Minnesota Wild goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen wasn’t supposed to be here. Not yet anyway.
When general manager Bill Guerin signed 33-year-old veteran Cam Talbot to be the starter this offseason, he made it clear that he thought Kahkonen, a 24-year-old from Finland, needed more seasoning before he was ready for a bigger role. The Wild’s plan this season was for Talbot to be the unquestioned starter with Alex Stalock serving as the primary backup.
The plan first changed when Stalock went down with an upper-body injury a couple of months ago that has kept him out all season, and it changed again when Talbot tested positive for COVID at the beginning of February.
That put Kahkonen in the net, and he’s responded with the best stretch of his young career. He finished 4-1-0 with a 1.82 goals-against average and .934 save percentage on the nine-day road trip that ended Wednesday in Colorado with a 6-2 rout of the Avalanche.
“We have four wins in five games,” Kahkonen said. “That’s all that matters to me. I don’t care about how they come.”
His most impressive performance came in against Avalanche when he made 30 saves in the game.
“I’ve been feeling good about my game,” Kahkonen said before downplaying his own success. “We are going to need both goalies here, whoever it is in net. We are going to need all the guys to contribute.”
That has been the message from coach Dean Evason all season. And his decision to start Kahkonen over Talbot on Wednesday against arguably the most dynamic team in the league speaks to the confidence he has in the young goaltender.
“They were pushing and he’d make a brilliant save, and the guys react on the bench. It’s exciting, for sure,” Evason said. “Just some of the saves he made in key moments in that game. The guys get jacked, obviously, when we score goals. It’s also nice for us to see the saves.”
It’s unclear how the Wild plan to split starts moving forward now that Talbot is healthy and practicing again. The fact that it’s something they have to think about shows how good Kahkonen has been.
“We got a little sample of how good he was last year when he stepped in and played,” forward Zach Parise said. “His ability to move the puck helps a lot on the breakouts. He’s dynamic in the net in the way he competes for the puck and can sprawl across the net. He’s really athletic. He’s made some really, really big saves for us.”
Parise breaks out
Speaking of Parise, he finally broke out of his slump Wednesday, redirecting Matt Dumba’s initial shot from the point to score his first goal since a Jan. 24 game against the San Jose Sharks.
“I’d say a grind is an understatement,” Parise said. “It’s been swimming upstream (for me) for a little while. Went a few games without even getting chances. It was a tough stretch.”
While the slump has clearly been weighing on Parise over the past month, Evason tried to downplay the lacking of scoring, instead emphasizing what a good teammate Parise has been.
“We look at how a guy conducts himself on and off the ice,” Evason said. “If you’re a good teammate and you’re still competing and doing all the right things and not being a distraction, you’re going to give yourself an opportunity to have success. He’s done that.”
Sturm finally scores
Nico Sturm has worked hard this season regardless of where he’s been in the Wild lineup. Whether it’s killing penalties, blocking shots or winning a board battle, the 25-year-old forward from Germany does all the little things it takes to win the game.
He finally got rewarded with his first goal of 2021 on Wednesday when he got loose on a breakaway and scored with a nifty move in front. He followed it up with an empty-net goal for good measure.
“If you had a camera on the bench when he scored his goal, it’s as excited as our group has been all year,” Evason said. “It’s nice for a guy like that to be rewarded for sure.”