Rick Tocchet was disgusted. The Arizona Coyotes, riding high after upsetting the Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup qualification round, had squandered a chance to pull another shocker in Game 1 of their quarterfinal series against the Colorado Avalanche.
“You gotta be able to make a 5-foot pass and support it. It starts with that. It’s a 0-0 hockey game [in the third period], and we get a power play, and the power play stinks,” lamented the coach.
“Darcy Kuemper, first star again,” Tocchet said, exasperated. “It’s Darcy, Darcy, Darcy, and that’s it.”
Through the Coyotes’ four-game elimination of Nashville and their first game against the Avalanche on Wednesday, no goaltender in this postseason had faced more shots than Kuemper — not even Joonas Korpisalo of the Blue Jackets, who faced 88 of them in one five-overtime loss to Tampa Bay. Kuemper stopped 189 of them for a .931 save percentage, including 49 shots in Game 4 against the Predators.
“We knew they were going to come out hard. I expected a lot of work,” Kuemper said. “We rose to the occasion and were able to win the series.”
He was just as good in Game 1 against Colorado, until Nazem Kadri‘s third-period goal opened the floodgates for three goals in a span of 1:23 to give the Avalanche the 1-0 series lead.
His effort had been wasted.
“I’m just disappointed in the club. The players know how I feel. You guys saw it. Darcy Kuemper kept us in. That’s all there is to say,” Tocchet said.
The Coyotes aren’t a high-octane offensive team, finishing 23rd in goals per game (2.71) and 24th in shooting percentage (8.6%) during the regular season. To advance in the postseason, as the No. 11 seed in the West, they knew they needed to squeeze out timely goals in front of a strong defense and exceptional goaltending.
“They do a nice job, not just against us but against everyone, of protecting the net front and making sure it’s hard to get the rebounds,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said.
But it’s Kuemper who got the crease for the postseason after having one of the best — and most underappreciated — seasons for any goalie in the league. He was second to probable Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets in expected goals saved above average (8.71), per Evolving Hockey. He finished the regular season with a .934 even-strength save percentage, which was third best in the NHL for goalies who played at least 25 games. The problem for Kuemper, and the reason his season was overlooked: He only played in 29 of them after suffering a lower body injury on Dec. 19.
“He’s been our best player for the last year, year and a half. Now we got our best player back,” Tocchet said when Kuemper returned on Feb. 25.
Kuemper said getting a few games in before the NHL paused its season for COVID-19 helped him as he entered the next few months without games. But there was no guarantee he’d be the starter for the restart.
“We’ve got a great setup where we’ve got two guys that can go in there, step up and can play,” he said. “I’m just going to work hard and be ready for every game. It’s all about being ready when your number gets called, whether that’s every game or just some games.”
Kuemper, 30, spent the first five seasons of his career with the Minnesota Wild, who drafted him in the sixth round (161st overall) in 2009. The Saskatoon native signed with the Los Angeles Kings as a free agent in 2017 and was 10-1-3 as their backup. The Coyotes acquired him that season in a deal that saw goalie Scott Wedgewood and speedy winger Tobias Rieder head to L.A.
His career reached a new level in Arizona, as his skills fit Tocchet’s system perfectly.
“You don’t want your goalie to play post to post. In any kind of system, hopefully you can get your goalie to play half the net, [the defensemen] protect the back side. For the most part we’ve done a nice job that way over the last couple of years, but obviously there have been some post-to-post saves [in this postseason],” Tocchet said. “He’s an angled goalie. He’s a big goalie. He’s quiet in the net, which is what I love about him. I think system-wise … really good goalies know your system to a T, so he knows what we’re looking for from him on certain things. That might help him on some of the saves. But he’s a system goalie. You can tell.”
Defenseman Alex Goligoski doesn’t believe Kuemper is just the product of that system, however.
“He can be in any system and be a great goalie. He’s maybe the best goalie I’ve played with, or definitely one of them. He’s big. He’s athletic. He battles. And he thinks he should make every save,” he said. “He’s an easy guy to play in front of, and we’re lucky to have him back there. He’s one of the top, if not the top goalie, in the league. “
Hjalmarsson didn’t go quite that far, but he said that Kuemper was “one of the best goalies, if not the best goalie, I’ve had in my career.” Especially when it comes to making his defensemen look good.
“As a D-man, that’s huge, to know that you have one of those guys behind you when you cough up the puck or something like that. When you make a mistake, you know Kuemp will make you look a little bit better,” he said.
That’s exactly what Kuemper has done in the postseason for the Coyotes: make them a look a little bit better than expected. He’s the reason they ousted the Predators. “We couldn’t get the extra goal. It wasn’t for a lack of opportunities or effort. We just couldn’t solve Kuemper,” Predators coach John Hynes said after Game 4.
He’s the reason the Coyotes advanced in a postseason series for the first time in 3,014 days. If they pull another stunner against the Avalanche, he could be the reason again.
He just needs a little help.
“We know that once we get in our end, we’re going to play solid defense and we have a great goalie back there,” forward Taylor Hall said, “but can we force them to play on their heels a little bit?”