The Wild might be six points up on a playoff spot with nine games left, but after Wednesday’s 5-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks, the team’s postseason chances hardly seem secure.
Despite outshooting the Canucks dramatically, the Wild still was maddeningly unable to finish and perhaps more alarmingly got another below-par performance from second-half savior Darcy Kuemper.
In a critical game before the Wild begins a four-game trip Thursday in St. Louis, the 6-5 rookie goalie was yanked after giving up three goals on 12 shots through 40 minutes to the NHL’s 28th-ranked offense.
It was the fifth time in seven starts Kuemper has given up at least three goals.
“I’m not happy with the game,” said Kuemper, who has won two of his past eight starts. “I just have to help the guys out a little better.”
Kuemper said he is still feeling good technically, but three pucks whizzed by a glove that has been exposed a lot lately, and two of those goals (albeit through screens) came with Kuemper standing in the middle of his crease rather than challenging up top.
Kuemper looked dejected the final minute of the second period. He wandered to the corner, chugged from his water bottle and bent down staring at the ice after Zack Kassian outbattled Charlie Coyle for a loose puck after a faceoff and fired by two bodies for a goal with 56.1 seconds left in the period.
“It’s up to us to make sure it doesn’t [rattle Kuemper],” Wild coach Mike Yeo said. “That’s our job, right? We’ll have a conversation with him.”
Ilya Bryzgalov replaced Kuemper to start the third period, gave up two goals, and the Wild, which couldn’t buy a goal the last two periods despite some glorious chances, fell to 1-2-3 in its past six at home.
“We’ve almost approached these [home] games with, I want to say, a bit of an arrogance almost,” Yeo said.
Down 3-1, the Wild had a 24-12 shot advantage. Still, Yeo said, even when the Wild was outchancing the Canucks, “it didn’t quite have the right feel.”
Yeo felt the Wild didn’t carry the same urgency from Sunday’s overtime victory at Detroit into Wednesday’s game. He felt it was reflective offensively, where the Wild didn’t have the same attack-the-net mentality, to defensively, where it gave up odd-man rushes and point-blank shots, to the 0-for-4 train wreck of a power play.
With the score tied 1-1 in the second after Coyle scored for the third consecutive game, the Wild ended a power play by throwing the puck around frantically in its own zone. Finally, Jared Spurgeon fanned on a D-to-D pass, David Booth picked it up and blasted the go-ahead goal past Kuemper.
The turning point came minutes later when defenseman Alex Edler robbed Zach Parise of a tying power-play goal by sweeping the puck off the goal line.
“We’ve got to bury those,” Parise said. “That’s on us. That’s not the goaltender’s fault.”
Still, Kuemper has given up ill-timed goals recently, backbreaking for a team that ranks 26th in scoring. Yeo recalled how when Kuemper gave up eight goals in two starts at Colorado and Calgary earlier this season, he called it Kuemper’s “biggest challenge.”
Kuemper responded by making 34 saves in a 2-1 victory over Tampa Bay, the first of five consecutive wins.
“This is probably a bigger challenge,” Yeo said. “I know he has the ability, and it’s up to us to pull it out of him.”
Yeo didn’t know if he’d start Kuemper on Thursday, the first of a critical four-game trip that continues at Phoenix, Los Angeles and Chicago.
“Right now it’s frustrating, but the only way to get it back is play a good game [Thursday] night,” captain Mikko Koivu said.