NEWARK, N.J. — Fortunately for Minnesota Wild rookie goaltender Kaapo Kahkonen, he has competed against NHL level talent before.
A native of Finland, Kahkonen, 23, worked out with some of his fellow countrymen last offseason, including Wild teammate Mikko Koivu, Winnipeg Jets sniper Patrik Laine, Colorado Avalanche star Mikko Rantanen and most recent No. 2 overall pick Kaapo Kakko.
“It’s huge,” said Kahkonen, who grew up idolizing legendary Finnish goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff. “You get to skate with a group of players that are among the best in the NHL. It shows me where I have to be and what I have to work on to be able to stop shots.”
Maybe that’s why Kahkonen didn’t appear nervous in the days leading to his highly anticipated NHL debut. He backed up Alex Stalock in Monday’s loss to the New York Rangers and finally got his chance between the pipes during Tuesday’s game against the New Jersey Devils.
Adding to the milestone moment, the Wild flew his parents, father Juha and mother Nina, and stepfather Timo in from Finland to celebrate the occasion.
“I think they might even be more excited than me,” Kahkonen said. “I will be excited.”
Taken in the fourth round of the 2014 NHL Draft, Kahkonen waited a long time to play in the NHL. He has a 7-2-2 record, a 2.47 goals-against average and .909 save percentage this season in Iowa and was called up from the minors last week while starter Devan Dubnyk deals with a family matter.
It has helped for Kahkonen to be around the team for the last week or so.
“You get to know the guys a little bit, and see a couple of games, and see the coaches in the practice and video sessions explain the systems and stuff like that,” he said. “It really helps.”
It’s been a while since a goaltender has made their NHL debut with the Wild. In fact, it hasn’t happened since Feb. 12, 2013, when Darcy Kuemper — now in Arizona — got the nod.
“He’s probably going to be a little nervous, so I’m hoping the team will play really good in front of him to get him sort of into it,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He’s a good goalie, so I anticipate him playing really good.”
Dubnyk nearing return
It sounds as if Dubnyk could be back with the Wild as early as Thanksgiving Day when the team reconvenes at TRIA Rink for a brief practice session. He has spent the past week dealing with a family matter and did not travel with the team on the three-game East Coast road trip.
“I think he skated once or twice with (skating coach) Andy Ness,” Boudreau said. “I’m not 100 percent sure.”
What’s the plan for Dubnyk moving forward?
“I have no idea,” Boudreau said. “We will know more when we practice.”
After missing nearly three weeks with a lower-body injury, winger Marcus Foligno could also be back on the ice on Thanksgiving Day.
It’s a different story for injured defenseman Greg Pateryn, who hasn’t played this season while recovering from sports hernia surgery.
“He had a setback,” Boudreau said. “It will be a little bit longer.”