Minnesota Wild rookie goaltender Darcy Kuemper was not supposed to have an impact on the Wild’s playoff-opening series with the Chicago Blackhawks, but he did. In the face of a goaltending nightmare that saw Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding injured, Minnesota looked to its brightest hope between the pipes – Kuemper.
It’s harsh to grade the young goalie’s performance because he was called on in an unimaginably challenging situation. In Game 4 of the Wild – ‘Hawks series, just two days after his 23rd birthday, Kuemper was called onto the ice to replace Harding, who was the victim of a collision with ‘Hawks forward Jonathon Toews.
Entering the game, Kuemper had just three NHL starts under his belt (1-2) and three reliefs during Backstrom’s bad nights. He had been starting for the Houston Aeros in the AHL affiliate’s playoff push, but after Backstrom’s unbelievable warm-ups injury, Kuemper was an emergency call up.
As the lights came up for the second period, it was Kuemper leading the Wild down the tunnel to face the NHL’s best team. What a situation to step into.
Unfortunately for his morale and the Wild’s, the rookie succumbed to the playoff atmosphere and whatever nerves he was feeling – he was beaten on his first shot faced, a testing wrister from Patrick Sharp. As Sharp’s puck hit the twine, you could almost feel the air go out of the Excel Center
From there, though, Kuemper settled in and played well. He gave up one more goal to finish with a .889 SV% stopping 16 of 18 shots faced.
Harding heroically attempted to start Game 5, but was pulled in the second period after allowing three goals. Again, Kuemper was called on to take over in an uphill battle.
This time, the rookie was more stable. In just over a period and a half of ice time, Kuemper faced 15 shots and made 13 saves for a .867 SV%. One of his two goals allowed came on a Chicago power play.
All in all, Kuemper saw minor minutes in the grand scheme of the Wild’s five-game struggle to overcome the league’s goliath. The fact that he was there, though, will speak strongly as the Wild look toward next season.
There are questions surrounding free agent Backstrom, and obviously some concerns for Harding’s health. Harding has been nothing but optimistic about his ability – asked if he’d be ready to be a No. 1 next year, playing 50-60 games, he did the media one better and said he’d like to play 82.
That’s not at all bad for Kuemper, who could benefit from logging a few more AHL minutes. When he was called up to join the Wild’s losing playoff effort, Kuemper had recently posted a 36-save shutout win over Grand Rapids in the Aeros’ first game of the playoffs.
Players aren’t graded on effort, though – they’re graded on results and their performances on the ice. In this writer’s eyes, Kuemper earned himself a C- in his two stand-in appearances in the Wild’s postseason.
His combined .879 SV% ranked 18th of 20 goaltenders active in the playoffs. Being beaten by his first shot faced and another off the ‘Hawks power play didn’t help.
This all places a lot of focus on a player that realistically should have had no bearing on the series – and who knows what Kuemper’s impact would have looked like if the Wild were supporting him on the offensive side of the puck.