VANCOUVER - Darcy Kuemper survived a trial by fire on Tuesday night.
The Wild decided to have the rookie goaltender make his NHL debut in Minnesota's narrow 2-1 defeat to the Canucks, a bold move since the team has struggled in Vancouver for years.
Minnesota hasn't won in British Columbia since an overtime victory back in January 2009, and Kuemper — possibly free of the Rogers Arena curse — did all he could to keep his team in the hunt to snap that drought, finishing with 28 saves.
The 22-year-old was recalled from the Houston Aeros, Minnesota's American Hockey League affiliate, on Monday but only found out on Tuesday morning that he would be starting in place of Josh Harding, who was feeling the effects of medication to treat his multiple sclerosis.
"It was a shock but I was very excited," the Saskatoon-born goalie said of the call-up. "I was excited to get the opportunity and it has been a lifelong dream of mine to play in the NHL.
"So to get that experience was awesome."
Kuemper admitted to feeling "numb" before the warm-up at Rogers Arena, but some quiet words of encouragement from veteran Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo managed to relax him.
"We were stretching there at the red-line, and (Luongo) tapped me on the pads and said 'good luck, play your game'," said Kuemper.
"So that kind of helped calm me down too, that was awesome of him. He is one guy I've been watching for the past five or six years trying to emulate his game, so yeah it was pretty cool."
Kuemper made a crucial save on a breakaway by Canucks forward Daniel Sedin early in the third period to keep the Wild's deficit to one goal. After the game Kuemper was happy he was able to face players of such a high calibre.
"It's pretty surreal," he said. "Guys you've been watching as a fan, to be out there playing against them, it's a childhood dream come true."
Now that he has one game under his belt, Kuemper said his focus was to build on this encouraging performance and continue to improve his game.
"Just to get your feet wet, and see that you can play at that level, it gives you so much more to strive for," he said. "Obviously I've got a lot to work on but I know I can hang in there, so it's just about trying to get better and stay here full time."
And going by the words of Minnesota coach Mike Yeo, he is on track to becoming a viable option for the team between the pipes.
"I thought he was very good and it's not an easy game to throw him into," said Yeo. "I give him a lot of credit. He looked confident, made saves, and played the puck well. It was a good showing for him."
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