Forty-eight hours removed from a clunker against the Edmonton Oilers, Kuemper was nearly perfect in a 29-save performance that led the Wild to an important 2-1 win against the New York Rangers at Xcel Energy Center.
The victory snapped a three-game losing streak for the Wild (35-22-9), who moved five points ahead of the Dallas Stars for the first Western Conference wild-card spot in the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Minnesota is six points clear of the ninth-place Phoenix Coyotes, who lost 2-1 to the Boston Bruins.
"Huge win; can't let too many games slip away this time of year," Kuemper said. "Huge points tonight, and just the way we played; I think we got back to our identity."
Kuemper made 16 of his saves in the third period and kept the Rangers off the board during a frantic final few minutes. The Rangers (35-28-4) got a late power play after Wild forward Kyle Brodziak flipped the puck over the glass for a delay of game penalty with 3:20 remaining. New York pulled goaltender Cam Talbot for a 6-on-4 advantage with 1:40 to go and kept firing away but could not get the puck past Kuemper, who got as big as he could in his net as the puck pinballed around in the crease. He finally pounced on a loose puck with :00.4 left on the clock.
"A big win, tough game," Wild coach Mike Yeo said. "Getting wins, and finding ways to get wins like this … there's going to be a lot of games that don't feel perfect at the end of the game. We're going to be playing against a lot of desperate teams."
It was a measure of redemption for Kuemper, who said he didn't feel too much pressure after surrendering three goals on 26 shots and allowing three of four shooters to score in the shootout Tuesday. The Wild staked Kuemper to a 3-0 lead, but the Oilers left with a 4-3 win.
"Maybe a little before the game, a little bit," Kuemper said when asked about pressure. "But once you get out there, it's just another game and you just try and do what you've done all year. As a whole, I think we did that."
Yeo said one of the things he wanted to see Thursday was his team score "playoff-type" goals. Zach Parise's game-winner was the just that.
Mikael Granlund took the puck hard from the right corner to the front of the net but was shut down by Talbot. Jason Pominville got two whacks at the rebound in front before Parise tucked a fourth shot between Talbot and the left post at 1:03 of the third period for his 23rd of the season, breaking a 1-1 tie.
"[Talbot] made a couple of good saves. A really smart play by Granlund to attack the net and realize he had room," Parise said. "That's what started the play and at that point in the game, we needed to start getting pucks into the crease."
The Rangers, usually solid in their own zone, were unhappy with their coverage on Parise's goal.
"It's unacceptable," forward Rick Nash said. "When the puck is there, the wingers have to crash down and everyone has to take a guy. I think we were out of position and they capitalized. Cam made the first two or three saves, but we can't expect him to make all of them. We need to be better."
Minnesota scored 13:08 into the game to grab a 1-0 lead, capitalizing on a turnover by the Rangers in their own zone. Defenseman John Moore chased down a dump-in and backhanded a pass to Nash at the bottom of the left circle. Nash wasn't ready for the pass, and the puck caromed to Wild forward Nino Niederreiter in the slot; he one-timed a shot past Talbot for his 12th goal of the season.
"I liked the two goals that we scored. Those are the kinds of goals that you score in the playoffs," Yeo said. "Those are the kinds of goals we have to score moving forward. That was one of the keys to our game, we needed a playoff offense mentality."
The Rangers took advantage of another Brodziak penalty early in the second period to tie the score. Seconds after ripping a shot off the crossbar, Minnesota native Derek Stepan fired a shot through traffic that squeezed between Kuemper and the near-side post at 3:19 for his 12th of the season.
But that was all the goal-scoring the Rangers could muster, although they did outshoot the Wild 30-26.
Playoff-type goals or not, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault would settle for any type of offense at this point. New York has scored two goals while losing the first two legs of a quick three-game road trip that concludes Friday against the Winnipeg Jets.
"We're not scoring a lot of goals 5-on-5," said Vigneault, whose team dropped behind the Columbus Blue Jackets into third place in the Metropolitan Division. "I thought our effort was better tonight, our execution was a little bit better but we need to finish more and obviously that wasn't the case tonight."
Talbot, playing for the first time since Feb. 27 after Henrik Lundqvist made six consecutive starts, made 24 saves. Lundqvist is expected to start Friday against the Jets.