One giant reason the Wild has avoided a third consecutive December swoon with a 7-2-2 record heading into the Christmas break is the stellar play of goaltenders Devan Dubnyk and Darcy Kuemper.
Just consider the state of the Wild goaltending last December.
Heading into January, the Wild was desperately searching for a goaltender on the trade market because in December Kuemper went 2-4 with a 3.14 goals-against average and .885 save percentage, Niklas Backstrom went 2-1-2 with a 3.43 goals-against average and .883 save percentage and third goalie John Curry gave up four goals in an overtime loss to Winnipeg.
Things only got worse in January when Kuemper and Backstrom combined for a 1-5-1 record with 30 goals allowed before the Dubnyk trade with Arizona on Jan. 14.
So far this month, Dubnyk has gone 3-2 with a 1.83 goals-against average, .939 save percentage and two shutouts and Kuemper 4-0-2 with a 1.26 goals-against average, .947 save percentage and one shutout.
It’s a big reason the Wild has 42 points in 33 games. To put that in perspective, the Wild eclipsed the 42-point mark in Game 43 last season — Dubnyk’s debut in Buffalo.
Kuemper’s resurrection has been the brightest story line this month. The 25-year-old, who has always had the physical tools but sometimes fell apart when facing adversity, has restored the faith of management, the coaching staff and his teammates in him.
He said after shutting out San Jose on Dec. 12 “that mentally” he was “in a good focused state.” He has worked hard in practice at tracking pucks and controlling rebounds and after Tuesday’s win over Montreal, Kuemper said it “keeps translating into games.”
Asked if he needed to play this way to remind himself he was still capable, Kuemper said: “No, I honestly knew I still could. I was just waiting for my chance to get in there and prove it.
“Looking back at last year, it was just a tough stretch of games. Everyone goes through slumps, but unfortunately the way the season went, I never got the chance to get back in there and get out of it.”
Coach Mike Yeo said Kuemper “seemed more confident than anybody else that he was capable of it, and that’s not to say we doubted him. It’s just he was up and down last year. He was even up and down to start this year really even though he didn’t play in a lot of games.
“But his actions tell us that he was telling the truth. He really did believe he had that confidence in himself.”
Kuemper is an affable, well-liked member of the Wild.
“His confidence is sky high right now, too,” center Charlie Coyle said. “It’s nice to have a guy back there like him and Dubnyk. We have so much confidence in those guys. I think [Kuemper’s] got points in his last however many games [seven], and at the start of that we weren’t even helping him that much.
“He was shutting the door and we weren’t playing to our capabilities. Now we’re starting to help out more and more, and he’s still shutting the door for us, and that’s huge. That’s what’s going to get us wins down the road here.”
Kuemper’s starts this season when Dubnyk has been healthy have been saved for back-to-back situations. Asked if there’s a chance he may spot Kuemper in more traditional starts, Yeo said, smirking, “I don’t know. I’ve got Christmas break to think about that stuff.”
Yeo said the three-day respite from hockey will be good for the Wild.
“I think we can still get better as a team,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for them to get some rest and turn the brains off and hopefully have a great time with their families. And then when we come back, we’ll have to make sure we get refocused quickly.
“That game the 26th [against Pittsburgh] is always a tough one,” Yeo said.
“Without a few practices, you don’t always know what you’re going to get, but we’ve got to find a way to make sure we’re ready to play a real smart game.”