TAMPA, Fla. — Much has been made about the Colorado Avalanche's goaltending situation over the last month. The noise quieted down when Darcy Kuemper pitched a shutout in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, but then he was pulled in Game 3.
Pavel Francouz took over after Kuemper allowed five goals in a 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and some wondered whether the Avs might be inclined to give a start to Francouz, the goalie who helped Colorado sweep the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference Final. Kuemper allowed 2.5 goals above expected in Game 3, so one can hardly fault Bednar for making an in-game switch.
But as far as making a change for Game 4, Bednar appears to be sticking with Kuemper, which is the right thing to do. It gives the Avs some stability and it reinforces the confidence the team has in Kuemper. He didn't outright say that he would be starting Kuemper, but he said it without really saying it.
"That’s one possibility," he said after the Avs practiced Tuesday at Amalie Arena.
Bednar has declined to confirm his goalies throughout the series, even though Kuemper has been in the starter's net in all three morning skates. It's a sharp contrast to Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, who has enthusiastically supported goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and emphatically confirmed his presence in the net each game.
But it's easy to announce your goalie when he's largely considered one of, if not the best, in the world. Vasilevskiy, the 2021 Conn Smythe Trophy winner and the 2020 Vezina Trophy winner, is the backbone of the Lightning.
Kuemper and Francouz have been a tandem all season. While Kuemper is the clear-cut No. 1, Francouz is more of a 1-B than his counterpart in Tampa, 37-year-old Brian Elliott.
When Vasilevskiy gave up seven goals in Game 2, Cooper said he didn't even think about pulling him for Elliott. Meanwhile, Bednar didn't hesitate to go to the bullpen when Kuemper struggled in Game 3.
"I think it was probably more [coach Bednar] wanted to give us a little bit of a jump start by pulling him and putting Frankie in," Colorado defenseman Erik Johnson said. "But regardless of who plays, like you've seen all playoffs both guys have stepped up in the situations that they've been asked to and whoever's in the net, we're confident in. But I expect Darcy to bounce back like he always has for most situations."
The 31-year-old Kuemper was injured midway through the first game of the Western Conference Final and the Avalanche turned to Francouz, also 31, who backstopped Colorado to a sweep of the Edmonton Oilers. Though he had some shaky moments in that series, the Czech netminder had a very good season and performed admirably in seven postseason games.
He posted a .916 save percentage in 21 games (18 starts) in the regular season, and has a .906 save percentage in the postseason.
"Really versatile. All season long once he got healthy, he'd play stretches of games, he'd have big breaks in between games and come in in relief. He's continued that in the playoffs and been really steady, a calming influence on our team," Bednar said. "He's played really well when we put him in the net. Really happy with what he's been able to do, especially through the playoffs with ramped-up intensity. He keeps himself ready."
Nothing against Francouz, but changing goalies now would be a panic move on the part of Bednar. The Avs are up 2-1 in the series, so there is no need to worry right now.
The way Bednar stood by his goalie after the loss in Tampa on Monday night and calmly addressed the media on Tuesday, one wouldn't come away with the impression that he was looking to make a drastic change.
Francouz might have better numbers right now, but it's been in limited appearances. Kuemper is conditioned for this kind of workload.
"I think as a goalie that won't be the last time he gets pulled," Johnson said. "He's been pulled before, goalies get pulled all the time. They respond well, Darcy has been pulled in the regular season before and he responded great. Just like a player you're gonna make a mistake and it won't be the last mistake you ever make. It’s a game of mistakes and I think with Darcy he's responded every time he's been pulled."
We have seen extreme speed and high-level playmaking in this series. Vasilevskiy even allowed seven in Game 2. It's not time to change the goalie. At least, not yet.