The Minnesota Wild have gone 7-3-0 in their past ten games, including seven of the past nine. All for the most part without the services of No. 1 goalie Josh Harding, top line forwards Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu, and top-4 defenseman Jared Spurgeon. In their absence, players have stepped up, namely the four “big” forward young guns, Nate Prosser on defense and the hulking Darcy Kuemper in the crease. Niklas Backstrom–up to this season the best goalie in franchise history–has played well recently, aside from a 4-2 loss to Colorado back on January 11th. For now, however, it appears the net has gone to the youngsters as Backstrom joins Harding on the shelf.
The news broke earlier today that Backstrom will be off the ice for a while as he continues to suffer from a “nagging lower body injury”. Harding (MS medication issues), who seemed to be making major progress as he had resumed practicing with the club, has also taken a step back on his road to recovery. He has missed nine consecutive games and 13 in the past 15 since a tweak was made to his medication.
That said, it’s a good thing Kuemper continues to play well. The big 6’5″ rookie netminder has been the team’s go-to guy lately, starting four straight games and five of the last seven and is 4-1 with a 1.37 goals against average, a .957 save percentage and a shutout in the past five games. With no back-to-backs between now and the Olympic break, there’s a good chance Kuemper starts every game. However, every Batman needs a Robin, so Swedish rookie Johan Gustafsson has been recalled by the club to back him up.
After a few rough games early in the season, Kuemper seems to have hit his stride and feels like his game is in a good place right now.
“Things have been going pretty good, so I’m confident every time I go in there,” said Kuemper. “With the situation right now, I’ve gotten an opportunity to play, so I just have to do my best to give the team a chance to win every night.”
It’s not like he’s never been a No. 1 goalie before. Kuemper spent three seasons (2008-11) with Red Deer of the Western Hockey League, nearly sweeping the league’s goaltending awards his final season when he won Top Goaltender, Player of the Year, Best Save Percentage, Best Goals Against Average and–most impressively–was given the distinction of being the Canadian Hockey League Goaltender of the Year as the best goalie to play in the WHL, Ontario Hockey League and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the 2010-11 season. Oh yeah–he’s been pretty good in the ECHL and AHL the past few seasons, too.
Head Coach Mike Yeo knows his star young netminder hasn’t been thrust into the best of situations, but is confident he has the ability to step up and answer the call.
“Sometimes your third goalie is called upon to back up and maybe play a game here or there, but he’s been thrown into more of a starting role for us and he’s taken that opportunity,” said Yeo. “Good for him and good for us. I just read a quote the other day that opportunities multiply as they’re seized and he’s living by that right now.”
In the meantime, former Wild goaltender and current free agent Jose Theodore is sitting in his home in Florida, staring intently at the phone with Lionel Richie’s “Hello” playing loudly in the background. He’s one of a few options available to Minnesota GM Chuck Fletcher, who may also look to make a trade if the team’s goalie situation continues to destabilize.
In other news, Jonas Brodin does seem to be okay after taking a brutal high stick early in the third period of Saturday night’s 3-2 overtime win over the Dallas Stars on Hockey Day Minnesota 2014. Brodin fell stunned to the ice and appeared to lose quite a bit of blood before finally making it down the tunnel to the locker room. He would get back into the game a little later, a little bloody but no worse for wear, and was quick to congratulate Prosser on his second consecutive game-winning goal.
In addition to Gustafsson, Minnesota has also recalled defenseman Jonathon Blum from Iowa of the American Hockey League. It’s unknown whether he’ll be in the lineup tomorrow night as the team takes on the Stars in Dallas. According to the Star Tribune’s Michael Russo, fourth line role player Mike Rupp has also been rotating in and out on the team’s fourth line in practice. It’s possible he finds himself back in the game in an important divisional matchup.
Most importantly, top line left winger Zach Parise, has cast off his yellow “no contact” jersey, meaning he’s a major step closer to game action. In fact, by all accounts, that could come as early as Thursday night against the division-leading Chicago Blackhawks. The Wild’s young guns, solid defense and exceptional goaltending has been enough to keep them afloat amid injuries to big players, but there’s no question the addition of a player the caliber of Parise to the lineup would go a long way towards helping the team keep up with and contain a difficult Blackhawks squad.
For now, the Blackhawks are a couple days away. Tomorrow, the focus will be on the Stars–a struggling team that still has the potential to decisively seize a game from the clutches of even the healthiest, most talented team in the league. Tomorrow is another day and another bloody battle in the ultra competitive Western Conference. We’ll see you then.