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Kahkonen makes strong first impression in NHL debut

Rookie makes 32 saves in win at New Jersey Tuesday night at Prudential Center

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe / Wild.com

NEWARK, N.J. -- With his family in attendance, the fate of the Wild's road trip and its points streak at stake, goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen took center stage Tuesday night at Prudential Center and looked like a guy not ready to give it up.

Kahkonen made 32 saves in his NHL debut, backstopping Minnesota to a 3-2 win over the New Jersey Devils, salvaging the final game of a three-game swing down the East Coast. 

After surrendering late leads in each of the first two stops, the Wild was in the same position yet again versus the Devils, up a goal with time winding down.

But unlike the past two games, where late tying goals forced the Wild into overtime -- where it lost twice -- Kahkonen's calm demeanor and the inspired play of the skaters in front of him served up a much-needed regulation victory.

Video: MIN@NJD: Kahkonen denies Vantanen in the 3rd

Kahkonen had watched each of the previous two games from his perch on the bench and was determined not to let lightning strike a third time.

"The last couple games, it's really tough to lose like that," Kahkonen said. "But I feel like we kind of learned from those games a little bit. I feel like we kept making the simple plays. It sounds boring, but [with a] one-goal lead, five minutes whatever it is left in the game, you just have to do that. We didn't take that penalty that I guess we did in the last couple games, so that helped."

If Kahkonen had any nerves before or during the game, he certainly didn't show it. 

Video: Bruce Boudreau postgame at New Jersey

"None. And again, this is off the top of my head. That game in Winnipeg, that preseason game where he had the jitters those first few shots and then he settled down," said Wild coach Bruce Boudreau. "I think that helped him an immense amount for tonight's game, that he wasn't anywhere near as nervous. He's played a lot of games in Iowa this year. He was outstanding with his rebound control, outstanding with just moving the puck. 

"Nothing seemed to faze him and the two goals that went in, as we know, one shouldn't have counted and one was a perfect play. So he did what he was supposed to do."

Tweet from @mnwild: First NHL win hugs.#YouAreHere | @MichGoldenLight pic.twitter.com/JC1vGeD2L6

The preseason game Boudreau is referring to was Kahkonen's only previous experience on an NHL ice sheet.

The Jets scored twice in the first 1:37 -- on their first two shots on goal of the game -- in a performance that could have rattled the young goaltender.

But he made his next 18 saves in that one to help build his confidence.

He didn't see his first shot until 3:13 of the first on Tuesday, a save on a Blake Coleman backhander that allowed him to feel some early rubber and build on that belief.

Tweet from @mnwild: Hear from Kaapo after his first NHL win!#mnwild pic.twitter.com/Ea1TVVIe3s

"It was a good experience for sure to prepare for this first actual regular season game. It helped a lot," Kahkonen said. "I felt pretty good from the start, to be honest. It took awhile to get the first save, and after that, you make that first save ... I felt really good from the start."

Even the Wild's veterans were impressed with his rather sunny disposition on the ice.

"He was talking a lot, joking around a little bit. He was good," said defenseman Ryan Suter. "It's awesome. He's such a good kid. You always want them to get their first win. He played good. He made some really good saves for us."

Tweet from @mnwild: Great team win tonight.#mnwild pic.twitter.com/971PpLvQ6L

"Played great. Looked calm in there," said Wild forward Zach Parise. "I thought our defenseman did a good job boxing out and letting him see the puck for the most part, but it's exciting to be a part of his first win and hopefully a lot more to come."

With Devan Dubnyk tentatively scheduled to return to the team on Thursday after tending to a family issue the past week, Kahkonen's time with the NHL club is likely only borrowed. 

Eventually, it's likely he'll be back with Iowa of the American Hockey League club. But he more than proved Tuesday that he's got the potential to be a contributor at this level.

"It's huge. I think it's great for him. Everyone is happy for him. I can't imagine what he's feeling right now. He was great for us," said Wild forward Jordan Greenway. "He made a lot of big saves and for him that's going to be the first of many."


Related:

Postgame Hat Trick: Wild 3, Devils 2

Video: Suter, Kahkonen pace Wild to 3-2 win against Devils

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