A great hockey mind once said: “goaltending is 60 percent of hockey. Unless it’s bad goaltending: then it’s 100 percent.” That idiom is rarely more obvious than in the playoffs, where a good goaltender can be the difference between victory and agony, glory and defeat.
In the Arizona Coyotes’ first first-round playoff game since 2012, there were many areas for concern. Most notable among these was the goose egg in the goal column. However, no one will blame goaltending in this case: starting goalie Darcy Kuemper was absolutely fantastic.
Kuemper’s 37 Saves
Little fanfare was made when the Coyotes traded Tobias Rieder and Scott Wedgewood to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Darcy Kuemper back in 2018. But it may have been one of the best moves of former general manager John Chayka’s tenure. Since that time, Kuemper has maintained a .923 cumulative save percentage (SV%) and has eight shutouts and 45 wins in just 94 games.
With that performance history, there was little question that Kuemper would draw the starting duties entering the 2019-20 playoffs. But an opening-round draw against the Colorado Avalanche — following a qualifying round upset over the complacent Nashville Predators — promised that the netminder would see plenty of action.
Game 1 did not disappoint, as Kuemper faced 28 shots through two periods, while the Coyotes’ lackluster offensive performance could only manage seven. According to Natural Stat Trick, four of the 28 Avalanche opportunities qualified as high danger scoring chances for (HDCF). Despite allowing three goals in the third period on 12 more shots and four more HDCF, Kuemper was the only player who gave his team a chance in Game 1, and no one was shy about admitting it.
High Praise for Kuemper
Though many NHL players find obscurity in the desert, Kuemper had a hard time keeping his name out of the headlines after his performance on Wednesday. In preparing for the game, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who played with Corey Crawford on Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks’ teams, called Kuemper “one of the best goalies, if not the best goalie, [he’s] ever had in [his] career.”
After the loss, ESPN hockey reporter Greg Wyshynski opined, “I feel so bad for Kuemper. Did everything he could in this game.” Youtube and Sportsnet personality Steve Dangle added, “how many goalies over the past two seasons have been better than Darcy Kuemper?” But no one spoke more strongly than Coyotes’ head coach Rick Tocchet, who described his team’s effort as “it’s Darcy, Darcy, Darcy. And that’s it.”
But Darcy, Darcy, Darcy wasn’t enough, as Avalanche goals from Nazem Kadri (on the power play), J.T. Compher, and Mikko Rantanen in short order sealed the Coyotes’ fate in the third. Kuemper finished with 37 saves on 40 shots, good for a .925 SV%. He saved two and a half times as many shots as his team generated on opposing netminder Philipp Grubauer, who faced just 14 in his shutout.
What the Coyotes Need
Very little can improve the Coyotes’ performance on the defensive end, and their goaltending clearly can’t get any better. Arizona needs its offense to begin to perform. Particularly, they’ll need more from former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall and two-time Stanley Cup winner Phil Kessel, who had four points apiece in the qualifying round. Hall, Kessel, and the Coyotes will get their shot at redemption on Friday, in Game 2, which will begin at 2:00 PM ET. For Kuemper’s sake, one hopes they’ll bring a better performance than they did on Wednesday.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.