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Come back -- and fast

Wild's stopper ready to jet off to farm club when urgent call came

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TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Jets� Matt Halischuk jumps over a shot as he tries to screen Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom in the first period Saturday afternoon.

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TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Jets� Matt Halischuk jumps over a shot as he tries to screen Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom in the first period Saturday afternoon.

There's no way Darcy Kuemper would have guessed how his Saturday would go, from the morning's farewell to the NHL to a sudden scramble to get back to the show.

It was an unusual twist of events.

"Bizarre," Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo said later, and this is how it went: On Saturday morning, the Wild told Kuemper he was heading back to their AHL affiliate in Iowa.

They'd called the 23-year-old netminder up to the big squad just five days before. With Niklas Backstrom still out with a concussion, they needed Kuemper to play backup to Josh Harding. He even saw a little playing time in a mucky loss to Montreal last week.

So when Backstrom got the green light from medical staff on Saturday, Kuemper packed his bags to rejoin the Wild's farm club.

'It wasn't like I had to play or anything... Obviously you didn't go through your game-day routine and you were at the airport 15 minutes before game time. But you just come and you put your gear on and you try and get your game face on as best you can'

-- Wild goalie Darcy Kuemper

He headed to the airport, cleared security and was waiting for his flight to Minneapolis when his phone buzzed with news: With a handful of minutes before the Wild were to take on the Jets at the MTS Centre, Harding, who had been slated to start, slipped on a puck in warm-up and injured his leg.

It was a wacky accident, but it happened not a moment too soon -- minutes later, and Kuemper might have been gone.

"We were boarding soon, my phone rang and they said, 'Hey, you need to get your gear,' " Kuemper said after the game. "I was like, 'How do I do that? It's checked in already.' "

So with no time to lose, the Wild made an urgent call to Delta Airlines and managed to get Kuemper's bags off the plane.

They still played without a backup goalie for the first period as the team bus rushed Kuemper to the MTS Centre.

He managed to get dressed for the second period, though since he was technically employed as an emergency backup, he couldn't join his teammates on the bench.

He sat in his ball cap and watched from the tunnel instead.

Yeah, right in fan-heckling territory. "I wasn't really listening, but I heard a few comments," Kuemper laughed, and added that he managed to stay calm through the whirlwind.

"It wasn't like I had to play or anything... Obviously you didn't go through your game-day routine and you were at the airport 15 minutes before game time. But you just come and you put your gear on and you try and get your game face on as best you can."

Hardly needed

As it turned out, he was hardly needed. Despite the fact Backstrom had just one practice in recent weeks, despite the fact the only other time he played in November was under 11 minutes in a game against Toronto 10 days earlier, the veteran backstop was superb.

He turned away 37 shots to carry his team to a shootout and the win. His .949 save percentage kept the Wild in the game, especially after the Jets pounded them with 14 shots in the first frame.

"He's the difference in the game really, for us," Yeo said. "I give our players a great deal of credit for dealing with the adversity of what happened at the beginning of the game. But it's a little bit easier to deal with it when you see your goalie go out and play the way he was... he kept us in it and gave us a chance to continue to find our game. It was a real credit to Backy."

After the game, Backstrom shrugged off all the credit. It wasn't easy jumping in last-minute, he nodded, but clearly he found a way.

"You have to be ready all the time," he said. "You never know what's going to happen. As a goalie, you have to be there for your guys, because they're going to be there every night for you... it's always fun to play."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 24, 2013 B2

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