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Wild hope goalie Kuemper has short memory

by Dan Rosen

NEW YORK -- It was early in the afternoon Monday, approximately nine hours before the shine faded from Darcy Kuemper's remarkable start to the season, when Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo was talking about the goalie's maturity.

"It's all about preparation," Yeo said. "If he's had success, and he has, he hasn't carried that into the next game. He has to push that aside and make sure he's prepared the right way for the game. I think so far he's shown a lot of maturity as far as a young goalie making sure he's prepared the right way."

Kuemper's next start will determine the shelf-life of Yeo's comment. Now he has to overcome a bad loss.

Darcy Kuemper
Goalie - MIN
RECORD: 4-2-0
GAA: 1.51 | SVP: .934
Kuemper allowed five goals on 12 shots in the third period at Madison Square Garden on Monday, when the Wild blew a two multiple-goal leads before losing 5-4 to the New York Rangers. The five goals New York scored in the third period were one more than Kuemper allowed in his first 17 periods this season.

He entered the game with a .966 save percentage and a 0.81 goals-against average; he enters the game Tuesday against the Boston Bruins (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN) with a .934 save percentage and 1.51 GAA. Niklas Backstrom will likely start against the Bruins at TD Garden.

"He's gotta do what our team has to do, and we have to push this behind us but we have to learn," Yeo said following the game against the Rangers. "This one was even worse, but this is twice already this year where we've blown third-period leads. I don't know if we did that twice all regular season last year. That's usually a time when we should be at our best. You want the puck on your stick in those moments, but we didn't respond very well [Monday night], no question."

How Kuemper responds to the worst 20 minutes of his brief NHL career will be interesting. Judging by comments made prior to the game Monday, the Wild have a lot of confidence in Kuemper and one bad period shouldn't ruin that.

"He's ready," Wild goalie coach Bob Mason said. "A lot of guys get to that hump and they get stuck, but he's nudging over that hump right now. Good games are like deposits in the bank, the more you do it the more you build that up. That's your confidence and the team's confidence in you."

Mason was the one talking with Kuemper following the game against the Rangers. He saw things in the third period that were different from what he saw in the first five games, when he said Kuemper was tracking the puck well and getting into his position before the shooter could set up.

"If the shooter is just getting the puck and he's already over there and waiting that's tracking it," Mason said. "If he's already shooting it and you're still moving that's where guys get in trouble. You have to read plays. That's goalie instincts. Where is it going to go? If you're ahead of that you're ahead of the game."

Considering where the Wild drafted him, Kuemper has been ahead of the game. He was their sixth-round pick (No. 151) in the 2009 NHL Draft. Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher had no way of knowing that five years later Kuemper would be Minnesota's No. 1 goalie.

"Obviously I don't think we anticipated that or we wouldn't have drafted him in the sixth round," Fletcher said. "We saw a young man with size and talent, but by the end of his junior career, just prior to signing him, he had a tremendous season and was voted the best goaltender in all of the Canadian Hockey League. He started to show some signs that he was becoming a good prospect. As he started his pro career it was the same thing, everywhere he played he won and he had good numbers."

That has continued in Minnesota despite his performance Monday. Kuemper is 17-12-4 with a 2.23 GAA and .918 save percentage in 38 games. He went 12-8-4 with a .915 save percentage and 2.43 GAA last season.

He already has three shutouts this season, including back-to-back shutouts against the Colorado Avalanche in his first two starts.

Before Monday you could make the case that he was building on his finish to last season, when after relieving Ilya Bryzgalov in Game 2 of the Western Conference First Round series against the Avalanche he went on to post a 2.03 GAA and a .913 save percentage in six games.

Kuemper sustained a concussion late in Game 7 that kept him out for overtime of that series-clinching Wild win and the second-round series against the Chicago Blackhawks.

"I remember [Nathan] MacKinnon came down and just zipped one, and it was like, 'Whoop,' in his glove," Mason said. "I mean, it was an incredible save, like nothing to it. It was like, 'Holy smokes, he's on it.' He's been on it."

He has to get back on it if the Wild are going to build on their success last season. Fletcher, though, understands nights like Kuemper at the Garden. He expects them given his age (24) and lack of experience.

"He's still young," Fletcher said. "He's shown the ability to be very good for spurts so far in his career but what we're hoping is he'll be able to maintain it. That's the toughest step for any young player. Once they taste that initial success can they sustain it and can they show that consistency in performance?"

Fletcher can't say with any certainty that Kuemper will, which is why he was adamant about signing the goalie to a two-year contract this past summer.

Kuemper wanted a one-year contract with the hope that he would win the No. 1 job out of camp, play well, lead the Wild to the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the No. 1 goalie, and cash in on a longer term contract next summer. Fletcher wanted to buy more time. He got what he wanted.

Kuemper signed a two-year, $2.5 million contract on Sept. 19. He'll be eligible for salary arbitration in 2016, but he can't be an unrestricted free agent until 2017, meaning the Wild have at least two seasons, if not longer, to see if Kuemper is worth a long-term contract.

"The way he's playing at 24, we'll see if he can continue that," Fletcher said. "It's a long season. There's a lot of smart people in this League and a lot of good hockey players so he's going to have challenges down the road, but so far we like that maturity and the drive to succeed that we've seen."


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