Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - If the Stanley Cup playoffs are like a high-stakes game of poker, than the Minnesota Wild have a pair of deuces in net.
As in, wild cards.
It's a position the Wild didn't think they would be in given the feel-good start to the season. Everyone was rooting for Josh Harding as he put up excellent numbers (18-7-3, 1.65 goals against average) while overcoming multiple sclerosis that had been diagnosed in late 2012.
Harding was a surprise name atop many of the league's goaltending categories, but has not played since Dec. 31 due to the inflammatory disease that disrupts parts of the nervous system. He made an adjustment to his treatment in mid- December and it is unknown if and when he will play again this season.
Former No. 1 Niklas Backstrom, meanwhile, went just 5-11-2 with a 3.02 GAA in 21 games this season before undergoing season-ending core muscle surgery on Tuesday, leaving rookie Darcy Kuemper and castoff Ilya Bryzgalov to man the pipes as the Wild drive for a second straight postseason appearance.
The Wild enter play on Friday with 85 points, giving them the first of two wild card spots in the West. The Phoenix Coyotes hold the other spot with 84 points as the two clubs look to hold off the Dallas Stars and Vancouver Canucks.
Both have 79 points and the Stars seem to be the biggest threat to both the Wild and Coyotes, who actually square off in Phoenix on Saturday. The Stars are lurking and have played two fewer games than the Wild.
Minnesota has opted to go with Kuemper for the majority of the starts, not a bad move as the club looks to its future in the blue paint. However, the 23- year-old is going through some expected growing pains and those issues could cause a postseason spot to slip through the cracks.
Offense isn't really a strong suit for Minnesota, which ranks 27th in the NHL with 2.38 goals per game. That puts a lot of pressure on the goaltender and Kuemper is starting to show signs of being overwhelmed.
The trade deadline offered the Wild a chance to upgrade the position knowing the status of Harding and the struggles of Backstrom, but Minnesota was either unable or unwilling to land a big name like Ryan Miller or Martin Brodeur.
Instead, Minnesota sent a fourth-round draft to the Edmonton Oilers for depth in Bryzgalov, who has gone 2-0-2 with a 3.02 GAA and .899 save percentage in five games (4 starts) since the trade after posting a 3.01 GAA and .908 save percentage with the Oilers.
Perhaps Kuemper's play leading up to the March 5 deadline played a factor as he was riding a personal five-game winning streak at the time, but the former sixth-round pick has gone just 1-5-2 since with a 2.97 GAA and .894 save percentage. In 26 total games this season, Kuemper now sits at 12-8-4 with a 2.43 GAA and .915 save percentage.
During those struggles, the Wild have lost four of their last five, giving up at least three goals in each game, including five tallies in back-to-back contests.
In Wednesday night's loss to the Vancouver Canucks, Kuemper yielded three goals on 12 shots through two periods before getting lifted and coach Mike Yeo opted to go right back to the rookie the following night against the NHL- leading St. Louis Blues.
That appeared to tip the Wild's hand that they are going to stick with Kuemper through his ups and downs, even if more of the latter is on the horizon.
Hoping to rebound, Kuemper instead yielded five goals on 24 shots faced, while Miller, who the Blues acquired before the trade deadline, made 27 saves.
"He battled through a very tough game," Yeo said of Kuemper. "Obviously, he put a lot on himself in this game and that's a good thing. I'll be honest, I feel bad for him. I do. This is a guy, we wouldn't even be sitting here in the position we are in if he didn't give us the stretch of hockey that he's given us."
Yeo was quick to praise Kuemper, but noted that "we also can't forget that he's a young kid who's still developing. It's nights like this and things like this, what he's going through right now, that are a huge part of his development. We've got a ton of confidence that this kid is going to bounce back and he's going to be a great goalie for many, many years."
Facing the Blues is never an easy task, but it served as a double tap because the Wild also were going up against Miller, a netminder who was available at the deadline.
Since joining the Blues on Feb. 28, Miller has gone 9-2-1 with a 2.03 GAA and .918 save percentage, the type of numbers an offensively challenged club like Minnesota needs out of its netminder.
Kuemper may very well turn out to be a solid goaltender in the NHL. But the cost of finding out may be a 2014 playoff spot.