CHICAGO – Since early January, Darcy Kuemper has started one game — a win in Nashville that helped the Wild tie the NHL record for longest road winning streak (12 games) — and replaced Devan Dubnyk three times (totaling 79 minutes, 20 seconds) in goal.
But the 24-year-old insists that while at times there may be "trying moments," this has not been a wasted season. Kuemper says he has learned a lot by watching Dubnyk, particularly the fact that it's acceptable to be loose and relaxed on game days as opposed to being tight and singularly focused.
Dubnyk has been a revelation since arriving from Arizona. He talks to teammates and the press on game days, jokes around and plays pregame soccer contests. Kuemper has a similar personality, but he says since coming to the NHL, he started to change his pregame demeanor to be more like Niklas Backstrom.
He figured that's the way pros do it, especially since being in a zone worked for Backstrom, the Wild's career leader in victories.
"It's good to see someone [Dubnyk] who has the same approach because it allows you to feel like that's OK to approach the game like that, know what I mean?" Kuemper said. "It gives you another side of things."
Kuemper said as he began to struggle this past winter, he became more uptight as opposed to reverting to his relaxed, happy-go-lucky demeanor.
He also has studied how Dubnyk plays the game.
"We are both bigger guys … and I'm picking up a lot of things and trying to apply them to my game and make them ingrained in how I play," Kuemper said. "I'm sure you've heard him talk about his forward leaning, eye on the puck, hands in the front. I've been working on a lot of that stuff and I feel it's helping a lot."
This has been a season of ups and downs for Kuemper, who can no longer be sent to the minors in his career without clearing waivers. Asked if he is concerned that may hamper his development, particularly if it could force the Wild to use him as a backup next season, Kuemper said, "No."
"It's how you approach practice," he said. "You can't just check out and kind of give up. You've got to stick with it and keep practicing hard and staying in shape off the ice. I think it could affect you but only if you let it."
In the meantime, Kuemper will stay ready.
"That's your job as a backup goalie. You've got to stay sharp," he said. "Obviously Devan is doing a great job, so if everything goes well I won't have to go in there. But even the last series I got some playing time. So you've just got to stay ready. More importantly, I'm trying to be supportive of him."
Dubnyk, announced as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy before Game 5 of the first round, was thrilled to be named a finalist for the Masterton Trophy on Thursday.
One reason he was nominated by the Twin Cities chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association was the way he persevered past last year's turmoil of being on three teams and in the minors before coming to Minnesota in January and resurrecting its dying season.
"That's a completely different side of it compared to the Vezina," Dubnyk said. "It's been a big story and a big part of my life over the last year turning it around, so to get that recognition, I'm certainly honored."
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville discussed Friday morning just how much the Wild has improved since Chicago first played Minnesota in a first-round playoff series in 2013.
"Minny is probably the most disciplined team as far as being positionally aware of denying either access through the middle of the ice, through the zone, to the middle of the net," said Quenneville, who added that the Wild is "as good a checking team as you're going to see, that we've faced all year."
New lid for Crow
Chicago goalie Corey Crawford started his first game Friday since Game 2 of Chicago's series against Nashville on April 17. He gave up nine goals in the first two games against Nashville and didn't see action against until he replaced Scott Darling in Game 6.
At Friday's morning skate before facing the Wild, Crawford unveiled a new mask.
"He's had that other mask pretty much the whole season, so it's nice to mix it up," Darling said. "It looks sharp."
The new lid features a feather headdress on top of a black base with two different Blackhawks logos on either side. Crawford's number 50 stands out in red across the chin.
•The Wild lost fourth-line right winger Justin Fontaine with 8:19 left in the second period because of a lower-body injury.