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Quirks of being a NHL goaltender

Photo by Ben Garvin / Pioneer Press Minnesota Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper makes a stop in overtime as the Minnesota Wild play the Nashville Predators on Feb. 6 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Wild won 3-2 in overtime.

All goaltenders are goofy, of course. Maybe not like in the old days when some used to enjoy skating naked during warm-ups. But they’re all still “out there.”

The Wild’s Darcy Kuemper and Ilya Bryzgalov are no exceptions. Kuemper is sort of a happy go lucky goofy, oblivious to most of what is going on around him. He says the playoffs haven’t even crossed his mind.

“I don’t know,” he said with laugh. “I just worry about the task at hand.”

Bryzgalov is more of an intellectual. He thinks deep thoughts about many things, but keeps his hockey simple.

“I always thought media puts more pressure on the players in the playoffs than there really is,” he noted. “It’s the same game. Same players you’re playing against. That’s my perspective. Maybe somebody feels differently. But what? You’ve got the same players you played against two days ago. No difference.”

One of these goalies holds the key to the Wild’s playoff experience. But just one and not both.

Being named the starting goaltender for Game 1 of the playoffs is a lot like being hired for a government job. Once you’re in, it’s almost impossible to get fired.

Corey Crawford played every minute of Chicago’s 23 playoff games en route to the Stanley Cup championship last season. The year before, Jonathan Quick was in net for every minute of the Los Angeles Kings’ Cup run. And the year before that, Tim Thomas did the same thing for the Boston Bruins.

There’s no such thing as a goaltender rotation for successful playoff teams. If a coach has to make a change it means that things are going very badly. Wild coach Mike Yeo knows its one-man show come playoff time.

“Yes, I definitely much prefer that,” he said after Tuesday’s practice at Xcel. “Obviously, that player is feeling confident and the team is feeling confident in that player. There’s also reads to it. When you have a good understanding of who is in net, how they are playing, how they are going to play the puck, I think that there’s value in that.”

OK, so the question is: Which goaltender gets to saddle up? At first glance, it seems as if it should be Kuemper. But the problem is that cracks have appeared in Kuemper’s game. After doing terrific work for several months, he’s begun to let in a few softies. And as a result the Wild are sort of side-winding along toward the playoffs.

Add the fact that Bryzgalov has 38 Stanley Cup playoff games under his belt and we can see that Yeo faces a decision. There are 10 remaining regular season games, including tonight’s at home against Vancouver.

“Over the next 10 days we’ll be trying to sort things out there,” Yeo said. “I don’t think (Kuemper) is that far off. I don’t think his game has slipped that much. He’s still making quality saves. Whether it’s him making one more save or us doing a couple of things better in front of him, we just haven’t been getting as many wins lately.

“On the flip side, Bryz has come in and he has a pretty decent record going right now. We’re open minded.”

Yeo clearly would prefer Kuemper. Bryzgalov, 33, is a rental player, signed for the rest of the season, while Kuemper could be the future of the franchise. But Yeo has to play the better the man in the post-season. He has to do what’s right for the good of the team. And again Bryzgalov has experience, which can be important.

“It can,” Yeo said. “Bryz has that. And he’s got experience being deep in the playoffs, which can be a real positive. (But) part of it is also looking at Kemps and his personality and his situation as being part of our future.”

Yes, but there still is the matter of those recent soft goals.

“I feel like my game is where it needs to be,” Kuemper said. “Just a few bounces here or a bounce there that hasn’t gone my way. Keep doing things the right way and you’ll get the right result more often than not.”

Asked about his playoff status, Kuemper replied: “I’m not too sure. I just worry about the games I’ve got to play and worry about doing my job.”

Bryzgalov has been consistent in his approach since arriving. He says he will do whatever the Wild ask.

“I know what I can do and I am very confident in myself,” he said. “I’m not like an 18-year-old boy without experience. I have pretty big baggage in all kinds of different hockey everywhere. I am here to help. Whatever they call I will accept it and will continue to help the team as best as I can. Whatever they want, I can help.”

Which one will it be?

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.