TAMPA, Fla. – The Colorado Avalanche didn’t come into the Stanley Cup Final expecting to dominate the goaltending battle against one of the best netminders in the world in Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy.
The Avalanche just needed solid goaltending to have a true shot at their first title since 2001, letting their skilled skaters do the majority of the work.
When Colorado starting goaltender Darcy Kuemper was pulled in the second period of Game 3 after letting in five goals, however, questions about Colorado’s longevity in the series started to sneak in.
With Colorado clinging to a 2-1 series lead, the Avalanche are faced with a goalie controversy headed into Game 4 Wednesday night at Amalie Arena. Colorado coach Jared Bednar refused to name his Game 4 starter on Tuesday and said after Game 3 the team would evaluate everything in net.
Kuemper allowed five goals on 22 shots before being replaced by Pavel Francouz, who recorded nine saves on 10 shots. Kuemper had a couple of good point-blank saves early but was unable to make the saves when it mattered most.
“(Kuemper) didn’t have a good night. Neither did our team,” Bednar said after Colorado’s 6-2 loss. “We win as a team, lose as a team. I’m going to group him in with everyone else. Just wasn’t as good as we needed to be.”
Kuemper has been Colorado’s main starter for most of the season, but Francouz was solid as a backup, posting a .916 save percentage and a 2.55 goals-against average. When Kuemper suffered an upper-body injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against Edmonton, Francouz held up in net, helping the Avalanche win four straight in a sweep.
Despite Francouz’s efforts, Bednar still went back to Kuemper as the starter for Game 1. Kuemper delivered in the first two games and stopped all 16 shots he faced in Colorado’s 7-0 win in Game 2.
Bednar praised Kuemper’s efforts after Game 1, and his teammates aren’t worried about the road ahead.
“Fully confident (he can bounce back),” defenseman Josh Manson said. “He’s in the National Hockey League for a reason. He’ll bounce back.”
Colorado center Nathan MacKinnon added: “It’s the Stanley Cup final. We’re not expecting a sweep … We knew they were too proud to go away. We still feel good. We feel good about our team top to bottom.”
On the flip side, Vasilevskiy played outstanding in Game 3 and regained his form after he let in all seven Colorado goals in Game 2. Vasilevskiy made 37 saves in Game 3. Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper said the goalie’s composure can be attributed to his experience and mental growth in the league.
“Any time a goal goes in, everybody’s looking at him and … I think the gift of him that’s made him great is the ability to turn the page,” Cooper said.
The stout Russian, like a fair amount of Lightning players, have been through adversity before. Being in a 0-2 series hole – and being on the wrong side of a blowout game – wasn’t a foreign concept. Forward Nick Paul said Vasilevskiy’s determination and focus is what impresses him most. So, when he went through a rough second outing in the finals, it wasn’t too concerning.
“It certainly gives us confidence back there,” Lightning defenseman Zach Bogosian said. “He’s a special player that doesn’t come around very often. So we’re obviously very fortunate to have him and he’s been the backbone of this organization for as long as he’s been here. It’s impressive to see.”
Injury notes: Cooper said Tampa Bay forward Nikita Kucherov is expected to play in Game 4. He left late in Game 3 after taking a hard cross-check from Colorado defenseman Devon Toews.
Center Brayden Point, who missed Game 3, is “highly doubtful” to play Wednesday, according to Cooper. Point suffered a lower-body injury during a Game 7 win over Toronto in the first round and didn’t play again until Games 1 and 2 of the finals.
Colorado forward Andre Burakovsky, who was injured in the second period of Game 2, had yet to join the team in Tampa as of Tuesday afternoon, Bednar said. He was still receiving treatment in Denver. Bednar also said Avalanche center Nazem Kadri is making progress after surgery on his thumb, and he is optimistic Kadri will be an option for Colorado at some point in the finals.
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