VANCOUVER – Goaltender Darcy Kuemper made a good impression on the Minnesota Wild after being called up from the minors and thrown into a tough National Hockey League debut Tuesday night.
It wasn't enough to top more of the same from Vancouver Canucks veteran Roberto Luongo.
With a lot of eyes on Kuemper playing his first NHL game after Josh Harding was unable to start due to symptoms related to medication for multiple sclerosis, it was Luongo that put on a clinic. He made 25 saves -- including several good ones among 10 in the third period -- to backstop the Canucks to a 2-1 win, spoiling Kuemper's debut.
It did not, however, spoil Kuemper's mood.
While the rest of the Wild openly lamented another frustrating night offensively, the 22-year-old still sounded a little in awe after an evening that started with pre-game well wishes from Luongo.
"It's pretty surreal, guys you've been watching as a fan, to be out there playing against them, it's a childhood dream come true," a giddy Kuemper said after making 28 saves. "We were stretching there at the red line, and [Luongo] tapped me on the pads and said, ‘Good luck. Play your game,' so that kind of helped calm me down too. That was awesome of him. One guy I've been watching for the past five or six years trying to emulate his game. Yeah, it was pretty cool."
Luongo has been among the best in the NHL for those five or six years, but now finds himself fighting for playing time with Cory Schneider, who took over the No.1 job during last year's Stanley Cup Playoffs. It hasn't mattered lately who is in the net for the Canucks, who have won six straight, with Luongo in net for four of them.
"Arguably the most consistent part of our team has been goaltending -- no matter who is in net between the two of them," said defenseman Kevin Bieksa, who opened the scoring on a first-period power play. "They both give us a great chance to win every game."
Jannik Hansen added the eventual winning goal midway through the second period, finishing off a pretty three-way passing play.
"It seems everybody is stepping up left and right and obviously we know we are getting tremendous goaltending every night and it's winning us a lot of games right now," Hansen said. "Points we are getting now are points we don't have to fight for towards the end of the regular season."
The Wild are worried about the points slipping away because they can't put goals on the board. Minnesota had won two straight after a 2-1 shootout victory in Calgary the night before, but outside of shootouts has scored just seven goals in the last six games.
Devin Setoguchi scored the only goal late on a second-period power play, but Minnesota was turned aside – by either Luongo or the post – on several point-blank chances in the third, leaving both prized free agent addition Zach Parise and coach Mike Yeo visibly frustrated.
"I don't have an explanation for that," Parise, who has one goal the last eight games, said. "I don't know why, just home and road we're having a hard time scoring right now. … We've got to be a little more aggressive – a little passive sometimes in the offensive zone."
Yeo at least liked the chances his team created late.
"Point-blank chances," he said. "We stuck with it, got the chances we needed to get and just didn't finish. We did everything except finish."
Bieksa opened the scoring in the late stages of a power play 11:33 into the first period, and Luongo, back in goal after watching Schneider win the last two, kept the Canucks ahead with a terrific right pad stop off a Charlie Coyle one timer from the slot with seven minutes left in the period. He didn't face a shot the first half of the second period, and Hansen doubled the lead 9:03 in after a pretty toe drag by Mason Raymond near the blue line.
After keeping it onside, Raymond fed the puck cross-ice to Keith Ballard, who sent it back across to the other side for a wide-open Hansen for a snap shot over Kuemper and just under the crossbar.
"I had a lot of time to think where I was going to put it," Hansen said of his slight delay before shooting. "I took a little longer than I would have liked to get it off, but it's such a good play that I have so much time and I can dust the puck off more than I would normally."
Minnesota shook up its lineup despite consecutive wins, sending defenseman Marco Scandella to the AHL to clear roster room for Kuemper, making Pierre-Marc Bouchard a healthy scratch in favor or Torrey Mitchell, and waiving forward Matt Kassian to make room the return of defenseman Jared Spurgeon from a foot injury.
Despite the shake up, the Wild didn't record a second-period shot until 10:15, but converted its third less than three minutes later.
Mikael Granlund won the puck in the corner from Jason Garrison, and Matt Cullen fed it to Setoguchi alone at the side of the net to Luongo's right. Setoguchi made a nice move, spinning away from the goal as he pulled the puck back to his forehand before lifting it over Luongo's shoulder on the far side with two seconds left in a power play.
"Sometimes you've got to give a guy credit," Luongo said. "I thought I had him all the way, but he made a perfect shot."
That ended Luongo's bid for a fourth-straight shutout of the Wild on home ice, a streak of 228 minutes and 26 seconds that strangely coincides with being pulled from his last three starts in Minnesota.
Kuemper who was dominating in 16 games for the Houston Aeros in the AHL this season, didn't look at all out of place in his first taste of the NHL, throwing out his blocker to deny Daniel Sedin in tight 27 seconds into the third period.
"That's probably something I'll remember for a long time against such a good player," Kuemper said.
That gave the Wild a chance, but Luongo was both good and lucky to prevent the tying goal five minutes later, stuffing Parise in front before Ryan Suter rang the rebound off the post from the slot. He added close-range stops off Setoguchi and Kyle Brodziak shortly after Kuemper was pulled for an extra attacker in the final minute.
"We had to play pretty good in the last few minutes there. They had a push," said Luongo.