Wild's goalie situation still murky
ST. LOUIS -- Defining moments? This night was rich with them.
For a young goaltender trying to prove he belongs with the big boys, for a coach trying to sort out just what kind of goaltending he has before the playoffs and for a veteran backup looking for a chance to prove he's more than just the sum of all the wacky quips he's uttered since coming into the NHL, this was a night for the Minnesota Wild on which much would be determined.
The loss leaves the Wild with just two wins in their past eight outings and just one point ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes, which sits in the last wild-card spot in the Western Conference. The Wild play in Phoenix on Saturday.
Just 24 hours earlier, Kuemper was yanked by coach Mike Yeo after two periods after Kuemper allowed three goals on just 12 Vancouver Canucks shots en route to a 5-2 loss. Veteran Ilya Bryzgalov allowed two goals on seven shots in relief, and the expectation was that Bryzgalov would get the start Thursday night in St. Louis.
But Yeo went back to the youngster, giving the 23-year-old an opportunity to make a statement while, at the same time, looking for some clarity to the murky Minnesota goaltending situation.
Before the game, Yeo said, "I just think it's an opportunity for him to bounce back, an opportunity for him to respond. He's proven that he can do that. He's proven that he can be a real quality goaltender. Win against very good competition in tough buildings in this league, and give him a chance to do it again tonight."
The first period provided a window into the Wild's lot in life.
They opened with good pressure against the NHL's top point-producing team, at one point outshooting the Blues 8-1 and forcing Ryan Miller, the Blues' high-profile, trade-deadline acquisition, into a handful of key stops.
Then, Kuemper could not control a bad-angle shot from the right side, and T.J. Oshie corralled the loose puck in front to make it 1-0 on the Blues' third shot of the game.
Then, late in the first period with the Wild on a four-minute power play, Oshie took advantage of a horrific Wild turnover to race partially into the clear and beat Kuemper from the slot to take a 2-0 lead.
Was this disaster Kuemper's fault?
Of course not.
The Wild are like many teams: They don't win many games when they score just a single goal.
They went 0-for-6 on the power play, including the four-minute opportunity that yielded Oshie's second goal. In the second period, they failed to score on a power play and then immediately took an offensive-zone penalty that led to a Blues power-play marker by Jaden Schwartz to make it 3-0.
"Honestly, with my game, I thought I had the right mindset tonight, and I competed hard and I was battling on everything. Just, you know, one of those games at the end of the game, it's 5-1," Kuemper said.
Veteran winger Zach Parise acknowledged the team as a whole isn't playing the kind of hockey it needs to play at this stage of the season.
"It's kind of funny because we'll play one game where we play really well, and then, we'll play another game like we did [Wednesday] against Vancouver where we make mistakes that we shouldn't make in Game 72 or 73. Whatever game it was," Parise told ESPN.com before the game.
"We're really not playing that consistent. We're not doing things right now that should be second nature. Kind of leaving games up to chance, you know what I mean?"
As for the goaltending, Parise said it's up to the team to give Kuemper more support as he is experiencing some growing pains.
"Darcy's played really well for us. I think lately, I think some goals have gone in that weren't going in earlier, but that happens. I don't think we've given him enough goal support to win the games. We've got to score more than two. I know you've got to win 2-1, but, at the same time, you've got to get three, four a game, so I don't think lately we've given him a lot of goal support, and that's hurt us," Parise said.
But the reality is the Wild, assuming they don't completely crumble down the stretch, have an uphill battle come playoff time in large part because their goaltending does not match up -- at least on paper -- with just about anyone that figures to be in the postseason tournament.
Former NHL netminder Darren Pang, now a longtime national analyst, listed off the Western Conference goaltenders likely to be in the playoffs and puts the Wild at the bottom of the list.
"And that's not that Darcy Kuemper's not going to be there at some point, but right now, he's an unsure commodity. You're not sure what you're going to get from him in a seven-game playoff series," Pang said.
In fact, Pang believes Kuemper has the tools to become a top NHL netminder.
"Darcy Kuemper is very unique. I consider him a young Carey Price," Pang told ESPN.com.
"I think he's calm and poised, long legs, covers the posts well. But he's going through what every young goalie [goes through]. Eddie Lack has had to go through this in Vancouver. Darcy Kuemper; not easy. At one point with the system that they played [in Minnesota], you throw in Nick[las] Backstrom, Dwayne Roloson, and they were somewhat protected by the system. It's not necessarily the same now for them, and their goaltender is going to need to make a couple of really dramatic and game-saving stops, maybe two a period to keep this Minnesota Wild team going."
Of late, they aren't getting those kinds of stops from Kuemper, although he did make a spectacular save on Schwartz midway through the third on a Blues power play. When the third Blues goal beat him, it was on just the 13th shot of the game. Kuemper has now gone winless in five straight games and given up at least three goals in four straight.
Still, it seems clear from Yeo's choice on Thursday that he feels Kuemper gives the Wild a better shot at getting those kinds of stops than Bryzgalov.
"He battled through a very tough game, I'll say that," Yeo said after.
"I'll be honest, I feel bad for him. To be honest with you right now, I do. We wouldn't even be sitting here in the position that we're in [in the playoff picture] if he didn't give us the stretch of hockey he's given us."
Another longtime NHL netminder who has become a respected national analyst, Glenn Healy, took the Wild goaltending a step further, suggesting the Wild might have the worst goaltending of any of the 16 teams that end up in the postseason tournament.
"No. No, nothing gives me comfort," about the Wild goaltending situation, Healy said in an interview.
If there is an Achilles heel with a Minnesota team that boasts top players like Parise, Ryan Suter, Matt Moulson (who was added at the deadline), Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu, the goaltending "has to be it," Healy said.
If Thursday represented a lost chance for Kuemper to seize the moment, to make a statement, what was the statement made about Bryzgalov?
It's hard not to think of Jerry Garcia -- "what a long, strange trip it's been" -- when thinking of Bryzgalov, who went from Vezina Trophy finalist in Phoenix to big-ticket, free-agent signing in Philadelphia to pariah and subject of a whopper buyout by those same Flyers last summer.
He began this season without an NHL team and worked out with the ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers before being signed by Edmonton and then acquired by Minnesota at the trade deadline.
Healy admitted some surprise that the Wild opted to go with Bryzgalov as their deadline addition in goal.
"You went to the second-worst team in the league for your answer [in goal]?" Healy asked.
"I guess it does surprise me a little bit."
Healy has seen Bryzgalov play a couple of times and has been unimpressed.
"I don't have faith in him. I don't," he said.
Pang saw a lot of Bryzgalov when he was providing analysis for Coyotes games before Bryzgalov signed with Philadelphia in the summer of 2011. Pang, too, isn't optimistic Bryzgalov is any kind of answer to the Wild's goaltending issues.
"Bryzgalov has been around the league long enough that a good team can find weaknesses in his game. There are tendencies in his game that can be exploited, and for a big goaltender, there are many times when he comes out and doesn't look big. And there are times when he looks like he's seven feet tall," Pang said.
In his past two playoff outings -- 2012 with the Flyers and 2011 with the Coyotes -- Bryzgalov has struggled, posting a 3.46 and 4.36 goals-against average, respectively.
"In those series against Detroit for Phoenix, what disappointed me the most was his lack of battle. You have to compete on every puck because your players are playing their rear ends [off] and blocking shots and playing with utter desperation in front of you. If the goalie's not battling hard behind them, it's a trickle-down effect," Pang said.
Is there a chance for redemption for Bryzgalov in Minnesota?
Pang thinks there is.
"Bryzgalov could change the reputation that he's had the last few years with a phenomenally dominating playoff series. It could save his NHL career -- if he gets the chance," Pang said.
"Because it's not about the quirky comments. It's about stopping the puck. It's about being a mature leader, being a pro and having the players want to play hard for you. It's not difficult to me to be an NHL goalie. You endear yourself to your teammates, they play hard for you. It's very simple."
Oh, that the Wild's goaltending situation was as clear cut.
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