TORONTO – It was not the evening Darcy Kuemper or Mike Yeo had hoped for.
With Minnesota starting goaltender Nicklas Backstrom nursing an injured knee and busy backup Josh Harding having played the night before, Wild coach Yeo threw the dice and gambled Tuesday with the 23-year-old Kuemper in goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Despite outshooting the Leafs 37-14, Minnesota lost 4-1 on a bizarre evening before 19,283 at the Air Canada Centre.
Minnesota’s Jason Pominville, Torrey Mitchell and Zach Parise combined for 16 shots on the night, two more than the entire Leaf lineup. But the Wild could not turn those chances into goals against James Reimer.
“There’s been too many of these (games),” said Yeo, shaking his head.
Minnesota (3-2-2) came into the game leading the league average just 21.7 shots against per game. And the Wild were true to that record, allowing just three shots in the first period.
Unfortunately Toronto (6-1-0) scored on the first (Tyler Bozak on a beautiful tic-tac-toe move on the power play) and third (Trevor Smith) to lead 2-1 after an opening 20 minutes that saw the Leafs take four minor penalties to Minnesota’s one. Pominville scored the lone Wild goal on the power play at 17:27.
Parise, with four shots in the period, outshot the entire Toronto lineup. Mason Raymond may have got a talking to in the Toronto dressing room after the period as the only Leaf shooter not to score after Kuemper stopped him at 11:19 for his first save.
Toronto scored on shot No. 7 at 12:23 of the second period on the power play, with Raymond making up for that first-period miss. Raymond got the puck at the corner of the goal dragged it back and fired it high in a goal reminiscent of the injured James van Riemsdyk.
The Raymond goal made it 3-1, prompting Yeo to send in Harding.
Yeo told his young goalie to keep his head up as he returned to the bench,
“I feel bad for the kid,” he said.
“To sit there and watch that game, he knows he’s putting more and more pressure on himself,” he added. “And he’s cold. So we’re not pinning this on him by any means. It was a tough situation for a young goalie. He’ll get a chance to bounce back.”
Said Kuemper: “Really everything couldn’t have gone much more poorly for me tonight. I just feel really bad for the guys because they battled so hard tonight and had a heck of a game and probably deserved a better fate.”
Kuemper, a Saskatoon native whose save percentage stands as an ugly .571, looked for something positive to take out of the game.
“I’ve been pulled before in juniors and in the American Hockey League. I’ve just got to use it the right way. I’m going to. I know I’m still a very good goalie and I’m just going to use this to push myself to get better.”
The six-foot-five Kuemper played in two pre-season games, stopping all 18 shots in 47:12 played. He also saw action in six games for the Wild last season, posting a 1-2-0 record.
“Honestly I kind of feel sorry for Kuemper,” said Reimer. “That’s a tough first start of the year to come into where you’re not getting much chances and then all of a sudden there’s a tic-tac-toe in front and then a breakaway. You can’t get into a rhythm.
“For him, his game was by far the hardest out of any of us three. I feel bad for him and he’s a heck of a goalie, so I’m sure he’ll come back.
Harding, meanwhile, didn’t see a shot until 2:34 into the third period. He was unbeaten on six shots on the night with Raymond adding a second goal into an empty net.
A solid Reimer made his third start in the Toronto goal this season, following four straight starts by Jonathan Bernier.
Sniper Phil Kessel may be buying his goalie a drink of his choice after Reimer stoned Mikael Granlund on a breakaway in the second period when Kessel lost control at the opposition blue-line. Minnesota led the shot count 20-3 at that point.
Dion Phaneuf will also be cozying up to Reimer after the goalie cleaned up a Mitchell breakaway triggered by a brutal giveaway by the Leafs captain.
Yeo also looked for positives, pointing to his team’s effort as the game wore down.
“I thought we had a real good push in the third period,” he said.
Plus his team had chances to score while limiting the opposition’s scoring attempts.
“Those are things you have to do to win hockey games, we didn’t get the result we deserved tonight,” said Yeo. “We’ve just got to bounce back.”
The Wild’s franchise record for fewest shots against in a game was 13 (Jan. 18, 2003 in a 1-0 loss to Anaheim).
While Yeo called captain Mikko Koivu “an unbelievable warrior” Tuesday, he was not as kind to linemate Dany Heatley, who has one assist in seven games.
Heatley, who is making US$5 million this season, had one shot and was in the penalty box for Toronto’s first goal.
“I’m not going to say he’s at his best right now,” said Yeo. “But I also know that he’s capable of more and I also know that we need him … we’re going to keep trying to push him and keep trying to get him better and keep trying to work with him, because we know what he’s capable of.”
Toronto’s record for fewest shots in a win is nine, (March 4, 1999 in 4-0 win at St. Louis).
It was the first meeting between the two teams since Jan. 19, 2012, when Toronto won 4-1 at the Air Canada Centre.
Follow Neil Davidson on Twitter at @neilmdavidson