ST. PAUL, Minn. — Head coach Mike Yeo implored Darcy Kuemper to clear his mind during the NHL’s holiday break last week, acknowledging the reality that Kuemper was a goaltender with his confidence shaken.
Kuemper himself recognized the game which had allowed him to lead the Minnesota Wild early this season was missing and he needed the three-day break as much as anyone on his slumping squad. Kuemper went back home to Canada, relying on time with family to distance himself from the game.
Getting back to his roots appears to have done the trick and maybe helped save Minnesota’s season.
Kuemper stopped 34 of the 35 shots he faced Friday against the NHL’s highest-scoring team in the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Wild won for the second time in three games in beating Toronto 3-1.
"I went home and spent some time with my family," Kuemper said. "They’re always kind of my anchor, my rock. So it was pretty good to be with them. It leveled me back out and I came back refreshed and in a better place mentally."
Minnesota got goals from Kyle Brodziak, Jared Spurgeon and Mikko Koivu. Koivu added an assist and Charlie Coyle had two assists.
In an up-and-down game against the high-scoring Maple Leafs, Kuemper outdueled Toronto goaltender Jonathan Bernier.
Kuemper stopped the first 28 shots he faced and the only goal he allowed was a big slap shot from defenseman Cody Franson as the Maple Leafs played with a 5-on-3 man advantage.
"That was a good game, for sure," Yeo said of Kuemper. "I thought that when we needed him he was on it."
Kuemper looked more like the confident goaltender who had started the season with shutouts in three of his first four games and not allowing more than two goals in his first five games. The 24-year-old netminder had struggled leading into the break and the Wild had lost seven of nine games in regulation or overtime prior to the break.
Since returning, Kuemper has stopped 85 of the 90 shots he’s faced, a .944 save percentage.
"I definitely feel like I’m in a better place mentally right now," Kuemper said. "That was a pretty tough stretch for everyone and it does wear on you. Your confidence starts to sag a bit. But that break gave everyone a chance to go home and just kind of come back refreshed. I think we’ve been playing pretty good hockey so far."
With Kuemper on top of his game, Minnesota has responded.
"That builds confidence for us, as well, as a team and you get that swagger," Spurgeon said.
Swagger from Kuemper is a good sign for the Wild.
"Part of it’s mentally," Kuemper said. "There was no technical parts that were missing from my game before. Just more of a mindset, so I think I’m in a good place there and the team’s playing really good in front of me, as well."
Yeo wants to see Kuemper continue to build and thought Friday was a step from Wednesday when Kuemper allowed two goals in a loss at Columbus.
"I thought that tonight was a very good rebound game for him," Yeo said. "When he’s on top of his game, it’s not difficult to tell. He tracks the play very well and reads the play very well. When there’s a pass made to somebody in the slot, he’s anticipating that. He’s out, he’s challenging, he’s big in the net. If he’s not, then he’s smaller in the net and there’s more holes there."
There haven’t been many holes thanks to a trip back home.