Other than ingesting some rotten chicken that caused him to miss the first game after the holiday break, Darcy Kuemper enjoyed his Christmas with family back in Saskatchewan.
The Wild goaltender relaxed and abided by coach Mike Yeo’s orders to turn the brain off and not think about hockey. Kuemper, whom the Wild so desperately needs if it wants to climb out of the hole it has dug itself, says he’s of clear mind now.
Two games after a dynamite performance in a win at Winnipeg, Kuemper outdueled Jonathan Bernier on Friday night to lift the Wild to a 3-1 victory over Toronto.
“I definitely feel like I’m in a better place mentally right now,” said Kuemper, who was pulled in four of his previous six home starts and had a 4.68 goals-against average and .810 save percentage in eight home games since Nov. 4.
“That was a pretty tough stretch for everyone. It does wear on you. Your confidence starts to sag a bit. But that break gave everyone a chance to go home and come back refreshed.”
The Wild, after opening the season 7-1 at home, had lost seven of its past nine home games (2-3-4) and four in a row (0-1-3). But Friday, it won for the first time at Xcel Energy Center since Dec. 9 on goals by Kyle Brodziak, Jared Spurgeon and Mikko Koivu.
The Wild, rattled by a tying goal the previous game at Columbus, brushed off a third-period tying goal from Cody Franson with top defensemen, Spurgeon and Ryan Suter, both in the penalty box.
Less than five minutes later, Spurgeon reached back to grab Charlie Coyle’s pass at the blue line, sped into the right circle, saw some daylight and ripped a bullet by Bernier for his first goal since Nov. 13.
Less than two minutes later and 11 seconds into a power play, Koivu one-timed Thomas Vanek’s filthy cross-slot pass for the Wild’s first two-goal cushion since Dec. 3.
The Wild, which leapfrogged the Stars to get back to 10th place heading in Saturday’s game at Dallas, pulled within five points of a playoff spot.
“We were far from perfect, but I thought it was a good, solid team win,” Yeo said. “We need games, period. That’s a good start. It’s far from an end result right now.”
Playing against a struggling Maple Leafs team that has lost six of eight, the Wild got plenty of good looks on Bernier and stayed patient as he kept turning pucks aside.
With the game scoreless in the second period and soon after Mike Santorelli had a goal disallowed for incidental contact on David Clarkson, Nino Niederreiter won a board battle, triggered a 2-on-1 and Brodziak had Coyle’s centering pass carom in off Bernier’s pad, then his skate for his fifth goal.
That gave the Wild, 7-7-4 in its past 18, life.
“We’ve had plenty of meetings here the last few weeks, so it was a nice to see a lot of guys bring energy and play a real hard game,” Vanek said.
Koivu was pleased the Wild got back to playing with structure. Even though the Wild was outshot 35-29, the Wild had the better of the chances.
“Every zone, our defensive effort was huge. That’s our identity,” Koivu said. “I believe we’re a tough team to play against when we’re on top of our game. You have to be a good defensively. I thought we did a good job on that for the whole 60 minutes.”
Like Monday’s victory at Winnipeg, Yeo made a conscious effort not to pump Kuemper up too much. As a youngster, Kuemper has struggled with consistency. That’s what the Wild needs from him now.
“It was a good game, for sure. I thought when we needed him, he was on it,” Yeo said. “Biggest thing with Kuemps, he’s got to build.”