 and it started to get into our head.
“Now, scoring four goals yesterday we started to have better looks and we start to know we can beat this guy, which is very positive going there. It’s a big difference in Game 6.”
The challenges are coming at him like power-play slapshots now: From Roy’s tongue, MacKinnon’s speed, his teammates’ desperation, his coach’s expectations, and from the little kid inside him who wanted to be a No. 1 goalie playing for the Cup.