As the final seconds ticked away Saturday night at SAP Center in San Jose, and the Wild officially clinched a playoff berth with a win over the Sharks, winger Marcus Foligno made a beeline toward the other end of the ice.
In the crease stood 24-year-old rookie goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen, who was just about to skate off when Foligno charged in for a joyous bear hug. A couple of teammates followed suit before everyone made their way to the Wild locker room.
“It was cool,” Kahkonen said. “I didn’t even know we could clinch. I just went out and tried to stop the puck.”
It made for a picturesque moment, and it felt fitting that Kahkonen was between the pipes for the brief celebration. As impressive as fellow goaltender Cam Talbot has been over the past month, Kahkonen might be the biggest reason the Wild clinched a playoff berth so early in their 56-game season.
With nine games still to play, the Wild are 31-13-3 with 65 points, good for third place in the NHL’s West Coast division — and only five points out of first place.
Who knows where they would be without Kahkonen’s incredible run earlier this season.
To say the Wild were in turmoil a couple of months ago would be putting it lightly. More than a dozen players were on the COVID list, including Talbot, and it seemed like only a matter of time before things went completely off the rails.
Instead, Kahkonen proved to be a stabilizing force for a full month, finishing a season-defining stretch with a 9-0-0 record, 1.44 goals-against average and .947 save percentage.
“He took his Vitamin C and was a brick wall for us,” Foligno said. “He’s so calm and cool in the net. He’s been probably one of the biggest reasons why we are where we are in the standings.”
Maybe that’s why coach Dean Evason was so quick to defend Kahkonen after he was in goal during an embarrassing 9-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues a couple of weeks ago. Though some worried whether that game would destroy Kahkonen’s confidence, Evason stood up for him every chance he got.
“We have full confidence in the way he’s conducted himself,” Evason said. “Nothing’s changed. It’s not like we’re tip-toeing around him or making sure he’s OK every single day. He’s going out and he’s working his butt off.”
That work paid off for Kahkonen as he has gotten back on track with a pair of wins. That’s a good sign for the Wild because as good as Talbot has been as of late, Kahkonen also will see action in the playoffs.
“We have trust in both goalies, no matter who’s in net,” captain Jared Spurgeon said. “We are confident in whoever is back there, and we try to play the same in front of them. It’s always fun to get both goalies a win. They’ve both been playing great.”