ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Wild approached Monday’s practice with three goaltenders on the ice, as they’ve had for much of the past week.
Only Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding weren’t part of the trio. Minnesota called in a pair of practice goaltenders to complement Darcy Kuemper on Monday. Kuemper will make his fifth straight start for the Wild while the team sorts through injury and illness with Backstrom and Harding, respectively.
"Well, he had one on the ice and we had a couple of others helping out," Minnesota coach Mike Yeo said of his goaltending situation on Monday. "Our main focus is Kuemps was out there and certainly expect him to play (Tuesday at Dallas). Hards not feeling well, so obviously best to keep him off. Backy was getting an injection here, so with that you have to keep him off for a couple days."
Winning seven of their past nine games, the Wild have survived without several key players, including Harding, Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon. Losing Backstrom is just another hurdle to overcome.
Minnesota recalled goaltender Johan Gustafsson and defenseman Jonathon Blum from Iowa on Monday, with Gustafsson added to backup Kuemper with Backstrom out.
Harding is on injured reserve as he’s dealt with what’s been termed as an "illness." Harding went on injured reserve in December to adjust to a change in medication for multiple sclerosis. He returned and played two games before going back on injured reserve.
But Harding had returned to practice during the past week before sitting out Monday.
"Again, he’s not feeling well so we just gave him the day," Yeo said. "We’ll just call it day to day right now."
Backstrom, who last played on Jan. 11, has been Kuemper’s backup the past four games, but he’s dealing with a lower-body injury and received an injection to help alleviate the pain on Monday.
Yeo said Backstrom wasn’t dealing with a reoccurrence of a sports hernia, which he had surgery during the offseason to repair.
"He’s got a bit of a nagging lower-body injury here," Yeo said. "So, we’re just trying to use this time. We knew Kuemps was going to play the next game and we figured right now timing-wise it would probably be a good opportunity to do it."
Kuemper’s play — he’s won four of his past five starts with a .954 save percentage and 1.36 goals-against average — has been a big reason the Wild have thrived even while short-handed.
"Sometimes you’re third goalie is called upon to back up and maybe play a game here or there, but certainly he’s been thrown into more of a starting role for us and he’s taken that opportunity," Yeo said. "Good for him and good for us. Just read a quote the other day, ‘Opportunities multiply as they’re seized.’ And he’s living by that right now. We’re giving more opportunity because he’s taken advantage of those opportunities. We’re very fortunate to have a guy like that come in and perform at the level that he’s played at, and do it with confidence. Again, right now we’re in a day-to-day situation where we just evaluate it every day and figure out where we go from there."
Kuemper stopped 33 of the 35 shots he faced in Saturday’s overtime win against Dallas, and will draw the start in the back-to-back with the Stars on the road. Kuemper feels he can withstand the workload as the No. 1 goaltender, if the Wild needs him without Backstrom and Harding.
"I’ve been the No. 1 guy at every level I’ve played, so it’s kind of more of a role I’m used to," Kuemper said. "Just trying to not change anything and stay in the moment and take it one game at a time."
Forward Erik Haula, who has played most of the season with Kuemper in the American Hockey League, said Kuemper’s confidence is "through the roof" right now. Minnesota has gained confidence in its rookie goaltender because of his play, and Kuemper has gained confidence with the extended exposure.
Kuemper allowed three goals on 10 shots in his season debut in October. He’s allowed seven goals in his last five games. In Iowa, Kuemper had a .929 save percentage and 2.47 goals-against average.
"It was one bad game last time and I wasn’t happy with the result," Kuemper said of his season debut. "I went down to Iowa and worked on my game and got it to where I wanted to be and I’m in a confident place right now. The guys are playing great in front of me, so it’s been an easy ride."
Yeo has seen a difference in his young goaltender.
"It is another level when you come to the NHL," Yeo said. "Shooters are better, things happen and develop quicker, so certainly for him to get in and get that opportunity to get experience and get more comfortable and confident, but also he was at a different time and place at the start of the year when we were throwing him into games. And he’s better prepared when he came up this last time."
Zach Parise also practiced Monday without the non-contact yellow sweater he had worn in two practices since returning from a foot injury. Parise won’t be activated from injured reserve for Tuesday’s game, but Yeo wouldn’t rule out a possible return on Thursday at home against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"Good, he looks close," Yeo said of Parise’s practice. "But certainly I’d like to get him a little bit more reps in practice. We want to make sure that he’s real comfortable and give him the best chanceâ¦I’m not going to say that he won’t be in, so I’ll say a chance right now."