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Zulgad: Cool, calm and collected Kaapo Kahkonen has emerged as Wild’s No. 1 goalie

Golden Knights Wild Hockey
Minnesota Wild’s goalie Kaapo Kahkonen (34) blocks a shot-attempt by Vegas Golden Knights’ Cody Glass (9) in the third period of an NHL hockey game Monday, March 8, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

Bill Guerin didn’t waste any time expressing his season-long displeasure with the Wild’s goaltending duo of Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock following the team’s ouster against Vancouver in the playoff bubble last summer. The Wild general manager left no doubt that he would be making changes and he followed through by signing veteran free agent Cam Talbot to a three-year, $11 million contract in October.

Talbot was given the job as the Wild’s top goalie with the expectation that Stalock would battle Kaapo Kahkonen for the backup job. That changed when Stalock was sidelined by the long-term affects of coronavirus, giving Kahkonen the opportunity to secure the backup job and not start the season in Iowa. Kahkonen already had established himself in the American Hockey League, going 25-6-3 with a 2.07 goals-against average, a .927 save percentage and seven shutouts in 34 games last season en route to being named the AHL’s outstanding goaltender. He also went 3-1-1 with a 2.96 goals against and .913 save percentage in five games with the big club.

Still there were questions about how successful the native of Helsinki, Finland, would be if he saw regular action with the Wild. Turns out those concerns were misguided. Kahkonen continued to be outstanding on Monday night stopping 26 shots in the Wild’s 2-0 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights at Xcel Energy Center.  It was the 24-year-old’s first NHL shutout, and the victory moved the Wild within four points of the first-place Golden Knights in the West Division.

As far as who is the Wild’s top goalie now, that question has been answered and it’s the rookie. It will be a big surprise if coach Dean Evason does not start Kahkonen again in goal on Wednesday night against the Knights in downtown St. Paul. Talbot got that assignment in back-to-backs against the Golden Knights last week in Las Vegas, losing 5-4 in overtime and 5-1. He gave up nine goals in the two games as Vegas scored into an empty net in the second game.

Talbot has missed time this season because of a lower body injury and COVID-19. This has meant plenty of playing time for Kahkonen. Kahkonen entered Monday with a 9-4 record in 13 games with a 2.30 goals against and .918 save percentage. He now has a seven-game winning streak, stopping 178-of-188 shots in that time, which is a franchise record for a rookie goalie. Talbot, meanwhile, is 4-4-1 in 10 games with a 2.88 goals against and .906 save percentage.

The impressive thing about Kahkonen is how steady he has been. Despite his inexperience in the NHL, and young age, he is nearly unflappable, even when there’s chaos around him. “I think he’s the type of person that doesn’t care about anything except getting in the net and competing,” Evason said. “There’s no stress, no any type of maintenance. He just goes about his business. I don’t think if he was guaranteed a spot it would be any different than if he came in and won a spot. I think he’s that type of person and clearly is that type of goalie.”

Kahkonen is so even-keel — or flatline — that he readily acknowledges his answers off the ice are much like his play on it. Not flashy. “I feel great,” he said. “I try to enjoy it. I don’t know if it’s (the best of) my career, it’s tough to compare, but I’m just happy the way things (are going) right now. Obviously, getting another win is great. It’s a great team win. I don’t know. I probably sound really boring in these interviews but it’s just the daily work I believe that matters. Doing the little things right that will get you there.”

Kahkonen’s approach might not be exciting but it’s definitely effective. When he’s playing well, he keeps rebounds to a minimum and has the ability to go from zero to 60 in quality. That was the case on Monday when he only faced five shots in the opening period as Kevin Fiala gave the Wild a 1-0 lead by beating Vegas’ Marc-Andre Fleury with a snap shot. But the Golden Knights rebounded in the second period and had 14 shots before adding seven in the third as the Wild did their best to shut down things around their goalie.

With the Wild’s pandemic-condensed schedule offering few breaks, the team is going to need both Kahkonen and Talbot throughout the remainder of the season. But Evason is likely to give Kahkonen the start in more important games. Guerin also has a decision to make about which goalie he will protect in the July expansion draft with Seattle. At one point, it looked as if it would be Talbot. These days, it almost certainly has changed to Kahkonen.

Safe to say, the calm, cool and collected Kaapo isn’t sweating it. “You want to be calm, you want to look calm and then your teammates see you’re doing your job and they can focus on their job,” Kahkonen said. “I think that’s what it’s all about and it’s good to hear it looks like that (because) that’s what I’m trying to do here.”