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Coyotes goalie Darcy Kuemper resumes skating with season on the horizon

Goaltender Darcy Kuemper #35 of the Arizona Coyotes in action during the third period of the NHL game against the Anaheim Ducks at Gila River Arena on November 27, 2019 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Ducks 4-3 in an overtime shootout. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Darcy Kuemper knows the time off will go by fast. He and his Arizona Coyotes teammates need to prepare for the intensity that lies ahead.

The NHL’s 24-team return-to-play format will put the Coyotes against the Nashville Predators in a play-in series, forcing players to go from months of quarantining at home to playing do-or-die hockey. Fortunately for Kuemper and others, small-group training sessions have resumed at Gila River Arena.

“I missed being at the rink and missed being around just the few guys that are there at a time,” Kuemper said.

“I was training the whole time and staying in good shape. You get out there for the first time in a couple months, you kind of have to re-teach yourself how to play goalie but it comes back quick. At the end of the first ice time, I was feeling pretty normal.”

The training sessions are still voluntary and coaches will eventually join the skates, but for now, players are working on individual skills.

“It’s a lot like what we do in a normal summer, whether we’re back home or we’re here,” Kuemper said. “It’s small groups of guys out there and you’re going out there working on skills and working on your game. It’s less systems and more individual training.

“As weird as it is, it’s kind of almost normal to what you’d be doing leading up to training camp. Usually, as you get closer into August, you start skating with bigger groups so we’ll see what the rules are. But if we can get to the point where we can up the size of the groups, it will be a pretty normal build-up to training camp.”

Kuemper said he’s remained in Arizona since the season paused in March, and since returning to the arena has been pleased with the level of safety that’s in place for players to protect them from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s obviously some safety concerns as far as health goes,” Kuemper said. “But just being back in Phase 2 and seeing all the precautions they’re taking and all the rules they’ve put in place, it makes me feel really safe about what we have going on and they’re making the environment as user-friendly as possible. They’re reaching those concerns and I’m just excited to be back playing.”

Kuemper coming back to play feeling good would figure to be important for the Coyotes, who boast formidable options in goal with both him and Antti Raanta. Kuemper had a gaudy .928 save percentage this season for Arizona before play stopped. Raanta was at an impressive .921. One of those two goalies getting hot could be a game-changer in the expanded playoff format.

“It takes everything to the next level. It’s the most fun time of year to play,” Kuemper said of playoff hockey. “The intensity’s so high. Back then, the crowd’s so into it but obviously we won’t have that situation.

“But just it’s a lot of fun playing in a situation where every play is so big, and even the smallest play, whether it’s a forward chipping the puck out or a goalie covering the puck or making a good play to his defenseman, everything’s so important and it all adds up to the big picture. When you get into a series, the smallest thing can be the difference. So it’s just fun playing in that critical situation.”

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