When John Curry
learned he would be starting against the St. Louis Blues Thursday, he immediately got butterflies. From Wednesday afternoon, when he first got word until game time more than 24 hours later, those butterflies grew from a small gathering to an infestation.
He wasn’t concerned. Though it was his first NHL game since a relief appearance with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 16, 2010 and his home-state debut, he embraced the nerves.
“That’s always helped me be sharp,” Curry said. “You can be bad nervous and good nervous, and I felt like despite being pretty anxious about the game I felt good.”
The Shorewood native showed it. Curry opened the game with a 17-save first period.
“The start was huge to get those first few shots and to get into it,” the netminder said. “Your brain kind of shuts off, as far as the distractions, and you’re just focused on the puck and focused on the game.”
The 30-year-old would go on to post a career-high 43 saves on the night, relinquishing just two goals for the win. In fact, the two goals he did allow came five minutes apart in the second period, one on the power play and one shorthanded. Otherwise, Curry kept the formidable Blues at bay.
His path back to the National Hockey League and the win was, as he would call it, a whirlwind.
Curry’s career started in the State of Hockey. Growing up, he attended Breck where he earned team MVP honors his senior year in 2001-02. A walk on at Boston University, he played only one game as a freshman. As a sophomore, he captured the starting role in 2004-05 and never looked back. He went on to play in three NCAA Tournaments and was a Hobey Baker Finalist his senior year.
He signed as an undrafted free agent with Pittsburgh in July 2007 and spilt time between the American Hockey League with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and the ECHL with the Wheeling Nailers.
His time with the Penguins organization came to an end in 2011. He went abroad signed with the Hambrug Freezers in the German Hockey League. The following season, 2012-13, he was back in the ECHL, this time with the Wild’s affiliate, the Orlando Solar Bears.
“I didn’t follow any other path that I’ve really heard of,” he said. “I kept getting opportunities from this organization and finally there was room. They gave me an opportunity and believed in me. I’m really grateful for that.”
Curry was the fifth goaltender to start a game with the Wild this season. At the beginning of the year, Minnesota had Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding as its tandem in net. Over the course of the season, the two battled injuries and illness, respectively, leading to an opportunity for Darcy Kuemper. The Wild also acquired Ilya Bryzgalov before the Trade Deadline — shutting down Backstrom for the season, while Harding has been out since Dec. 31 as he continues his battle with multiple sclerosis.
While it looked like the Wild would be set with a Kuemper-Bryzgalov rotation into the playoffs, Kuemper suffered an upper-body injury March 31, opening the door for Curry, who signed a two-way contract on Feb. 17 as insurance in net.
“To me I just saw it as a really great opportunity,” Curry said. “I didn’t try to think about it more than I needed to. You just try to approach it day by day. I thought an opportunity was coming my way but I wasn’t sure when or what game it would be, or if it would be a period. It’s nice to get that opportunity. You feel more part of the team once you contribute a little bit. It’s been a smooth transition. Everyone’s been really great to me.”
Aiding that smooth transition was the familiarity Curry already had with Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo. When Curry was with Pittsburgh, up and down in the organization, Yeo was an assistant coach from 2005-10.
“To be familiar and know the guy respects your work ethic at the very least, it’s good,” Curry said. “Familiar faces are always good in this world.”
Because of their previous knowledge of one another, when Yeo was asked what the State of Hockey could expect from Curry to start Thursday’s media scrum after morning skate, the bench boss didn’t hesitate.
“He’s a battler,” Yeo said of Curry. “He’s a gamer. From what I’ve seen of him in the past and what I know of him, he’s a kind of guy that finds a way to elevate his game… He brings a lot of that attitude out on the ice with him.”
With 43 saves, including some incredible ones, that’s exactly what everyone saw. For Curry, at 5-foot-11, that’s how he feels he needs to play.
“That’s a great compliment, especially coming from coach,” the netminder said. “But to me, that’s a totally necessary part of my game. I need to make a couple of those desperation saves a game. I’m not the biggest goalie so I need to be moving, I need to be skating and getting into position.”
He did enough of that Thursday night, stealing the show and ending the Wild’s losing steak against a tough Central Division foe.
The game was extra special for him as it was in his home state, for the team he cheered for as a young player with NHL dreams. With all that said, Curry is read to refocus for what’s to come.
“I was the at the inaugural game for the Minnesota Wild, so this has been the team I grew up watching for the most part,” Curry said. “For sure it’s a dream come true, but I’m trying to steady myself a little bit.”