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Head Games Featuring Darcy Kuemper

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Or is it all in his head?

Focus Darcy son!
Focus Darcy son!
Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

Goalies in the NHL are often thought to be "big-thinkers". This kind of seems like a bit of an oxy-moron, as who in their right mind would willfully put themselves in the way of a puck flying around a sheet of ice at over 100 mph. When a goalie has a good game, he can literally steal 2 points from the opposition. When a goalie has a bad game, it tends to be magnified on the scoreboard and in the backs of their minds.

Darcy Kumeper seems to be one of those all-in or nothing type goalies. The story on him is well written. At times, he can play lights out, standing on his head, out of his mind goaltending. He certainly had one of those games just recently against the Los Angeles Kings when he stopped 35 of 37 shots and was the only reason the Wild escaped from L.A. with a (loser) point that night. He was peppered all night and received zero help from the 5 guys in Wild sweaters in front of him. The 2 goals he let in, they were certainly not on him. Anze Kopitar won it on overtime when he was left alone in the slot and fired a slick wrister to beat Kuemps. Tyler Toffoli's PP goal early in the 2nd period was much more skill from Toffoli than it was any fault of Kuemper's

Video courtesy of Alec Schmidt

From the looks of that game alone, it would seem as if any concerns we had are in the past. Of course, one game does not a season make. Darcy Kuemper came flying out of the gates last season as well. He earned back-to-back shutouts against the Colorado Avalanche to start last season, stopped 24 of 26 shots against the Anaheim Ducks in his next game and posted his 3rd shutout in 4 starts against the Arizona Coyotes to follow that. He would finish the month of October 2014 with a .927 Sv% and a 1.70 GAA. In November, his Sv% would dip to .900, and in December he was in free-fall, posting just a .879 Sv% in 6 games with a 3.36 GAA.

Last season, the wheels came of the Kuemper bus quite literally. It led to the Wild bringing in Devan Dubnyk in mid-January who subsequently saved the season for the Wild. Kuemper had the opportunity to grab the starting job in the 2014-2015 season, and completely blew it. Maybe he's just not ready, maybe the pressure got to him over time, or maybe it was something more.

I personally think Darcy Kuemper is a fantastic goalie. I also am in the camp that he is truly his own worst enemy. Scoggins touched on this last December, but when Kuemper lets in a goal, he sometimes seems to just fall apart in front of your eyes. Doubts creep into his head and his game just hits a wall. The hope was that Kuemper could turn it all around this season, and after being peppered in L.A. things looked pretty good for the 25 year old netminder. He didn't let in anything early and it took a very skilled shot on a Kings PP to beat him in the 2nd period. Unfortunately, that stellar play in L.A. would not carry over to The Wall last Sunday afternoon.

After Jason Zucker scored the Wild's 1st goal against the Winnipeg Jets, just 10 seconds into the game, Wild fans were flying high in celebration. It would take just another 1:12 for that elation to start to disintegrate. When Bryan Little tied the game for the Jets on just their first shot of the game, Kuempers world seemed to come apart. You certainly can't blame Kuemper for Winnipeg's first goal of the game. It was a bang-bang play and the puck was bouncing all over the place and finally settled in the back of the net after bouncing over Kuempers left shoulder, completely out of his sight.

Ladd Goal

The second goal you can purely blame on the defense. Andrew Ladd was left all alone on the back door where a rebound from a Bryan Little shot found him with plenty of real estate, and plenty of net to shoot at. Again, tough to put any kind of blame on Kuemper here. He's simply not able to get across his crease in time. One has to wonder however if the doubts started to creep in at this point. This would be his 2nd goal allowed on just 4 shots by the Jets in this game. Whether it's been his fault or not, a goalie who's been rumored to have a fragile mind could find himself unable to shake off  this kind of start.

It didn't get much better for Kuemper after this. Not trying to take anything away from the Jets 3rd goal scorer, Nikolaj Ehlers, because he saw the opening and took it. You have to put the puck on net to score goals, and that's what he did. Yet this one feels like the kind of goal that could have been prevented. It was just the Jets 9th shot on goal as well.

Ehlers goal

Looking at it, there is really no reason for Kuemper to not stop this. Ehlers comes streaking down on Kuempers left, and Kuemper himself is positioned facing the shooter at the top of his crease. With Suter covering the defender skating up the weak side, the only thing Kuemps should need to worry about here is the shooter. This one slips past Kuemper on the far side, meaning it had to travel just that much further to reach it's target. A good shot indeed, but one that Kuemper was in a position to stop. At this point, he's over-thinking the game and not playing the kind of hockey you want to see out of your netminder. It gets worse folks. Check out this tweet from @GregBalloch.

What on Earth is Kuemper doing here? Watch that again. Kuemper's waffle pad is miles away from his body here, there are holes everywhere in his armor. If you wanted to see an example of how not to position your limbs while playing goal, this would be a good example. The fact that this didn't go in is miraculous. The puck bounces off of everything before smashing into the post and exiting out the far side. It almost looks as if Kuemper is just winging it at this point.

Ultimately, Drew Stafford would put the nail in Kuemper's coffin.

Video courtesy of Wild.com

This one is simply unacceptable. Stafford flips a wrister on Kuemper from above the circle and it finds a way underneath his pads. Kuemper is out at the top of his crease, maybe his vision was obscured a bit with Marco Scandella playing the shooter in this situation. Kuemper still would have plenty of time to track this puck. It comes in low, and he simply fails to react in time. This goal, all by itself, is a bad goal. Stack on top of it Kuemper fighting off shots and generally looking shaky throughout the first period and it's easy to understand why he was pulled from the game.

It's nearly impossible to quantify a goalies mental state. Kuemper has generally been thought of as a level headed netminder who has had success and consistency at every level. His NHL career .910 Sv% isn't terrible either. Last season it took nearly a month for Kuemper to start to falter as the number 1, this season it took him just 2 starts spelling Dubnyk. He stopped just 14 of 18 shots against the Jets, and while I can certainly concede that 2 of those which got past him should not be blamed on him. With the last two goals he allowed, along with his very luck gaffe that ricocheted off the post and his play around the net throughout the first, it leaves you wondering just what is going through his head sometimes, he's better than this.

To me, it's one of two ideas that are Kuemper's biggest problem right now. Either he's just not that great of a goalie, which his history tends to suggest is simply not the case, or he's getting his cage rattled in games much more frequently and he's over-thinking the process. Goalies are allowed to have bad games, and Kuemper has just played two this season which land on opposite ends of the spectrum. When you look at how last year played out for him however, it's tough to not believe after that Jets game that those mental demons are not quite behind him. We saw him last season fall apart as the starter. This season, the number 1 pressure is off him, but he still can't seem to shake it off and forget the last goal.

Unfortunately, he doesn't have the time to figure things out. The Wild need him to be able to spell Dubnyk this season, and that means he's going to need to play at a more consistent level than every other game. He is going to have to show that he can indeed be counted on to come in to games and perform at a level befitting an NHL backup. He's going to need to show his memory is short in regards to goals allowed. They don't all have to be wins, but 4 goals on 18 shots is not the kind of performance the Wild are looking for in a backup goalie.

Maybe this was a 1-time deal for Kuemper this season, and maybe in his next start he looks unbreakable again. Maybe this is his 1 mulligan of the season. I certainly hope so. As I stated, I think he's a fantastic goalie, when he doesn't get in his own way.