As the Wild prepare for what they hope is a lengthy playoff run, don’t forget about the man who helped them get here.
No, not rstar rookie forward Kirill Kaprizov. No, not dynamic winger Kevin Fiala. And no, not standout goaltender Cam Talbot.
While those three certainly played a vital role in the team’s success, as did countless others throughout the lineup, backup goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen was an X factor this season that should not be forgotten.
He was expected to start Thursday’s season finale against the Blues in St. Louis, and entered the game with a 16-7-0 record, 2.70 goals-against average and .908 save percentage. As impressive as those stats are, especially for a 24-year-old rookie goaltender, there was an even more impressive stretch a couple of months ago that pretty much saved the season.
With the Wild battling through a highly publicized COVID shutdown — Talbot was among the players who tested positive — Kahkonen was as a stabilizing force between the pipes. He filled in admirably for nearly a month and posted a 9-0-0 record, 1.44 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.
Who’s to say where the Wild would be right now without that stretch?
“I don’t really think about it that way,” Kahkonen said. “I feel like everybody contributed this year. Just everybody who’s been around this team this year, and played or not played, I think the positive attitude we all have had has for sure helped us to get here. That’s what it is, and that’s what makes good teams good.”
As does solid play between the pipes. Which is exactly what the Wild got from Kahkonen when they needed it most.
“We went on a stretch there where he was playing outstanding hockey for a large portion of time,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “Yes, maybe Cam takes that job in the playoffs and runs with it, and maybe Kaapo doesn’t play another game all season. I don’t think that diminishes what Kaapo has done, or the future he’s going to have, or how good of a goaltender he is.”
It seems like Talbot has established himself over the past month as the No. 1 option in net, and the Wild are most likely going to live and die with him through the playoffs. If that’s the case, coach Dean Evason said Kahkonen will continue to be someone the Wild can trust in a big moment.
“We as a team appreciate what he’s done and how he’s contributed,” Evason said. “He’s fit in wonderfully with the group.”
As for Kahkonen, he plans to continue to work his butt off in practices, like he has all season.
“I’ve been trying to tell myself go one day at a time,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen this year with everything going on. I guess it’s been a little different, at least compared to the little while I was up for last year. But it’s been a fun year.”
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Author: Dane Mizutani