Trapped in the long shadow of the greatest goalie on the planet, Darcy Kuemper is The Other Guy, casting such serious doubt on the Avalanche’s chance to win the Stanley Cup it can tie a cast-iron stomach in knots.
“He’s the best goalie in the world,” Kuemper said Wednesday night, saluting Tampa Bay counterpart Andrei Vasilevskiy. “I can’t worry about trying to outplay him.”
During opening night of this championship series, Kuemper looked uncertain on his skates. He let a seeing-eye goal through a hole in his glove. He blew a two-goal lead. Twice. He reminds me of Scooby Doo, because every time he faces a shot, it can be a misadventure. I hold my breath, flinch and mutter: Ruh-roh.
But in the end, Kuemper and the Avs beat Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay’s megastar, 4-3 in overtime.
Advantage: The Other Guy.
“He got us a win,” Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said. “So I was pretty happy with his performance.”’
As votes of confidence go, count that as a solid meh.
The dream of winning a Cup plays inside the mask from the first time a kid takes the ice as a goalie. But this has been a long, strange and tortuous journey in the playoffs for Kuemper, who has battled a serious eye injury, a ding to the head and a 15-day layoff before taking the ice against Tampa Bay.
“I’m just glad I came out of it, and everything’s back to normal now,” said Kuemper, shaken by an unnerving bout of fuzzy vision. “Nothing you can do about it. It’s not easy watching some of those games. But the team has been so great, I’ve just been worried about getting myself back sharp and healthy.”
In a Colorado hockey barn pulsating with 21 years of yearning for another sweet sip from the Stanley Cup, the Avs came out with so much jump they (momentarily) stomped the invincibility out of the greatest goalie on the planet, making Vasilevskiy look as vulnerable as that old walrus from Edmonton, Mike Smith.
Colorado hosted an international goal-scoring convention during the opening period. Gabe Landeskog. Val Nichushkin. Artturi Lehkonen. All lit the lamp and got under Vasilevskiy’s skin. The Avs led 3-1 after the opening frame, looking so dominating that the only question appeared to be: How early could the arena DJ crank up “All the Small Things” by Blink-182 to celebrate a rousing victory?
Here’s the thing, though. And it’s maybe the biggest thing of all in this championship series.
After the morning skate prior to Game 1, Avalanche coach Jared Bednar played coy about his starting goalie, refusing to reveal his hand, although it was evident to even a knucklehead like me that he was going to bench Pavel Francouz and his 6-0 playoff record for Kuemper, who hadn’t played since getting hurt for the second time in this postseason during the series opener of the Western Conference finals.
This silly gamesmanship is a ploy Bednar has to employ because he’s stuck with an all-star team of skaters trying to win a championship in spite of two C+ goalies.
Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper found Bednar’s shell game of goalie subterfuge to be laughable. What was the Lightning’s level of anxiety about the Avs treating the name of its starter between the pipes like a state secret?
“Well, we kind of do know, don’t we?” joked Cooper, taking a subtle jab at Bednar. “You mean our goaltender? Oh, theirs.”
With his stellar resume, when Vasilevskiy can have one bad period, it’s no big deal. The two-time defending champs hit the reset button and the Lightning flipped a switch, bringing the thunder.
On the other hand, when Kuemper allows a soft goal (or maybe two), the shaken members of the Avalanche congregation whisper this quiet prayer of consternation: Ruh-roh.
The goal Kuemper gave up in the first period to Nick Paul was worse than soft. It was lazy. The loose puck could’ve been easily poked out of danger.
Tampa Bay climbed out of a 3-1 deficit in the second period, with the first goal pure magic created by a pass from NIkita Kucherov to Ondrej Palat. Not Scooby Doo’s fault. But the tying score was a shot from distance by Mikhail Sergachev that Kuemper whiffed while peering through the traffic every goalie must negotiate on a nightly basis.
Give the Colorado D core credit. The Avs limited Tampa Bay to 23 shots. The .870 save percentage fashioned by Kuemper won’t be good enough to win a Cup, but it was sufficient to survive Game 1.
After Andre Burakovsky scored a scant 83 seconds into overtime, the score of this series was: Other Guy 1, Greatest Goalie on the Planet 0.
“We brought him in to do this job,” Bednar said.
My confidence level in Kuemper? Shaky, at best.
My advice to Francouz? Stay ready, Frankie.
If they want to hoist the Cup, the Avs are going to need Frankie before this series is over.