ST. PAUL, Minn. — Darcy Kuemper helped save the Minnesota Wild season in January. Head coach Mike Yeo is hoping he can do the same in the playoffs.
Yeo said Kuemper, the rookie goaltender who started 16 consecutive games from Jan. 12 to March 8 with 12 wins and two shutouts, will start Game 3 for Minnesota against the Colorado Avalanche on Monday night as the Wild look to erase a 2-0 deficit in the first round playoff series.
Kuemper stopped all 14 shots he faced in replacing starter Ilya Bryzgalov in Game 2. Bryzgalov started the first two games of the series and has a .822 save percentage and 4.83 goals-against average.
"Small sample size, but what we saw was kind of what we saw in practice," Yeo said of Kuemper. "And when we look at his practice, and obviously you’re looking to see the saves that he’s making, how many saves he’s making, but it’s sort of the way he’s doing it. Are pucks bouncing off him or is he in control? Is he controlling pucks? So, he looked, I thought, really good in practice, really confident in practice and obviously in the game I thought he showed a lot of the same. So, certainly we’re excited to see if he can continue that on."
Kuemper, 23, suffered an upper-body injury, which allowed Bryzgalov to take over full-time in net and he didn’t miss a beat. But Kuemper is now healthy and served as Bryzgalov’s backup in Game 2, dressing for the first time since his injury.
Kuemper, who played in two playoff games last year, went 12-7-4 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .921 save percentage after he was recalled by Minnesota on Jan. 2, helping the team overcome the loss of goaltender Josh Harding and injured forwards Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. Kuemper showed confidence belying his rookie status and a certain swagger in net while helping the Wild to the Western Conference wild-card lead.
"He’s got that personality, really," Yeo said. "Even when things weren’t going quite as well for him he was never that far off and that confidence was never really escaping him. But there’s no question, when he is on top of his game, he has that ability to take that positive feeling and really have it translate onto the ice in his game. Let’s make sure we play a good game in front of him and give him a chance to keep that going."
Kuemper isn’t the only change for Minnesota. Yeo said forwards Dany Heatley and Justin Fontaine will play for the first time in the series, as well.
"You’re down 2-0 in a series, quite often (when) that happens, you’re going to make some changes," Yeo said. "That’s where we’re at."
Fontaine is expected to play on the third line with Matt Cooke and Erik Haula. With the benefit of having the last change on home ice, Yeo could look to Cooke, Haula and Fontaine to slow Colorado’s top line of Gabriel Landeskog, Paul Stastny and Nathan MacKinnon.
Stastny has three goals and three assists. MacKinnon has one goal and six assists and Landeskog has added two goals in the series.
"I’m excited. It’s a big challenge, a big task," Fontaine said. "They’ve been rolling right now. So hopefully we can kind of slow that down and allow our guys to attack their other lines."
Kyle Brodziak and Stephane Veilleux are likely scratched in place of Heatley and Fontaine. For Brodziak, it will be the first time he’s been a healthy scratch in his time with the Wild.
"Obviously with the trade deadline and picking up Cody, and realizing that he’s available in the center position and Haulsy’s play, the way that he’s been able to show that he can move up," Yeo said. "This is not just on Brodzy. It’s also about other guys and their performance. I thought both Cody and Haulsy have played well. So that’s where we’re at."