ST. PAUL, Minn. — Watching Semyon Varlamov turn away shot after shot at the opposite end of the Xcel Energy Center ice, Darcy Kuemper had to keep himself engaged somehow.
It can be a lonely existence in one’s own crease when his team accumulates a 24-shot advantage and keeps the puck in its offensive zone. So rather than chirp at his teammates as he’s wont to do during Wild practices, the rookie goaltender picked at another audience Monday night.
"A little bit of self talk, as funny as that sounds," Kuemper said. "It keeps yourself into it mentally. That’s how you stay sharp."
It’s the opposite of the 23-year-old’s team workout habits. Despite his youth, the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan native has developed a rap for cracking wise with his older, more experienced comrades.
"He’s a little smartass," defenseman Ryan Suter joked.
But it’s confidence, not arrogance, that kept Kuemper locked into the biggest game of his life to date, Suter said.
Both a victim and benefactor of Minnesota’s perpetual 2013-14 goalie carousel, Kuemper wasn’t needed frequently during the Wild’s 1-0 overtime victory over Colorado in Game 3 of their Stanley Cup Playoffs opening series. But when called upon, he delivered as the Wild climbed within a home win of tying the best-of-seven affair before heading back to Denver for Game 5.
Kuemper made 22 saves in his first postseason start, becoming the first rookie in franchise history to record a playoff shutout.
In one of their most dominant performances all season, the skaters in front of him kept the pressure to a minimum. But for action-craving netminders like Kuemper, managing the time gaps between opposing attack sequences can be just as difficult as keeping pucks out of the net.
"That’s a challenge in itself, but you follow, you play well," said coach Mike Yeo, whose bunch now trails 2-1 ahead of Game 4 Thursday night. "You can stay in the game. You don’t have to be seeing a bunch of shots. You follow the play, you stay in the game."
So Kuemper did, staying ready for the occasions Colorado could mount a rush.
"I think it just kind of shows that I’m confident right now," said Kuemper, who made his first start since March 27 at St. Louis. "Even if I’m not getting a ton of shots, I’m keeping myself in it and I’m feeling comfortable even if I’m not feeling (the puck) a whole lot."
This from a kid who has spent the season bouncing between the pipes, the bench and Minnesota’s AHL affiliate in Iowa City.
Kuemper began the year with the Iowa Wild but was recalled on three separate occasions as NHL veterans Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom dealt with illness and injury. With Minnesota for good since Jan. 2, Kuemper set franchise records for a rookie goaltender with 16 consecutive starts, 12 wins and a pair of shutouts between Jan. 12 and March 8.
But he missed the final seven games of the regular slate and Game 1 at Colorado due to an upper-body injury. That allowed Ilya Bryzgalov to step in, yet the erratic trade-deadline acquisition was yanked midway through Saturday’s Game 2 defeat after allowing three goals on 14 shots.
Kuemper stopped all 14 on-goal attempts he faced in that 4-2 loss, which put the Wild in an 0-2 hole.
Yeo didn’t lose much sleep over tossing the rookie — who made two mop-up appearances in last year’s NHL playoffs — back into the fray. He’s not the same guy who coughed up three goals on seven shots Oct. 15 at Toronto in his first start of the season, the coach said.
"He’s gone through the ups and downs the last couple years," Suter said. "It was tough on him, coming up back and forth. That’s a lot of travel. That’s hard on a guy. Once he got here, I thought he’s really adjusted, adapted."
Said Yeo: "He’s in a different place now than that," Yeo said. "The difference is when we put him into this game tonight, we knew he was ready."
Ready to lead his team onto the ice in front of 19,221 success-starved fans. Ready to thwart a dangerous low shot deflected on goal by Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog with time ticking down in the third. Ready to make two big saves in overtime before Mikael Granlund’s falling, sudden-death winner 5 minutes, 8 seconds into the extra period.
But Kuemper didn’t skate on an island Monday night.
Via an aggressive forecheck and hit-first philosophy, the Wild held Colorado’s dynamite scoring line of Landeskog, Paul Stastny and Nathan MacKinnon in check for the first time. That group accounted for seven of Colorado’s nine goals in the series’ first two outings.
Monday, they tallied just seven shots. Minnesota, meanwhile set a franchise record for shots on goal in a playoff game (46) while holding Colorado to 22.
"You combat speed with speed," Suter said, "and I thought we did a really good job."
Once Granlund stumbled across the opposite goal mouth and finally slid one past Varlamov, Kuemper skated hard toward center ice to greet his fellow youngster.
"I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get one tonight the way (Varlamov) was playing, but what a play," Kuemper said. "Unbelievable goal. It’s nice when a pretty one like that wins it."
And while he wasn’t tested nearly as often as Varlamov, Kuemper’s no stranger to waiting his turn — again, and again and again.
"He’s young," team captain Mikko Koivu said, "but he went through a lot this year from the start, coming here to the playoffs. That makes him strong, and he realizes that he wants to be even better."