Kuemper returns with Capitals to visit Avalanche after ‘special year’

Kuemper returns with Capitals to visit Avalanche after 'special year'
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ARLINGTON, Va. — Darcy Kuemper smiled last week at the thought of returning to Ball Arena to face the Colorado Avalanche with the Washington Capitals on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET: SN1, ALT, NBCSWA, ESPN+, SN NOW).

Kuemper played one season with Colorado, but the 32-year-old goaltender ended up hoisting the Stanley Cup last June, giving him a lifetime of appreciation for his brief tenure there and fueling his desire to do it again with Washington.

“It was a pretty special year,” Kuemper said. “It was only a year, but it’s going to be a lot of fun just to be back there. Obviously, some of the best moments of my life were last year.”

Kuemper and the Capitals will look to rebound after he allowed four goals on 18 shots and was pulled in the second period of a 6-2 loss at the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday. But there haven’t been many nights like this season for Kuemper, who signed a five-year, $26.25 million contract with Washington on July 13.

In 31 games (all starts), Kuemper is 14-12-4 with a 2.55 goals-against average, .917 save percentage and an NHL-leading five shutouts. With Washington dealing with a slew of injuries early in the season, it took Kuemper some time to adjust after switching teams for the second straight offseason.

He is 9-3-3 with a 2.29 GAA, .925 save percentage and four shutouts in 16 games since Nov. 23, helping push the Capitals (25-18-6) into the first wild card in the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference.

“The first time you change teams is definitely a unique experience and a big change of scenery,” Kuemper said. “But when you go through that and realize how accepting groups can be, especially this group, it made it so easy to get in here.”

Video: WSH@ARI: Kuemper stops 26 Coyotes shots in Caps win

Kuemper went through a similar transition after being traded from the Arizona Coyotes to Colorado on July 28, 2021 for defenseman Conor Timmins, a first pick in the 2022 NHL Draft and a conditional third pick in the 2024 NHL Draft. The trade gave Kuemper the opportunity to play for a Stanley Cup contender after nine seasons in the NHL with the Minnesota Wild, Los Angeles Kings and Coyotes and ended the Avalanche’s search for a goaltender to put them over the top in their quest for their first championship. since 2001.

Kuemper was 37-12-4 with a 2.54 GAA, .921 save percentage and five shutouts in 57 games during the regular season and 10-4 with a 2.57 GAA, .902 save percentage and one shutout in 16 playoff games.

“He had a big impact,” Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen said. “He was a big part of the team that we were able to win [with]. He made some really important saves. Off the ice he was a really good guy, very positive. It didn’t matter how his game went. He was always positive.”

Kuemper twice missed time during the playoffs due to injuries, including an upper-body injury that sidelined him for the final three games of a sweep of the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference finals. But he returned to start all six games in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning and was 4-2 with a 2.45 GAA, .908 save percentage and one shutout.

“We had gone through a handful of goaltenders over the last few years in my time here,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “We’re getting him in a big trade. We had to give up a lot to get him, hoping he could be a guy that could lead us to a championship. … ‘Kuemps’ did that.”

When the Avalanche didn’t have the salary cap space to re-sign Kuemper, they parted ways amicably. Looking for a chance to win again, Kuemper signed with Washington, which won the Stanley Cup in 2018 but was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs every season since.

Looking to revamp their goaltending after Ilya Samsonov signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vitek Vanecek was traded to the New Jersey Devils, and the Capitals also signed a backup Charlie Lindgren. Along with Lindgren, who carried the load for eight games after Kuemper suffered an upper-body injury against the Calgary Flames on Dec. 3, Kuemper has provided the stability in net the Capitals wanted.

“He’s been great,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He’s been great to work with. He comes to the rink with a great attitude. He works hard in practice. Both goaltenders, same thing. They’re great teammates. … Not knowing somebody, you don’t know what you’ve got until you get them, until you get to know them a bit, but just really good additions to the team.”

Video: WSH@PHI: Kuemper makes cute gloves save on Konecny

Nicolas Aube-Kubel already knew what Kuemper could do when the forward joined the Capitals after being claimed from the Maple Leafs on Nov. 5. Aube-Kubel was teammates with Kuemper in Colorado last season and saw the impact he had during its Stanley Cup run.

“He was really important,” said Aube-Kubel, who signed with Toronto after last season. “He was one of the best goaltenders in the league. I think he still is. You need a good goaltender to win the Stanley Cup.”

Kuemper’s .921 save percentage since the start of 2017-18 is first among goaltenders with at least 150 games played and his 2.45 GAA is second only to retired Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask (2.36). But winning the Stanley Cup last season gave Kuempers more power and confidence in his game.

“His numbers are top five (in the league) the last few years,” Laviolette said. “You end up winning the cup and having success, I think that definitely gives him confidence and confidence in our team as well.”

Kuemper and Aube-Kubel received their Stanley Cup rings and spent a few minutes with their former teammates after Colorado’s 4-0 win at Washington on Nov. 19. But Kuemper was looking forward to having more time to catch up during the two days of the Capitals. in Denver before they play on Tuesday.

Facing the Avalanche once already will make playing them on Tuesday, if he starts again, feel a little less strange.

“It’s always a little weird playing your old team,” Kuemper said, “so getting the first one out of the way is nice.”

A win against the Avalanche, who have won five in a row, would be a positive end to the Capitals’ three-game road trip that began with Kuemper making 26 saves in a 4-0 victory over the Coyotes on Thursday. Washington’s 15-6-2 record since Dec. 5 has Kuemper believing the potential is there for another Stanley Cup run.

“I think the sky’s the limit,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who’ve won it all before and we’ve got a lot of experience in this room, and we’ve shown what we can do when we play our best. Now we just have to push to be at the top of our game as many matches we can.” independent correspondents Ryan Boulding and Aaron Vickers contributed to this report.

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