Adorning the back of Keith Kinkaid’s mask are three letters that mean very little to most. But to those intimately aware of the Devils goalie’s Long Island upbringing, it says everything about his childhood as an Islanders fan who turned his bedroom into a shrine for future Hall of Famer Marty Brodeur while dreaming of playing in the NHL.
PER — Pirates of Eton Road — is a reminder to Kinkaid that the tightly knit group of about a dozen friends who played street hockey on the cul-de-sac in Farmingville and whose bond has lasted into adulthood will always be a part of his life.
“Keith didn’t even grow up on Eton Road, but a neighbor I had was one of his close friends,” said fellow Pirate Jim Duggan, 27, who still lives in Farmingville and is coaching the Locust Valley/North Shore junior varsity squad. “Keith lived a couple of miles away. Even to this day, when he wants to come over to use my parents’ pool, he runs. I tell him, ‘Dude, get a car.’ He says, ‘No, I’ve got to stay in shape.’ ”
The 6-3, 195-pound Kinkaid, 28, an undrafted free agent out of Union College who attended Sachem East — which has retired his No. 1 jersey — is in his fourth season with the Devils. But whereas Kinkaid clearly was the backup goalie in the previous three seasons, Cory Schneider’s recent groin and hip injury has thrust Kinkaid into a prominent role as the Devils seek their first playoff berth since 2012.
Kinkaid started 12 of 16 games during Schneider’s injury absence. Even after Schneider returned on March 1, the two goalies had alternated starts heading into Saturday night’s game at Nashville. Although Schneider’s last win was Dec. 27, the Devils have never fallen out of a playoff spot.
“It shows their confidence in me,” said Kinkaid, who brought a 16-9-2 record, a 2.99 goals-against average and a .903 save percentage into Saturday’s action, setting career highs in victories and appearances (28). “I know my stats aren’t the best, but the most important thing is the win column.
“I looked at how [Antti] Raanta and [Cam] Talbot got their opportunities,” Kinkaid said of the former Rangers backup goalies, who now start for the Coyotes and Oilers, respectively. “I hadn’t really gotten my break until this season. You never want to see your partner go down. At the same time, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I feel I can do it. All I need is an opportunity.”
Kinkaid’s soft-spoken, often jokey, less-than-serious manner belies his ultra-competitive nature and natural athletic talents.
He started skating in Hauppauge by the time he was 3 and never wanted to play any position other than goalie. His father, John, said his first “dinky plastic stick” came courtesy of Cheerios. Eventually, Keith got a $30 Ed Belfour goalie set.
“You don’t see it outwardly, but he wants to play every game if he could,” John Kinkaid said. “He’s not shying away from playing any team because he feels he can do that. It’s pretty much been that way since he was a little kid.”
“He was a natural-born athlete by all means,” said Duggan, friends with Kinkaid since he was 5. “I had an unfinished basement and I would shoot at the blocker side, aiming at a brick wall, when I was 7 or 8 because my dad told me there was no way I could shoot at Keith’s glove. He went out for baseball one season. He batted cleanup and hit a home run every time up. He played lacrosse one season and had seven goals a game. He was awesome at video games.”
Kinkaid advanced to play for the Suffolk PAL and then for the Long Island Gulls, first at New Hyde Park, then at Syosset’s Iceworks, where the Islanders used to practice. He also played a half-season for the New York Bobcats out of Iceworks before leaving to play for the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL in 2007-08. He then was the NAHL MVP with the St. Louis Bandits before two collegiate seasons at Union.
He also trained privately with Jim Boesenberg, 56, of Merrick, who played for the Buccaneers in 1980 and now works with the under-18 and under-16 Islanders youth programs. Kinkaid also started assisting Boesenberg with his goalie camp while he was a teenager.
Boesenberg believes his former pupil has what it takes to be an NHL starter.
“Schneider is getting the big bucks and I get that,” Boesenberg said. “But I’m glad they didn’t give [Eddie] Lack too much time [when Schneider was hurt]. That would’ve been a slap in the face. I think Keith has matured. I definitely think he has to work on playing the puck better. Sometimes he’s too relaxed playing the puck behind the net.
“I don’t think he wants to be Keith Kinkaid the backup,” Boesenberg added. “Playing in an NHL playoff game, that would be a dream for him. It would be tremendous for his career. He’s not that old.”
Kinkaid agreed to a two-year, $2.5-million extension with the Devils rather that test the free-agent market last summer. His next deal could be more lucrative.
“We spoke about this as kids,” Duggan said. “The other day, I’m watching a game and he makes a save. I’m staring at the screen and I said, ‘Son of a gun, the kid made it.’ ”