TAMPA, Fla. — The Colorado Avalanche face a critical decision in the slot after starter Darcy Kuemper was pulled from a 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 of the Finals. the Stanley Cup on Monday night.
Kuemper allowed five goals on 22 shots before landing the hook midway through the second period. He was replaced by Pavel Francouz, who made nine saves on 10 shots.
The Avalanche led the best-of-seven series 2-1. Game 4 is here on Wednesday, and Colorado coach Jared Bednar didn’t put his weight behind Kuemper to start this game.
“He didn’t have a good night, you know? Bednar said when asked about his confidence in Kuemper. “Neither did our team. We win as a team, lose as a team. Group it with everyone. It just wasn’t as good as we needed to be.”
Pressed further on what will go into the Game 4 starter’s decision, Bednar added, “The same thing that always goes into the decision.”
Colorado was flying high heading into Game 3 after executing a near-perfect plan by routing Tampa Bay 7-0 in Game 2 on Saturday.
Kuemper saw just 16 shots in that outing, which the Avs completely dominated. Game 3 marked the first time Colorado trailed in a game in this series, and it marked its first loss on the road to the playoffs.
Kuemper was given the green light on Francouz as Colorado’s starter for the Cup final despite having a straight second-round streak against St. Louis and not having played for more than two weeks before the opener against the Lightning. He suffered an upper-body injury in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against Edmonton, and Francouz stepped in to back Colorado to a four-game winning streak.
Still, Bednar returned to Kuemper for the opener. He started Colorado in a strong regular season (37-12-4, .921 save percentage, 2.54 goals-against average). Francouz was an excellent complement during the regular season (15-5-1, .916 SV%, 2.55 GAA) and was the statistically best goaltender during the playoffs (6-0-0, .906 SV% and 2.86 GAA vs. Kuemper at 8-2-0, .901 SV% and 2.44 GAA).
If Kuemper starts Game 4, his teammates think he can get back to form.
“In full confidence [he can bounce back]”, Josh Manson said. “He’s in the National Hockey League for a reason. He will bounce back.”
As Bednar noted, the Avalanche didn’t play to their usual level on Monday night. For starters, Colorado was shorthanded up front with Andre Burakovsky sidelined with an apparent hand injury sustained while blocking a shot in Game 2. Nazem Kadri also sat out with a broken thumb.
Valeri Nichushkin appeared to score the first goal of the game in the first period, but Tampa Bay managed to challenge offside to keep the game 0-0. Lightning coach Jon Cooper took so long to decide whether the game should be reviewed, that action almost resumed, and Bednar took issue with it.
“It was long,” he said of the process. “I don’t know what else to tell you. It was probably three times the length we normally get.”
Cooper agreed, pleading at his own postgame press conference for the NHL to make the review process more efficient.
Colorado got their icebreaker from Gabriel Landeskog on a power play goal instead. It was the Avalanche’s ninth straight goal in the series, dating back to the end of Game 1.
But that’s when Tampa Bay started scoring in clusters.
Anthony Cirelli and Ondrej Palat carried the Lightning 2-1 after 20 minutes, the first lead Tampa Bay had held in the Cup final. Nick Paul, who was injured late in the first period but returned for the second, capitalized on a gift from Manson early in that period to make it 3-1. Paul left the ice right after and didn’t take another shift.
“Executing under pressure tonight wasn’t great,” Bednar said. “I think we had plays to make that we didn’t make. I think on some entries they pushed us a bit. were just moving it. I obviously think it was their best game of the series, and it wasn’t ours.
Landeskog scored the Avs’ second goal on the ensuing power play for his first multi-goal playoff outing since Game 3 of Colorado’s first-round series at Nashville.
Steven Stamkos and Pat Maroon scored four minutes apart to give Tampa Bay a three-point lead and end Kuemper’s night. Corey Perry capped the score with a power play marker.
It was a bad night for Colorado, but that doesn’t mean the series went bad for them.
“It’s the Stanley Cup final. We’re not expecting a sweep,” Nathan MacKinnon said. “It’s fun. It’s great. Good or bad, we’re not going to trade places with anyone. We’ve waited a long time for this. We’re playing the best right now. We’re playing the best team, they’ve won consecutively [Stanley Cups]. We knew they were too proud to leave. We always feel good. We feel good in our team from top to bottom.”
Before playing against the Lightning, the Avalanche said several times that they hoped to one day emulate their status as a repeat contender. Right now, Colorado can take a page from the Lightning on how to recover from a disappointment.
“We are going into [every] tough game. I think that’s our mentality,” MacKinnon said. “Even in the third [period], we played very well. We weren’t going to give up. Obviously, [we didn’t score] goals or whatever, but I think that’s what we learned. Just like Tampa, they didn’t lower their heads losing to us in Game 2, and we’re not going to do the same tonight.”