NEW YORK – Kaapo Kahkonen will try to keep his routine the same, listening to music or chatting with teammates during the bus ride to the arena.
But when he gets dropped off at Prudential Center on Tuesday in New Jersey, what happens next will be a first for the goalie.
Kahkonen will make his NHL debut with the Wild against the Devils in the team’s final test on a three-game road trip, a milestone night his family will be able to share with him.
“It’s great,” Kahkonen said. “My first game in the NHL, obviously that’s a big moment for me. And for them I think they might even be more excited. [But] I will be excited.”
Summoned from the American Hockey League last week to back up Alex Stalock, who started Monday against the Rangers while Devan Dubnyk is away from the team because of a family matter, Kahkonen will be the seventh goalie to play his first NHL game with the Wild.
In the preseason, he earned a start in Winnipeg and found a groove after giving goals on the first two shots.
“We played against a good team over there,” Kahkonen recalled. “Obviously, the start for me wasn’t really good. After that, I felt pretty good in that game. I feel confident that I’ll be good for [Tuesday].”
The 23-year-old, who was drafted in the fourth round 109th overall in 2014 by the Wild, was also with the team earlier this season — sitting as the understudy for two games when Dubnyk was sidelined by injury. And that facetime with the team has helped Kahkonen get familiar with who will be on the ice with him Tuesday.
“Obviously, it helps a lot,” he said. “You get to know the guys a little bit and see a couple games and see the coaches in the practice and video sessions explain the systems and stuff like that. We try to go over what’s my responsibility and what’s the other guys’ responsibility.”
It’s been quite some time since a goalie has debuted for the Wild — not since Darcy Kuemper on Feb.12, 2013.
“He’s probably going to be a little nervous, so I’m hoping the team will play really good in front of him to get him sort of into it,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “If we recall the preseason game in Winnipeg, it was his first NHL game. The first two shots went in. The third one almost went in, and then he settled down and was unbeatable after that. So, I’m hoping those nerves have gone and he plays great. He’s a good goalie, so I anticipate him playing really good.”
With Dubnyk expected to return to practice Thursday, Kahkonen’s stint with the Wild could end soon. But when he returns to Iowa, he’ll carry the distinction of being someone who’s played in the NHL — a memory he’ll make with his parents Nina and Juha and stepfather Timo in the crowd. All three were scheduled to arrive from Finland on Monday evening for Kahkonen’s debut.
“We flew them in,” Boudreau said, “so he’s playing.”
Winger Mats Zuccarello was greeted with a standing ovation in his return to Madison Square Garden, a tribute after playing more than 500 games with the Rangers before getting traded to the Stars last season.
Zuccarello, who signed as a free agent with the Wild in July, waved to the crowd and tapped his chest from the bench after a tribute video played during the first TV timeout. But as the cheers continued to roll in, he hopped onto the ice and took a small skate as he continued to wave.
A fan favorite while with New York, spectators holding Zuccarello signs and jerseys lined the Wild’s end of the rink for the warm-up skate. And the crowd chanted his name throughout the evening.
“I had a great relationship with everyone here for many years. It was unbelievable for me. I had to fight back some tears there. It was big. It was a really good moment for me and my family in the stands, too.”