TAMPA, Fla. — The Colorado Avalanche faced a critical decision in the crease after starter Darcy Kuemper was pulled from a 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night.
Kuemper allowed five goals on 22 shots before getting the hook midway through the second period. He was replaced by Pavel Francouz, who made nine saves on 10 shots.
The Avalanche leads the best-of-seven series 2-1. Game 4 is here Wednesday, and Colorado coach Jared Bednar didn’t put his weight behind Kuemper to start that matchup.
“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 him in with everybody else. Just wasn’t as good as we needed to be.”
Pressed further on what will go into deciding the Game 4 starter, Bednar added: “Same thing that always goes into the decision.”
Colorado was flying high ahead of Game 3 after executing a near-perfect plan in routing Tampa Bay 7-0 in Game 2 on Saturday.
Kuemper saw only 16 shots in that outing, which the Avs thoroughly dominated. Game 3 marked the first time Colorado has trailed in a game in this series, and it marked its first road loss of the postseason.
Kuemper got the nod over Francouz as Colorado’s starter for the Cup Final despite a streaky second-round series against St. Louis and having not played in over two weeks prior to 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 backstop Colorado to four straight wins.
Still, Bednar went back to Kuemper for Game 1. He had been Colorado’s incumbent during a strong regular season (37-12-4, .921 save percentage, 2.54 goals-against average). Francouz was a great complement during the regular season (15-5-1, .916 SV%, 2.55 GAA) and has been the better netminder statistically 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 does start Game 4, his teammates believe he can return to form.
“Fully confident [he can bounce back],” Josh Manson said. “He’s in the National Hockey League for a reason. He’ll bounce back.”
As Bednar noted, the Avalanche didn’t play to their usual standard Monday night. To start, Colorado was short-handed up front with Andre Burakovsky sidelined with an apparent hand injury suffered blocking a shot in Game 2. Nazem Kadri also remained out with a broken thumb.
Valeri Nichushkin appeared to score the game’s first goal in the opening period, but Tampa Bay successfully challenged for offside to keep it a 0-0 game. Lightning coach Jon Cooper took so long deciding whether to have the play reviewed that action quite nearly summarized, and Bednar took issue with that.
“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, making a plea in his own postgame news conference for the NHL to make the review process more efficient.
Colorado did get its ice breaker from Gabriel Landeskog on a power-play goal instead. It was the Avalanche’s ninth consecutive goal in the series, going back to the end of Game 1.
But that’s when Tampa Bay started scoring in bunches.
Anthony Cirelli and Ondrej Palat put the Lightning up 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 Manson giveaway early in that frame to make it 3-1. Paul left the ice right after and did not take another shift.
“The execution under pressure tonight was not great,” Bednar said. “I think we had some plays to make that we didn’t make. I think on some of the entries, they pushed us a little bit. We got a little cute with the puck where I thought in Game 1 and Game 2, we were just moving it. I obviously think that was their best game of the series, and it wasn’t ours.”
Landeskog scored the Avs’ second goal on an ensuing power play for his first multigoal playoff outing since Game 3 of Colorado’s first-round series in Nashville.
Steven Stamkos and Pat Maroon scored four minutes apart to put Tampa Bay up by three and end Kuemper’s night. Corey Perry capped the scoring with a power-play marker.
It was a bad night for Colorado, but that doesn’t mean the series has gone sour for them.
“It’s the Stanley Cup Final. We’re not expecting a sweep,” Nathan MacKinnon said. “This is fun. This is awesome. Good or bad, we’re not going to trade our spot 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 back-to-back [Stanley Cups]. We knew they were too proud to go away. We still feel good. We feel good about our team top to bottom.”
In the lead-up to playing the Lightning, the Avalanche repeatedly said they hoped to one day emulate their status as repeat contenders. Right now, Colorado can take a page from the Lightning on how to recover from disappointment.
“We go into [every] game resilient. I think that’s our mentality,” MacKinnon said. “Even in the third [period], we played really well. We weren’t going to give up. Obviously, [we didn’t score] goals or anything, but I think that’s what we’ve learned. Just like Tampa, they didn’t hang their head on losing to us in Game 2, and we’re not going to do the same tonight.”