Typically, when the Lighthouse references the phrase “goaltending duel” it is a confrontation between opposing netminders making body-contorting saves in a mano-a-mano showdown, leaving a pile of frustrated shooters shaking their heads in their wake.
However for the Minnesota Wild, the goaltending duel was a showdown during training camp for the team’s game one starter, an open competition between Darcy Kuemper and Niklas Backstrom. Coming into camp, both had things to prove for very different reasons.
After a strong rookie year in which he helped guide the Wild to the playoffs, going 12-8-4 with a .915 goals-against average and 2.43 save percentage during the second-half of the seasons, Kuemper was a restricted free agent during the summer and didn’t sign with the Wild until the day before the opening of camp. He missed the team’s first practice, but soon settled in and showed that the late signing didn’t have an impact on his ability to keep pucks out of the net.
For Backstrom last year was one he’d rather forget, suffering through injuries during the first half until he underwent core muscle surgery and was shut down for the remainder of the season. The 36-year-old came into camp healthy and ready to prove he can still be a viable National Hockey League starter.
The goaltender competition didn’t seem to distract either netminder, as both looked good during training camp and their preseason contests. Kuemper went 2-0 with a 2.20 GAA and .915 SV% in three appearances. Backstrom made three preseason appearances, going 1-1 with a 2.42 GAA and .908 SV%.
So, Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo was left with a difficult for the game one starter. The bench boss will entrust Kuemper in the home opener as the team host the Colorado Avalanche at Xcel Energy Center on Thursday.
“I tried to just do my best to show the coaches that they could trust me, players as well,” Kuemper said. “It’s a long season, but you’ve got to take it one day at a time. I know it’s a little bit of a cliché, but it’s got to be a big start because our division is going to be so tight this year and so competitive that you want to get ahead early.”
Of course Kuemper is familiar with the Central Division rival, Avs, who the Wild defeated in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. During the postseason, the netminder went 3-1 with a shutout against Colorado, but was knocked out of Game 7 due to injury. The 24-year-old is fully healthy and ready to start things, and obviously excited about the opportunity to be in net to start the regular season in front of the home faithful.
“It’s definitely a lot of excitement around game one,” Kuemper said. “You’ve been waiting all summer for this. So has the crowd, I’m sure they’re going to be electric tomorrow night. “
Last season, the Avs surprised everyone by winning the Central with a talented young core. With playoff disappointment and another year of seasoning, Colorado looks to put together another competitive season.
“They give us a good game. Obviously, it was a tight series; it went to seven. We’re expecting more of the same out of them,” Kuemper said. “They’ve got a lot of speed, so you’ve always got to be aware when certain guys are on the ice. They transition quickly. It’s going to be a good game. We know we’re going to have to be at our best.”
Although Kuemper will get the nod on opening night, Yeo wants to keep Backstrom active. He didn’t say who’d be in net when the Wild finishes the home-and-home series on Saturday in Colorado, but Backstrom’s preseason performance has left the possibility of a start in Denver a possibility.
“We don’t want (Backstrom) sitting around for a long time,” Yeo said. “Looking at the schedule, based on his history in that building, he’s played some very good hockey in that building, based on the fact that we play two games and then we don’t play for almost another week after that. In a perfect world that’s what we would do, but we don’t always operate that way either.
“I think what we just have to do right now is focus on the first game. Both guys have had very good camps. We should be comfortable with either guy in the net. Again, I don’t really have a plan going forward.”
It looks like this will be the lineup tomorrow against the Avs:
Yeo acknowledged that a pair of rookies will be lined up on the blue line in Christian Folin and Matt Dumba. But don’t be surprised if you see either of them with the NHL’s ice-time leader over the past two seasons, Ryan Suter.
“(Suter is) going to play a lot of shifts with those as well two guys, too,” Yeo said. “We’ve got some guys, whether it’s Sutes or (Jonas Brodin), that can take a few extra shifts with those guys. I’m not afraid of putting those guys out there right now. I’m don’t expect them to play perfect games and we shouldn’t panic if they make one or two mistakes. We have to give them a chance to develop and to grow. We have confidence that they’re going to go out and play a solid, reliable game.”
Ballard Misses Practice; Fontaine Continues
Defenseman Keith Ballard missed practice today with an upper-body injury. Yeo said that he expects him to be on the ice tomorrow.
Forward Justin Fontaine practiced again, but is expected miss the opener. He missed a majority of camp and is still on Injured Reserve.
Get The Party Started
For the early risers, the Wild will host a Wake-Up Rally tomorrow from 6-9 a.m. on Kellogg Blvd., in front of Saint Paul RiverCentre.
At the Wake-Up Rally, fans on foot or traveling in cars will be treated to a cup of SuperMom’s Coffee courtesy of SuperAmerica, Super Mom’s sugar hockey puck cookies courtesy of Super America, Coca-Cola products, “Home of the Home Ice Advantage” rally towel, a Wild pocket schedule and copies of both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press (just print out the Lighthouse if you want a hard copy). KFAN FM 100.3 will broadcast live from the Rally.
There will also be a Pre-Game Party outside Gate 2 of Xcel Energy Center from 5-7:15 p.m. Puck drop is at 8 p.m. The Pre-Game Party will feature music, food and beverages, Happy Hour prices, interactive games and more, including the Hockey Lodge Mobile Store.
Iowa Wild Names Captains
Earlier today the Iowa Wild announced forward Stephane Veilleux will don the "C" this season, while Justin Falk and Brett Sutter will be alternate captains.