Kuemper Keeps Kool as Wild Beats LA Kings, 2-1

With the injury-ridden Minnesota Wild in town Tuesday night, the game with the Los Angeles Kings looked to be kind of, well, non-entertaining, an easy win for the home squad. Maybe a blowout.

The Kings did blow the Wild out of the water in shots in the first period, 17-6, but they didn’t get a single goal. The efforts of goaltender Darcy Kuemper, in his fifth NHL start, were much to credit. He stood big, because he is big, at 6’5”. His positioning was solid. The puck hit him more than he made the saves, but these days, that’s the game of the netminder: Manage the equipment and let it do the work.

Kuemper was drafted by Minnesota in the sixth round, 161st overall, in 2009. He played six regular season games last year, going 1-2 in his three starts. This year, he played in two games before Tuesday, losing in his start against Toronto.

So the Kings were probably thinking it would be easy facing an inexperienced backup, until he stoned them early. The game, by the way, showed a slightly different dimension from prior years’ encounters with the Wild. As everyone knows, they’ve always focused on defense. Well, that’s off, and they’re a more open squad now. Their neutral zone play is not so much in need of Liquid-Plumr (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) as it was. They allow the other team some speed through there.

Where they do clog things up is in the slot, with hardly any chance for the opposition to penetrate. Even when the Kings had both Jarret Stoll and Justin Williams screening Kuemper in the second period, for instance, it was not possible to get the puck there. And never did anyone get a clear shot or break on Kuemper in the early going.

The game proceeded rather in slow motion through two periods, aside from a flurry of action in the middle of period two. During that time, the Kings’ Jordan Nolan ripped a shot just off of Kuemper’s arm, and then Dwight King hit the post on a shot that clearly beat the goalie. The crowd got into it for a while, which relieved their anger at a very poor LA power play that had happened just prior. The Kings had their best chance just after, when Williams had a shot go off a leg and Brown got the puck and swept it at the net, forcing a good save.

About all the Wild could muster in return was a three-on-two where Erik Haula sent the puck across to Justin Fontaine (no, I haven’t heard of these guys, either) and had it go under his stick. The Wild did also pressure during the last minute of the second period but still couldn’t manage a shot on goal. They ended the frame with nine shots on goal to LA’s 30.

It was starting to look like one of those games Kuemper would tell his grandkids about, when someone in Minnesota apparently uttered the word “shutout” because the Kings scored in the first minute of period three. It was Jeff Carter’s pass, Stoll’s shot and King’s big body in front that got it done. The Wild, however, responded shortly after, with a deflection taking care of Jonathan Quick’s shutout bid, and the game going to its waning minutes knotted at one a piece. The shots, meanwhile, had been even in the period, with the Kings outshooting 7-6. The Wild pulled a good last minute after a sloppy play by Williams in the Wild end, which allowed the visitors to take the puck down and pin the Kings deep, but the game went to overtime.

No scoring in OT led to a shootout decision. It took until four rounds into the shootout for Nino Niederreiter to win the game for the Wild, who now have taken three straight. The story, though, was the goalie.

“I tried to redeem myself. My game is where I want it to be right now; I’ve been working on it down in Iowa, and the same when I came up here,” Kuemper said.

He has been on a conditioning stint in the minors as the Wild’s third netminder. He came up thinking he’d back up Niklas Backstrom but didn’t know until Tuesday morning that he would be starting. Josh Harding was placed on injury reserve on Monday, and Backstrom apparently has tweaked something.

“I’m real happy for Darcy, first of all,” head coach Mike Yeo said. “He kind of got pulled into a game where he wasn’t expecting to play until this morning, and he responded extremely well.” He added that the team as a whole had competed and battled, but Kuemper shined.

“You have to look at him first. Right from the start, he just looked very confident. When he had a couple of these games earlier in the year when we kind of threw him in, it was kind of tough on him. He hadn’t had a lot of playing time, and it was a tough situation for him,” Yeo said. “That was a lot of the reason for him to get him back down [to Iowa of the AHL] and get him some playing time. He certainly looked like a different goalie out there tonight.”

Indeed he did, and even after, he was smiling, delighted, but not surprised with what he’d done so much as looking like he could do it again.

“Everyone battled hard tonight. We got hemmed in our own end a couple of times, but we bent but didn’t break. We did a pretty good job of picking up sticks and blocking lanes and that made it a lot easier on me,” Kuemper said.

He thought it was funny that “the first two guys went five-hole, the next two glove.”

“Maybe it’s just their moves, but I don’t think they have a book on me,” Kuemper said. “Obviously, I was comfortable with both situations.”

Kuemper did say that he didn’t think ahead during the contest to whether this would in fact be a memorable game for him. “You just want to make saves, and when you make a lot of them, you just try to make the next one,” he said. “It’s still a 0-0 game, and you’re playing for the win. I’m not thinking about after the game, just about getting that win.”

***

For those of you who read this column for Kings news, here’s some stuff to chew on:

Matt Greene was benched for the second straight game. Scratched, actually. After the contest against Vancouver on Saturday, head coach Darryl Sutter was asked about the decision, and he kind of played it off as “it’s a long season” and all that. But really, when the stalwart of the D is watching from above, that’s kind of significant.

Speaking of the Canucks, GM Mike Gillis was royally ticked off Sunday after the Kings’ captain Dustin Brown collided with Roberto Luongo, injuring the goaltender’s knee. Luongo ended up not playing against the Ducks on Sunday. Over against that, Sutter was vociferous in his response, uttering the word that begins with “bull” and doesn’t end with “crap.” Still, Vancouver is a group of ruffians, and has been for a number of years. The chances that Brown is not demanded to fight on Monday? Zero. The chances that he will? Slight.

And think about it. He’s got a lot to lose. He’s arguably a dirty player (ask the Sharks) yet rarely held accountable for his hits. Clean hits are fine, and yet even a rugged player is occasionally asked to give some payback in the form of the fists. Brown, at least if hockeyfights.com is correct, has had just three fights in the past four years, and none this year. It’s time. But the problem is, he’s got a lot to lose. He’s the captain, and if he gets his ass handed to him, that’s a problem, not just for losing face in front of the team, but because he won’t have the liberty to hit guys throughout the league.

Call this a defining moment in his career.

The Kings also shared the news that six of their players are going to the Olympics. These include Brown and Quick for the US, Anze Kopitar for Slovenia (the only NHL player on their roster, with his father as the coach), Carter and Drew Doughty for Canada and Slava Voynov for Russia. Will any bring home medals? Your guess and all that, but you might find that gold, silver and bronze are in the house come late February. That is, if you care and are not boycotting due to the Russians’ social policies.

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