Ilya Bryzgalov has started three of the past four games for the Wild in goal. The trade-deadline pickup has 38 games of playoff experience in his NHL career. Minnesota is likely to use just one, main netminder in the postseason -- either Bryzgalov or youngster Darcy Kuemper.
ST. PAUL, Minn. — A four-season playoff drought was finally over and the Minnesota Wild were preparing to face the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks on the road in the first round last year.
Goaltender Niklas Backstrom had started 41 of Minnesota’s 48 games in the lockout-shortened season and was on the ice for pregame warmups in Chicago when he felt something odd. A lower-body injury would end his postseason and lead to offseason sports hernia surgery.
The Wild rode backup Josh Harding in the five-game series and Darcy Kuemper also saw time.
Injuries forced the last-minute shuffle last year. Minnesota coach Mike Yeo is hoping he has one goaltender, preferably one "hot" netminder, to lean on this season with the Wild closing in on a postseason berth for the second straight campaign.
"Yeah, I definitely much prefer that," Yeo said Tuesday about having one goaltender to ride in the playoffs. "I think that more often than not, when you’re seeing a team have success in the playoffs, they have a good indication of who’s playing there. Obviously that player’s feeling confident. The team is feeling confident in that player, and (that) also reads to it. When you have a good understanding of who’s in net, how they’re playing, how they’re going to play the puck, I think that there’s value in that."
Minnesota has 10 games remaining this season as it hosts Vancouver on Wednesday night. Instead of fighting for the final playoff spot like they were last season, the Wild are the Western Conference wild-card leaders with 85 points. Phoenix is in eighth place with 80 points heading into Tuesday night and Dallas is ninth with 79 points.
Kuemper and trade-deadline pickup Ilya Bryzgalov have 10 games to see if they can claim any hold on "every-game playoff goaltender" status.
"I’m not sitting here saying that these games are going to serve to that direction of who we’re going to go with for Game 1 and then we’re only going to stay with them," Yeo said. "I can’t say that we have a plan past our next two days, to be honest with you right now. But there’s no question that over the next 10 days, I’m sure we’ll be trying to sort things out there."
Bryzgalov has started three of the past four games, with the two alternating the past three contests. Kuemper propelled Minnesota to its January and February run to the wild-card lead.
Kuemper is the rookie and future for the Wild. Bryzgalov is the veteran with 38 games of playoff experience.
"Obviously Bryz has that (playoff experience) and he’s got experience being deep in the playoffs, which can be a real positive," Yeo said. "Part of it also, I think, looking at Kuemps and his personality and his situation as far as being part of our future is going to play into it. He shows signs of being a guy who could be not only a good goalie, but a really good goalie in the playoffs because of his mental make-up, because of how he’s handled pressure, because of how he’s been able to stay focused and stay on the short term and not get too wrapped up in what’s happened or what’s going to happen. I think he has the ability to be a really quality playoff goalie, too."
Kuemper has seen the intensity increase as the season winds down.
"You can sense the desperation out there every game, especially when you’re playing against other teams that are fighting for spots," Kuemper said. "Teams are hungry right now and it makes the games that much more fun."
The easy-going Kuemper has impressed everyone with his temperament all season, though, and it’s not changing as the pressure of the situation mounts.
"Just kind of stay in the moment and don’t look too far behind or too far ahead," Kuemper said. "Just worry about the task at hand and just worry about doing things the right away, and everything will take care of itself."
In four starts with Minnesota this season, Bryzgalov is 2-0-2 with a 2.17 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and one shutout.
Despite losing back-to-back starts for the first time all season, Kuemper is 2-5-4 with a 2.09 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and two shutouts since Jan. 7.
"I think Kuemps, it’s not like he’s that far off," Yeo said. "I don’t think he’s that far off right now. I don’t think his game has slipped that much. When we’ve watched him, he’s still making quality saves. Whether it’s him making one more save or us doing a couple things better in front of him, we just haven’t been getting as many wins lately, and that’s important for him and for us. I’m not disappointed with his play and I think what he’s done this year has been great.
"On the flip side, Bryz has come in and has a pretty good record going right now. We’re open-minded. This is the way we’ve treated it with Kuemps all year. Obviously we’re very proud of him and what he’s done. But at the same time, when he’s been very successful, we’ve tried to keep him grounded and get looking too far ahead. And when things haven’t gone quite as well, we’ve done the same thing. So, we’ll just keep pushing forward here. I hate to say it, but one day at a time with him and with our group and see where that takes us."