When Darcy Kuemper was crowned as the premier major junior hockey goaltender in the country in 2011, it seemed just a matter of time that he would be playing for pay at the highest level.
That time arrived Tuesday as Kuemper turned in a rather impressive effort with the Minnesota Wild in his first-ever NHL start, a narrow 2-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks.
The former Red Deer Rebels netminder turned aside 28 shots and was a three-star selection, not too shabby considering the circumstances.
Kuemper, who will celebrate his 23rd birthday in May, was summoned from the Houston Aeros — the Wild’s American Hockey League affiliate — on Monday, but had no idea he’d be the man of the hour a day later.
“It was a shock but I was very excited,” the Saskatoon-born goalie told the Canadian Press. “I was excited to get the opportunity and it has been a lifelong dream of mine to play in the NHL. So to get that experience was awesome.”
Kuemper also got a pep talk from Canucks veteran netminder Roberto Luongo during the pregame warm-up. Well, sort of.
“We were stretching there at the red-line, and (Luongo) tapped me on the pads and said ‘good luck, play your game’,” said Kuemper.
“So that kind of helped calm me down too, that was awesome of him. He is one guy I’ve been watching for the past five or six years trying to emulate his game, so yeah it was pretty cool.”
Kuemper denied Daniel Sedin on a third-period breakaway, a stop that perhaps told him he’s capable of playing full-time in the NHL. At the very least, the save told him he’s not very far away.
“It’s pretty surreal,” he said. “Guys you’ve been watching as a fan, to be out there playing against them, it’s a childhood dream come true.”
For the six-foot-four stopper, it’s onwards and upwards.
“Just to get your feet wet, and see that you can play at that level, it gives you so much more to strive for,” he said. “Obviously I’ve got a lot to work on but I know I can hang in there, so it’s just about trying to get better and stay here full time.”
Wild head coach Mike Yeo was clearly impressed with the rookie.
“I thought he was very good and it’s not an easy game to throw him into,” Yeo told the Canadian Press. “I give him a lot of credit. He looked confident, made saves, and played the puck well. It was a good showing for him.”
l The Regina Pats are sinking fast, kind of like a famous Tragically Hip song.
“Like everybody else, frustration is probably the easiest word to use,” Pats GM Chad Lang suggested to Greg Harder of the Regina Leader-Post.
The Pats rang up five wins in succession to start the New Year, but have since suffered eight consecutive losses and have dropped 12 of their last 14 games. As a result, they are now 13 points back of a playoff berth.
“Going into the trade deadline (on Jan. 10) we were a couple points out of a playoff spot. Coming out of it, we just couldn’t get on track,” said Lang.
The collapse, he suggested, was due to three main factors.
“One was injuries, which people don’t want to talk about anymore, but the reality is we’re over 285 man games lost this year,” he said.
“Coming out of the Christmas break, we really struggled to capitalize on (scoring) chances and we ran into a stretch where our power play struggled. Those three things really resulted in us going in the opposite direction we wanted to.”
Still, Lang feels that the Pats have performed better than their results have shown.
“Have we played up to our capability? No, not 100 per cent,” he said.
“Yet, given those (aforementioned) challenges, I still thought our players did compete hard. Defensively we gave ourselves a chance, yet we couldn’t score (losing seven one-goal games in the past month). They always say it’s a game of inches. Unfortunately things weren’t going our way from Christmas on.”
• Saskatoon Blades forward Brenden Walker is the WHL player of the week. The overage winger collected nine points, including four goals, and was a plus-six in four Saskatoon victories.