At the halfway point of the NHL season, the Arizona Coyotes were ranked 13th in the Western Conference. Heading into Thursday's contest against the Florida Panthers, the Coyotes are a point ahead of Minnesota for the final wild-card spot.
It's been an incredible turnaround for a team that lost starting goalie Antti Raanta to a lower-body injury in November. For weeks, the team used a committee of goaltenders until, eventually, Darcy Kuemper caught fire.
It didn't start smoothly for Kuemper, though. A six-game losing streak that started in mid-November lasted an entire month. He didn't win two games in a row until early January. Like the Coyotes, Kuemper was struggling, and it looked as though his tenure in Arizona was destined to be much like previous turns with the Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings, where he shown no ability to become a long-term starting goalie.
But he began to find his groove as the calendar turned to 2019, and he hasn't looked back since.
In a seven-game stretch from Jan. 6 to Jan. 22, Kuemper won six games and took the Coyotes to overtime in the other, piecing together one of the best runs of any netminder over that span. Now, through 47 games, Kuemper sits with a 24-17-6 record, .920 save percentage and 2.48 goals-against average, and since Jan. 1, Kuemper's 18-6-3 record, .928 SP, 2.22 GAA and three shutouts are among the NHL's best numbers. Had Kuemper been this strong all year, he'd be in the Vezina Trophy conversation with the likes the Tampa Bay Lightning's Andrei Vasilevskiy and the Dallas Stars' Ben Bishop. It can't be understated how well Kuemper has played en route to powering the Coyotes into wild-card contention in the time since it became clear Raanta wasn't going to return this season.
Ans the Coyotes haven't made things easy for Kuemper. The club sits 28th in goals for and Kuemper has faced 30-plus shots 26 times. But thanks in big part to Kuemper, Arizona has the ninth-fewest goals against, and he's only lost once after facing 36 or more shots in a game. In a season where the team is spending more time in their own zone than the opposition's end of the ice, Kuemper has been exactly what the Coyotes needed in what had potential to become a lost campaign.
The Coyotes signed Kuemper to a two-year deal last February, so Arizona will be in a great position in the crease once Raanta returns, particularly if Kuemper keeps up his play. However, with the post-season on the line right now, whether Kuemper can play to this level again is irrelevant. All that really matters is whether Kuemper can stay hot down the stretch. With contests against fellow wild-card contenders Chicago, Colorado and Minnesota still to come, the Coyotes will use Kuemper in most, if not all, remaining games as the team chases their first post-season berth since 2011-12.
Even if the Coyotes miss the playoffs, one thing is clear: Kuemper is their MVP. There's really no argument against that, especially when not a single player on the Coyotes has hit the 20-goal mark and Clayton Keller (46 points) is the only player close to reaching 50 points this season. If Kuemper wasn't around to save the day, the Coyotes wouldn't be in the process of delaying their early-April tee times in favor of a first-round playoff matchup.