ARLINGTON, Va. – Darcy Kuemper smiled last week when told about returning to Denver on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET; SN1, ALT, NBCSWA, ESPN+, SN NOW) to face his former team, the Colorado Avalanche.
The Washington Capitals goaltender only spent one season in Colorado, but it ended by lifting the Stanley Cup over his shoulders last June.
« It was a really special year, » Kuemper said. It only lasted a year, but it’s going to be really fun to come back (to Denver). I spent some of the best times of my life there. »
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Kuemper will want to rebound after allowing eight goals on 18 shots before being pulled from the game in the second period on Saturday when the Capitals lost 6-2 to the Vegas Golden Knights.
Bad nights, Kuemper has not experienced many this season.
In 31 games, he is 14-12-4 with a 2.55 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and leads the NHL in shutouts with five. Kuemper needed some time to adjust to a new team for the second time in as many seasons, especially with the Capitals not spared from injury.
“The first time you change teams is really a unique experience and a big change. But once you’ve experienced it, you realize that the players will quickly accept you, especially this group, which made my life easy when I arrived here,” he explained.
Kuemper had a similar experience when he was traded from the Arizona Coyotes to the Avalanche on July 28, 2021. The trade gave him the chance to play for a Stanley Cup-winning team after passing nine seasons with the Minnesota Wild, Los Angeles Kings and Coyotes. The Avalanche would bet on him to win their first championship since 2001.
Kuemper was 37-12-4 with a 2.54 GAA, .921 save percentage and five shutouts in 57 games. Then in the playoffs, his record was 10-4 with a 2.57 GAA, .902 save percentage and one shutout in 16 games.
« He had a big impact, » said the Colorado forward Mikko Rantanen. He was a big chunk in our successes. He made some really important saves. Off the ice, he’s a really good guy, very positive. No matter what happened during a game, he remained positive. »
Kuemper was called off twice during the playoffs, including an upper-body injury that forced him to miss the final three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, a 4-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers. But he returned in time for the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning and won four of the six games in the duel.
« We’ve had several goaltenders in the last few years since I’ve been here, » Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar said. “We had to give a lot to get him, and we hoped he was able to be the guy who would lead us to a championship. ‘Kuemps’ succeeded. »
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Unable to make room under the salary cap to offer Kuemper a contract extension, the Avalanche had to resign themselves to letting him go. Kuemper, who wanted another shot at winning, agreed to a five-year contract worth $5.25 million a year with the Capitals, who decided to make a 180-degree turn this offseason by exchanging Vitek Vanecek to the New Jersey Devils and not offering a contract to Ilya Samsonov.
« He was excellent, » Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette said. It’s easy to work with him. He comes to the arena with a good attitude and he works hard in practice. […] When you don’t know someone, you don’t know what they’re going to offer you until you see them in action and get to know them a little more. »
Nicolas Aubé-Kubel knew what to expect from Kuemper when he learned he would be in the same locker room as him after being called off waivers by the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 5. Aubé-Kubel was the goaltender’s teammate with the Avalanche last year.
« He was really important, » the forward said of Kuemper’s impact last season. “He was one of the best goalkeepers in the League. I think he still is. You need a good goaltender to win the Stanley Cup. »
Kuemper and Aubé-Kubel received their Stanley Cup rings and were able to chat briefly with their former teammates on November 19, when the Avalanche were visiting the American capital. But Kuemper was looking forward to spending a little more time with them on the two days off the Capitals players got in Denver ahead of Tuesday’s game.
The fact that he’s already faced the Avalanche will make Tuesday’s duel a little less bizarre for Kuemper, if he’s up for it.
“It’s always a little weird when you measure up to your old team. So it will help to have already played a first game,” said Kuemper.
A victory against the Avalanche, who have won their last five games, would allow the Capitals to end this three-game trip on a high note. Kuemper posted a 4-0 shutout against the Coyotes on Thursday before the loss to the Golden Knights.
The Capitals are 15-6-2 since Dec. 5, and Kuemper believes the roster has potential for the Stanley Cup.
“I think there is no limit. We have a lot of guys who have won everything in the past and have a lot of experience. We showed what we can do now that we are playing to our full potential. We need to keep pushing forward to deliver our best hockey for as many games as possible. »
With Ryan Boulding and Aaron Vickers, NHL.com Freelance Correspondents