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Kuemper fine fit in Kings backup plan

Goaltender raising his game with Los Angeles primed for playoff run

by Lisa Dillman @reallisa / Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES - Last summer, goaltender Darcy Kuemper had plenty of time to think about his past and future during the long drive from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to his new professional home with the Los Angeles Kings.

Los Angeles represented a new start after he closed the book on his time with the Minnesota Wild. Kuemper's entire NHL career was spent in Minnesota, starting in 2012-13, but it ended on a sour note last season. He slipped to No. 3 on the depth chart with the Wild behind Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock. His starts dwindled to six after the NHL All-Star break, one in April.

Kuemper, 27, and his girlfriend broke up the long drive from his summer home in Saskatoon to Los Angeles with stops in Park City, Utah, and Yellowstone National Park. His excitement was blunted by nerves about the unknown.

"I was excited for the opportunity," Kuemper said. "You're thinking you're going to fit in because every group's really the same, give or take a little bit. But it's a little nerve-wracking still, meeting your 20 best friends for the next eight months. But everyone was very welcoming, and I felt at home right away."

His comfort level was evident almost immediately. Kuemper has won his past four starts, including a 25-save effort in the Kings' 5-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers at Staples Center on Wednesday. In 16 games he's 9-1-3 with a 1.78 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage.

Video: EDM@LAK: Kuemper robs Draisaitl with terrific save

His career-long shutout streak ended at 193 minutes, 58 seconds when Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl scored a power-play goal at 3:28 of the second period. It was the second-longest shutout streak in Kings history. Jonathan Quick, the Kings' No. 1 goalie and two-time Vezina Trophy finalist, has the franchise's longest at 202:11, in October 2011.

Kuemper signed a one-year, $650,000 contract with the Kings as a free agent July 1. He is almost always smiling, but his positive nature was tested last season in Minnesota.

"He's back enjoying hockey," Kings goaltending coach Bill Ranford said. "He was in a tough situation in Minnesota for a couple years with a three-goalie rotation and not getting a chance to play much, and you're practicing every day. You get sick of it."

Said Kuemper: "It's been a fresh slate and the coaches have shown confidence in me since Day One, and I've learned a lot working with Billy and working with [Quick]. That's helped my game a lot. Playing in front of this team, how good defensively they are, it's allowed me to start over."

Ranford knew what Kuemper could do, and in fact, some of Kuemper's best games with the Wild happened to be against the Kings; in seven games agianst the Kings he's 3-1-2, with a shutout on Jan. 12, 2016.

The Kings have had a succession of excellent backup goaltenders in recent seasons. In 2016-17, Peter Budaj kept them in the Stanley Cup Playoff hunt for three-quarters of the season after Quick was injured during the season opener. Before Budaj, the long line of versatile and accomplished backups included Martin Jones, now with the San Jose Sharks, and Jonathan Bernier, who is with the Colorado Avalanche.

Ranford has been around long enough to know goaltending depth is necessary to reach the playoffs. This season is no different.

"We've been really lucky with guys coming in here and playing well for us," Ranford said. "You look at the history: Darcy played very well against us, every game. He stood on his head every game against us.

"Everybody knew it. We as an organization knew that there was something there. But you know what? He has to do the work."

Kuemper was a willing student.

"The biggest thing with him was just getting him to understand what his game was and what it needs to be," Ranford said. "We just kind of narrowed him up a little bit to take some pressure off his legs, because I sensed that he would fatigue sometimes in games, and so we looked at just taking that pressure off his legs and giving him more power to push when he needs to. 

"He's always had a pretty good technical game already."

Video: EDM@LAK: Kuemper stops Cammalleri with amazing save

Kuemper joked working on the "boring, technical stuff" helped relax him and allowed him to go and play. In his past five games he has a 0.86 GAA, .969 save percentage and two shutouts.

"There were things that I wasn't really thinking of before, and then [Ranford] points them out and they make a lot of sense," Kuemper said. "He just kind of changed the way I play pucks behind the net and my post work a little bit."

It has been a bit of a jolt for Kings fans to see a somewhat healthy Quick on the bench. Quick missed the 2018 NHL All-Star Game because of nagging injuries but has returned to the lineup; his last win was against the New York Rangers on Jan. 21, and he most recently played in a 5-0 loss at the Nashville Predators on Feb. 1.

The Kings, one point behind the Minnesota Wild for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Western Conference, begin a seven-game road trip, their longest of the season, at the Florida Panthers on Friday (7:30 p.m. ET; FS-F, FS-W, NHL.TV).

Kings coach John Stevens and Ranford repeatedly have said they will need each goaltender for the stretch run. It hasn't been easy to tell Quick, the ultra-competitive two-time Stanley Cup champion, that he is sitting out.

"It's real hard," Ranford said, "but the bottom line is we're in it for the long haul, and [Quick] is still on pace to play his regular mid-60 games and that's probably not going to change. We're in a situation right now where Darcy's played very well, he's seeing the puck right now, and we've got to win hockey games.

"Quickie's going to be back in there, and we're going to expect the same thing out of him."

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