LOS ANGELES – Darcy Kuemper had to feel like Tom Hanks in the movie “Cast Away’’ on Friday night against the Los Angeles Kings: Stranded all alone on an island in the middle of nowhere.
The Wild goaltender, whose uneven play last season was one of the catalysts for the eventual Devan Dubnyk trade, did everything in his power during his season debut to make fans forget the Kuemper of last year and keep the Wild within one shot of a chance to remain unbeaten.
In a game in which the Wild looked dead-legged and fatigued, Kuemper was sensational, and the Wild finally found its legs in the third period and forced overtime to gain a point before Anze Kopitar scored for a 2-1 Kings victory.
"We just weren't in sync the first two periods. ... But, the biggest thing to me, the two positives are Kuemps and the way we responded in the third," Wild coach Mike Yeo said.
Not long after Kopitar was crushed by Matt Dumba and Dumba had a chance at one end, Kopitar scored the winner from between the circles. The goal was challenged for offside, but the goal was ruled good and the Wild suffered its first loss of the season.
Kuemper made 35 saves.
“We played one good period,” Wild forward Zach Parise said. “We were mediocre the first two. Kuemps made the big saves when we weren’t sharp.”
Despite the Wild being outshot by a more than 2-to-1 ratio through two periods, captain Mikko Koivu scored the tying goal 5 minutes, 37 seconds into the third period on a power play. With the Wild trying to set up the Ryan Suter to Zach Parise one-timer all advantage, Koivu was able to backhand Parise’s rebound by Jonathan Quick for his second goal in as many nights.
The Wild just didn’t have it the first two periods. The signs were evident early: Passes were in skates or out of reach of the intended recipient. Point-blank shots missed the net. Clears were fanned on and contact was avoided.
The Wild, playing for the second time in 24 hours, looked like it throughout. It wasn’t even so much that it played the previous night. That happens all the time in the NHL. But the way Thursday’s game at Arizona unfolded, the Wild got sloppy, took penalty after penalty and players who could have cruised to the finish and on to L.A. had to expend energy trying to hang on throughout the third period.
The Wild held on to win, but you had a sense it would have a lasting effect and the Wild’s legs would be mush Friday. Kuemper would have to be the safety net.
"That's the kind of stuff you need from your goaltender," Yeo said. "... I thought he was great all night long."
The Kings had scored two goals in nine periods before playing the Wild, and one even-strength goal. They had heard all week about how they looked slow, were feeble offensively and maybe had lasting effects from a down year last season and offseason turmoil.
And they never had opened the season with four consecutive losses.
"We knew what we were going to face tonight," Yeo said. "A winless team, and not like a team you expect to be winless at this point."
The Kings were going to be desperate, and they came out flying. Kuemper was spotless as the Wild was outshot 16-5 in the first period.
But for a second game in a row, the Wild got into penalty trouble. Marco Scandella took the first of three in a row by the Wild late in the first. It carried into the second, and with 12 seconds left, Erik Haula got caught flat-footed in the neutral zone against Jeff Carter, the Kings flew into Minnesota’s end and Milan Lucic set up Tyler Toffoli for a 1-0 lead.
Kuemper was defenseless. It was the Kings’ first power-play goal in 15 tries this season, and the fourth surrendered by the Wild. Haula has been on for all four after being on for seven power-play goals all of last season.
It’s amazing the Wild escaped the second period only behind by one goal. The Kings spent virtually every moment dancing around the Wild end.
But every step of the way, Kuemper covered up for tired, sloppy mistakes by his teammates. The Wild trailed 1-0 after two, but it was the Kings who had to be shaking their heads. The Wild was being outshot 32-14 through 40 minutes, but Kuemper either saved the day or the Kings slid pucks just wide of the cage. The shot attempts advantage for the Kings though two periods was 61-23: 32 shots on, 19 missed the net, 10 were blocked.
"We definitely weren't on top of it," Yeo said. "but I'm very proud and very pleased with the way we responded in the third period.