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Zulgad: That’s more like it: Kaapo Kahkonen’s solid performance is just what the Wild needed

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Minnesota Wild
Apr 17, 2021; Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Wild goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen (34) makes a save during the third period against the San Jose Sharks at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

Kaapo Kahkonen’s start Saturday night against the San Jose Sharks at Xcel Energy Center didn’t go as he hoped. At least not at first. The rookie goalie, coming off a performance eight days earlier in which he was left in to give up nine goals in a loss in St. Louis, saw a clear shot from Brent Burns fly past his glove only 7 minutes, 58 seconds into the game. It was the exact type of goal that could create doubt in the mind of a struggling goalie — not to mention his teammates.

“(It wasn’t) nerves,” Kahkonen said about his feeling at the outset of only his fourth start in 16 games. “Just going out to battle for every single puck and a couple of times there I felt like I was doing too much trying to battle, but I think that was the way for me to come back from that embarrassment last time in St. Louis. Just try to battle and fight for every single puck.”

There was some question about whether Evason made the right move by not pulling Kahkonen from his April 9 start in St. Louis. The Wild gave up a franchise record nine goals in a brutal loss, and Kahkonen was left on the receiving end as his goals-against average climbed to 2.69. He hadn’t played since with veteran Cam Talbot having started the past three games.

Fortunately for the Wild and Kahkonen his rough start Saturday wasn’t a reflection of what was to come. He gave up only one more goal the rest of the way in a 5-2 victory that gave the Wild a two-game weekend sweep of the Sharks in St. Paul. Kahkonen stopped 26 of the 28 shots he faced and did not surrender another goal until the Wild were up by four late in the third period.

After Burns’ shot beat him, the 24-year-old Kahkonen came over to the bench during a timeout and made it clear that was not going to become the norm. “(Assistant coach) Bob Woods said he came over and said, ‘That’s my bad goal for the night,'” Evason said. “It didn’t rattle him. He just went about his business. I think the guys, maybe they talked about it. But there was no letdown.”

If anything the defensive performance in front of Kahkonen picked up and the goals started to come. Mats Zuccarello, Joel Eriksson Ek and Zach Parise gave the Wild a 3-1 lead heading into the first intermission.

Kahkonen’s bounce back was extremely important because in today’s NHL attempting to rely on one goalie is incredibly risky. Talbot is the Wild’s top goaltender, but the team learned earlier this season how valuable Kahkonen can be as Talbot battled injury and then spent a stint on the COVID-19 list.

Kahkonen established a franchise record for a rookie goalie by winning nine consecutive games and posting a 1.44 goals-against average, .947 saves percentage with two shutouts. The streak started on Feb. 18 and ended on March 16.  Kahkonen had lost in each of the three starts he made since then.

“We talked about it already,” Evason said of his confidence that Kahkonen would bounce back. “We didn’t expect anything different. We talked about this before. He competes his butt off, he’s mentally strong, he’s a great teammate. We had no issues, so this wasn’t a surprise to us.”

One of the big reasons the Wild have been such a pleasant surprise this season is the fact that the goaltending woes of last season disappeared with Devan Dubnyk and Alex Stalock. Talbot, signed to a three-year, $11 million contract in October, and Kahkonen have formed a reliable 1-2 pairing.

They both will be needed down the stretch. The Wild, who are in third place in the West Division and hold a 12-point lead on fourth-place Arizona, have seven games remaining in April and will play six between May 1 and the end of the regular season on May 12. That will be followed by what the Wild hope will be a long playoff grind.

Two solid goaltenders will be a necessity. Kahkonen knows that will be the case and said he appreciated the support he got from everyone. With the Wild headed for a road trip that will feature two games in Arizona, one in Los Angeles and another in San Jose, Evason might also want to mix in a few more starts for the rookie.

“Obviously, last game wasn’t that much fun, but just the support from the whole coaching staff,” Kahkonen said. “Dean, obviously, but Freddy (Chabot, the Wild goalie coach) and all the others coaches, too, and the guys trusting me just makes it … that’s what it’s about. It’s a team game and within the team you have to trust your teammates. Sometime there’s lows for everyone, sometimes there’s highs. No matter what you’ve just got to go through that.”