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Kuemper helps Wild hold off Blackhawks

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo must sound like a broken record talking about rookie goaltender Darcy Kuemper. Pick your superlative; of late, it's been an endless loop of all Kuemper, all the time.

Kuemper was superb again Thursday, stopping 33 shots in a 2-1 win against the Chicago Blackhawks at Xcel Energy Center.

"He looks just real confident," Yeo said. "There's times when you can almost feel the tension rising on the bench. The next thing you know, he makes a play and settles it down. It's amazing what that does to settle the rest of the group down."

Even a change of masks couldn't slow down Kuemper. After a second-period shot by Brandon Bollig dented the cage on his helmet, Kuemper had to use Niklas Backstrom's mask for a stretch of about 10 minutes while repairs were made to his.

"His is custom-fitted to his face, so it didn't fit me too well," Kuemper said. "It was a little hard to see out of, so I had to focus a little bit more there."

The Wild led 2-0 after 40 minutes, and Kuemper knew the defending Stanley Cup Champions would make a push in the third period. He was right. Chicago put four quick shots on him to start the period and finished with 17 in the final 20 minutes. But Kuemper allowed only a last-minute goal by Patrick Kane.

"When you're playing with a lead, it's a lot easier to make the stops you have to," Kuemper said. "I thought the guys did an unbelievable job in front of me. There's a lot of weapons on that side and I think they limited a lot of their chances and made it easy on me."

The first shot on goal didn't come until 6:15 into the game. Minnesota's first shot on net went in, when Jason Pominville capped an odd-man rush with a goal at 8:08.

After Dany Heatley gained the offensive zone, he dropped the puck to Mikael Granlund in the slot. Granlund put the puck to his forehand and got Blackhawks goaltender Antti Raanta to commit before dropping a no-look pass to Pominville in the left circle. Pominville hit the wide-open net for his team-leading 20th of the season.

"Just a lucky guess," Granlund said. "Sometimes that happens."

"He's the type of player that doesn't even need to know I'm there," Pominville said. "He just has a feel for it. Overall, just a good play."

Later in the period, the Wild's third line scored when Justin Fontaine chipped the puck ahead to Matt Cooke, who beat Raanta with a soft shot along the ice for his seventh of the season at 15:31.

Kuemper did the rest. He stopped six shots in the first period and 11 in the second to preserve the two-goal lead. Kane's late goal cost him the shutout but not the victory.

"They check well," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "They're good here at home and we didn't look to get any greasy stuff at the net. I thought we were a little bit too much on the outside and it's tough to get direct plays, especially in the slot. We were maybe looking for that a little bit too much instead of the ugly stuff."

Chicago, which hasn't been shut out in its last 120 regular-season games, kept that streak alive when Kane blasted a one-timer from the right circle into a half-empty net with 31.2 seconds remaining and Chicago skating 6-on-5 after pulling Raanta. It was Kane's 24th of the season and first this month.

Minnesota is 3-1-0 against Chicago this season and assured itself the season-series victory against the Central Division leaders. The teams play for the final time in Chicago on April 3.

"For whatever reason, our game elevates when we play them," said Wild forward Zach Parise, who returned Thursday after missing 14 games with a fractured left foot. "Tonight, that's a tough team, and I thought we did a good job of containing their top players.

"There's no question, I don't know if you want to say measuring stick, but they're the best team in the League. For them, they're going to see every team's best game and it's pretty impressive what they're doing."

Chicago was without defenseman Duncan Keith, who missed his first game of the season because of illness. He is expected back in the lineup when the Blackhawks play Sunday against the Winnipeg Jets at United Center. After that, Chicago will embark on a seven-game road trip that will extend through the Olympic break to Feb. 27; the Blackhawks then will face the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 1 at Soldier Field in the finale of the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series.

The Central Division-leading Blackhawks have 79 points, three more than the St. Louis Blues; however, the Blues have three games in hand.

Minnesota begins a crucial road trip of its own Saturday against the San Jose Sharks, a trip that will also see them play the Anaheim Ducks, Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames. The Wild lead the Phoenix Coyotes by six points and Dallas Stars by seven points in the race for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference playoff race.

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